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The cardinal virtues comprise a quartet set of virtues recognized in the writings of Classical Antiquity and, along with the theological virtues, also in Christian tradition. They consist of the following qualities:
- Prudence (φρόνησις, phronēsis; Latin: prudentia): also described as wisdom, the ability to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time
- Justice (δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosynē; Latin: iustitia): also considered as fairness, the most extensive and most important virtue; the Greek word also having the meaning righteousness
- Temperance (σωφροσύνη, sōphrosynē; Latin: temperantia): also known as restraint, the practice of self-control, abstention, discretion, and moderation tempering the appetition; especially sexually, hence the meaning chastity
- Courage (ἀνδρεία, andreia; Latin: fortitudo): also termed fortitude, forbearance, strength, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation
These virtues derive initially from Plato's scheme, discussed in Republic Book IV, 426-435 (and see Protagoras 330b, which also includes piety (hosiotes)). Cicero expanded on them, and Saint Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas adapted them.
The term "cardinal" comes from the Latin cardo (hinge); the cardinal virtues are so called because they are regarded as the basic virtues required for a virtuous life. They also relate to the Quadrivium.
In Classical Antiquity
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 )
Cicero discusses these further in De Officiis (I, V and following).
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius discusses these in Book V:12 of Meditations and views them as the "goods" that a person should identify in one's own mind, as opposed to "wealth or things which conduce to luxury or prestige."
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
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
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)
Replacement of the virtues
Jesuit scholars, Daniel Harrington and James Keenan, find the four cardinal virtues in need of replacement by new ones for the Church. The reasons they give are:
- "contemporary writers repeatedly express dissatisfaction with the insufficiency of justice".
- "the modern era insists that moral dilemmas are not based on the simple opposition of good and evil but, more frequently, on the clash of goods – thus a constellation of heuristic guides that already resolves the priority of one virtue over another by which a preconceived hierarchical structure preempts realism"
- "the primary identity of being human is not as an individual with powers needing perfection, but as a relational rational being whose modes of relationality need to be made virtuous or to be rightly realized" 
In replacement, they suggest the three Bible virtues of: Faith, Hope, and Love. Additionally, they add: be humble, be hospitable, be merciful, be faithful, reconcile, be vigilant, and be reliable. This totals to 10 new virtues to replace the four cardinal virtues.
Depictions of the virtues
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, and a crown
- 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)
|Iustitia (justice)||Fortitudo (fortitude)||Prudentia (prudence)||Temperantia (temperance)|
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
- "Cardinal Virtues of Plato, Augustine and Confucius". theplatonist.com.
- Summa Theologica II(I).61
- Harper, Douglas. "cardinal". Online Etymology Dictionary.
- "Cicero: de Inventione II". thelatinlibrary.com.
- Marcus Aurelius (1976). Meditations. Penguin Classics trans. by Maxwell Staniforth. p. 83.
- Harrington, Daniel; Keenan, James (2010). Paul and Virtue Ethics. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. p. 9.
- Harrington, Daniel; Keenan, James (2010). Paul and Virtue Ethics. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. pp. 125–126.
- St. Ambrose, "On the Duties of the Clergy" Book 1, chapter 24 (paragraph 115) and following
- St. Augustine, "Of the Morals of the Catholic Church"
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Cardinal Virtues.|
- John Rickaby (1913). "Cardinal Virtues". In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- Seven Virtues (atheism.com)
- Cardinal Virtues according to Aquinas (New Advent)