Cardinal virtues are four virtues of mind and character in both classical philosophy and Christian theology. They are Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance. They form a virtue theory of ethics. The term cardinal comes from the Latin cardo (hinge); 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. They were also recognized by the Stoics. Cicero expanded on them, and Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas adapted them while expanding on the theological virtues.
In Christian tradition, there are 4 cardinal virtues:
- Prudence – able to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time
- Justice – proper moderation between self-interest and the rights and needs of others
- Restraint or Temperance – practicing self-control, abstention, and moderation
- Courage or Fortitude – forbearance, endurance, and ability to confront fear and uncertainty, or intimidation
These were derived initially from Plato’s scheme (see Protagoras 330b, which also includes piety (hosiotes)) 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 hinges upon which the door of the moral life swings.
Plato identified them with the classes of the city described in The Republic, and with the faculties of man. 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.
It may have been taken up from there into Jewish philosophy; Wisdom 8:7 reads, “She [Wisdom] teacheth temperance, and prudence, and justice, and fortitude, which are such things as men can have nothing more profitable in life.
It was certainly taken up in Christianity, as 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.
These “cardinal” virtues are not the same as the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (see 1 Corinthians 13). Together, they comprise what is known as the seven virtues, also known as the theological virtues.
History of the 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 Republic 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)
Cicero (106-43 BC) writes: “Virtue if one loves justice the fruits of her works are virtues; For she teaches moderation and prudence, justice and fortitude, and nothing in life is more useful for men than these.” (1st c BC)
They are also listed in apocryphal literature. 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.” The Father blesses those who express the use of these holy virtues, and they will go to heaven, and be holy. (~40 AD)
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)
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).
But 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
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
- 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)