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Justice, Wisdom, Courage, and Moderation: The Four Cardinal Virtues


These four cardinal virtues are not the only virtues, but they are the cardes, the "hinges", on which all the other virtues turn.


The four cardinal virtues – justice, wisdom (prudence), courage (fortitude), and moderation (self-control, temperance) – come not just from Plato or Greek philosophy. You will find them in Scripture. They are knowable by human nature, which God designed, not Plato. Plato first formulated them, but he did for virtue only what Newton did for motion: he discovered and tabulated its own inherent foundational laws.

These four are called "cardinal" virtues from the Latin word for "hinge". All other virtues hinge on these four. That includes lesser Virtues, which are corollaries of these, and also greater virtues (the three "theological virtues"), which are the flower of these.

These four cardinal virtues are not the only virtues, or even the highest ones. As Einstein surpassed Newton, Jesus most certainly surpassed Plato. But just as Einstein did not contradict Newton but included him, presupposed him, and built on him, so Jesus supernatural virtues do not contradict Platos natural virtues but presuppose them. Plato gives us virtues grammar; Jesus gives us virtues poetry.

Back to the future!

During the Silly Sixties, I was teaching a course in ethics at Boston College to a class of idealistic, impatient, and antihistorical freshmen whose vision of history was the Dark Ages and then Us. They were eager to save the world, design a new society, and liberate themselves and everyone else (especially those who did not want to be liberated) from the terrible, tyrannical past and to create a "brave new world" for the bright future. So my assigned reading list, composed of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, hardly turned them on. They protested, "We know so much more than people in the past did", and were not impressed with my comeback, from T. S. Eliot: "Yes, and they are that which we know."

So they asked me whether we could do something more "relevant", something more experimental, something like what other classes were doing: designing their own course instead of being "enslaved" to the hoary past and to the "imposed values" of the teacher. I decided to go along with their scheme for a trial run. I said Id play Socrates with them and together wed try to design a new ethic for a new society, from scratch. I would only be their Socratic questioner, not their lecturer.

They were thrilled.

Off and running we went, throwing our books temporarily into the ragbag or dustbin of history and consulting only our precious creativity. Now what values do we want in this new society? First of all, do we want a double standard? A different ethic for society and for individuals? No, that was the hypocrisy of past and present establishments. No double standard.

All right, next, what does society need? Harmony, cooperation, togetherness, working as one, each doing the thing he can do best for others, for the community, doing your own thing and communalism at once. That sounds like a very progressive notion of justice, better than the old legalistic one. In fact, it sounds like music, which they loved very much. True justice is social music, harmony. What an enlightened idea!

What next? What qualities must the leaders have? Not wealth, not power, not privilege, not even sheer intelligence or cleverness, but understanding, insight, sympathy. Into what? Human nature, human needs, human values. And this understanding of theirs has to have a practical side to it. The leaders should know people and their problems and be able to solve them, not just know some abstract ideal. What a nice, relevant redefinition of wisdom!

What about heroism? Do we value that, in society and in individuals? Oh, yes. The willingness to freely go beyond the call of duty, to make sacrifices, to choose the difficult thing, to take chances. Courage. Not just folly, recklessness, not just physical strength, not even just physical courage, the ability to endure pain, but moral courage, the willingness to act on your convictions even if it costs you something, such as convenience or social acceptance. What a great new notion of courage! How unbarbarian! How deep! How superior to tradition! We must know when to fight and when to flee, what to fear and what not to fear.

Now what about greed? Is that a virtue? No. Capitalism is wicked because it fosters greed, materialism, consumerism. (Of course these students had never read capitalist moralists like Adam Smith and John Locke, or even Michael Novak.) But are material things evil in themselves? Oh, no. We should be sensitive to material pleasures, but "small is beautiful". We should desire and get and use just what we naturally and truly need, not what the ad-men tell us and sell us. If we all practiced Thoreaus or Buddhas detachment from greed, our present economy would soon collapse. Well then, let it.

Let us make a new one, where only natural needs are satisfied. A noneconormstic economy, where people make and use what they truly need. Material things are our servants, not our masters; our horses, not our riders. We shouldnt let them ride us, neither should we lock them up in the stable; but should "ride the wild horses", our own desires and the pleasures we take in material things. Its a good world, but we should treat it as a work of art, raw material for beauty, not conquest. What an enlightened new alternative to both materialism and Puritanism! (They knew nothing about the real Puritans, of course.)

And these new values fit the new psychology. Freud showed us what we are: id, ego, and superego; and moderation is the value for the id, for animal desires; courage is the value for the ego, or will; and wisdom is the value for the superego, or conscience, or mind. Our new values fit our nature. Justice is the harmony or integration or adjustment (what nice modern-sounding words!) of all the different parts. A really up-to-date picture!

Now someone who lived like this – wouldnt he be happy? Yes. Happiness, thats the great thing, the daring new answer to the question: "Whats it all about, Alfie?" Lets free ourselves from legalism, moralism, and guilt, to pursue our own happiness. An individual who lived according to these values would be truly and naturally happy, even if not rich and powerful. Happiness comes from within, not from without; thats the great new secret we have discovered. The sons have become wiser than the fathers. We have found lifes great secret for ourselves.

And the same would be true for society. Any society patterned on these principles would be happy, just as individuals would. No double standard, remember. We have here a bold new prescription for human happiness. Our new notion of justice is the true profit. Not money but natural justice is true profit. This Justice is always more profitable than anything else, any alternative to Justice, any injustice. Justice is more profitable than injustice.

Perhaps we should write all this up, put down our new discoveries in a book for the world, a new book for a new age. How exciting!

Unless – unless it may have been done before? How would you know whether it has or not? Youve scorned the past. Are you quite sure what it is youve scorned? Lets just take one sample drilling from the soil of the past. Lets look at the first and oldest philosophical ethic and politic in our civilization, Platos Republic. Lets test old Plato by our new wisdom and see how he scores. Might he have anticipated any of our ideas?

The reader who has read The Republic can anticipate the next step. The students were truly amazed to find that all eight of the ideas they had just discovered were precisely the main points of this bewhiskered old classic: no double standard; justice as harmony; wisdom as understanding; courage as nonphysical; moderation versus materialism; the fit between the three virtues and the three parts of the soul; the fact that justice leads to happiness for individuals and societies, that "justice is more profitable than injustice"; and overall the use of rational discovery and persuasion rather than force.

After reading all this in The Republic they wanted to read more "old stuff". So we read Platos Gorgias, Aristotles Nicomachean Ethics, Augustines Confessions, and even parts of Aquinas Summa Theologiae. They found Aquinas treatise on happiness (Summa I-II, question 2, "On Those Things in Which Happiness Consists") a particularly "relevant" reading, for they could classify all their friends and all their favorite characters in fiction as pursuing one or another of the candidates for happiness that Aquinas listed, explored – and refuted.

A healthy soul

Why are these old philosophers so up-to-date? Because they took their bearings not from the date – nothing is so surely and quickly dated as the up-to-date – but from the unchanging essence of man, the inherent structure of the soul. Plato was the first to discover and map this, the first to give us a psychograph. The four cardinal virtues – justice, wisdom, courage, and moderation – are relevant to man in every age because they are relevant to man himself, not to the age. They fit our nature and our natures needs.

The human body has a structure that is inherent, not socially changeable, and the laws of its health are equally inherent and unchangeable, objective. The same is true of the soul. Virtue is simply health of soul. Justice, the overall virtue, is the harmony of the soul, as health is the harmony of the body. Justice is not just paying your debts, not just an external relationship between two or more people, but also and first of all the internal relationship within each individual among the parts of the soul.

The harmony is hierarchical, not egalitarian. When World follows Man, when within Man Body follows Soul, when within Soul Appetites follow Will and Will follows Reason (Wisdom), we have justice. When the hierarchy is inverted, we have injustice. Will leading Reason is rationalization and propaganda; Appetites leading Will is greed; Body leading Soul is animalism; World leading Man is unfreedom.

Justice is individual before it is social. Robinson Crusoe alone on his desert island before Friday shows up can still be just or unjust. We are just or unjust to ourselves before we are just or unjust to others. Justice is rightness, righteousness. Justice is beauty of soul, soul-art, soul-music.

But does the soul have a structure like the body? Isnt it simply consciousness, like light, with no inherent shape or color or size, receiving all its structure and form from its objects? The things light illuminates have determinate structures, but light itself does not (at least, not that sort of structure – e.g., light has no color). Isnt the soul like light?

No, it is not. It is like the world; it has a structure. We can talk about it and derive an ethic from it. For instance, we can discover that it has three distinct faculties or abilities or powers. We discover this, as Plato first argued, from the experience of inner conflict; when our desires move us to do one thing, our reason informs us not to do that thing, and something else in us sides with either reason or desire and decides the issue. (Plato had only the most rudimentary notion of this other thing, which is really the will. He seemed to identify it with what the medieval Scholastics called "irascible appetite", or the capacity for righteous anger.) From Plato to Freud, common sense, philosophy, and psychology have found themselves talking about some version of this tripartite-soul idea, with virtue as its health. This is natural, like a heavy body falling to its natural place, or a wanderer returning home.


Some of the more common misunderstandings about the four cardinal virtues, in general and in particular, are the following:

  1. They are relative to Plato, or the Greek mind, or pre-Christian paganism.
  2. Asserting their importance and universality implicitly teaches that they are salvational, that you get to heaven by practicing them. (This is, logically speaking, a very silly confusion, but I have often found evangelicals and fundamentalists thinking this way.)
  3. They constitute only one subjective preference among many, like a taste in foods rather than like the principles of anatomy.
  4. They rest on an outdated, simplistic psychology. (Psychology has grown, but on these foundations.)
  5. Wisdom means only intelligence rather than understanding – the confusion between cleverness and insight, calculation and contemplation.

  6. Wisdom is one-sided, starry-eyed, unworldly, and impractical.
  7. Wisdom is only a subjective habit of mind rather than an insight into objectively existing things.
  8. Courage means only "taking dares", or foolhardiness.
  9. Courage is a specialty for soldiers rather than a necessary aspect of every virtue.
  10. Courage is a hard, old-fashioned, no-longer-needed virtue. (Read Alexander Solzhenitsyns 1978 Harvard commencement address on that one. – also offered by CERC)
  11. Moderation means suppression or repression.
  12. Moderation is cowardly rather than passionate.
  13. Moderation is dull. (Read G. K. Chestertons Orthodoxy and The Man Who Was Thursday to refute that cliché.)
  14. Justice is a mathematical, impersonal, calculating thing rather than something intuitive like musical harmony.
  15. Justice is only external and social.
  16. Justice is necessary but unattractive, like a medicine or a law.

There are many more misunderstandings, of course, but it would take a whole book and the demolition of the foundations of the modern mind to explore them all.

A common Christian misunderstanding

One of the misunderstandings, however, is so important for Christians that it needs special emphasis. That is the one, common in many quarters of modern post-Reformation Christendom, that sees these virtues as a sheer gift of God and not also as hard human work, that sees righteousness as automatically coming with the territory, or part of the package deal of accepting Christ as Lord.

But isnt it true that righteousness, a righteousness far surpassing the four cardinal virtues, becomes available to us when we are joined to Christ? It certainly is. And isnt this a supernatural righteousness, a fruit of the Holy Spirit himself? Absolutely. But supernatural virtue is not subnatural virtue. It does not dispense with natural human foundations and with our responsibility to be active, not passive, in cultivation of virtuous habits.

A man with a violin case under his arm stood in Times Square looking lost. He asked a policeman, "How can I get to Carnegie Hall?" The policeman answered, "Practice, man, practice." There is no other short cut to sanctity either.

Gods word says that "faith without works is dead". The works of virtue are the fruit of faith, that is, of a live faith. Being saintly is our response to being saved. We cannot do either without God, but he will not do either without us. He respects our freedom. He makes his power and his grace available to us once we are joined to Christ. But if we simply sit back and let that spiritual capital accumulate in our heavenly bank account without making withdrawals and using it, we are exactly like the wicked and slothful servant who hid his masters money rather than investing it, in Jesus parable of the talents (see Mt 25:14-30).

The answer to the faith-and-works issue is essentially a simple one, in fact, startingly simple. It is that faith works. The whole complex question of reconciling Pauls words on faith and James words on works, and of resolving the dispute that sparked the Reformation, the dispute about justification by faith, is answered at its core at a single stroke: the very same "living water" of Gods own Spirit, Gods own life in our soul, is received by faith and lived out by virtuous works. (See Figure 5.)

The water of the Sea of Galilee comes from the same source as the water of the Dead Sea: the Jordan River. But the Sea of Galilee stays fresh because it has an outlet for the water it receives. The Dead Sea lives up to its name because it does not.

The same thing happens to the "living waters" from God as to the fresh waters of the Jordan. When we bottle them up inside ourselves, they become stagnant. Stagnant faith stinks, like stagnant water. And the world has sensitive nostrils.

Our foundation

These four cardinal virtues are not the only virtues, but they are the cardes, the "hinges", on which all the other virtues turn. They are the necessary foundation and precondition for all others. If a person is not courageous, for instance, he will not overcome the difficulties inherent in the practice of any virtue. If he is not wise, he will not understand what he is doing, and his virtue will sink to the level of blind animal instinct.

There are many more virtues than these – there is always more – for "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." But never less.

This is the foundation. This must be built, or rebuilt, first. Social and educational experiments must be built on this foundation, or on none. If we are to rebuild our civilization, or if we are to build a new one, we need to build on foundations whose posts reach down into our own being, at least. Ultimately, they must be anchored in God; but we are the image of God.

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

Please show your appreciation by making a $3 donation. CERC is entirely reader supported.



Kreeft, Peter. "Justice, Wisdom, Courage, and Moderation: The Four Cardinal Virtues" Chapter four in Back to Virtue (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 59-70.

Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Back to Virtue- ISBN 0-89870-442-7.

The Author

kreeft1kreeftPeter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College.  He is the author of many books (over forty and counting) including: Ask Peter Kreeft: The 100 Most Interesting Questions He's Ever Been AskedAncient PhilosophersMedieval PhilosophersModern PhilosophersContemporary Philosophers, Forty Reasons I Am a Catholic, Doors in the Walls of the World: Signs of Transcendence in the Human Story, Forty Reasons I Am a CatholicYou Can Understand the Bible, Fundamentals of the Faith, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer,  Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, Prayer for Beginnersand Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1986 Ignatius Press

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