The Cardinal Virtues in Classical Philosophy

The concept of the cardinal virtues can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophy, particularly the works of Plato and Aristotle. However, it was in Roman philosophy and later Christian theology that the term “cardinal virtues” became widely recognized and adopted.

The four cardinal virtues are thought to be the primary virtues from which all other virtues derive. In fact, the etymological root of the word “cardinal”, the Latin “cardo”, literally means hinge. The cardinal virtues are so called because all other virtues hinge, or depend, on them. They represent both the quintessential virtues and the source of virtue itself.

They were the cornerstone of moral philosophy in both ancient Greek and Roman thought, and have had a significant influence on Western ethical philosophy.


The cardinal virtues are wisdom, courage, temperance and justice.

At the heart of this ethical framework is wisdom, often regarded as the principal virtue. Courage empowers noble actions, temperance ensures decisions align with reason, and justice upholds the principles of fairness and equality.

The cardinal virtues are considered to be interconnected, interdependent and complementary to one another.

Wisdom (Sophia)

Wisdom is the capacity to make informed decisions, based on knowledge, reason and understanding, in order to achieve positive outcomes. It encompasses practical knowledge, an understanding of human nature and the world, and the ability to evaluate the long-term consequences and moral dimensions of complex situations.

Courage (Andreia)

Courage is the ability to confront danger or adversity with determination and resolve. It involves the capacity to act in spite of fear, as well as the willingness to endure hardship and face adversity to uphold ethical principles. Courage can manifest as physical acts or righteous behavior that demands resilience.

Temperance (Sophrosyne)

Temperance is the quality of self-control and moderation which fosters equilibrium between desire and action. It entails the capacity to manage impulses, discipline, and the resilience to resist temptations that may lead to excess. Temperance, in all aspects of life, enhances physical and mental well-being.

Justice (Dikaiosyne)

Justice is the commitment to fairness, righteousness and the equitable treatment of all individuals. Justice stands for equality, and involves treating everyone with impartiality, upholding the rights and dignity of individuals, and judging based on merit and actions rather than extrinsic factors. Justice also addresses and rectifies injustice in order to uphold the principle of fairness.

The Interconnectedness of Virtue

The four cardinal virtues — wisdom, courage, temperance and justice — interact with and complement one another, forming a holistic ethical framework.

Wisdom informs the choices we make, courage empowers us to act on those choices, temperance ensures balance and restraint in our actions, and justice guides our decisions to respect the rights and dignity of others.

At the heart of this paradigm is wisdom, often considered the cornerstone of virtue, for it enables individuals to make informed decisions. Wisdom provides the foundation for the other cardinal virtues.

Courage is closely intertwined with wisdom. While wisdom guides individuals in assessing risks and making brave decisions informed by reason, courage provides the fortitude to act upon those decisions. Courage is essential for putting virtuous intentions into action.

Temperance complements both wisdom and courage through moderation and self-control. It helps individuals resist the impulsive desires, temptations and excesses that can cloud judgment and, being rooted in the pursuit of immediate gratification, are ultimately detrimental to themselves or others.

Justice, the final cardinal virtue, is the linchpin that holds the others together, as it serves to establish harmonious societies where virtue and virtuous individuals may thrive. Justice is integral to moral character and essential for both personal and societal well-being.

The four cardinal virtues, as they enable, reinforce, and safeguard one another, form a virtuous circle — a coherent and cohesive ethical paradigm.

Platonic Ethical Philosophy: The Cardinal Virtues

Plato’s Republic, as far as history knows, is the origin of the cardinal virtues ethical framework.

Plato, a student of Socrates, delved into the intricacies of ethics and virtue in numerous dialogues. The Republic, Plato’s most famous work and a foundational text in Western philosophy, is a crucial dialogue on ethical philosophy, although it is often regarded as a work on political philosophy.

The central theme of The Republic is justice. In this dialogue, Plato offers a definition of justice and illustrates it through the analogy of a just city-state – Plato’s so-called ideal society.

Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul, presented in The Republic, and the analogous just society depicted in the same dialogue, is the foundation for the notion of the cardinal virtues; it establishes a parallelism between the components of the soul, the societal structure of the envisioned just society, and the virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance and justice.

Justice, which is the central theme of Plato’s Republic, represents the harmonious relationship between the elements of the soul, at the individual level, and the cooperative relationship between the classes of the just city-state, at the societal level.

Tripartite Theory of the Soul

The tripartite theory of the soul is a significant aspect of Plato’s ethical philosophy, and essential for understanding the Platonic conception of the self and the origin of the cardinal virtue paradigm.

This theory posits that the human soul is composed of three distinct components: reason, spirit and appetite.

  • Reason, or logos, represents the rational and intellectual aspect of the human soul. It is associated with the capacity for contemplation, logical thought, and the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Reason is considered the highest and noblest part of the soul, guiding individuals in making rational decisions and moral judgments.
  • Spirit, or thumos, corresponds to the spirited or emotional dimension of the soul. It encompasses emotions such as courage, honor, anger and indignation. Thumos provides individuals with the emotional strength and motivation to protect their community, defend their values, and exhibit courage in the face of adversity.
  • Appetite, or epithumia, represents the desiring part of the soul. It encompasses the basic human needs, including those related to physical pleasure, food, drink and other bodily desires. Epithumia is characterized by the pursuit of pleasure and satisfaction.

In Plato’s philosophy, these three components of the soul interact with one another and must be harmoniously balanced – that is, guided by wisdom – to achieve individual and collective virtue.

The tripartite theory of the soul is a foundational concept in Platonic ethical philosophy, helping to explain the complexities of human nature, affirming the primacy of wisdom, and the importance of cultivating a virtuous character both at the individual and societal levels.

The Analogous Three-Class Society

Plato, in The Republic, employs the creation of an ideal society as a method for examining the nature of justice itself. Through the character of Socrates, he proposes to investigate justice by crafting a model of a just city-state, which serves as both an extension and an illustration of the concept of justice.

In the process of constructing this just society, Socrates and his interlocutors establish a class system that parallels the tripartite structure of the soul.

The classes within this society are as follows:

  • Rulers (Philosopher-Kings): This class corresponds to the rational and intellectual part of the soul. Just as reason is the guiding and rational aspect of the soul, the rulers in the just society are the philosopher-kings who possess knowledge and wisdom. They are responsible for the just governance of the city.
  • Auxiliaries (Warriors): The auxiliaries or warriors correspond to the spirited part of the soul. They embody courage and a sense of honor. Their role is to protect the city and maintain order.
  • Producers (Artisans and Farmers): The producers represent the appetitive part of the soul, driven by desires and basic needs. Their function is to provide for the material well-being of the city.

This parallelism between the tripartite soul and the just society is a central theme in Plato’s Republic, crucial for comprehending not only the dialogue itself but also the ethical framework it presents.

Plato’s Metaphor for The Cardinal Virtues

Plato’s tripartite soul – comprised of reason, spirit and appetite – and the three analogous classes in The Republic – the rulers, guardians and producers – each represent and embody a cardinal virtue: wisdom, courage and temperance, respectively; justice is harmony among them.

  • The rulers, who correspond to the rational and intellectual part of the soul, symbolize and embody the cardinal virtue of wisdom (sophia). Wisdom is the guiding principle that informs their decisions and actions, just as reason is the guiding and rational aspect of the soul. The rulers, represented by philosopher-kings, possess knowledge and wisdom, which is essential for the harmonious functioning of the soul and the just governance of the city.
  • The guardians are intimately associated with the cardinal virtue of courage (andreia), the defining trait of the spirited part of the soul, which is exemplified in the guardians’ role. Their bravery is integral to maintaining order and safeguarding the just society.
  • The producers, who represent the appetitive part of the soul, are linked to the cardinal virtue of temperance (sophrosyne). While the producers are driven by appetites and basic human desires, they must exercise temperance to provide for the material well-being of the city without excess or indulgence. Temperance involves self-control and moderation in the pursuit of desires and needs.
  • The overarching concept of justice (dikaiosyne), woven into the just society, is the harmony that arises when individuals within the city adhere to their roles, and each class fulfills its designated function effectively, mirroring the healthy functioning of the soul when spirit and appetite are guided and tempered by wisdom.

The class structure of the The Republic is a manifestation of justice, analogous to harmony in the tripartite soul, where each element contributes to the collective well-being in accordance with its nature.

In this way, Plato illustrates how wisdom, courage, temperance and justice, within both the individual and the state, engender virtue.

Final Thoughts

Aristotle, the renowned ancient Greek philosopher and a student of Plato, made significant contributions to the development and understanding of the cardinal virtues, particularly in his work Nicomachean Ethics. In contrast to Plato’s emphasis on ideal forms of virtue, Aristotle believed that virtues could be acquired through practice and habituation. Aristotle’s ultimate ethical goal was eudaimonia, often translated as ‘happiness’ or ‘flourishing’, and he contended that through the cultivation of virtue one may attain eudaimonia.

The concept of the cardinal virtues found resonance in Roman philosophy, particularly in the Stoic tradition. Stoic philosophers such as Cicero and Marcus Aurelius adopted and adapted these virtues, reaffirming their importance in achieving a life of moral excellence and tranquility.

Christian theologians also drew upon the cardinal virtue paradigm, integrating them into Christian ethics. St. Augustine, for instance, incorporated them into his teachings on ethics and morality, aligning them with Christian values and virtues.

The framework of the cardinal virtues continues to exert a profound influence on contemporary philosophical thought. More specifically, wisdom, courage, temperance and justice, among other virtuous character traits, are central to the ethical framework known as virtue ethics, which has gained prominence in modern philosophy.

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