On July 8, 2014, IWP Professor Joseph Wood delivered a lecture and facilitated a discussion driven by Josef Pieper’s 1952 book The Four Cardinal Virtues.
Professor Wood began his lecture with an overview of Western moral philosophy, stretching back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It was upon the writings of these Greek classics that the moral, political and ethical foundation of Western tradition is established. Professor Wood stressed that in America today and Washington in particular, people rarely read these texts anymore-they simply read someone else’s opinion about the text. Washington operates on opinion; IWP is focused on something more, explained Prof. Wood.
That “something more” is virtue and order.
The lecture then turned to a very basic question: What is virtue? How has the Western moral tradition developed the concept of virtue? By tracing the writings of the Greek classics to medieval Christian philosophers Aquinas and Augustine, Professor Wood pointed out the synthesis of the two into a philosophy that defined Western tradition for centuries.
The four cardinal virtues discussed by Josef Pieper are prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. Professor Wood emphasized that virtue is not simply being prudent or just. He stated that “virtue is a habit or disposition to choose well.” He explained that, for students at IWP who seek a career of public service, or interns who are considering their career paths, developing habits of virtue now is essential.
Professor Wood ended his lecture by stressing the concept that there is an order to things in the world. The fundamental division between people in this world, Professor Wood explained, is whether or not there is an order to life. People who believe in order, a higher calling, a final cause-those are the people who can understand virtue and develop a virtuous habit. People who don’t believe in order, lacking a final cause, will simply make it up as they go. They decide what to do and not to do simply based upon situational ethics, never truly understanding virtue.
Professor Wood’s concluding remarks were that IWP believes there is an order to things that needs to be followed. This unique institution is committed to developing virtuous habits in its students. Professor Wood ended with a question for the interns to contemplate as they develop a habit of virtue: “Is the virtuous life enough to have a good life? This much you must answer on your own.”
Professor Wood is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado and the French Joint Defense College in Paris, and he holds a Master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Before his professorship at IWP, Professor Wood served extensively in education, and foreign and diplomatic affairs, including stints at the Air Force Academy, the Pentagon, the office of the Vice President, NASA, NATO, and the CIA. Professor Wood teaches two classes here at IWP: American Founding Principles and Foreign Policy and Western Moral Tradition and World Politics.
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