The Cardinal Virtues

Let’s talk about the Cardinal Virtues.  For those of you in the “I want to go to Heaven, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get there” crowd, living lives of heroic virtue is of great importance.  You may not live it yet, but you are striving to get there.  Perhaps you already do live like a Saint.  For the Saint reading this, please allow this to be used as a form of mortification, as my writing is as the kids say, “weaksauce”. In any case, may God be glorified.

Let us begin with what a virtue is.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions” (CCC 1803).

The term Cardinal comes from the Latin word Cardo, which means a hinge; a pivotal point upon which something turns. The Church takes the Cardinal Virtues as the hinges that the moral life depends upon.  They are:

Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude.

The Church has always looked to the great philosophers of antiquity. In the Church’s philosophical tradition, you can always see how the Church derives her roots from these great thinkers of old, but they don’t simply stop there, but in the light of Christ, these philosophies are elevated and Christianized. In the case of the Cardinal Virtues, we find their root in Plato’s Republic, in which he related these four virtues to different classes in the city. He described the good city as “Clearly, then, it will be wise, brave, temperate [literally: healthy-minded], and just.” (427e; see also 435b)”.

The belief in these virtues were even mentioned by King Solomon in the Book of Wisdom stating, “She [Wisdom] teacheth temperance, and prudence, and justice, and fortitude, which are such things as men can have nothing more profitable in life.” Wisdom 8:7

So let’s break it down. What does this all mean?

Cicero speaks on the Cardinal Virtues in the first century BC stating, “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).

The term “Cardinal Virtues” was coined by St. Ambrose, the great Doctor of the Church in the 300′s AD.  Many great Saints have spoken about these virtues.  One in particular is St. Augustine, who subscribed to the Platonic School of Philosophy, conversely to St. Thomas Aquinas who belonged to the Aristotelian school, both who spoke on these four hinges.  St. Augustine, in speaking on the Morals of the Church states “For these four virtues (would that all felt their influence in their minds as they have their names in their mouths!), I should have no hesitation in defining them: that temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved; fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object; justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly; prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it.

The Catechism breaks it down for us.  I have included the footnotes below to where the Catechism references important verses. The pictures are the Cardinal Virtues depicted on the Tomb of Pope Clement II in the Bamberg Cathedral.

 Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.”65 ”Keep sane and sober for your prayers.”66 Prudence is “right reason in action,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle.67 It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.

1807 Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Justice toward God is called the “virtue of religion.” Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good. The just man, often mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures, is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct toward his neighbor. “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.”68 ”Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”69

1808 Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause. “The Lord is my strength and my song.”70 ”In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”71

1809 Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion: “Do not follow your inclination and strength, walking according to the desires of your heart.”72 Temperance is often praised in the Old Testament: “Do not follow your base desires, but restrain your appetites.”73 In the New Testament it is called “moderation” or “sobriety.” We ought “to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world.”74

To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s efforts; from this it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through temperance). No misfortune can disturb it (and this is fortitude). It obeys only [God] (and this is justice), and is careful in discerning things, so as not to be surprised by deceit or trickery (and this is prudence).75

If Holy Mother Church in her wisdom, has stated that these four virtues are the hinges upon which the moral life depends, than it is important to work on these four virtues in our own personal lives, if we wish all of the other virtues to follow through.  Virtue requires consistency, as it is a practiced habit.  Pray for the grace to be able to live a life of heroic virtue and start taking practical steps to grow in virtue, especially in these four areas.  Beseech the Holy Spirit to activate the gifts given to you in your Baptism and Confirmation to be able to practice virtue in your daily life.  Virtue is not easy and it demands sacrifice, but if you can “run the race” to the end, the crown of victory is assured.


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