Cardinal Virtues

Four cardinal virtues were recognized in the Classical Period of cultural history between the 8th century BC and the 5th or 6th century AD near the Mediterranean Sea, and in traditional Christian theology … Prudence, Courage, Temperance, and Justice


Prudence (φρόνησις, phronēsis; Latin: prudentia; also Wisdom, Sophia, sapientia), the ability to discern the appropriate course of action to be taken in a given situation at the appropriate time.


Courage (ἀνδρεία, andreia; Latin: fortitudo): also termed fortitude, forbearance, strength, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation


Temperance (σωφροσύνη, sōphrosynē; Latin: temperantia): also known as restraint, the practice of self-control, abstention, discretion, and moderation tempering the appetition. Sōphrosynē can also be translated as sound-mindedness.


Justice (δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosynē; Latin: iustitia): also considered as fairness, the most extensive and most important virtue;[1] the Greek word also having the meaning righteousness
These virtues derive initially from Plato’s scheme, discussed in Republic Book IV, 426–435 (and see Protagoras 330b, which also includes piety (hosiotes)). Cicero expanded on them, and Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas adapted them while adding a set of theological virtues.

The term cardinal comes from the Latin cardo (hinge); virtues are so called because they are regarded as the basic virtues required for a virtuous life. They also relate to the Quadrivium.

Ambrose (AD 330s–397) was the first to use the expression cardinal virtues “And we know that there are four cardinal virtues temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude.” (Commentary on Luke, V, 62)

Augustine of Hippo, discussing the morals of the church, described them:

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. (De moribus eccl., Chap. xv)

The “cardinal” virtues are not the same as the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity (Love), named in 1 Corinthians 13. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. Because of this reference, a group of seven attributes is sometimes listed by adding the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice) and three theological virtues (faith, hope, charity). Together, they comprise what is known as the seven virtues. While the first four date back to Greek philosophers and were applicable to all people seeking to live moral lives, the theological virtues appear to be specific to Christians as written by Paul in The New Testament.

Efforts to relate the cardinal and theological virtues differ. Augustine sees faith as coming under justice. Beginning with a wry comment about the moral mischief of pagan deities, he writes:

They [the pagans] have made Virtue also a goddess, which, indeed, if it could be a goddess, had been preferable to many. And now, because it is not a goddess, but a gift of God, let it be obtained by prayer from Him, by whom alone it can be given, and the whole crowd of false gods vanishes. For as much as they have thought proper to distribute virtue into four divisions – prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance – and as each of these divisions has its own virtues, faith is among the parts of justice, and has the chief place with as many of us as know what that saying means, ‘The just shall live by faith.’ (City of God, IV, 20)

Later, in the High Middle Ages, some authors opposed the seven virtues (cardinal plus theological) to the seven capital sins. However, “treatises exclusively concentrating on both septenaries are actually quite rare.” and “examples of late medieval catalogues of virtues and vices which extend or upset the double heptad can be easily multiplied.” And there are problems with this parallelism.

CARDINAL SINS | The Seven Deadly Sins
The seven deadly sins, also known as the capital vices or cardinal sins in Christian teachings are behaviours or habits related to pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth.

The opposition between the virtues and the vices to which these works allude despite the frequent inclusion of other schemes may seem unproblematic at first sight. The virtues and the vices seem to mirror each other as positive and negative moral attitudes, so that medieval authors, with their keen predilection for parallels and oppositions, could conveniently set them against each other. . . . Yet artistic representations such as Conrad’s trees are misleading in that they establish oppositions between the principal virtues and the capital vices which are based on mere juxtaposition. As to content, the two schemes do not match each other. The capital vices of lust and avarice, for instance, contrast with the remedial virtues of chastity and generosity, respectively, rather than with any theological or cardinal virtue; conversely, the virtues of hope and prudence are opposed to despair and foolishness rather than to any deadly sin. Medieval moral authors were well aware of the fact. Actually, the capital vices are more often contrasted with the remedial or contrary virtues in medieval moral literature than with the principal virtues, while the principal virtues are frequently accompanied by a set of mirroring vices rather than by the seven deadly sins.

See also Cardinal Signs …

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