I have a mind to simply post the entire 'Preface' to Josef Pieper's book, The Four Cardinal Virtues, but I suppose I'll have to try to make some cuttings. While the last twenty or thirty years have seen a revival in virtue ethics among professional moral philosophers (Alisdair MacIntyre, Julia Annas [see my excerpt from her here], and Rosalind Hursthouse are a few of the names with which I am acquainted), the layman, even the thoughtful and/or religious layman, often tends to find the concept rather foreign. Pieper provides a good introduction to it from a decidedly religious perspective, a path which not all of the current philosophers follow. Here are his own words (Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, trans. Richard and Clara Winston, et al. [Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1966], pp. xi-xiii):
When Agathon in Plato's Symposium takes his turn at making a speech in praise of Love, he organizes his ideas around the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. An avant-garde intellectual who, incidentally, is the host at that famous banquet, Agathon offers no special reasons for this approach. That is, the contemporaries of Socrates already took for granted these traditional categories sprung from the earliest speculative thinking. They took for granted not only the idea of virtue, which signifies human rightness, but also the attempt to define it in that fourfold spectrum. This particular intellectual framework, the formula which is called 'the doctrine of virtue', was one of the great discoveries in the history of man's self-understanding, and it has continued to be part and parcel of the European mind. It has become a basic component of the European consciousness, as the result of centuries of persistent intellectual endeavor by all the creative elements of the emerging West, both the Greeks (Plato, Aristotle) and the Romans (Cicero, Seneca), both Judaism (Philo) and Christianity (Clement of Alexandria, St Augustine).It is true that the classic origins of the doctrine of virtue later made Christian critics suspicious of it. They warily regarded it as too philosophical and not Scriptural enough. Thus, they preferred to talk about commandments and duties rather than about virtues. To define the obligations of man is certainly a legitimate, even estimable, and no doubt necessary undertaking. With a doctrine of commandments or duties, however, there is always the danger of arbitrarily drawing up a list of requirements and losing sight of the human person who 'ought' to do this or that. The doctrine of virtue, on the other hand, has things to say about this human person; it speaks both of the kind of being which is his when he enters the world, as a consequence of his createdness, and the kind of being he ought to strive toward and attain to—by being prudent, just, brave, and temperate. The doctrine of virtue, that is, is one form of the doctrine of obligation; but one by nature free of regimentation and restriction. On the contrary, its aim is to clear a trail, to open a way.But this is not the place to launch a disputation on the various possible modes of ethical statement. Rather, what I wish to do is to describe just one of those modes, and to reveal, as far as possible, its full reach: that team of four, the basic virtues, which, as a fine classical phrase put it, can enable man to attain the furthest potentialities of his nature.In this realm, originality of thought and diction is of small importance—should, in fact, be distrusted. It can hardly be expected that there will be entirely new insights on such a subject. We may well turn to the 'wisdom of the ancients' in our human quest to understand reality, for that wisdom contains a truly inexhaustible contemporaneity. The intention of this book is to reveal some of that contemporaneity.
The interpreter, in these latter days, invokes this tradition [the great tradition of human wisdom itself] in the hope of seeming less ridiculous as he boldly drafts a moral standard for humanity which he, in his own daily life, is utterly unable to meet.