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The 4 Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism | Ancient Wisdom

Written By Anne Kostick
Last updated: February 17, 2024

Have you ever wondered what powers the mind of a stoic? The answer lies in their strong character, which is built on the foundation of the Cardinal Virtues. This ancient wisdom has been guiding people for centuries, offering a blueprint for leading a balanced and meaningful life.

But what exactly are these virtues that form the bedrock of Stoic philosophy? The cardinal virtues consist of four key elements: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Each one is essential for living a life true to Stoic values.

Wisdom teaches us how to act rationally and make sound decisions. Courage gives us strength in the face of adversity. Temperance is about self-control and balance, while justice ensures fairness and integrity in our interactions with others.

The Foundation of Stoic Philosophy

The way we live our lives is often shaped by how we think and what we believe in. Stoic philosophy is an ancient school of thought that gives us powerful ideas for living well. It’s like having a map for our lives, showing us a path to peace and happiness, even when things get tough.

The Foundation of Stoic Philosophy

The heart of this philosophy rests on four key ideas – the Cardinal Virtues – which offer us a simple yet strong approach to living with purpose and integrity. Whether we’re faced with big challenges or everyday decisions, turning to these timeless principles can guide us toward making the best choices for ourselves and others.

Understanding the Cardinal Virtues

In Stoicism, there’s something called Cardinal Virtues. These are four main rules or ideas that help people live right. Think of them as the strongest points on a compass – they guide us where we need to go. The word “cardinal” comes from Latin, meaning “hinge.”

Just like hinges hold a door firmly in place and let it swing open and closed, these four virtues hold our lives steady. They help us open up to good choices and close off paths that lead to trouble. We all want to do well in life, but sometimes it’s hard to know how.

The Cardinal Virtues give us clear directions:

  • Wisdom – Knowing what’s right.
  • Courage – Standing up even when things are tough.
  • Temperance – Keeping ourselves in check.
  • Justice – Treating others fairly.

Understanding these virtues isn’t just about knowing their names; it’s about really seeing how they shape our lives every single day.

When we use these virtues as our guide, we can face whatever comes our way with calm and strength: whether it’s big stuff like losing a job or small things like getting stuck in traffic.

Also Read: Socratic Paradox Explored: All I Know is That I Know Nothing

The Four Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism

Stoicism is a powerful way of thinking, like an ancient wisdom that gives us tools for living well. When we talk about the Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism, we’re diving into the core values that this philosophy teaches.

The Four Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism

The Stoics, wise thinkers from long ago, figured out four main virtues that can guide us in life: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. These aren’t just big words; they’re like a map for making good choices and leading a strong life.

Let’s walk through each one to grasp their meaning:

  • Wisdom: This is all about knowing what’s right or wrong and picking the right path. To be wise means you don’t just guess; you use your mind to understand life.
  • Courage: It isn’t only about being brave in battles. In Stoic terms, courage means facing our fears in daily life and not letting them push us around.
  • Temperance: This might sound old-fashioned, but it’s really about balance—like not eating too much cake or spending too much time playing games when there’s work to do.
  • Justice: Here we think about treating people fair and squarely. It’s doing what’s right by others so everybody gets along better.

These are like the main ingredients in the recipe for a solid character—a kind of inner strength—that keeps you standing tall no matter what twists and turns life throws at you.

Also Read: Cynicism Philosophy: Unveiling 6 Facts About Diogenes

1. Wisdom: The Guiding Light of Stoic Behavior

In the grand tapestry of Stoic philosophy, wisdom shines as the guiding light, illuminating the path to a virtuous life. It holds a special place in our hearts because it affects every choice we make and every step we take.

Wisdom: The Guiding Light of Stoic Behavior

We often think that simply knowing what is right from wrong is enough, but Stoicism teaches us that it’s more about applying this knowledge to our daily lives.

This practice of putting wisdom to work in all we do is what truly shapes our character and sets us on the journey toward personal growth and ethical living.

Let’s delve deep into how this powerful virtue influences our behavior and steers us toward making rational decisions that align with the noble teachings of Stoic philosophy.

Embracing Practical Wisdom

When we think about wisdom in our everyday lives, what comes to mind is making smart choices, learning from experiences, and understanding the world around us.

Stoic philosophy takes this idea further by saying that wisdom is not just about knowing things; it’s about making decisions that are good for us and for others. This kind of wisdom is called practical wisdom.

Here’s why practical wisdom is so important:

  • Helps us think clearly: Instead of letting feelings control us, wisdom gives us clear thinking. We see what matters most.
  • Aids in decision-making: With a wise mind, we choose things that really help us rather than things that seem good but aren’t.
  • Guides actions towards good: It tells us the right thing to do when choices are hard.
  • Prevents mistakes: By thinking wisely before we act, we can avoid doing things we might regret later.

When Stoics talk about embracing practical wisdom, they mean that we should always try to improve how well we understand life and make choices based on this understanding.


  • It teaches patience: Wisdom shows us why waiting or slowing down can be better than rushing into action.
  • Encourages learning: We’re always gaining more knowledge through reading or listening—adding to our bank of wise thoughts.
  • Promotes balance: Wise decisions often lead to a balanced life—where neither too much nor too little governs how we live.

To put it simply, for someone who follows Stoic beliefs embracing practical wisdom means constantly trying to learn and improve oneself while always being aware of what will lead to wellbeing not just for oneself but also for everyone around them.

Also Read: Five Theories of Nihilism: Explore Philosophy’s Dark Side

2. Courage: The Resilient Backbone of Stoicism

In our journey through Stoic philosophy, we come across a key pillar that stands tall, unwavering in the face of life’s storms: courage. Think of it as the resilient backbone of Stoicism; it’s essential for keeping us upright and moving forward when fear and doubt try to make us stumble.

Courage: The Resilient Backbone of Stoicism

Just like strong roots support a tree, courage grounds us, providing the strength needed to confront our challenges head-on. With each step we take, no matter how shaky, we grow stronger in conviction and steadier in our Stoic practice. Now let’s delve into how this powerful virtue helps us stand tall against the winds of adversity.

Facing Life’s Challenges with Courage

When we talk about courage in the world of Stoic philosophy, we’re not just thinking about being brave in big, dramatic moments. Courage is the strength inside us that helps us face everyday problems and fears. It’s like having a strong backbone that keeps us standing up straight, even when things get tough.

Stoicism teaches us that life will throw many challenges our way. Some might be big and scary, while others are small but still tough to handle. Courage means knowing these challenges are coming and deciding to face them head-on anyway.

Here’s what courage looks like for folks who follow Stoic ideas:

  • Understanding Fear: First, we know that feeling scared is normal. But instead of running away or pretending we’re not afraid, we look at our fear and try to understand it.
  • Making Choices: We use our heads to make smart choices instead of letting fear decide for us.
  • Staying Strong: Even when we’re really scared or things seem too hard to handle, we stay strong and keep going.
  • Learning Lessons: Sometimes, even when we’re brave, things don’t go the way we hoped they would. But that’s okay! We learn from those times and grow stronger for the next challenge.

Courage isn’t about never feeling scared or making mistakes; it’s about facing life with a heart ready to take on whatever comes our way.

Also Read: List Of 12 Greatest Greek Philosophers Of All Time

3. Temperance: Finding Balance Through Moderation

In the teachings of Stoicism, we often come across lofty ideals that may seem hard to live by. One such ideal that stands out is temperance, which sits high on the list of cardinal virtues. At its heart, temperance is all about moderation—a concept that might sound boring but holds profound significance in leading a balanced life.

Temperance: Finding Balance Through Moderation

In a world brimming with temptation and excess, temperance calls for restraint and self-discipline. It isn’t about cutting everything fun out of life; rather, it’s finding the sweet spot between too much and not enough.

As we explore this virtue further, we discover that temperance is more than just self-control; it’s the key to peace of mind and fulfillment in our everyday actions.

Practicing Temperance in an Age of Excess

In today’s world, there’s a lot to go around—too much sometimes. Food, fun, gadgets—you name it. We see ‘more’ everywhere we look. It’s easy to get lost in wanting everything and then some more. This is where temperance comes into the picture for us.

Temperance is a simple idea but a tough one to follow. It’s about finding a middle ground in all parts of life—eating right, spending time doing different things, and knowing when enough is enough. Think of it as turning down the noise so we can hear ourselves think.

Let’s talk about how we bring temperance into our daily lives:

  • Eat but don’t overeat: It means enjoying food but stopping before we’re too full. It’s eating for health and savoring each bite without needing to loosen the belt.
  • Spend wisely: We enjoy buying things now and then, a treat or something necessary. The point here isn’t to stop shopping; it’s to ask ourselves if what we’re about to buy is something we need or just want because it looks nice.
  • Balance work with play: All work makes us dull; all play makes the work pile up! So we make time for both, a little bit of fun packed with getting our tasks done.
  • Handle emotions with care: When angry or super happy, stepping back lets us see things clearly instead of saying words we might regret later.

Living by temperance helps us keep things cool and easygoing, with no wild rides because everything stays under control, nice and steady.

Also Read: Jean-Paul Sartre Philosophy: Unraveling Existential Truths

4. Justice: Upholding Fairness and Integrity

In the grand tapestry of Stoic philosophy, justice isn’t just another thread; it is a critical cord woven through its fabric. It’s not simply about following laws or rules, but about uplifting fairness and integrity as cornerstones of daily living.

Justice: Upholding Fairness and Integrity

For those who practice Stoicism, justice shapes interactions and molds character, serving as an irrefutable force that harmonizes personal actions with the universal good.

In this part of our discussion on the Cardinal Virtues, we delve into justice, its essence within Stoicism, and how it plays a fundamental role in creating a cohesive, ethical world.

Living Justly According to Stoic Principles

Justice is like a firm ground for good actions. It helps us live in peace with others by treating everyone the right way, following rules that are honest, and always doing what is right. We want a world where folks work together well, helping each other live better lives.

In Stoicism, living justly is not just a personal choice. It’s a duty we have towards others—to act rightly and to respect others as if they were part of ourselves.

  • Fair Play: We believe in giving everyone their due—no cheating or favoring some over others.
  • Honesty: Speaking truthfully; no lies or tricks.
  • Helping Others: Look out for your neighbor; lend a hand when needed.
  • Being Responsible: Own up to your choices; fix any harm done.

By sticking close to these principles of justice, life gets smoother. It works like oil in an engine—it keeps things running without friction or breakdowns amongst people.

Living by these ideas brings unity among us all. When we care about justice, we create little bits of harmony every day with our actions and words.

Also Read: What is Nihilism? Exploring Belief in Nothingness


What are some practical exercises to develop the cardinal virtues?

To grow in the cardinal virtues, we can journal thoughts, reflect on our actions daily, and practice self-control in challenging situations. Plus, taking on small acts of kindness can fine-tune our sense of justice.

How do stoics view injustice in society?

Stoics see injustice as a chance to practice virtue. They focus on fixing what lies within our control while accepting what doesn’t. They understand societal flaws but strive to be fair and just themselves.

Can stoicism help with anxiety or depression?

Yes, stoicism can offer a perspective that reduces worry by emphasizing control over one’s own responses and accepting things that cannot be changed. This mindset could potentially ease symptoms of anxiety or depression.

What distinguishes stoic wisdom from other philosophical definitions?

Stoic wisdom is special because it involves knowing what we can change and accepting what we cannot. It’s practical rather than theoretical, tailored for everyday life choices rather than abstract thought.


We’ve journeyed through the heart of Stoic philosophy, exploring the Cardinal Virtues that form its backbone. These core values have guided us to understand how they can shape our thinking and actions today.

With Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, and Justice acting as the pillars of virtue ethics in Stoicism, we emerge with a deeper appreciation for this ancient wisdom that continues to resonate with people seeking a meaningful way to navigate life’s challenges.

Charles Eames

Anne Kostick has been Editor-in-Chief since September 2007. Previously, Anne was a principal at Foxpath IND, a publishing, consulting and editorial services company specializing in the transition to and from traditional content publishing and online content management, development and publishing. Her clients included trade book publishers, technology and financial services Web sites, and arts and cultural institutions. Previously, she worked as Licensing and Product Development Director, Senior Acquisitions Editor and Director of Electronic Publishing for Workman Publishing, and as Senior Acquisitions Editor for Harry N. Abrams/Stewart, Tabori & Chang. In the online world she worked as Director of Content Development for Anne has a B.A. in Greek and Latin, with a minor in Theater, from Beloit College. She is the author of several books for children, as well as a definitive collection of jokes.

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