On Classical Virtues

On Classical Virtues




  • Aristotle
  • Ethics
  • Psychopathology
  • Psychotherapy
  • Cardinal virtues
  • Temperance
  • Fortitude
  • Prudence
  • Justice



Aristotle’s Cardinal Virtues:
Their Application to Assessment of Psychopathology and Psychotherapy

The roots of virtue theory lie in pre-Socratic times but commenced in earnest with Socrates’ infuriating questioning of the values and beliefs of his fellow Athenians. The theory was significantly advanced by Plato and was definitively elaborated by Aristotle himself in his two ethical treatises, the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics. Aristotelian thought was preserved by Arab scholars during the so-called Dark Ages and rediscovered by Christian thinkers during the high Middle Ages. Aristotelian moral philosophy was then incorporated into Christian moral theology/philosophy, particularly by Thomas Aquinas.

Of course, the elaboration of virtue ethics did not cease with Aristotle but continued as a major philosophical theme of the Stoics, Cynics, Epicureans, and other ancient philosophical schools. As one author put it, ‚virtue ethics persisted as the dominant approach in Western moral philosophy until at least the Enlightenment‛ (Hursthouse, 2007, p.1), and it survives today, alongside its rivals, deontology and consequentialism. However, the present essay is based solely on Aristotle’s views.

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How are virtues assigned?

  • By profession – Class System
  • By family ? – Caste System


Virtues and Classes in Greece

Temperance was common to all classes, but primarily associated with the producing classes, the farmers and craftsmen, and with the animal appetites, to whom no special virtue was assigned; fortitude was assigned to the warrior class and to the spirited element in man; prudence to the rulers and to reason. Justice stands outside the class system and divisions of man, and rules the proper relationship among the three of them.

And what about development? Can virtues be acquired?

Through life practice

  • Contemplation
  • Meditation
  • Tapasya
  • Hatha Yoga

Through Karma/action

  • Charity
  • Devotion

Aristotle, being the grounded empiricist he was, noted a number of variables that either enhance or hinder a person’s development of virtues; and he stated that, in order to develop higher levels of virtues, a person must have the ‘good fortune’ to be in circumstances that favour the enhancement variables. Perhaps the most crucial of these variables is the family. Aristotle clearly recognized that virtues spring from appropriate socialization within the family and, thus, have a strong developmental underpinning. Children learn virtuous character traits by specific training in those dispositions, ideally accomplished in a strong, two parent family unit. He clearly believed that one of the impediments to acquiring virtue was the lack of a family structure capable of such training. In fact, contrary to Plato, he argued in favour of the value of the family and condemned adultery as always wrong because it undermines family structure—specifically, the relation- ship between husband and wife.

Aristotle believed that childhood training was a sine qua non for the full flowering of virtue but never sufficient in and of itself. Mature virtue is gained in adulthood when cognitive processes are developed enough to reflect on goals in life. Kraut (2007, p.6) summarizes this developmental process as follows:

We approach ethical theory with a disorganized bundle of likes and dislikes based on habit and experience; such disorder is an inevitable feature of childhood. But what is not inevitable is that our early experience will be rich enough to provide an adequate basis for worthwhile ethical reflection; That is why we need to be brought up well. Yet such an upbringing can take us only so far <we must systematize our goals so that as adults we have a coherent plan of life. We need to engage in ethical theory, and to reason well in this field if we are to move beyond the low-grade form of virtue we acquired as children.

Other variables Aristotle recognized as influencing our ability to develop virtues include the culture in general, sufficient income, enough power to resist being overwhelmed by the less virtuous, a positive body image, parents who live long enough to raise you, and peer support. Had Aristotle lived in the 20th/21st centuries, he might have added a number of variables to the list: sufficient cognitive ability to learn, an intact central nervous system free of genetic elements generating psychopathology and/or learning disabilities, birth into one of the developed countries with access to education, and many others. Clinicians everyday see how these and related deficits interfere with the proper socialization of children.


And, use of virtues in Psychotherapy and Psychopathology


In addition, Aristotle recognized certain ‘internal disorders’ that appear to have some similarity to various psychopathologies in today’s understanding and can lead to virtue deficiency. These virtue deficits occur when emotions, such as an appetite for pleasure, anger, fear, depression and such, exert pressure on the rational expression of virtue. The first—the ‘incontinent’—are less able than the truly virtuous to resist the counter pressures of emotion and conflict as they threaten breakthrough. A variety of mental disorders, as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (2000) might well fall under this category, and the persons affected would present with a plethora of combinations of psychological and neuro- psychological negatives and histories of family dysfunction. The second—the ‘evil’ (kakos in Greek)—refuse to behave according to virtuous standards. Aristotle seemed to believe they have decided virtues have no value; and, therefore, they seek domination of others and sensual pleasures. In modern psychopathology these individuals might fall under the antisocial personality disorder category, and they would not be seen as making studied rational choices about whether or not to practice virtue.

Of course, the parallels between Aristotle’s recognition of these disorders and modern understandings are far from precise; yet, Aristotle showed great depth of understanding in recognizing that disorders of emotion can disrupt virtue formation.


From Wikipedia


Four cardinal virtues were recognized by Plato and in the Bible, classical antiquity and in traditional Christian theology:

  • Prudence (φρόνησις, phronēsis; Latin: prudentia; also Wisdom, Sophia, sapientia), the ability to discern the appropriate course of action to be taken in a given situation at the appropriate time.
  • Courage (ἀνδρεία, andreia; Latin: fortitudo): also termed fortitude, forbearance, strength, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation
  • Temperance (σωφροσύνη, sōphrosynē; Latin: temperantia): also known as restraint, the practice of self-control, abstention, discretion, and moderation tempering the appetition. Sōphrosynē can also be translated as sound-mindedness.
  • Justice (δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosynē; Latin: iustitia): also considered as fairness, the most extensive and most important virtue;[1] the Greek word also having the meaning righteousness

These principles derive initially from Plato in Republic Book IV, 426–435 (and see Protagoras 330b, which also includes piety (hosiotes)). Cicero expanded on them, and Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas[2] adapted them while expanding on the theological virtues.

The term cardinal comes from the Latin cardo (hinge);[3] virtues are so called because they are regarded as the basic virtues required for a virtuous life. They also relate to the Quadrivium.

In classical antiquity

The four cardinal virtues appear as a group (sometimes included in larger lists) long before they are later given this title.

Plato identified the four cardinal virtues with the classes of the city described in The Republic, and with the faculties of man. Plato narrates a discussion of the character of a good city where the following is agreed upon. “Clearly, then, it will be wise, brave, temperate [literally: healthy-minded], and just.” (427e; see also 435b) Temperance was common to all classes, but primarily associated with the producing classes, the farmers and craftsmen, and with the animal appetites, to whom no special virtue was assigned; fortitude was assigned to the warrior class and to the spirited element in man; prudence to the rulers and to reason. Justice stands outside the class system and divisions of man, and rules the proper relationship among the three of them.

Plato sometimes (e.g., Protagoras 349b; cf. 324e, 329c, 330b, 331a-c) lists holiness (hosiotes, eusebeia, aidos) amongst the cardinal virtues. He especially associates holiness with justice, but leaves their precise relationship unexplained.

In Aristotle’s Rhetoric we read: “The forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, wisdom.” (Rhetoric 1366b1)

The Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero (106–43 BC), like Plato, limits the list to four virtues:

“Virtue may be defined as a habit of mind (animi) in harmony with reason and the order of nature. It has four parts: wisdom (prudentiam), justice, courage, temperance.” (De Inventione, II, LIII) [4]

Cicero discusses these further in De Officiis (I, V and following).

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius discusses these in Book V:12 of Meditations and views them as the “goods” that a person should identify in one’s own mind, as opposed to “wealth or things which conduce to luxury or prestige.”[5]

The cardinal virtues are listed in the Bible. The deuterocanonical book Wisdom of Solomon 8:7 reads, “She [Wisdom] teaches temperance, and prudence, and justice, and fortitude, which are such things as men can have nothing more profitable in life.”

They are also found in the Biblical apocrypha. 4 Maccabees 1:18–19 relates: “Now the kinds of wisdom are right judgment, justice, courage, and self-control. Right judgment is supreme over all of these since by means of it reason rules over the emotions.”

Catholic moral philosophy drew from all of these sources when developing its thought on the virtues.

From Wikipedia


Cardinal virtues

Main article: Cardinal virtues

The Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato, regarded temperance, wisdom, justice, and courage as the four most desirable character traits. The Book of Wisdom is one of the seven Sapiential Books included in the Septuagint. Wisdom 8:7 states that the fruits of Wisdom “… are virtues; For she teaches moderation and prudence, justice and fortitude, and nothing in life is more useful for men than these.”

The moral virtues are attitudes,and good habits that govern one’s actions, passions, and conduct according to reason; and are acquired by human effort.[2] Immanuel Kant said, “Virtue is the moral strength of the will in obeying the dictates of duty”.[3] The cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

  • Prudence from prudentia (meaning “seeing ahead, sagacity”) is the ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason.[4] It is called the Auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues) as it guides the other virtues.[5]
  • Justice is the virtue which regulates man in his dealings with others. Connected to justice are the virtues of religion, piety, and gratitude.[6]
  • Fortitude which Thomas Aquinas ranks third after prudence and justice and equates with brave endurance.[3] Patience and perseverance are virtues related to fortitude.
  • Temperance is the virtue which moderates in accordance with reason the desires and pleasures of the sensuous appetite. Related to temperance are the virtues of continence, humility, and meekness.[6]

Philosophers recognized the interrelatedness of the virtues such that courage without prudence risks becoming mere foolhardiness. Aquinas found an interconnection of practical wisdom (prudentia) and moral virtue. This is frequently termed “the Unity of the Virtues.”[7] Aquinas also argued that it not only matters what a person does but how the person does it. The person must aim at a good end and also make a right choice about the means to that end. The moral virtues direct the person to aim at a good end, but to ensure that the person make the right choices about the means to a good end, one needs practical wisdom.[8]


These seven virtues do not correspond to the seven heavenly virtues arrived at by combining the cardinal and theological virtues. Furthermore, efforts in the Middle Ages to set the seven heavenly virtues in direct opposition to the seven capital sins are both uncommon and beset with difficulties. “[T]reatises exclusively concentrating on both septenaries are actually quite rare.” and “examples of late medieval catalogues of virtues and vices which extend or upset the double heptad can be easily multiplied.”[9] And there are problems with this parallelism.

The opposition between the virtues and the vices to which these works allude despite the frequent inclusion of other schemes may seem unproblematic at first sight. The virtues and the vices seem to mirror each other as positive and negative moral attitudes, so that medieval authors, with their keen predilection for parallels and oppositions, could conveniently set them against each other … Yet artistic representations such as Conrad’s trees are misleading in that they establish oppositions between the principal virtues and the capital vices which are based on mere juxtaposition. As to content, the two schemes do not match each other. The capital vices of lust and avarice, for instance, contrast with the remedial virtues of chastity and generosity, respectively, rather than with any theological or cardinal virtue; conversely, the virtues of hope and prudence are opposed to despair and foolishness rather than to any deadly sin. Medieval moral authors were well aware of the fact. Actually, the capital vices are more often contrasted with the remedial or contrary virtues in medieval moral literature than with the principal virtues, while the principal virtues are frequently accompanied by a set of mirroring vices rather than by the seven deadly sins.[10]


Please see my related posts:

Levels of Human Psychological Development in Integral Spiral Dynamics

Integral Life Practice: A 21st-Century Blueprint for Physical Health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity, and Spiritual Awakening

Key Sources of Research


Aristotle’s Cardinal Virtues:
Their Application to Assessment of Psychopathology and Psychotherapy

James M. Stedman


Click to access 229bb7ab418d868027e526372d22073236d4.pdf

Author: Mayank Chaturvedi

You can contact me using this email mchatur at the rate of AOL.COM. My professional profile is on Linkedin.com.

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