The “four cardinal virtues” of ancient Greek philosophy were extremely influential. The lists that follow often seem to either be based on the cardinal virtues or in reaction to them, as for instance the seven Christian virtues or the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle.
They are listed in Plato’s Laws and in the Republic:
- Prudence or Wisdom — which includes discernment and knowledge. It is a virtue of the mind/intellect. Cicero described this as “the full perception and intelligent development of the true.”
- Courage — which includes steadfastness, perseverance, fortitude, forbearance, strength, and endurance. It is a virtue of the body/appetite. Cicero described this as “the greatness and strength of a noble and invincible spirit.”
- Temperance — which includes self control, restraint, harmony, discretion, and moderation. It is also a virtue of the body/appetite. Cicero described this as “the orderliness and moderation of everything that is said and done.”
- Justice — which includes fairness, righteousness, balance, and piety. It is a virtue of the spirit/will. Cicero described this as “the conservation of organized society, with rendering to every man his due, and with the faithful discharge of obligations assumed.”
In Protagoras, Plato pulls holiness out from Justice to add it as a separate item and make it a list of five virtues.
Plato seemed to believe that Wisdom was the chief virtue, and that the others could ultimately be derived from it. In Protagoras, he eventually comes to the conclusion that all virtue springs from knowledge (and therefore it can be taught).
In the Republic, Plato discusses the cardinal virtues in a political context, and as things that are necessary for the success of the political community. So they differ in this way from the more individually-focused virtues of Aristotle and Ayn Rand, or the God-focused virtues of Christianity. There is also a caste-based analogy: the lower classes especially need temperance as they are creatures of appetite; the soldier class needs courage; the ruling class needs wisdom; and justice governs the class system as a whole.
These virtues got imported into the Judeo-Christian tradition via the “Book of Wisdom” or “Wisdom of Solomon” — a Hellenistic Jewish text that didn’t make the cut as part of the canonical protestant Christian bible, but is considered canonical by the Catholic church.
When these virtues were added as part of the seven Christian virtues, they were demoted below agape (love, charity) as four varieties of ways to support that virtue. St. Augustine put it this way:
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.