Cardinal Virtues

I wrote this introduction to the Cardinal Virtues for a group of young adults in a secular environment, but I believe it would be useful for everyone (I know it is for me!). You can really lay a solid foundation for life by living these Cardinal Virtues. So, here’s the article, and a visual summary in PDF format.

Cardinal Virtues – Why They’re Important

In all the choices we make in life, we can be proud of ourselves for the things we do, or we can regret our actions later. This is why they’re important – it’s about the sort of person you’ll be, and your whole life!

So, it’s important to keep on reflecting on what is important in life, and how we ought to live it. While some of this can be quite difficult, it is very important in that it can determine whether or not you’ll live a life you can be proud of – whether or not we live in a way that increases the common good (what is good for the society), and so do justice to our own dignity, because each action we take affects the sort of society people live in, and the sort of persons we become.

We have a control of and responsibility for our destiny (of ourselves and society), because we have the freedom to know and think (with our intellect), and to make decisions and carry them through with determination (with our will). So it first starts internally in our thinking and attitudes, and become external in our actions, habits and character. As the saying goes:

Sow a thought, reap an act.
Sow an act, reap a habit.
Sow a habit, reap a character.
Sow a character, reap a destiny.

Philosopher Peter Kreeft says that people are very wise in their deathbed. It’s true; when you’re looking back with hindsight from a mid-life crisis or from your dying days, often the priorities become very clear – where we went right, and where we went wrong. So, start now; be a thinker and take action: question your priorities, challenge yourself to do better, and persist in doing courageous, great and noble things. Become a person you yourself can be proud of – a person with both virtute et honore – virtue and honour.

What are these Cardinal Virtues, and where do they come from?

Cardinal Virtues means hinges of valor/merit/moral perfection (Latin cardo and virtus) – So, they’re like a pivot for all the inner attitudes that produce either the actions you can be proud of, or the ones you end up regretting. All good and rational actions have these Virtues as the origin, and all not-so-good and irrational actions lack one or more of them.

The four Cardinal Virtues are well established in both philosophy and practice, going back to the Greek thinkers Plato and Aristotle, which were later adopted into the writings of Christian thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas. They outline what good internal attitudes are right and honorable, for our own dignity and for the good of the society (common good).

St. Thomas Aquinas writes that these virtues are a good for two reasons:
1. They are in accordance with reason (ie. it’s the most rational thing to do)
2. They order things in the right way (ie. that’s the way things ought to be)

The reverse is true too: attitudes and actions that go against these Cardinal Virtues are:
1. Irrational and unreasonable, and;
2. Not the way things ought to be

So, in upholding reason and order, these Virtues uphold and foster what make us truly human. Thus, it increases both the common good (good of the community and ourselves) and our freedom (in being able to use our reason and will to do the right thing).

The Four Cardinal Virtues

Prudence is primarily a virtue of the mind (intellect). Prudence, Aquinas says, is “right reason in action”. It involves determining the right thing to do and way to do it, then acting on it. It involves our use of foresight and reason. Prudence also guides all the other virtues, because all good actions start when we use our heads! It helps us avoid “dumb decisions” that we would regret later, and help make the right decisions that do justice to ourselves and to the society. Prudence produces noble and reasonable attitudes and actions.

Justice is primarily a virtue of the will. It is recognizes and respects people and organizations by giving them their due. For example, the students should give due respect to the teaching staff for their service to the students, and the teenagers should respect the police, because of their service to them and to the society. For this reason, Justice increases the common good. Some of the subcategories include:

  • Piety (fulfillment of duties – eg. working in class or at a job)
  • Gratitude (recognition of benefit – eg. from parents, friends & society)
  • Liberality (providing for the poor – eg. people in Africa, or the poor in the community)
  • Affability (appropriate behaviour in social intercourse – eg. among friends, family, and toward strangers and authorities)

Fortitude is a virtue of self-control. It involves regulating our fears, to firmly and consistently do what is right even in the face of difficulty. Examples include standing up to peer pressure or the “norms“ among the students, even at the risk of being made fun of or being rejected. Courageous stuff! Some of the subcategories include:

  • Patience (bearing hardships and evils with a calm composure – eg. controlling anger and upset through a difficult situation)
  • Magnanimity (reaching out to do great things, and recognizing the honours in it – eg. to do great and honourable things to better the society we live in, despite seeming like the tall-poppy)
  • Perseverence (continuing to do good in the face of difficulties against it – eg. rejecting drug use or unhealthy relationships even through peer pressure and the pain of rejection)

Temperance is also a virtue of self-control. It involves moderating our bodily, emotional, and spiritual pleasures to do what is most ethical and humanizing. It’s doing what’s right for ourselves and for the common good (for everyone). This means thinking about what should and shouldn’t be done. Some of the subcategories include:

  • Abstinence (regarding food – eg. eating a healthy amount and the right types of food to ensure physical and mental health)
  • Sobriety (regarding alcohol – eg. drinking moderately to be in control of self)
  • Chastity (regarding sexual intimacy – This is no doubt one of the most important topics for young adults. Do you respect the opposite sex as human beings to be loved, not regarding them as objects to be used? Does your girlfriend/boyfriend love you enough to be faithful and committed to you? Remember that there are many solo mums and dads in the society today – is that good for them or the kids, and what sort of relationship did these couples have? Love is about giving, receiving and reciprocating – is this the case in your relationship, or is it selfish? It takes a lot of prudence in this one.)
  • Humility (opposing arrogance and inordinate pride – eg. an attitude which admits shortcomings, and not acting as being ‘better’ than others.)
  • Meekness (opposing inordinate anger – eg. being gentle while giving firm objections to unfairness)

Things that are opposite to these virtues are called vices; these deform our character and hurt ourselves and the society in the long run. Apathy (‘can’t-care-less’-ness) and intellectual laziness (‘can’t-be-bothered-to-think’-ness), for example, are vices because they oppose prudence. Because they lessens the virtue which guides all other virtues, apathy and laziness can produce all kinds of problems, both at individual and societal levels.

You can counter habitual vices by actively and consistently choosing (with our intellect and will) to practice the opposite virtues – for example: practicing prudence to counter apathy; practicing justice to counter an arrogant attitude toward rightful authorities, and so on.)

Just to sum up

Practicing these Virtues has a positive impact in all sorts of ways. It can improve our attitude toward work and raise the immediate academic performance. It can foster good relationships, and help us be fair in giving what is due to ourselves, others, and to people who’ve been given rightful authority. It can help us to be rational, and avoid “dumb” decisions. Seeking to live them means you can be proud of yourself, and not regret your attitudes and actions later. All in all, practicing the Cardinal Virtues allows you to do what is very best for yourself and for everyone.

[Again, here is the visual summary of these Cardinal Virtues in PDF format: Cardinal Virtues visual summary]


Aquinas, T. Of the Cardinal Virtues. Summa Theologica.

Cardinal Virtues. Wikipedia.

Frequently asked questions about the Cardinal Virtues.

Hardon, J. A. Meaning of VIrtues in Thomas Aquinas.

Waldron, A. (1912). Virtue. Catholic Encyclopedia.


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