The Four Cardinal Virtues
Although the Four Cardinal Virtues – Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice – figure prominently in the Entered Apprentice Lecture, the lecture itself does not go into any detail about their significance or give much explanation of their importance. This post is intended to provide some additional information about the Four Cardinal Virtues. [note: this post is based on a presentation at our December 2018 Regular Meeting by our St. John’s Lodge No. 21 Education Officer]
The Four Cardinal Virtues are deeply rooted in Western philosophy. A stained glass representation appears below.
The figure below shows the Four Cardinal Virtues as they are presented on stained glass windows in Freemasons Hall, London.
Plato’s Republic (Circa 380 BC)
The Four Cardinal Virtues originate specifically in Books 4, 6, and 7 of Plato’s Republic (circa 380 BC)
In Plato’s Republic, the four cardinal virtues are wisdom, temperance, courage and justice. These reflect the nature of the soul, which has three parts:
1. Reason: Our reason thinks; when it does this well, it has wisdom.
2. Appetite: Our appetite desires; when it does this well, it has temperance (self-control, soberness). Think of this as “passions”.
3. Spirit: Our “high spirit” shows emotions (fear, anger, respect, etc.); when it does this well, it has courage.
For Plato, Justice consists of the proper interplay of the three parts of the soul. In the just person, reason controls the “high spirit” — and both control the appetite (passions).
Plato then applies this to society as a whole:
Society mirrors the individual soul. And the virtues of society mirror the virtues of the individual soul.
Plato divides society into three groups.
1. The aristocrats are the educated; they should be wise [Prudence].
2. The workers (merchants, commoners) do the work; they should be temperate (have self-control) [Temperance].
3. The soldiers (guardians) protect the city; they should be courageous (brave) [Fortitude].
For Plato, Justice in society is the proper conformity of the three groups to their social roles. Each group has its own place, according to its natural abilities. The aristocrats are to rule wisely, and the other groups are to obey and to do their own tasks. This will promote the happiness of the city and of its members.
The Four Cardinal Virtues were adopted by the Roman and Greek Stoics, circa 200 BC.
Stoic Philosophers on the Four Cardinal Virtues
As an example, here is a short extract from Cicero (106 BC – 46 BC), On Duties
“….there is not a shadow of a doubt that man has the power to be the greatest agent of both benefit and harm towards his fellow men. Consequently it must be regarded as a vitally important quality to be able to win over human hearts and attach them to one’s own cause…..But to gain the goodwill of our fellow human beings, to convert them to a state of ready activeness to further our own interests, is a task worthy of the wisdom and excellence of a superman…. [note: for Cicero this means behaving with Justice]
This brings me back to moral goodness. It may be held to fall into three subdivisions.
The first is the ability to distinguish the truth from falsity, and to understand the relationships between one phenomenon and another and the causes and consequences of each [note: Prudence]
The second category is the ability to restrain the passions and to make the appetites amenable to reason [note: Temperance]
Third…is the capacity to behave considerately and understandingly in our associations with other people. [note: for Cicero this was Fortitude]…..”
Note the similarity to Plato’s three parts of the soul, tempered by Justice, or the interplay of the three parts of the soul.
For the Stoics, all other virtues were grouped – or hinged – around, or under, the Four Cardinal Virtues. The word “Cardinal” comes from the Latin “cardo” meaning “hinge” and “cardinalis” or “acting as a hinge”, hence the name Cardinal Virtues.
Book of Wisdom – circa 200 BC
The Four Cardinal Virtues appear in Jewish writings about 200 BC in the Book of Wisdom. Although the Book of Wisdom is attributed to King Solomon, the earliest known written references to it date from about 200 BC in Alexandria.
Bible – Book of Wisdom – circa 200 BC
“For [Wisdom] teaches temperance and prudence, justice and fortitude, and nothing in life is more useful for men than these” (Book of Wisdom 8:7).
[Note: although the Book of Wisdom is presented as having been written by King Solomon, it is thought to have been written in Alexandria, by a Jewish author, circa 200 BC. At that time, Alexandria was ruled by the Ptolemy dynasty, which was of Greek (Hellenistic) origin.]
The Four Cardinal Virtues come into Christian thought with St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.
“To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s efforts; from this it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through temperance). No misfortune can disturb it (and this is fortitude). It obeys only [God] (and this is justice), and is careful in discerning things, so as not to be surprised by deceit or trickery (and this is prudence)….”
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) ranked the four Cardinal Virtues in what he considered their priority or precedence.
St. Thomas Aquinas ranked prudence as the first cardinal virtue because it is concerned with the intellect. Aristotle defined prudence as recta ratio agibilium, “right reason applied to practice.” It is the virtue that allows us to judge correctly what is right and what is wrong in any given situation. When we mistake the evil for the good, we are not exercising prudence—in fact, we are showing our lack of it.
In St. Thomas Aquinas‘ view, it is so easy to fall into error, so Prudence requires us to seek the counsel of others, particularly those we know to be sound judges of morality. Disregarding the advice or warnings of others whose judgment does not coincide with ours is a sign of imprudence.
Justice, according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, is the second cardinal virtue, because it is concerned with the will. As Fr. John A. Hardon notes in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, it is “the constant and permanent determination to give everyone his or her rightful due.” We say that “justice is blind,” because it should not matter what we think of a particular person. If we owe him a debt, we must repay exactly what we owe.
Justice, wrote Saint Thomas Aquinas, is also connected to the idea of rights. While the term “justice” in a negative sense (“He got what he deserved”), justice in its proper sense is positive. Injustice occurs when we as individuals or by law deprive someone of that which he is owed. In St. Thomas’ view, legal rights can never outweigh natural rights, a concept which is enshrined in, among other places, the US Declaration of Independence.
The third cardinal virtue, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is Fortitude. While this virtue is commonly called courage, it is different from what much of what we think of as courage today. Fortitude allows us to overcome fear and to remain steady in our will in the face of obstacles, but it is always reasoned and reasonable; the person exercising fortitude does not seek danger for danger’s sake. Prudence and justice are the virtues through which we decide what needs to be done; fortitude gives us the strength to do it.
Temperance, Saint Thomas declared, is the fourth and final cardinal virtue. While fortitude is concerned with the restraint of fear so that we can act, temperance is the restraint of our desires or passions. Food, drink, and sex are all necessary for our survival, individually and as a species; yet a disordered desire for any of these goods can have disastrous consequences, physical and moral.
Temperance is the virtue that attempts to keep us from excess, and, as such, requires the balancing of legitimate goods against our inordinate desire for them. Our legitimate use of such goods may be different at different times; temperance is the “golden mean” that helps us determine how far we can act on our desires.
Some Articles For Additional Research
- Masonic Library
- Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (full text)
- Perfect Points of Entrance
- St. Thomas Aquinas – Four Cardinal Virtues
- Philo of Alexandria – De Somniis (interpretations of Jacob’s Ladder)
- St. John Climacus – Ladder of Divine Ascent – (interpretations of Jacob’s Ladder) Download
- Virtue and the City – an overview of the philosophical development of these ideas.
Some Videos for Additional Research
Here are some videos for research and information purposes. Note that, although some of them are from particular religious viewpoints, we have included these videos here for research purposes only and their inclusion here should not be viewed in any way as a promotion of any particular religious or theological viewpoint:
Here is a video on Plato’s view of the Four Cardinal Virtues in Book 4 of The Republic (note: audio isn’t great):
Here is a video on the Stoic philosophers’ view of the Four Cardinal Virtues
Cicero, On Duties and General Issues Concerning Duty
Here is a short video on the Four Cardinal Virtues from a Roman Catholic perspective:
Here is a short video on the Three Theological Virtues from a Roman Catholic perspective:
Here is a video on the 4 Cardinal Virtues from an Islamic perspective:
Faith, Hope and Charity / Faith, Hope and Love a.k.a. The Theological Virtues
Are Connected to the Four Cardinal Virtues
Here are two videos on the Theological Virtues from a Roman Catholic perspective:
Here is a video on The Ladder of Ascent, based on Jacob’s Ladder:
Would you like to leave a comment or question about anything on this post?