Mere Christianity | Study Guide

C.S. Lewis

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Mere Christianity | Book 3, Chapter 2 : Christian Behavior (The "Cardinal Virtues") | Summary



Lewis now describes the moral system used by "old writers." There are seven virtues. Four of them are cardinal virtues. These virtues are widely recognized. The other three are theological virtues specifically recognized by Christianity.

The four cardinal virtues are prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude. Prudence refers to "practical common sense." We practice prudence by making the wisest choices we can. Lewis says the virtue of prudence doesn't contradict Christ's injunction that we must become like little children. He meant we must be as teachable as children, while at the same time using our adult intelligence to the fullest.

The second virtue is temperance, a word that refers to moderation in all sorts of pleasure. Temperance requires that we keep our lives balanced and not succumb to obsession.

The third virtue, justice, refers to truthfulness, decency, and integrity in all our affairs. Fortitude, the last virtue, is courage to confront and overcome challenges. Fortitude is the foundation for the practice of all other virtues.

The virtues guide our actions, but their ultimate purpose is to shape our characters. God values the development of a virtuous character more than any virtuous action, for an action may appear virtuous but be performed with wrong motivation. Without a virtuous character, we are unable to feel the happiness God offers.


The "old writers" Lewis refers to include classical Greek philosophers Plato (c. 427–347 BCE) and his student Aristotle (384–22 BCE). They lived centuries before Christ, but their contributions to Western thought are foundational. The four cardinal virtues, sometimes referred to as the Platonic virtues, appear in Plato's Republic and in Aristotle's Ethics. However, because they were translated from Greek instead of Latin, prudence is called wisdom and fortitude is called courage.

Plato and Aristotle justified the practice of these virtues because they lead to human happiness. In the Republic Plato recounts Socrates's assertion that justice exists in an individual when the three parts of the soul—the spirited part, the rational part, and the animal part—are in harmony. Plato's description of justice within the individual soul recalls Lewis's statement that morality necessarily governs our relationships within ourselves, not just with other people. Unlike Christianity, where happiness is regarded as a side effect of being in alignment with God's will, Plato's view in The Republic is of human happiness as an end in itself.

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