What Were Aristotle’s Four Cardinal Virtues?

Four cardinal virtues form the lynchpin of Aristotle’s complex and profound ethical system: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage.

May 4, 2022By Henry Summers, BA Philosophy

the four cardinal virtues figures


What does it mean to be a good person? Answers to this question will vary from place to place, time to time, and culture to culture. But most likely the answers will remain roughly the same: a good person is kind, brave, honest, wise, responsible. . . Answers like these implicitly buy into a specific moral philosophy: virtue ethics. Virtue ethics, though it leaves a place for rules, laws, consequences, and outcomes, focuses mainly on the inner qualities of the individual. One of the most famous proponents of virtue ethics in the history of philosophy was the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle, teacher of Alexander the Great. His ethical theories entered the stream of Western thought especially through scholastics like Thomas Aquinas, and still influence some moral and political philosophers today, such as Alasdair MacIntyre.


Though Aristotle lists many different virtues in his Nicomachean Ethics, some receive special attention. Foremost among the moral virtues stand four key virtues, the cardinal virtues, the cornerstone of Aristotle’s moral framework: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. According to Aristotle, possessing these virtues makes a person good, happy, and flourishing.


Aristotle: Cardinal Virtues Are Part of a Larger System

The School of Athens by Raphael, c. 1509-11, via Musei Vaticani, Vatican City


Aristotle’s four cardinal virtues only make sense within the broader context of his moral philosophy. Aristotle’s ethics is teleological; that is, it focuses on the end or goal of human beings. Aristotle noticed that people always act for ends, or goals, some good which they see as desirable. Some of these goods, however, are only intermediate. For instance, if I choose to go to the store this goal is intermediate, a means, since it is chosen only for the sake of a further good, buying food. Buying food is also a means, not chosen for its own sake. Given that people do act, Aristotle reasons that there must be some one chief good that represents an end not a means, that is the ultimate force that motivates action. This good is nothing secret: it is simply happiness. People act because they seek happiness.


Thus, for Aristotle, ethics takes on a teleological character. We ought to act in certain ways so that we can attain our telos, the end which motivates all human action. Moral goodness is therefore a response to the call of basic human goods; an action is morally good if it is humanly good to do. Everything we choose should be to help us attain our maximal state of thriving as a human being.

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“Happiness is the chief good” seems like a platitude. So Aristotle analyzes the functionality of a thing, of human beings, to find out what human happiness is. Human beings, for Aristotle, will be happy when they fulfill their purpose or function well. According to Aristotle, the rational powers of the human soul distinguish man from the other animals; reason is what makes humans unique. Human happiness and morality will therefore have to be in the exercise of the rational powers: the good person is one who wills and reasons well.


Aristotle Showed How Cardinal Virtues are Moral Virtues

Statues of the Cardinal Virtues, Jacques Du Broeucq, 1541-1545, via Web Gallery of Art


This is where the virtues enter the picture. “Virtue” is an out-of-date word; it comes originally from the Latin virtus, which means strength, or excellence. Aristotle distinguishes intellectual from moral virtues. The cardinal virtues are moral virtues, a kind of moral power. Aristotle defines moral virtue as: “a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it” (Book 6, Chapter 2). That’s quite a mouthful, but we can break it down into manageable chunks.


Virtue is a state of character, or moral habit. A habit is a kind of second nature, an acquired way of acting that enables us to perform certain actions with ease, pleasure, and regularity. The person who possesses a given virtue, such as courage, is used to acting bravely. Through education and practice, he or she has built up this habit, this default response, which kicks in when dangers present themselves. Virtue is an indispensable aid in the moral life; it offloads some of the struggle of constant moral decision-making into our “reflexes.”


Virtue also is necessarily a mean. Aristotle believes that both excess and defect compromise the natures of things. The human body, for example, can neither be too hot nor too cold if it’s going to stay healthy. Similarly, we need to pursue a balance regarding actions and passions in order to perform our function well—to be morally healthy and happy. This mean, however, is relative to us. The mean, and therefore virtuous action, changes from person to person, and from circumstance to circumstance. For example, different people have different alcohol tolerance levels. What is appropriate for one person to drink may not be appropriate for another. The mean is determined by reason, by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. This saves Aristotle from a kind of moral relativism. However, though objective, his standard lies within the virtuous person. What is this standard?



Print Engraving of Prudence, Anonymous, via the Met Museum


Enter prudence. For Aristotle, prudence is practical wisdom, the rational rule and principle by which we determine what the virtuous mean is, and what we ought to do in specific, given circumstances. In modern usage, prudence can connote a kind of caution, or even timidity. The “prudent” man is unwilling to take risks; he keeps his cards close to his chest, and acts only when there is minimal danger to himself. Aristotle means something very different. Prudence is the first cardinal virtue, the mother of all the virtues, a way of seeing what is good in the here and now, of identifying the right action among the choices that confront us. No one can act as they ought without prudence, because without prudence one is blind. The imprudent person may mean well, but when he acts he may choose things that are in fact contrary to his authentic happiness.


How Do We Become Prudent?

Manuscript depicting the Four Cardinal Virtues, via the British Museum Library


Prudence is gained primarily through living life. Only the keen observer of human nature, the person who has both experienced many things and reflected on these experiences, can develop the ability to judge what actions will and will not lead to happiness. Aristotle’s moral framework thus emphasizes the role of mentors in the ethical life. We must learn how to judge rightly from those who have experienced more than we have and who have gained insight over the course of their lives. Moral education, then, is key. Living virtuously is much easier for those who have been trained by the prudent, and so have been brought up to avoid making certain mistakes in life.



Bronze balance pans and lead weights, National Museum, Athens, Dan Diffendale, via Institute of Measurement and Control.


While prudence enables one to judge well about what the right action is, justice is the cardinal virtue that disposes one to do what is right and to want to do what is right. Prudence deals with judgment; justice with action and desire. For Aristotle, justice has a nuanced meaning. A “just person” can simply mean a “good person,” or it can refer more specifically to someone who is fair in his transactions with other people. However, the two meanings are connected. For Aristotle, the human being is a political animal, meant to live in society. Thus, the virtue that perfects a person in his dealings with others, with his fellow society members, fittingly describes the whole moral perfection of man.


Justice may require a simple reciprocity. If I buy a cup of coffee, I owe the seller the posted price. But it may be more complicated. For example, a wounded veteran may deserve more from the state than an average citizen, since he or she has sacrificed more. In any case, the just person desires to give nothing less than what is due. No one can be short-changed, swindled, or mistreated in any way.



Image from the movie Babette’s Feast, via Indiewire


Prudence and justice both seem fairly broad; once a person judges well and treats others well, what virtue could possibly be left? However, Aristotle believes that as animals we also have non-rational appetites and desires, such as hunger, thirst, love, and anger, which can get out of hand and compromise our judgment and our will. These drives within us need to be properly ordered so that they serve the human good instead of undermining it.


Temperance nowadays calls to mind the prohibition era. But for Aristotle it has a much broader meaning than abstaining from alcohol. Temperance is the cardinal virtue that hits the mean with regard to bodily pleasures, like food, drink, and sex. It avoids the extremes of self-indulgence and insensitivity, seeking legitimate pleasures at the right time and in the right way. The temperate person does not despise pleasure. Rather, this person subordinates his or her appetites to the greater human good—putting them in their proper place in human life. The temperate person enjoys good food and good wine, but partakes in only as much as the occasion demands. By being incorporated into the whole good life, these pleasures can be what they were meant to be for human beings, rather than undermining our flourishing.



Protester in Tiananmen Square, China, via Reuters


Courage, also known as fortitude, is the cardinal virtue that strikes the mean with regard to feelings of fear and confidence. The courageous person regulates his or her emotions, disposing them so that he or she is willing to face dangers for the sake of what is right. Otherwise, fear or bravado could cloud the judgment of prudence, or overcome the desire of justice to act rightly. For Aristotle, there are two ways not to be courageous: excessive timidity and excessive boldness, between which courage strikes a balance.


Courage in particular involves bravery in the face of death, because death is the greatest sensible evil. The courageous man is not the man who is free from fear, but the man who moderates his fear lest it compromise his good will. The brave man is dauntless: he faces things as he ought for honor’s sake. Calm beforehand, he is keen in the moment of action. The rash man is anything but calm. Rash men are often young, inexperienced, impulsive, and prone to anger. Often the rash hothead wishes for dangers beforehand, but actually shrinks from them in the moment. Thus, rashness is sometimes a mask for the opposite flaw: cowardice. The coward lets his fear keep him from doing what is right.


Aristotle: Putting His Cardinal Virtues Together

The Cardinal Virtues, by Cherubino Alberti, via Web Gallery of Art


These four virtues are called the cardinal virtues, because of the Latin word cardo, which means hinge. They are the hinge on which rests the whole of moral life and human happiness. Aristotle subdivides them and discusses many more virtues, such as truthfulness, liberality, friendliness, and wittiness. But they remain the big four. The prudent person judges correctly; the just person wills correctly; the temperate and courageous person has ordered appetites and emotions, preserving prudence and justice intact.


Sketched quickly, this moral schema might seem rather vague and unhelpful. But Aristotle thinks it really describes human life. We are a certain kind of being. Thus, we have a certain kind of flourishing, or happiness, specific to us. We act. Therefore, those who tend to act in ways more conducive to their flourishing will live happier lives. His account preserves an element both of objectivity and relativity, capturing the complexity of human life.

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By Henry SummersBA PhilosophyHenry is a philosophy graduate from Christendom College in Virginia, with a special focus on the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition as well as the philosophy of humor. He has a passion for art, comedy, and the written word. In his spare time, he writes stories and poetry, beats on his bongo drums, and drinks excessive amounts of coffee.