A PRIMER ON THE CARDINAL VIRTUES
A PRIMER ON THE CARDINAL VIRTUES
Excerpted from Hugh McDonald, Niagara University; See
The Four Cardinal Virtues in General
The term “virtue” is from Latin and originally meant “strength” or “power”. It is
based on the word vir – man. The ancient Greeks, starting with Homer, praised
virtue. The Greek term for virtue was arete, and the earliest writers applied it
particularly to fortitude in battle, and secondarily to wisdom. Aristotle
developed a whole science of the virtues, but he was not inventing the virtues,
but drawing from his culture. His description of the virtues is not merely a
reflection of ancient Greek culture. When we study the virtues, we are not
putting ancient customs into a Petri dish, but we are drawing upon the insight
of the ancient Greeks into the human condition in general. The virtues praised
by the Greeks are known to all cultures. For example, you will find many of the
same insights in the Old Testament, in particular the book of Proverbs and the
book of Wisdom. You could find the praise of these virtues in every culture,
but Aristotle is outstanding because he took a scientific look at the virtues as
part of his study of human nature.
The four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance are
interconnected. This means that if you do not possess one of them, all the
others are spoiled, and so you do not possess virtue at all. A few examples. A
man might know what is good, know what he must do to get good results, but if
he lacks temperance his decisions will be swayed by his love of pleasure. Or a
man might be willing to risk his life, yet his actions are not guided by a right
purpose. A bank robber who risks his life is not a prudent man, and so he is not
truly a brave man.
The other point about the virtues is that in many cases we cannot say precisely
where virtue lies. The right measure is very difficult to achieve, and it is often
different for different individuals. The idea of “The Golden Mean” is that in our
actions we must seek the right measure and proportion. Excess or defect is a
departure from virtue.
Prudence in Particular
Prudence is the most important of the four cardinal virtues. The most important
part of prudence is knowledge. The shortest definition of prudence is recta
ratio agilbilium – right reason about things to be done. Prudence is not
theoretical knowledge, such as philosophical wisdom, but practical knowledge.
Prudence is not concerned only with universal and unchanging truths, but also
with the singular, unique and variable things of daily life. A person can be wise
when he reasons about the meaning and purpose of life, yet because of
inexperience he cannot yet make good decisions in real-life situations. He must
know how to apply universal principles in daily situations. A person who
possesses prudence cannot easily impart to others his art of making good
decisions. He cannot always even explain his own processes of thought, but
after long practice he has a feeling for what he should do. When we know
something in this way, it called connatural knowledge, and it is important in the
moral life. For example, a child who is brought up in a certain way will
understand many things about life without needing to be told. Thomas Aquinas
lists many different components of prudence, but we will limit ourselves to
1. MEMORY – in order to know the meaning of the present, we must have
a good memory of the past.
2. DOCILITY – we must remain open to reality, always willing to learn as
3. CLEAR-HEADED DECISIVENESS – prudence is not merely knowing
what we should do, but also making the decision in a timely way.
Although we should learn basic principles of action, we cannot put in a book or
code what should be done in each and every situation. There was an approach
to ethics, called Casuistry that tried to do this, popular among the Jesuits.
However, this approach is not useful in real situations, because it is not possible
to anticipate all possible circumstances.
Justice in Particular
Justice is the virtue whereby we give to each person what is due to him, and we
do this consistently, promptly and pleasurably. For a simple example, a just
person wants to pay his bills on time, and he has a feeling of satisfaction when
he is able to do so. Justice is the social virtue. It concerns right relations with
others in society. What is just is summed up in a simple motto: cuique suum –
to each his own, but it not always easy to establish what we owe to others. The
simplest obligations are defined by the natural law, and that is based on the
natural inclinations of each man, for example, to stay alive, to be part of
society, to grow in knowledge. We have obligations therefore not to deprive
others of life or health. We should not deprive others of the necessary means to
stay alive, even though this may involve complex social issues. We owe the
truth to others, and at least a basic minimum of friendship as members of the
same society. By the same token, others owe these things to us. A further
conclusion. If I have a right to life, I also have the right to use the necessary
means to defend my right against an unjust aggressor. Thomas Higgins (p. 246)
also mentions certain goods that we may value as much as life itself.
1. material goods of great value: things necessary to support life or
maintain our state in life.
2. personal liberty.
4. integrity of limb.
If there is any progress in Western Civilization, it is not in our technology,
because that can be used for man or against man, and so it is morally neutral,
but in increased knowledge and recognition of human rights.
Some things are owed to others not by natural right, but because of a contract.
In general, it is good to keep agreements, and a person who does so is
considered to be loyal and trustworthy. However, this is not always the case. I
may have agreed always to stand by and support a friend, but it would be
wrong to do so if by doing so I would be an accomplice in wrong-doing.
The three divisions of justice according to the parties involved are:
1. legal justice – what the individual owes to society as a whole. Generally
speaking, these are the obligations defined by the law of the land.
Exceptions would be when the law requires someone to do something
that is morally wrong, in which case he must obey the higher law. Over
and above the requirements of law, a citizen should also be civic-
minded, willing to participate in the political process and concerned
about the welfare of the community.
2. commutative justice – what one individual owes to another. First, he
must respect the natural rights of other individuals. Second, he may have
obligations that arise because of an agreement or contract. These
obligations are usually clear-cut.
3. distributive justice – what the society owes to individuals. In some cases,
this is simple. Equal protection under the law, for example. However,
there are complex situations. For example, the state would have the right
under certain extreme circumstances to expropriate property, in which
case it must give fair compensation. If individuals or groups of
individuals have been unjustly deprived of their rights, some sort of
compensation is due to them, but how much and for how long is difficult
to settle. The person who acts in the name of the community does not act
in his own name. If he shows special favor to certain individuals or
groups, he is acting unjustly, and this is called “respect of persons”. For
this reason, the person who is in charge of the common good must keep
a certain distance and play his role. One thing that destroys justice is
informality. For example, if a judge or police officer, or for that matter a
professor, allows some people to address him on a first name basis, he
risks subverting justice. It does not matter if such familiarity does not
affect his official decisions. It can give scandal to others. An old proverb
says that it is not enough for a thing to be just, it must also appear just.
There are certain situations where we have debts that we cannot possibly repay.
For example, what we owe to God, to our country, to our parents and teachers.
In these cases we must always remember that any actions we perform fall short.
It is not possible to say to God that we have paid back what we owe, that now
we are even, and likewise in the other cases. In ordinary English we do not
have a single term for all of these things, but we have the word “Piety”, which
at one time covered all these things. Thomas Aquinas writes:
A man becomes the debtor of others according to their different
excellences and the diverse benefits received from them. Now, on both
counts, God holds the highest place: He is most excellent and he is the
first principle of our existence and our governance. Secondarily,
however, the sources of our being and governance are our parents and
country; from whom, and in which, we were born and raised. And so,
after God, man is most indebted to his parents and country. Hence, just
as the act of showing reverence to God belongs to religion, so on a
secondary level the showing of reverence to parents and country belongs
to piety. Under the reverence of parents is included the respect for all
blood relatives, because they are called such by virtue of their descent
from the same parents. … Under the reverence of country is understood
respect for all fellow citizens and friends of one’s country.
(Thomas Aquinas, On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life, ch. 13. in The
Pocket Aquinas, p. 258).
Fortitude is synonymous with courage and bravery. It must be based on justice.
The purpose of fortitude is to remove obstacles to justice. In its extreme form, it
is the willingness and readiness to risk one’s life for the sake of that which is
just. Justice can be destroyed in two ways. First, because something pleasant
draws us away from what is just, and it is the purpose of temperance to govern
our desire for pleasure. In the second way, we may be unwilling to do what is
just because we face some difficult obstacle. Fortitude enables us to face these
difficulties for the sake of justice. A brave person still has fear. Fear is the
natural reaction to anything that threatens us, and it is necessary in the face of
evil. It is unreasonable to say that we can extinguish all our fears simply by
positive thinking. The brave man acts in the face of his reasonable fear. While
the most obvious part of fortitude is to attack evil at the risk of injury or death,
the more important part is to stand firm patiently in the face of threats.
Fortitude is principally in the mind, because the brave man must hold firmly to
the thought of some future good when all he faces in the present is evil. He can
and should harness his emotional powers to cooperate. For that reason, the
brave person uses his anger in his actions in order to act or to stand firm.
In the ancient world, the Stoic philosophers praised virtue and taught that we
should develop the power of our mind to face all difficulties with equanimity.
They disparaged emotion, and taught that the wise man should shut out anger
and other strong emotions from his soul. They even called the passions
sicknesses of the soul. Immanuel Kant was following the Stoic philosophers
when he said that the man who acted for the sake of happiness had a
“pathological will”. Aristotle and the philosophers who followed him said that
the virtuous man will be angry, but that his anger must be ruled by reason. The
brave man must have an intelligent anger.
The vices opposed to fortitude are cowardice as the defect, and fearlessness and
recklessness are both excess. In the coward, fear overcomes his reason and
prevents him from doing what he should do for the sake of justice. The fearless
person is not precisely brave, because the brave person knows the risks he
faces, has a respectful fear of them, and acts in the face of his fears. The
reckless person rushes into battle in an untimely way, ready to risk everything
even when this is not the best course.
Perserverance or standing firm is the most necessary part of fortitude, and the
most common. According to the philosophers (Aristotle and Aquinas),
perserverance is undermined by a soft life. The person who indulges in pleasure
and always avoids discomfort will be unwilling to put up with the sadness he
must experience if he is to stand firm in difficulty. For this reason, part of
military training and monastic life is to do without many of the superfluous
comforts of daily life. Also, there is an excess of perseverance which is a vice,
and this is obstinacy. A stubborn person may “stick to his guns”, but he is
persevering at something even when he should yield to others.
The Virtue of Temperance
The virtue of temperance governs our appetites for pleasure. By nature we
desire the pleasure that is suitable to us. Since man by definition is rational, the
pleasures that are in accord with reason are suitable to man. Temperance does
not restrain us from the pleasures that are reasonable, but from those that are
contrary to our reason. Temperance does not act against our natural human
inclinations, but works with them. Temperance is opposed to the inclinations of
nature when they are like a beast that is not ruled by reason.
First and foremost, temperance governs the pleasures of the senses, and
especially the sense of touch. These are the greatest and most forceful
pleasures, because our sense of touch is closest to our existence, and it is also
involved in reproduction, and so is concerned with the existence of offspring.
The other senses are not as forceful. For example, the glutton is not motivated
by the taste of food, but by the feeling of a full stomach.
The virtue of temperance also requires us to prepare ourselves. There is a place
for asceticism in daily life. I’ve already mentioned how soft-living can
undermine fortititude. Temperance requires us to train ourselves and prepare
ourselves even when we are not faced with an immediate temptation. For this
reason, Thomas Aquinas teaches that fasting is not merely a religious custom,
but it is part of the natural law. All men are required to develop the virtue of
temperance and govern their desire for pleasure by reason, and so all must take
the necessary steps to prepare themselves. The purpose of fasting and other
ascetical practices is not to destroy our natural inclinations, but to become
master of them. He even writes that if a man would be committing a sin if he
fasted to the point where he actually lost his sexual desire.
A lack of temperance undermines prudence, and if prudence is destroyed, all
the virtues are undermined. Temperance itself needs to be nurtured, and this is
part of the role of culture. If we are surrounded by images of self-indulgence
and appeals to our senses, our reason is undermined. The mass media
deliberately exploit our desires, but there is a saying: no injury is done if the
other party was willing . We can select what we want to watch, and when we
watch television or use the Internet, we can choose to reflect upon what we see
or to surrender our judgment. A culture of temperance will be reflected in the
way we speak and act as well.
While temperance primarily concerns tactile pleasures, it also concerns our
emotions. Part of temperance is to control our anger. Part of temperance is to
govern our sexual desire, and temperance in that department is generally called
chastity. Chastity is not synonymous with celibacy, but it means governing our
sexual desire in accordance with our state in life. Temperance also concerns our
desire for knowledge. An uncontrolled desire is curiosity, exemplified as
Ulysses who took ten years to return home because he was always seeking new
adventures and experiences. The right measure is called studiosity or
studiousness, which is the disciplined search for the truth. It is also possible for
our natural desire for the truth to be dulled because of a life of comfort and
pleasure, and then we may suffer from a dullness of the intellect for which we
are morally responsible.