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

situations change.

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.

3. chastity

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.


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