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Cardinal Virtues

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The four principal virtues upon which the rest of the moral virtues turn or are hinged.

Those who recite the Divine Office find constantly recurring what seems to be the earliest instance of the word cardinal as applied to the virtues. St. Ambrose, while trying to identify the eight Beatitudes recorded by St. Matthew with the four recorded by St. Luke, makes use of the expression: "Hic quattuor velut virtutes amplexus est cardinales". A little later we find cardinal employed in like manner by St. Augustine (Common of Many Martyrs, third nocturn, second series; also Migne, P.L., XV, 1653; St. Thomas, Summa Theol., I-II.79.1 ad 1). That St. Jerome also uses the term is a statement which rests on a treatise not written by him, but published among his works; it is to be found in Migne, P.L., XXX, 596.

The term cardo means a hinge, that on which a thing turns, its principal point; and from this St. Thomas derives the various significations of the virtues as cardinal, whether in the generic sense, inasmuch as they are the common qualities of all other moral virtues, or in the specific sense, inasmuch as each has a distinct formal object determining its nature. Every moral virtue fulfils the conditions of being well judged, subserving the common good, being restrained within measure, and having firmness; and these four conditions also yield four distinct virtues.

The fourfold system

The origin of the fourfold system is traceable to Greek philosophy; other sources are earlier, but the Socratic source is most definite. Among the reporters of Socrates, Xenophon is vague on the point; Plato in "The Republic" puts together in a system the four virtues adopted later, with modifications by St. Thomas. (In "The Laws", Bk. I, 631, Plato recurs to his division: "Wisdom is the chief and leader: next follows temperance; and from the union of these two with courage springs justice. These four virtues take precedence in the class of divine goods".) Wishing to say what justice is, the Socratic Plato looked for it in the city-state, where he discovered four classes of men. Lowest was the producing class—the husbandmen and the craftsmen; they were the providers for the bodily needs, for the carnal appetites, which require the restraint of temperance (sophrosúne). Next came the police or soldier class, whose needful virtue was fortitude (’andreía). In this pair of cardinal virtues is exhibited a not very precise portion of Greek psychology, which the Scholastics have perpetuated in the division of appetites as concupiscible and irascible, the latter member having for its characteristic that it must seek its purpose by an arduous endeavour against obstacles. This is a Scholastic modification of tò ’epithumetikòn and tó thumoeidés, neither of which are rational faculties, while they are both amenable to reason (metà lògou); and it is the latter of them especially which is to help the reason, as leading faculty (tò ‘egemonikón), to subdue the concupiscence of the former. This idea of leadership gives us the third cardinal virtue, called by Plato sophía and philosophía, but by Aristotle phrónesis, the practical wisdom which is distinguished from the speculative. The fourth cardinal virtue stands outside the scheme of the other three, which exhaust the psychological trichotomy of man; tò ’epiphumetikón, tò thumoeidés, tò logikón. The Platonic justice of the "Republic", at least in this connexion, is the harmony between these three departments, in which each faculty discharges exactly its own proper function without interfering in the functions of the others. Obviously the senses may disturb reason; not so obviously, yet clearly, reason may disturb sense, if man tries to regulate his virtues on the principles proper to an angel without bodily appetites. In this idea of justice, viz., as concordant working of parts within the individual's own nature, the Platonic notion differs from the Scholastic, which is that justice is strictly not towards self, but towards others. Aristotle, with variations of his own, describes the four virtues which Plato had sketched; but in his "Ethics" he does not put them into one system. They are treated in his general discussion, which does not aim at a complete classification of virtues, and leaves interpreters free to give different enumerations.

The Latins, as represented by Cicero, repeated Plato and Aristotle: "Each man should so conduct himself that fortitude appear in labours and dangers: temperance in foregoing pleasures: prudence in the choice between good and evil: justice in giving every man his own [in suo cuique tribuendo]" (De Fin., V, xxiii, 67; cf. De Offic., I, ii, 5). This is a departure from the idea prominent in Platonic justice, and agrees with the Scholastic definition. It is a clearly admitted fact that in the inspiration of Holy Scripture the ministerial author may use means supplied by human wisdom. The Book of Wisdom is clearly under Hellenic influence: hence one may suppose the repetition of the four Platonic virtues to be connected with their purpose. In Wis., viii, 5, 6, 7, occur sophía or phrónesis, dikaiosúne, sophrosúne, ’andreía. The same list appears in the apocryphal IV Mach., v, 22, 23, except that for sophía is put e’usébeia. Philo compares them to the four rivers of Eden.

Doctrine of St. Thomas

St. Thomas (Summa Theol., I-II, Q. lxi, aa. 2 and 4) derives the cardinal virtues both from their formal objects or the perceived kinds of rational good which they generally seek, and from the subjects, or faculties, in which they reside and which they perfect. The latter consideration is the more easily intelligible. In the intellect is prudence; in the will is justice; in the sensitive appetites are temperance restraining pleasure, and fortitude urging on impulses of resistance to fear which would deter a person from strenuous action under difficulties; also checking the excesses of foolhardy audacity, as seen in some who gratuitously courted martyrdom in times of persecution. On the side of the formal object, which in all cases is rational good, we have the four specific variations. The rational good as an object for the action of intellect demands the virtue of prudence; inasmuch as the dictate of prudence is communicated to the will for exertion in relation to other persons, there arises the demand for justice, giving to every man his due. So far the actions are conceived; next come the passions: the concupiscible and the irascible. The order of objective reason as imposed on the appetite for pleasures demands the virtue of temperance; as imposed on the appetite which is repelled by fear-inspiring tasks, it demands fortitude. St. Thomas found four cardinal virtues in common recognition and he tried to give a systematic account of the group as far as it admitted of logical systematization. In so doing he naturally looked to the faculties employed and to the objects about which they were employed. He found it convenient to regard the action of reason, prudence, and the two passions of the sensitive appetite, lust and fear, as internal to the agent; while he regarded the action of the will as concerned with right order in regard to conduct towards others. As one exponent puts it: "Debitum semper est erga alterum: sed actus rationis et passiones interiores sunt: et ideo prudentia quæ perficit rationem, sicut fortitudo et temperantia quæ regulant passiones, dicuntur virtutes ad nos." Thus with three virtues ad intra and one ad extra were established four cardinal virtues, contrary to Plato's scheme, in which all were directly ad intra, referring to the inner harmony of man.

If it be urged against the cardinal virtues being moral, that all moral virtues are in the rational will and only justice among the four cardinal is so seated, St. Thomas replies that prudence is practical, not speculative; and so it has regard to the will, while the two passions, the concupiscible and the irascible, receiving in their own department, at the dictate of reason, the improving qualifications or habits which are the effects of repeated acts, are thereby rendered more docile to the will, obeying it with greater promptness, ease, and constancy. Thus each cardinal virtue has some seat in the will, direct or indirect. At times Aristotle seems to imply what the Pelagians taught later, that the passions may be trained so as never to offer temptation; as a fact, however, he fully allows elsewhere for the abiding peccability of man. Those whose passions are more ordered may in this regard have more perfect virtue; while from another standpoint their merit is less than that of those who are constant in virtue by heroic resistance to perpetual temptations of great strength.

In the above account of the doctrine propounded by St. Thomas, a number of his nice abstractions are left out: for example, he distinguishes prudence as concerned with means to good ends, which it belongs to another virtue to assign: "ad prudentiam pertinet non præstituere finem virtutibus moralibus, sed de his disponere quæ sunt ad finem." He relies on synderesis, or synteresis, for primary, universal principles; on wisdom for knowledge of the Divine; on counsel for judging what prudence is to dictate; on what he calls "the potential parts" of the cardinal virtues for filling up the description of them in various departments under cognate names, such as appear in the relation of modesty, meekness, and humility to temperance.

The theological virtues are so thoroughly supernatural that to treat them as they might appear in the order of nature is not profitable: with the cardinal virtues the case is different. What has been said above about them makes no reference to grace: the remarks are confined to what may belong simply to natural ethics. There is a gain in the restriction, for a natural appreciation of them is exceedingly useful, and many characters suffer from a defective knowledge of natural goodness. St. Thomas introduces the discussion of cardinal virtues also as gifts, but much that he says omits reference to this aspect.

The cardinal virtues unite the intellectual element and the affective. Much has been said recently of heart going beyond intellect in virtue; but the cardinal virtues, while concerned with the appetitive or affective parts, place prudence as the judge over all. Similarly the theological virtues place faith as the foundation of hope and charity. There is thus a completeness about the system which may be asserted without the pretence that essentially these four virtues must be marked off as a quartet among virtues. If the Greeks had not written, perhaps the Church would not have had exactly this fourfold arrangement. Indeed the division of good conduct into separate virtues is not an instance of hard and fast lines. The solidarity of the virtues and their interplay must always be allowed for, while we recognize the utility of specific differentiations. Within limits the cardinal virtues may be said to be a scientifically arranged group, helpful to clearness of aim for a man who is struggling after well-ordered conduct in a disordered world, which is not prudent, just, brave, temperate.


PLATO, Republic, Bk. IV, 427-434; IDEM, Laws, Bk. I, 631; IDEM, Theætetus, 176B; ARISTOTLE, Ethics, VI, 5; V, 1; III, 7 and 10; PETER LOMBARD, Sent., Pt. III, Dist. xxxiii, with the various commentators on the text; ST. THOMAS, Summa Theol., I-II, Q. lxi; WAFFELAERT, Tractatus de Virtutibus Cardinalibus (Bruges, 1886).

About this page

APA citation. Rickaby, J. (1908). Cardinal Virtues. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Rickaby, John. "Cardinal Virtues." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to Fr. John Hilkert, Akron, Ohio.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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