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Encyclopedia > Four Cardinal Virtues

Virtue (Greek αρετη; Latin virtus) is the habitual, well-established, readiness or diposition of man's powers directing them to some goodness of act. (1) Virtue is moral excellence of a man or a woman. The word αρετη is derived from the Greek Arete (paideia) (αρετη). As applied to humans, a virtue is a good character trait. The Latin word virtus literally means "manliness," from vir, "man" in the masculine sense; and referred originally to masculine, warlike virtues such as courage. In one of the many ironies of etymology, in English the word virtue is often used to refer to a women's chastity.

In the Greek it is more properly called ηθικη αρετη. It is "habitual excellence". It is something practised at all times. The virtue of perseverance is needed for all and any virtue since it is a habit of character and must be used continuously in order for any person to maintain oneself in virtue.


The four virtues

The four classic Western "cardinal" virtues are:

Virtue in the Western philosophical tradition

The list of Western virtues goes back at least as far as Plato, in The Republic. A more comprehensive set of virtues is found in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. The notion of virtue was a commonplace in ancient philosophy, and because of its adoption by Cicero, was widely accepted by Christian philosophers and became a staple of Catholic theology.

The unity of the virtues

Classically, some philosophers, most notably Aristotle, said that in order to pursue any of these virtues perfectly, one would have to master them all. For example, in order to be just, one must be wise. The thesis of the unity of the virtues is controversial. One might argue that humans can be courageous without being wise, or good tempered without being just.

Prudence and virtue

Seneca, the Roman Stoic said that perfect prudence is indistinguishable from perfect virtue. His point was that if you take the longest view, and consider all the consequences, in the end, a perfectly prudent person would act in the same way as a perfectly virtuous person. Many people have found it valuable to determine how each of the virtues is prudent, as well as how they harmonize.

The Christian virtues

In Christianity, the theological virtues are faith, hope and charity, a list which comes from 1 Corinthians 13:13. These are said to perfect one's love of God and Man and also to harmonize and partake of prudence.

Virtue and vice

The opposite of a virtue is a vice. One way of organizing the vices is as the corruption of the virtues. Thus the cardinal vices would be folly, venality, cowardice and lust. The Christian theological vices would be blasphemy, despair, and hatred.

However, as Aristotle noted, the virtues can have several opposites. Virtues can be considered the mean between two extremes. For instance, both cowardice and rashness are opposites of courage; contrary to prudence are both over-caution and insufficient caution. A more "modern" virtue, tolerance, can be considered the mean between the two extremes of narrow-mindedness on the one hand and soft-headedness on the other. Vices can therefore be identified as the opposites of virtues, but with the caveat that each virtue could have many different opposites, all distinct from each other.

Virtue in Chinese philosophy

Virtue (translated as "de" 德) is also an important concept in Chinese philosophies particularly Confucianism. Chinese virtues include humanity, xiao usually translated as filial piety, and zhong meaning loyalty. One important normative value in much of Chinese thinking is that one's social status should be the result of the amount of virtue that one could demonstrate rather than by one's birth. In the Analects, Confucius stated that perfect virtue consists of the global practice of five things: gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness.

Occurrences of the word 'Virtue'

  • "For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue (arete) and virtue (arete) with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control (temperance) and self-control with steadfastness, etc." New Testament, II Peter 1.5-7.

Lexicon entry of synonyms

From An English-Greek Lexicon, edited by C. D. Younge, 1870.


  1. New Catholic Encyclopedia, Catholic University of America, 1967. pg 704.

See also

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
  • The Virtues Project (http://www.metamind.us/virtues)


  • The Book of Virtues William J. Bennett (containing stories about a list of ten virtues)

ISBN 0671683063

  Results from FactBites:
CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Cardinal Virtues (1360 words)
In this pair of cardinal virtues is exhibited a not very precise portion of Greek psychology, which the Scholastics have perpetuated in the division of appetites as concupiscible and irascible, the latter member having for its characteristic that it must seek its purpose by an arduous endeavour against obstacles.
The cardinal virtues unite the intellectual element and the affective.
Within limits the cardinal virtues may be said to be a scientifically arranged group, helpful to clearness of aim for a man who is struggling after well-ordered conduct in a disordered world, which is not prudent, just, brave, temperate.
About Cardinal Key (797 words)
Cardinal Key is an organization open to all students with a cumulative 3.0 GPA and having accumulated between 61 and 90 credit hours who have demonstrated scholastic achievement and leadership in the college community and who are deemed to be leaders.
The purposes of Cardinal Key are to recognize achievement in scholarship and extracurricular activities; to advance personal growth, patriotism and service by affording training for leadership in the college community; and to develop worthy character by application of the cardinal virtues of living.
Four heavy bars running from the cross to the border's edge symbolize the four cardinal virtues set forth in the Cardinal Key Pledge - Faith, Trust, Fortitude, and Wisdom - which are derived from the ancient Greek Cardinal virtues - Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude.
  More results at FactBites »



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