Joseph Ratzinger, the man who became Pope Benedict XVI, once said that in our secular, de- Christianized culture, the problem is not simply that the world has lost the gospel. We have lost the most basic human values as well. We have lost what he calls “the art of living.”[1]

Indeed, in an age of moral confusion, when the great tradition of the virtues has not been passed on, the challenge is not just that we don’t know enough about Christian doctrine or the Church’s moral teachings. The problem runs much deeper: we don’t even know how to live. We don’t know how to live friendship, community, dating, marriage, and family life well. We can earn advanced degrees, gain technical skills, build a successful career, and still not know how to thrive in our most basic relationships in life.

Half of all marriages end in divorce, and even families that stay together are often fraught with problems of dysfunction, guilt, control, and abandonment.

But it’s not just marriage and family relationships that suffer today; many people do not know how to live out something as basic as authentic friendship— a friendship in which the other person is truly committed to you, not to what he gets out of you.

In a virtuous friendship, your friend seeks what is truly best for you. You and your friend are seeking together what matters most in life: the good life, the virtuous life. You don’t have to impress this person and earn his love. You can let him see you as you really are because you have confidence that he is truly committed to you and your good.

Friends like that are few and hard to find. Many people go through life never experiencing authentic friendship. In fact, people today are lonelier than ever. Two in five Americans, for example, report feeling that their relationships are not meaningful, and only about half of them say they have meaningful social interactions such as extended conversation with friends or family on a daily basis, with more than one out of four people not even having someone in whom they can confide personal matters.

Think about that: of the many people you see out in the world, half of them are not experiencing the basics of true human friendship each day. Our culture encourages us to connect digitally around the word, make as many “friends” as possible on social media, and watch other people live out their relationships on our favorite shows. But half of all people don’t even have a single meaningful social interaction each day with the people in their own real lives!

It’s no wonder young people especially are hungering for any guidance they can get on the right approaches to dating; how to discern whether they and their beloveds are called to marriage; how to build strong marriages; how to deal with stress, conflict, and communication in marriage; how to raise children; how to discipline children; and how to make their home a school of faith for their family. I find that these topics— on how to live friendship, dating, marriage, family, and the spiritual life—are the ones that grab people’s attention the most. And after hearing the Church’s wisdom on these matters, many wonder, “Why have I never heard this before?” People are starving to learn “the art of living.”

A Vision for the Virtues

Our culture might be able to build skyscrapers, rockets, and amazing technological gadgets, but we don’t know how to train people in the most basic, most fundamental, indeed most human things in life like living friendship and family. The modern world has failed to pass down the great tradition on the virtues.

We’ve lost sight of what had been handed down from generation to generation throughout the centuries: the art of living. Ancient thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero and Christian theologians like Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas tell a beautiful story of the virtues: how they are structured, how they relate together, and how they help us become the men and women God made us to be. From this tradition, we also learn much about the various weaknesses, vices, and sins that hinder our pursuit of virtue and how to overcome those tendencies in our lives.

Thankfully, in some Christian circles, there has been more talk about virtue in recent years: the importance of virtue, the need to grow in virtue, and how to practice the virtues. Still, many popular presentations depict the virtues in a fragmented way: “Five virtues you need to be successful” or “Seven virtues for highly effective families” or “Six virtues for healthy dating relationships.”

These presentations, of course, can inspire people to live better lives. But we shouldn’t think of the virtues as a list of various techniques, some kind of five- step program, or a checklist of things to accomplish for our spiritual lives (“I’m going to acquire one new virtue each week of Lent this year!”). The virtues go much deeper. They’re not merely tasks, qualities, or action items. They take much time and grace to sink in. They involve the shaping of one’s emotions, desires, character, and soul. Indeed, the possession (and lack) of virtue shapes who we are.

The great tradition of the virtues offers a wonderfully coherent picture of who we are meant to be as integrated human persons. It sheds light on how God made us, how we are made to thrive together in community, why we have certain weaknesses, and why we struggle in our relationships. The tradition also points to how we can grow in virtue, overcome our faults, and live our friendships with greater excellence.

Take, for example, the four classical human virtues known as the cardinal virtues, which are at the heart of this book: prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice. The word “cardinal” in Latin means “hinge.” These four virtues are called “cardinal” (“hinge”) because all other human virtues can be seen as subcategories of these foundational four. Some of the wisest thinkers in the history of humanity and the Bible itself saw that a successful life depends largely on how well we live these four cardinal virtues. One could say our lives “hinge” on them.

Yet most people today are not striving to grow in these virtues that are so crucial for the art of living. Many parents, educators, and leaders are not systematically training the next generation in these virtues. And it’s no wonder: most human beings today, unfortunately, are not even aware of the four cardinal virtues!

But you, likely, are different. If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you already desire to become more virtuous than you are today. Something in your heart rises when you hear about “the art of living” and growing in virtue. You long to live in virtuous friendships, and you want to inspire virtue in those you love.

Going Deeper

The reflections in my book, The Art of Living: The Cardinal Virtues and the Freedom to Love, are not based on any one person’s creative musings about virtue or favorite virtues to talk about. I hope to bring you into something much bigger than anything one theologian could come up with on his own.

Even two of the greatest thinkers on virtue— the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 b.c.–322 b.c.) and the Catholic theologian and Doctor of the Church Saint Thomas Aquinas (a.d. 1225–1274)— were not teaching in a vacuum and coming up with lists of what they thought were the most important virtues for life. They had entered a tradition that had come before them.

They each were stepping into a much larger story about the virtuous life that had already been shaped by several generations of wise teachers and philosophers that preceded them. I aim to bring you into that story—into the rich tradition of the virtues— and to do so in a way that is easily accessible to the everyday reader and that inspires, challenges, and encourages you to live virtuous friendship more in your daily life.

So, if you are longing for virtue to take deep roots in your soul and bear fruit in your life; if you’re striving to go against the current of the culture, to take on the character of Christ, and to be transformed “into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18); if you’re striving for a deeper and longer- lasting transformation in the way you live your faith, friendships, dating relationships, marriage, and family, then join me as we begin this adventure of rediscovering the great tradition of the virtues and the art of living.

This article is based on Edward Sri’s The Art of Living: The Cardinal Virtues and the Freedom to Love (Ignatius Press/Augustine Institute).

[1] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “The New Evangelization: Building the Civilization of Love,” Address to Catechists and Religion Teachers, Jubilee of Catechists (December 12, 2000).