Cardinal virtues

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An image personifying the four virtues (Ballet Comique de la Reine, 1582) Figure des quatre Vertus from Ballet comique de la reine.JPG
An image personifying the four virtues ( Ballet Comique de la Reine , 1582)

The cardinal virtues are four virtues of mind and character in both classical philosophy and Christian theology. They are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. They form a virtue theory of ethics. The term cardinal comes from the Latin cardo (hinge); [1] virtues are so called because they are regarded as the basic virtues required for a virtuous life.


These principles derive initially from Plato in Republic Book IV, 426–435. [lower-alpha 1] Aristotle expounded them systematically in the Nicomachean Ethics. They were also recognized by the Stoics. Cicero expanded on them, and Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas [2] adapted them while expanding on the theological virtues.

Four cardinal virtues


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

Hellenistic philosophy

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; [4] see also 435b

Temperance [lower-alpha 2] 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 was assigned 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.

Plato sometimes [lower-alpha 3] lists holiness (hosiotes, eusebeia , aidos) amongst the cardinal virtues. He especially associates holiness with justice, but leaves their precise relationship unexplained.

In Aristotle's Rhetoric , we read:

“The forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, wisdom.”

Rhetoric 1366b1

They are expounded fully in the Nicomachean Ethics III.6 V.2

Roman philosophy

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 [6]

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". [7]

In the Bible

The cardinal virtues are not listed in the Hebrew Bible, but they are in the deuterocanonical book Wisdom of Solomon, which in 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 4 Maccabees 1:18–19, which 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.”

In the New Testament

Wisdom, usually Sophia, rather than prudence, is discussed extensively in all parts of the New Testament. It is a major topic of 1 Corinthians 2, where the author discusses how divine teaching and power are greater than worldly wisdom.

Justice (δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosýnē) is taught extensively in the gospels, where most translators give it as "righteousness".

Plato's word for Fortitude (ἀνδρεία) is not present in the New Testament, but the virtues of steadfastness (ὑπομονή, hypomonē) and patient endurance (μακροθυμία, makrothymia) are highly praised.

Temperance (σωφροσύνη, sōphrosýnē), usually translated "sobriety," is present in the New Testament, along with self-control (ἐγκράτεια, egkrateia).

In Christian tradition

Catholic moral theology drew from both the Wisdom of Solomon and the Fourth Book of Maccabees in developing its thought on the virtues. [8] :168–172 Ambrose (c.330s – c.397) was the first[ citation needed ] to use the expression "cardinal virtues":

And we know that there are four cardinal virtues—temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude.

Commentary on Luke, V, 62

Augustine of Hippo, 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 [9]
Four cardinal virtues; Louvre, Paris. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection. Vertus cardinales par Germain Pilon (Louvre).jpg
Four cardinal virtues; Louvre, Paris. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection.

In relation to the theological virtues

The "cardinal" virtues are not the same as the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity (Love), named in 1 Corinthians 13.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Because of this reference, a group of seven attributes is sometimes listed by adding the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice) and three theological virtues (faith, hope, charity). Together, they compose what is known as the seven virtues. While 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.

Efforts to relate the cardinal and theological virtues differ. 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

Dante Alighieri also attempts to relate the cardinal and theological virtues in his Divine Comedy,[ citation needed ] most notably in the complex allegorical scheme drawn in Purgatorio XXIX to XXXI. Depicting a procession in the Garden of Eden (which the author situates at the top of the mountain of purgatory), Dante describes a chariot drawn by a gryphon and accompanied by a vast number of figures, among which stand three women on the right side dressed in red, green and white, and four women on the left, all dressed in red. The chariot is generally understood[ according to whom? ] to represent the holy church, with the women on left and right representing the theological and cardinal virtues respectively. The exact meaning of the allegorical women's role, behaviour, interrelation and color-coding remains a matter of literary interpretation.

In relation to the seven deadly sins

In the High Middle Ages, some authors opposed the seven virtues (cardinal plus theological) to the seven deadly sins. However, “treatises exclusively concentrating on both septenaries are actually quite rare.” and “examples of late medieval catalogues of virtues and vices which extend or upset the double heptad can be easily multiplied.” [10] And there are problems with this parallelism:

The opposition between the virtues and the vices to which these works allude despite the frequent inclusion of other schemes may seem unproblematic at first sight. The virtues and the vices seem to mirror each other as positive and negative moral attitudes, so that medieval authors, with their keen predilection for parallels and oppositions, could conveniently set them against each other. … Yet artistic representations such as Conrad’s trees are misleading in that they establish oppositions between the principal virtues and the capital vices which are based on mere juxtaposition. As to content, the two schemes do not match each other. The capital vices of lust and avarice, for instance, contrast with the remedial virtues of chastity and generosity, respectively, rather than with any theological or cardinal virtue; conversely, the virtues of hope and prudence are opposed to despair and foolishness rather than to any deadly sin. Medieval moral authors were well aware of the fact. Actually, the capital vices are more often contrasted with the remedial or contrary virtues in medieval moral literature than with the principal virtues, while the principal virtues are frequently accompanied by a set of mirroring vices rather than by the seven deadly sins. [11]

Contemporary thought

Jesuit scholars Daniel J. Harrington and James F. Keenan, in their Paul and Virtue Ethics (2010), argue for seven "new virtues" to replace the classical cardinal virtues in complementing the three theological virtues, mirroring the seven earlier proposed in Bernard Lonergan's Method in Theology (1972): "be humble, be hospitable, be merciful, be faithful, reconcile, be vigilant, and be reliable". [12]


Fresco with allegories of the four cardinal virtues in the ''Assunta'' church in Manerba del Garda. Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta volta presbiterio Manerba del Garda.jpg
Fresco with allegories of the four cardinal virtues in the ‘’Assunta’’ church in Manerba del Garda.
The Tomb of Sir John Hotham, supported by figures of the cardinal virtues. John Hotham Tomb South Dalton.jpg
The Tomb of Sir John Hotham, supported by figures of the cardinal 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:[ citation needed ]

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.

See also


  1. See also Protagoras 330b, which also includes piety (hosiotes).
  2. Cicero and Plato sometimes preferred the word sōphrosynē. [5]
  3. e.g., Protagoras 349b; cf. 324e, 329c, 330b, 331a-c.

Related Research Articles

Theological virtues are virtues associated in Christian theology and philosophy with salvation resulting from the grace of God. Virtues are traits or qualities which dispose one to conduct oneself in a morally good manner. Traditionally they have been named Faith, Hope, and Charity (Love), and can trace their importance in Christian theology to Paul the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 13, who also pointed out that “the greatest of these is love.”

Piety Religious devotion or spirituality

Piety is a virtue which may include religious devotion or spirituality. A common element in most conceptions of piety is a duty of respect. In a religious context piety may be expressed through pious activities or devotions, which may vary among countries and cultures.

Courage Ability to deal with fear

Courage is the choice and willingness to confront agony, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation. Valor is courage or bravery, especially in battle.

Virtue Positive trait or quality deemed to be morally good

Virtue is moral excellence. A virtue is a trait or quality that is deemed to be morally good and thus is valued as a foundation of principle and good moral being. In other words, it is a behavior that shows high moral standards: doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong. The opposite of virtue is vice. Other examples of this notion include the concept of merit in Asian traditions as well as De. Buddhism's four brahmavihara can be regarded as virtues in the European sense.

Prudence The ability of a person regulate themselves with use of reason

Prudence is the ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason. It is classically considered to be a virtue, and in particular one of the four Cardinal virtues. Prudentia is an allegorical female personification of the virtue, whose attributes are a mirror and snake, who is frequently depicted as a pair with Justitia, the Roman goddess of Justice.

Virtue ethics Normative ethical theories

Virtue ethics are a class of normative ethical theories which treat the concept of moral virtue as central to ethics. Virtue ethics are usually contrasted with two other major approaches in normative ethics, consequentialism and deontology, which make the goodness of outcomes of an action (consequentialism) and the concept of moral duty (deontology) central. While virtue ethics does not necessarily deny the importance of goodness of states of affairs or moral duties to ethics, it emphasizes moral virtue, and sometimes other concepts, like eudaimonia, to an extent that other theories do not.

Temperance (virtue) Cardinal virtue of control over excess

Temperance in its modern use is defined as moderation or voluntary self-restraint. It is typically described in terms of what an individual voluntarily refrains from doing. This includes restraint from revenge by practicing non-violence and forgiveness, restraint from arrogance by practicing humility and modesty, restraint from excesses such as extravagant luxury or splurging, and restraint from rage or craving by practicing calmness and self-control.

Sophrosyne is an ancient Greek concept of an ideal of excellence of character and soundness of mind, which when combined in one well-balanced individual leads to other qualities, such as temperance, moderation, prudence, purity, decorum, and self-control. An adjectival form is "sophron."

In Christian tradition, the seven heavenly virtues combine the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude with the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

Justice (virtue) Cardinal virtue

Justice is one of the four cardinal virtues in classical European philosophy and Roman Catholicism. It is the moderation or mean between selfishness and selflessness – between having more and having less than one's fair share.

Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit Spiritual gifts

The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are an enumeration of seven spiritual gifts first found in the book of Isaiah, and much commented upon by patristic authors. They are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.

Scrovegni Chapel Scrovegni Chapel, Padua’s fourteenth-century fresco cycles

The Scrovegni Chapel, also known as the Arena Chapel, is a small church, adjacent to the Augustinian monastery, the Monastero degli Eremitani in Padua, region of Veneto, Italy. The chapel and monastery are now part of the complex of the Museo Civico of Padua.

Josef Pieper was a German Catholic philosopher and an important figure in the resurgence of interest in the thought of Thomas Aquinas in early-to-mid 20th-century philosophy. Among his most notable works are The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance; Leisure, the Basis of Culture; and Guide to Thomas Aquinas.

Aristotelian ethics Attempt to offer a rational response to the question of how humans should best live

Aristotle first used the term ethics to name a field of study developed by his predecessors Socrates and Plato. In philosophy, ethics is the attempt to offer a rational response to the question of how humans should best live. Aristotle regarded ethics and politics as two related but separate fields of study, since ethics examines the good of the individual, while politics examines the good of the City-State, which he considered to be the best type of community.

Heroic virtue is a phrase coined by Augustine of Hippo to describe the virtue of early Christian martyrs and used by the Catholic Church. The Greek pagan term hero described a person with possibly superhuman abilities and great goodness, and "it connotes a degree of bravery, fame, and distinction which places a man high above his fellows". The term was later applied to other highly virtuous persons who do extraordinary good works.

<i>Cardinal and Theological Virtues</i> (Raphael) Fresco by Raphael

The Cardinal and Theological Virtues is a lunette fresco by Raphael found on the south wall of the Stanza della Segnatura in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican. Three of the cardinal virtues are personified as statuesque women seated in a bucolic landscape and the theological virtues are depicted by putti. The fresco was a part of Raphael's commission to decorate the private apartments of Pope Julius II. These rooms are now known as the Stanze di Raffaello. After completing his three monumental frescoes Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, The Parnassus, and The School of Athens in the Stanza della Segnatura, Raphael painted the Cardinal and Theological Virtues in 1511.

<i>Paradiso</i> (Dante) Third part of Dantes Divine Comedy

Paradiso is the third and final part of Dante's Divine Comedy, following the Inferno and the Purgatorio. It is an allegory telling of Dante's journey through Heaven, guided by Beatrice, who symbolises theology. In the poem, Paradise is depicted as a series of concentric spheres surrounding the Earth, consisting of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Fixed Stars, the Primum Mobile and finally, the Empyrean. It was written in the early 14th century. Allegorically, the poem represents the soul's ascent to God.

Tomb of Francis II, Duke of Brittany

The tomb of Francis II, Duke of Brittany is a monument located in Nantes, in the Cathedral of St. Peter. The project was commissioned by Anne of Brittany, Queen of France, who was the daughter of Francis and his second wife Margaret of Foix, who is also depicted beside Francis. The tomb was originally located in the chapel of the Carmelites in Nantes. Francis II had wished that his body rest there, to join the remains of his first wife Margaret of Brittany. The tomb eventually received the body of Francis and both his wives, though only his second wife is depicted.

San Carlo al Corso, Noto

San Carlo al Corso is a Baroque-style, Roman Catholic church located on Corso Vittorio Emanuele #119 in the town of Noto, region of Sicily, Italy. This is also known as the Collegiata or collegiate church due to the adjacent Jesuit seminary and monastery.

Vigen Guroian is an Orthodox Christian theologian and professor who has written widely on ethics, politics, culture, literature, education, and gardening. He taught for many years at Loyola University Maryland, St. Nersess Armenian Seminary in New York, and the University of Virginia. In his retirement he continues to publish, lecture, and lead seminars in North America, Europe, and the Near East. He lives in Culpeper, Virginia.


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