Riffing on the 4 Cardinal Virtues: History, Definition, Relevance

I draw on my bedroom walls. My landlord lets me do this because when I moved in in 2012, I moved in in a hurry. It didn’t leave him time to paint the walls before I moved in. He felt sheepish about this, so he suggested as a consolation prize I could draw on the walls if I wanted to. To his surprise, I was thrilled about this. I said, “You’ve got yourself a deal, and don’t ever paint the walls.” “Uh, in pencil,” he replied, not having been prepared for my enthusiastic agreement. That way — if I stuck to pencil and refrained from such deep-penetrating media as ink or oil paints — he could eventually prime and paint over my drawings without anything showing through, or something. “Done,” I replied. The first furnishing I bought for my new place was a box of colored pencils. Since then I’ve been drawing and writing on my walls and strongly encouraging all guests to draw or write anything they want, as well.


In this photo you see a bit of contact information I wrote on the wall; the four cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude; and a jokey, fake “gas line” marker referencing the landlord’s frequent out-loud question whenever he is renovating the house, “Do you think this is a gas line?” In the foreground from left to right are the coffee canister I store my drumsticks in; my candle-and-incense shrine to the cardinal virtues; and my hat rack with my fedora and bath towel showing.

Why the cardinal virtues? Why the shrine? It’s situated right in front of me as I type this post. It’s always there when I look up from my laptop. Prudence. Temperance. Justice. Fortitude. Why did I write them there, and what does it all mean to me?

I first discovered the cardinal virtues while listening to an audiobook of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. In it he mentions them and extols the virtues of those virtues. He explains a bit of the history behind it, which I will here summarize. Essentially, those virtues were first discussed by ancient Greek philosophers a few centuries B.C.E. Much later, after the church had been well established, the catholic church adopted and adapted them as virtues which they felt the church should embody.

They bear significance for me for a number of reasons. First off, I like the number 4. It feels solid and safe, like the four walls of a rectangular house. There is some psychological effectiveness in that number.

As for the virtues themselves, I will briefly define and describe their significance as I see them today, as follows:

Prudence. Be practical. Take care of your own basic needs, and then take care of others’ basic needs. Don’t take any unnecessary risks (but do act with consciousness and decisiveness when action is called for.) Budget your money, your time, your energy. Keep a calendar. When helping others, make sure your actions will really help them. Prioritize. Be prepared to say no to a good thing, if that good thing would prevent you from doing a better thing. When in doubt, take care of immediate concerns first, yet act with future consequences in mind. Do your best, accept defeat when it happens, realize you cannot be Superman (or Christ or God), and just keep striving.

Temperance. In the late 19th century in the United States, “temperance” usually referred to the temperance movement, which advocated abstinence from alcohol. But when the four cardinal virtues were established in the church, it had a far broader meaning. Temperance meant keeping a cool head. It referred to strength in stillness. Indeed it also meant abstaining: from drunkenness, from sexual misconduct (however that was defined back then), from being a slave to one’s instincts. It meant self-control. And that last part — self-control — is what speaks to me the most. Temperance means keeping an even keel, so that one may remain fully in control of one’s actions. It means not letting passion overtake me, even as I allow it to fuel me. And in the final analysis, in my case, it also refers to not drinking. I gave up drinking more than six months ago, and it has made me feel more solid yet more free at the same time. I highly recommend not drinking. (But you will probably have to replace it with something else — God, in my case. Everyone’s different, I suppose.)

Justice. First and foremost, to me this means behaving in a just manner — not forcing other people to behave the way I believe is fair. Today, “justice” usually implies some connection to the court system. But the law does not have a monopoly on justice. If you are of my bent, then you feel justice is a universal “moral law” or “moral principle” as it were. It is closely intertwined with the health of the psyche. It implies a certain sense of cosmic balance. Not only is justice a psychological state, but also an action or cascade of actions that move psyches toward that state. Therefore justice as a virtue implies that I should act in accordance with a trajectory towards achieving that psychological balance in myself and other beings. For example, if I have wronged someone, then I must take action to right matters if possible. And if someone else has harmed a third party, then my part in it — if any — if it’s appropriate and wise for me to get involved in some way (and such decisions are between myself and God) — then my job is to speak and act with justice in mind, rather than with an agenda or manipulative mind state. And it doesn’t always mean punishing someone for a perceived wrong. Sometimes justice is just doing someone a kindness for no reason — adding to the sum total of kind action in the universe.

Fortitude. I believe fortitude means strength. Immediately one thinks fortitude infers that one must “stand strong” against “corrupting influences”, but I think that would be a bit arrogant. What if I’m wrong? What if my “standing strong” prevents me from bettering myself? Therefore I believe fortitude refers to the ineffable spirit within me and around me, the spirit I share in common with God. No matter what happens in the physical world, and no matter what circumstances I may find myself in, fortitude is what holds me together in a harmonious state with my surroundings. It is, in a word, my relationship with God. Let that relationship be strong.

I don’t always notice the four cardinal virtues on my wall, but when I do…well, let’s let The Most Interesting Man in the World finish that sentence for me.


And certainly they are not the only virtues one could or should ascribe to. They are, however, a convenient tool or psychological mnemonic, if I may, for orienting myself in life, or for establishing the proper mind state for beginning or continuing my day, whatever today is in this moment. For tomorrow, and the next day, and circumstances and mind states may change, but the wisdom and life practice the four cardinal virtues point to do not need to change. They are like the compass rose for life, approximating the lay of the land, so that you can navigate it and meaningfully communicate with your traveling companions — the people with whom you are on this journey of life.


2 thoughts on “Riffing on the 4 Cardinal Virtues: History, Definition, Relevance

  1. I connected with your definition of temperance when you stated: “strength in stillness”. That is my struggle. Many friends have told me I’m a strong woman. And in many ways, that’s true. When shit hits the fan, I can wade through it and make it. But that’s because when something comes my way I go into immediate action. Stillness terrifies me. In the moments of still, I am more often than not terrified. I see in action as being paralyzed. It isn’t true, not always as you’ve shown. And that’s difficult for me.

    Prudence was right on. I feel like I want to start a Prudence parade and hand out flyers and candy to everyone. :) Seriously though, that’s obviously where I connect the most and feel the most “satisfaction” in.

    You hit some great points within Justice– especially in regards to how we interact and treat others. I am not the judge. I don’t hand out punishments, but I CAN be a vehicle of grace. I can see someone who has been marginalized, abused, mistreated and come to their rescue. The older I get, the more I want to help those in need instead of punishing those I think should be. This isn’t an absolute of course, but I see more profit in helping the helpless.

    My only addition to fortitude, if I am allowed that freedom, would be to understand I am not the Source of the strength, but merely a surrogate. That means I get all of its benefits, but that at the core it isn’t mine. One would quickly find that my strength is feeble, at best. But when I am tapped in and grounded on True strength there isn’t a mountain that I can’t scale.

    Nice use of meme. :) Made me smile.

    • “I feel like I want to start a Prudence parade and hand out flyers and candy to everyone.” LOL, I like it.

      “I can see someone who has been marginalized, abused, mistreated and come to their rescue. The older I get, the more I want to help those in need instead of punishing those I think should be. This isn’t an absolute of course, but I see more profit in helping the helpless.” As Zach de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine once rapped on a Saul Williams single: “Spit for the hated, the reviled, the unrefined, the no ones, the nobodies, the last in line!” De la Rocha got that from a Christ-like attitude, methinks. And your attitude is equally Christ-like, Holly.

      I very much like your addition to the Fortitude bit. I was walking and thinking last night. A question occurred to me: What is the source of courage and of wherewithal to do the right thing in the moment? How can I be sure I will always have the strength and the presence of mind to step through the invisible barriers that separate me from those in need, and just seize the opportunity to help someone? It would be pretty anxiety-producing and exhausting if I had to do it “on my own” as it were. The calculus is too complex. I’d trip over my own shoelaces. But when I tend my relationship with God, he takes care of the actions. No courage is necessary, no extra effort is required. It just happens automatically. This is only in theory, of course, and in reality nothing ever matches exactly with theory, but it at least provides an ideal, a template for how to behave in accordance with kindness. God is the prime mover in each moment. He is the current, the ever-present force that is always ready to respond just in the nick of time. As the twig drops onto the flowing river, it immediately floats and sails. It need not deliberate about whether it should float or sink or bounce. It just responds in accordance with the river’s buoyant power. When the wind blows, does the flag try to flap?

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