What are the cardinal virtues?

The cardinal virtues comprise a quartet set of virtues articulated by the philosophers of Ancient Greece. The term “cardinal” comes from the Latin cardo (hinge); the cardinal virtues are so called because they are regarded as the basic virtues required for a virtuous life. They are: justice, temperance, courage, and practical wisdom


For Plato, justice is a virtue establishing rational order, with each part performing its appropriate role and not interfering with the proper functioning of other parts. The just individual is someone whose soul is guided by a vision of the Good, someone in whom reason governs passion and ambition through such a vision. When, but only when, this is the case, is the soul harmonious, strong, beautiful, and healthy, and individual justice precisely consists in such a state of the soul. Actions are then just if they sustain or are consonant with such harmony. Aristotle says justice consists in what is lawful and fair, with fairness involving equitable distributions and the correction of what is inequitable. Aristotle treats the virtue of individual justice as a matter of being disposed to properly respect and promote just social arrangements. An individual who seeks more than their fair share of various goods has the vice of greediness, and a just individual is one who has rational insight into their own merits in various situations and who habitually (and without having to make heroic efforts to control contrary impulses) takes no more than what they merit, no more than their fair share of good things. Justice, then, is the settled disposition to act, so that each person receives their due. This settled disposition includes a practical knowledge about how to bring it about, in each situation, that each receives their due. It also includes a strong positive attitude toward bringing it about that each receives their due.


Courage is a settled disposition that allows one to act reliably to pursue right ends in fearful situations, because one values so acting intrinsically. Physical courage is courage in the face of physical pain, hardship, death, or threat of death. Moral courage is the courage to take action for moral reasons despite the risk of adverse consequences. Intellectual courage is having a consciousness of the need to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs or viewpoints toward which we have strong negative emotions and to which we have not given a serious hearing.


Temperance is the espousal of moderation, marked by personal restraint. It is one of the cardinal virtues because no virtue could be sustained in the face of inability to control oneself, if the virtue was opposed to some desire. Temperance is generally defined by control over excess, so that it has many such classes, such as abstinence, chastity, modesty, humility, prudence, forgiveness, and mercy, each of these involves restraining some impulse, such as sexual desire, vanity, or anger.

Practical Wisdom: also called prudence or, in Greek, phronesis

Phronesis is a Greek word for a type of wisdom or intelligence. In Aristotle’s ethics, it is distinguished from other words for wisdom and intellectual virtues – such as episteme  and techne  – as the virtue of practical thought. For this reason, when it is not simply translated by words meaning wisdom or intelligence, it is often translated as “practical wisdom”. Phronesis involves reasoning concerning universal truths and combines a capability of rational thinking, with a type of knowledge. It is concerned with particulars, because it is concerned with how to act in particular situations. One can learn the principles of action, but applying them in the real world, in situations one could not have foreseen, requires experience of the world.

In the Roman world, phronesis was translated as prudence. Prudence is the application of universal principles to particular situations. In scholastic philosophy, the integral parts of prudence are the elements that must be present for any complete or perfect act of the virtue. The following are the integral parts of prudence:

Memoria — Accurate memory; that is, memory that is true to reality; an ability to learn from experience

Docilitas — The kind of open-mindedness that recognizes the true variety of things and situations to be experienced; the ability to make use of the experience and authority of others to make prudent decisions

Intelligentia — the understanding of first principles

Shrewdness or quick-wittedness (solertia) — sizing up a situation on one’s own quickly

Discursive reasoning (ratio) — research and compare alternative possibilities

Foresight (providentia)  — capacity to estimate whether a particular action will lead to the realization of a goal

Circumspection — ability to take all relevant circumstances into account

Caution — risk mitigation

The cardinal virtues became the fundamental virtues for western culture and even though the so-called spiritual virtues of faith, hope, and charity were added during the Middle Ages, the cardinal virtues retain a central place in modern discussions of virtue theory.

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