The Four Cardinal Virtues in Ancient Greece

According to the ancient Greeks, virtue was beyond morality and tied to the concept of functionality. The virtue of something enables it to perform its proper function excellently. In the ancient Greek concept of virtue, a virtuous person is living excellently, meaning they live a full, productive, happy human life.

This concept was important for morality in ancient Greece and was the foundation for a philosophy known as virtue ethics. Virtue ethics began with Socrates and was further developed by Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, all important ancient Greek philosophers. The main idea in virtue ethics is that the character of a person determines morality rather than the consequences of actions from that individual.

Raphael, detail of Plato and Aristotle in center, School of Athens, 1509-1511, fresco (
A painting of Plato and Aristotle in School of Athens

Even though there were different Greek philosophers following the same moral view of virtue ethics, their interpretation was slightly different. For example, Plato and Aristotle treated virtues differently. Plato viewed virtue as an end to be sought for, where relations such as friendship could be a means. Aristotle, on the other hand, saw virtue as a means for happiness that safeguarded human relations.

Most virtue ethicists in ancient Greece agreed on four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. Discussion of these virtues is seen throughout Plato’s Republic and is prominently discussed in Aristotle’s philosophy. Later, other cultures formed similar ideas about virtue. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius discusses virtue in his book Meditations and views them as the goods people should have in their own mind. Christianity and Catholicism also adapted the four cardinal virtues. The Bible refers to virtues in deuterocanonical book Wisdom of Solomon.

Prudence

The crowned Prudencia, carrying scales, allegorically rides a wagon to Heaven. Concordia puts the finishing touches on the wagon. Upon entry Prudencia rides alone, on one horse, towards the Empyrean of the Christian God.
The crowned Prudencia, carrying scales, allegorically rides a wagon to Heaven. Concordia puts the finishing touches on the wagon. Upon entry Prudencia rides alone, on one horse, towards the Empyrean of the Christian God. via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prudence

Also known as wisdom, prudence is the ability to make sound judgments based on personal experience. In ancient Greece, someone who possesses wisdom was thought to be able to differentiate between right and wrong. Prudence is only gained through lived experience.

Plato considered wisdom the virtue of reason and the most important virtue. Similarly, Aristotle’s moral teachings emphasized the importance of mentors, who possessed wisdom, in ethical life. He believed that to judge what is right, people must draw on those with more experience than us.  In this view, moral education is vital to living well. The ancient Greeks also saw wisdom as the virtue of rulers, since wisdom enabled people to listen to advice and make a reasonable judgment to act on.

Justice

Lady Justice seated at the entrance of The Palace of Justice, Rome, Italy
Lady Justice seated at the entrance of The Palace of Justice, Rome, Italy

Justice is the virtue that ties together the other three. The quality of being just means being fair and reasonable, particularly in interactions with other people. While prudence is about making a judgment of an action, justice is about action and desire.

In Plato’s view, someone would become just after they embodied the other three virtues. He emphasized the importance of the interaction of all four virtues. Plato also believed only just people can create a just society. Aristotle took a slightly different view of justice and believed a just person was someone who had fair transactions with other people.

Temperance

Temperance is a 1470 oil on panel painting by Piero del Pollaiuolo, now in the Uffizi in Florence.[1] It represents Temperance, one of the seven virtues of the Catholic Church.
Temperance is a 1470 oil on panel painting by Piero del Pollaiuolo, now in the Uffizi in Florence; It represents Temperance, one of the virtues of the Catholic Church.

Better known as moderation, temperance is the virtue about exercising self-control and self-restraint. Temperance means avoiding self-indulgence and thinking of human life in terms of a greater human good. In ancient Greek society, temperance was associated with sobriety and abstinence.

According to Plato, self-restraint was an indispensable virtue. Aristotle also valued the importance of temperance. He said people were sometimes irrational and had irrational desires, such as hunger, thirst, love, and anger, which could compromise people’s judgments. Aristotle believed these irrational desires had to be controlled to serve the human good.

Courage

17th Century Fresco in the Church of Saint Nicholas in Valencia, depicting the Cardinal Virtue Courage or Fortitude
17th Century Fresco in the Church of Saint Nicholas in Valencia, depicting the Cardinal Virtue Courage or Fortitude

Also known as fortitude, courage is the ability to face uncomfortable emotions such as fear, intimidation, danger, difficulty, and uncertainty. Someone who is courageous is not absent of fear, but someone who willingly faces it. According to Aristotle, excessive timidity and excessive boldness are not courageous, and true courage is found between these two extremes.

In ancient Greece, courage was considered a military virtue. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato held the military in high esteem. Being a soldier was virtuous in ancient Greece and the model of a courageous hero.

According to ancient Greece philosophers, such as Aristotle, people could not possess one virtue without the others. The point of this was that all the virtues together enabled someone to live a good life. In this view, truly living well means living according to the cardinal virtues and is the only way to achieve true happiness, which he refers to as eudaimonia.

Today scholars Daniel J. Harrington and James F. Keenan argue there are seven virtues that replace the four cardinal virtues. While virtue ethics might seem outdated today, learning about the four cardinal virtues of ancient Greece is an opportunity for people to reflect on their own lives and their character.

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