It is commonly assumed that the “Four Cardinal Virtues” are a uniquely Roman Catholic concept. However, to the surprise of many, Christianity did not come up with the notion that there are four “cardinal” (Latin for “hinge”) virtues—on which all “lesser” virtues turn. Indeed, the tradition that there are four cardinal virtues pre-dates Christianity by at least 600 years.
Four Cardinal Virtues in Other Traditions
Many might be surprised to learn that Confucius (551-479 BCE) encouraged four cardinal virtues, as did the Stoics, starting with Zeno of Citium (3rd century BCE). Aristotle (384-322 BCE) believed there were four, as does Freemasonry. Plato (428-348 BCE) taught four cardinal virtues, as does Roman Catholicism.
In Confucianism, the four cardinal virtues are righteousness, ritual propriety, wisdom, and humility. In Platonism, on the other hand, the cardinal virtues were wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. Not surprisingly, in Stoicism—another branch of Hellenistic philosophy—the cardinal virtues were the same as in Platonism, though they were often ordered differently. Aristotle defined the cardinal virtues (in his paradigm) as prudence, temperance, courage, and justice—and Roman Catholicism has the same four, directly drawn from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Finally, in Freemasonry, the four virtues deemed as cardinal, or requisite, are fortitude, prudence, temperance, and justice.
Four Cardinal Virtues of Catholicism
While each of these schools of thought, and their respective cardinal virtues, are worth if examination, our focus here will be on the Roman Catholic version of the virtues, and what they mean for practitioners of that faith.
As noted above, the reason these four virtues are considered “cardinal” is because the word “cardinal” comes from the Latin for “hinge,” implying that every other virtue is less than the four cardinal ones—and every other virtue stem from or is contingent upon one of the four main virtues. If one does not have the root “cardinal” virtue, one will not have the consequent “lesser” virtues associated with it. One must develop the hinge virtues if one ever hopes to develop the minor virtues.
In Catholicism, prudence is the most important of all the cardinal virtues. Theologically speaking, it is understood to mean wisdom. However, this is not the equivalent of knowledge gained from “book learning.” Rather, it is practical wisdom or moral “intelligence”—the kind of wisdom or thinking that allows one to live his or her life endowed with an ability to discern the proper way to live, the wisest path to take, and the best way to act in each circumstance. It is the ability to realize or know what actions will lead to virtue and holiness, and which will draw one away from God and His Holy Spirit. Prudence is the divine gift to see what most do not see, and the strength to apply what one knows is best. It is, in essence, having a divine “common sense” that not all enjoy, but all should seek to develop.
The theological concept of justice is too often wrapped up in thoughts and fears about the “judgement day.” However, as a virtue, justice is not about being judged by God. Rather, it is more about judging whether others are being treated fairly. With the rise of the social justice movement (in the 20th century), this cardinal virtue has taken on more importance than ever before. For Catholics, justice is the determination to render the rights or fairness due to each individual. It is a developed sense of the need to respect other people, to work for the common good of humanity, and even a sense of duty to ensure that others are treated fairly—and that their rights are upheld and preserved. For some Catholics today, the virtue of justice extends to concerns about the environment (and the just or appropriate treatment and use of it), animal rights (and concerns about abuses, particularly in commercial establishments), in addition to the rights of women, children, the poor, the disenfranchised, and refugees. This virtue includes the ability to see injustice where it exists, and a drive to correct it—in Christian and holy ways, but as boldly as is necessary to ensure the rights of others are met and protected.
The words “fortress” and “fortitude” come from the same root—meaning “that which defends against.” Thus, a fortress is a building which has fortifications or barricades against enemies, so that they don’t gain entrance. Similarly, to have fortitude is to set up mental, emotional, or spiritual barricades so that evil and sin do not gain entrance into the soul. Consequently, both words teach us of the importance of defending ourselves against that which would destroy us—physically, but also spiritually. The virtue of fortitude (sometimes rendered as “courage” or “determination”) enables the possessor to pursue what is good and holy, even in the face of fears and contrary impulses. This attribute ensures a firmness or resolve to pursue what is right, good, and holy, even when confronted with overwhelming temptation. Thus, society often refers to “moral fortitude”—or the strength to do what it morally right, regardless of the trends of society, the enticements of “friends,” or the temptations of the devil.
This virtue is most often viewed has having to do with things like alcohol, sexual intimacy, or wealth. Each are, of themselves, not evil. However, each can be addictive, and each have been the cause of the fall of many formerly great men and women. Thus, being temperate implies that one is circumspect in his or her engagement in pleasures, assuring balance; not allowing any craving to be “fed” more than it should be, and ensuring that those “appetites” which should be suppressed or curtailed, are. For example, one may choose to drink, but not to excess. One may be sexually intimate, but within the bounds the Lord has sent. One may enjoy great monetary success, but is generous and philanthropic. This is the virtue of temperance. In most cases, it is not absolute abstinence. Rather, it is moderation and balance.
Overarching Purpose of the Four Cardinal Virtues
While Roman Catholicism holds that there are virtues which are innate to our soul, or part and parcel of what a divinely created being is (i.e., faith, hope, and charity/love), the four cardinal virtues (i.e., prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) are traits we develop through conscientious practice. We are not born with these four. As developed, they will function as a sort of internal compass, which will direct our paths down safe roads, ultimately leading us back to God. These four virtues are the foundation of Roman Catholic spirituality.
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