Cardinal virtues

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The cardinal virtues are a set of four virtues recognized in the writings of Classical Antiquity and, along with the theological virtues, also in Christian tradition. They consist of:

  • Prudence (φρόνησις, phronēsis): also described as wisdom, the ability to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time.
  • Justice (δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosynē): also considered as fairness, the most extensive and most important virtue.[1]
  • Temperance (σωφροσύνη, sōphrosynē): also known as restraint, the practice of self-control, abstention, and moderation tempering the appetition.
  • Courage (ἀνδρεία, andreia): also named fortitude, forbearance, strength, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation.

These were derived initially from Plato's scheme, discussed in Republic Book IV, 426-435 (and see Protagoras 330b, which also includes piety (hosiotes)); expanded on by Cicero, and adapted by Saint Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas (see Summa Theologica II(I).61). The term "cardinal" comes from the Latin cardo or hinge; the cardinal virtues are so called because they are the basic virtues, required for a virtuous life.

In Classical antiquity[edit]

The four cardinal virtues appear as a group (sometimes included in larger lists) long before they are later given this title.

Plato identified the four cardinal virtues with the classes of the city described in The Republic, and with the faculties of man. Plato narrates a discussion of the character of a good city where the following is agreed upon. “Clearly, then, it will be wise, brave, temperate [literally: healthy-minded], and just.” (427e; see also 435b) Temperance was common to all classes, but primarily associated with the producing classes, the farmers and craftsmen, and with the animal appetites, to whom no special virtue was assigned; fortitude was assigned to the warrior class and to the spirited element in man; prudence to the rulers and to reason. Justice stands outside the class system and divisions of man, and rules the proper relationship among the three of them.

In Aristotle's Rhetoric we read: “The forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, wisdom.” (Rhetoric 1366b1)

The Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero (106-43 BC), like Plato, limits the list to four virtues:

“Virtue may be defined as a habit of mind (animi) in harmony with reason and the order of nature. It has four parts: wisdom (prudentiam), justice, courage, temperance.” (De Inventione, II, LIII [2])

Cicero discusses these further in De Officiis (I, V and following).

The cardinal virtues are listed in the Bible. The deuterocanonical book Wisdom of Solomon 8:7 reads, "She [Wisdom] teaches temperance, and prudence, and justice, and fortitude, which are such things as men can have nothing more profitable in life."

They are also found in the Biblical apocrypha. 4 Maccabees 1:18-19 relates: “Now the kinds of wisdom are right judgment, justice, courage, and self-control. Right judgment is supreme over all of these since by means of it reason rules over the emotions.”

Catholic moral philosophy drew from all of these sources when developing its reflections on the virtues.

In Christian tradition[edit]

St. Ambrose (330s-397 AD) was the first to use the expression “cardinal virtues.” “And we know that there are four cardinal virtues temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude.” (Commentary on Luke, V, 62)

St. Augustine, discussing the morals of the church, described them:

"For these four virtues (would that all felt their influence in their minds as they have their names in their mouths!), I should have no hesitation in defining them: that temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved; fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object; justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly; prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it." (De moribus eccl., Chap. xv)

Relationship to the theological virtues[edit]

The "cardinal" virtues are not the same as the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity / love (see 1 Corinthians 13). Together, they comprise what is known as the seven virtues, also known as the theological virtues. While history suggests that the first four date back to Greek philosophers and were applicable to all people seeking to live moral lives, the theological virtues appear to be specific to Christians as written by Paul in The New Testament.

In the Book of Genesis (28:10-22) Jacob describes his vision of a ladder or stairway leading to heaven. In oral tradition, the three principal rungs on the ladder were denominated empathy, Hope and Love. (The King James Version of the Bible uses "charity," but "charity" was derived from caritas, or "love.") These three are mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13: And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. Because of this reference, the seven attributes are sometimes grouped as four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice) and three heavenly graces (faith, hope, charity).

Efforts to relate the cardinal and theological virtues differ. St. Augustine sees faith as coming under justice. Beginning with a wry comment about the moral mischief of pagan deities, he writes:

"They [the pagans] have made Virtue also a goddess, which, indeed, if it could be a goddess, had been preferable to many. And now, because it is not a goddess, but a gift of God, let it be obtained by prayer from Him, by whom alone it can be given, and the whole crowd of false gods vanishes. For as much as they have thought proper to distribute virtue into four divisions--prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance--and as each of these divisions has its own virtues, faith is among the parts of justice, and has the chief place with as many of us as know what that saying means, ‘The just shall live by faith.’" (City of God, IV, 20)

Depictions of the virtues[edit]

The Tomb of Sir John Hotham, supported by figures of the cardinal virtues.
Four cardinal virtues; Louvre, Paris. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection

The Cardinal Virtues are often depicted as female allegorical figures and were a popular subject for funerary sculpture. The attributes and names of these figures may vary according to local tradition.

In many churches and artwork the Cardinal Virtues are depicted with symbolic items:

  • Justice – sword, balance and scales, crown and the sword
  • Temperance – wheel, bridle and reins, vegetables and fish, cup, water and wine in two jugs
  • Fortitude – armor, club, with a lion, palm, tower, yoke, broken column
  • Prudence – book, scroll, mirror (occasionally attacked by a serpent)

Notable depictions include sculptures on the tomb of Francis II, Duke of Brittany and the tomb of John Hotham. They were also depicted in the garden at Edzell Castle.

A humorous depiction of the four cardinal virtues appears in the children's book "Masterpiece" written by Elise Broach and illustrated by Kelly Murphy.

The Cardinal virtues as depicted on the tomb of Pope Clement II in Bamberg Cathedral
Iustitia (justice) Fortitudo (fortitude) Prudentia (prudence) Temperantia (temperance)
Iustitia Papstgrab Bamberg aus Gottfried Henschen u Daniel Papebroch 1747.jpg Fortitudo Papstgrab Bamberg aus Gottfried Henschen u Daniel Papebroch 1747.jpg Sapientia Papstgrab Bamberg aus Gottfried Henschen u Daniel Papebroch 1747.jpg Temperantia Papstgrab Bamberg aus Gottfried Henschen u Daniel Papebroch 1747.jpg

Allegories of the virtues on the facade of the Gesuati church in Venice (1737)

Allegories of the virtues on the facade of La Rochelle city hall

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