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Aristotle's Cardinal Virtues: Unveiling Four Ethical Keys

Written By Anne Kostick
Last updated: April 15, 2024

When we dig deep into the roots of ethics and morality, one name that always surfaces is Aristotle. His thinking shapes so much of our understanding of what it means to live a good life. We often find ourselves pondering, what are the core principles that guide us towards moral excellence?

The answer lies in uncovering Aristotle's Cardinal virtues. These ancient pearls of wisdom not only resonate with our inner sense of right and wrong but also offer a map to finding true happiness in life.

So what were these famed virtues that Aristotle championed? Essentially, there are four qualities seen as critical for living an ethical life: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. Each one plays a pivotal role in developing strong character and sound moral judgment.

They aren't isolated traits but rather interconnected, working in harmony to create a balanced and virtuous individual.

Digging Deeper into Aristotle's Cardinal Virtues

When we explore the teachings of Aristotle, one of the greatest thinkers of Ancient Greek Philosophy, we find that his ideas on virtues stand strong even today.

Digging Deeper into Aristotle's Cardinal Virtues

He gave us the Aristotle Cardinal virtues – a set of four qualities he believed were critical for living a good life. But what exactly are these virtues, and why did he call them 'cardinal'? Let's break it down in as simple terms as possible.

What Makes Virtues 'Cardinal'?

To understand why Aristotle named certain virtues 'cardinal,' we should start by knowing what the term 'cardinal' means here. In basic English, when we say something is cardinal, we mean it's very important – so important that other things depend on it. It's like calling something a pillar that holds up a building.

So, when Aristotle talks about cardinal virtues, he’s saying these are the main pillars or key qualities that hold up our moral life. If these qualities are strong within us, they can help to make sure all our other actions or behaviors are good, too.

Here is what each of these cardinal virtues stands for:

  • Prudence: This is about being wise in making decisions. When we're prudent, we think carefully before acting to choose what's truly good for us and others.
  • Justice: Justice means dealing fairly with others and giving them what they deserve. It’s not just about following laws; it’s also about treating people right.
  • Fortitude: Sometimes called courage, fortitude is the strength to face tough times without giving up on doing right.
  • Temperance: This virtue helps us keep control over our wants and desires so they don’t control us.

In Aristotle's view of moral philosophy and ethics and morality, these four virtues were essential for anyone looking to live a noble and fulfilled life according to virtue ethics—an approach where character matters more than rules or consequences alone.

By understanding how vital each quality is in leading an ethical life based upon Aristotelian ethics—we start grasping how interlinked they all are:

  • You need prudence to figure out what justice requires.
  • You require fortitude to carry out just actions even when it’s difficult.
  • And temperance ensures none of your personal desires get in the way of doing what’s wise or fair.

Without any one of these key pillars—our moral building might fall apart!

Also Read: John Locke’s Philosophy: Exploring His Pivotal Ideas

Prudence: The First Pillar

In life, we often face choices. Some are simple, like choosing what to eat for dinner, while others have long-lasting effects on our lives. That's where the idea of prudence comes in. It is a key principle that guides us to make good decisions. Among Aristotle's cardinal virtues, prudence stands at the forefront because it involves practical wisdom that helps us navigate through life's challenges.

Aristotle's Cardinal Virtues: Prudence

The Art of Practical Wisdom

Prudence isn't just an old-fashioned word; it’s about being smart with our decisions and looking ahead at the consequences of our actions.

  • Understand the situation: First things first, we need to grasp what’s going on around us. It’s like gathering all the pieces of a puzzle before trying to put them together.
  • Think ahead: This is where foresight comes into play. We try to predict what might happen next once we’ve got all our puzzle pieces laid out.
  • Judge fairly: Now, it's crucial that we weigh all sides of a situation without letting personal feelings get in the way.
  • Act wisely: After understanding and judging, we need to take action or decide not to act if that seems best.

This process might seem simple, but it isn't always easy, yet doing this well can make a huge difference in our lives. It shines among other virtues because while courage requires boldness and temperance demands self-control, without prudence, those virtues could lead us astray rather than towards a moral end goal.

So why lay such stress on practical wisdom? Because life is unpredictable and full of complicated twists. Having prudence means having a toolset for predicting outcomes as best as possible and managing risks wisely—a necessary skill set for anyone hoping to lead not just any life but a thoughtful one pointed towards virtue.

With prudent decision-making sitting at its heart, Aristotle's Cardinal virtues remind us how complex ethical living actually is and how navigating morality requires careful thought plus action most suitable for each particular context—not generic answers applied blindly across different problems or situations.

How Do We Become Prudent?

Prudence might seem like a big word, but it's just a fancy way of saying we know how to make good choices. It's thinking before we act and considering what will happen because of our actions. It's something we all can get better at, no matter who we are or what we do.

Aristotle's Cardinal Virtues

Cultivating Sound Judgment

So, how do we become people with sound judgment? Well, let us share some steps that can guide us on this path. Remember, it’s all about making smart decisions more often.

  • Observe and Learn: Look at the decisions others make and think about how those choices work out for them. Did they think things through? What can you learn from that?
  • Take Time: Don’t rush your decisions. Even if you feel pressured, pause for a moment and think about your options.
  • Ask for Advice: Find someone you trust and ask them what they would do in your situation.
  • Think About Consequences: Every choice has results, good or bad. Try to figure out what could happen before you decide.
  • Learn from Mistakes: We all mess up sometimes, that’s okay! What’s important is to think about why it didn't work out and try to do better next time.
  • Stay Open-minded: Don’t be stuck in one way of thinking; be willing to see different sides of things.
  • Set Aside Emotions: This one is tough! Sometimes, our feelings can push us into making quick choices that may not be the best in the long run.

Let's take turning off lights as an example - A simple choice with clear benefits.

  • You look around (observe) and see others saving money by keeping their lights off when not needed.
  • You stop before flicking the switch (take time) to ask yourself if you need the light on.
  • Your friend might suggest (ask for advice), "Hey, why waste electricity if the room is well-lit by the sun already?"
  • Thinking ahead (think about consequences), you understand that turning off lights saves energy and reduces bills.
  • If you forget once (learn from mistakes) and see a higher electricity bill, next time, you’ll probably remember.
  • Maybe someone shows how cozy lamp light is for reading (stay open-minded), so then you might use main lights less often.
  • And even though leaving them on might feel comforting when coming home late (setting aside emotions), turning them off actually serves us better financially in the end.

By practicing these steps regularly in simple situations like this, we get sharper at making wiser choices without even realizing it! This habit sticks with us as life gets more complicated.

Sound judgment isn't built in a day, it grows every time we stop to think through our moves bit by bit until one day, we're full-fledged pros at being prudent!

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

Justice: The Essence Of Fairness

When we talk about what's fair and right, justice is always at the heart of it. Our friend Aristotle, a big thinker from way back in ancient Greece, had some pretty smart things to say about what makes us good humans. He came up with these four important ideas that he called cardinal virtues.

Aristotle's Cardinal Virtues: Justice

These aren't just any virtues; they're like the main bosses of all the good traits we can have. And guess what? Justice is one of them.

Aristotle was all about balance and said that being just means giving people what they deserve—no more, no less. It's like making sure everyone has a slice of cake that's just the right size for them at a party. Not too big, not too small.

Balancing Self with Society

Here are some simple ways Aristotle thought about justice:

  • Equality Before the Law: This means laws shouldn't play favorites. Whether you're rich or poor, strong or weak, everyone should stand in front of the law in the same shoes.
  • Fairness in Interactions: When we deal with others, whether it's trading cards or borrowing stuff, it's important to be fair – it's not okay to trick or cheat anyone.

Now let's break these down:

Equality Before the Law - Picture everyone having to follow the same rules in a game; that’s kind of how laws work according to Aristotle’s idea of justice. It doesn’t matter who you are – maybe you’re really popular or super smart – but when it comes to laws, everybody’s treated equally.

Fairness in Interactions - Imagine swapping your sandwich for your friend’s apple at lunchtime—you’d want that trade to be fair and square without anyone feeling sad about their end of the deal. That’s how fairness works outside games, too, when we share and swap stuff every day.

For Aristotle, being a fair person was key because he knew unfair things could upset folks and mess with peace in our towns and neighborhoods.

So there you have it: justice is that special ingredient that helps us get along with folks by serving up equal slices of respect under the law and playing nice whether we’re trading treats or dealing out duties.

Also Read: Cynicism Philosophy: Unveiling 6 Facts About Diogenes

Temperance – Moderation is Key

In our lives, we often face temptations. It's easy to fall into wanting too much of something, whether it's food, fun, or even work. Here's where the wisdom of Aristotle and his idea of temperance comes into play. To him, temperance was a key virtue—one that held us back from going overboard.

Aristotle's Cardinal Virtues: Temperance

Guiding Desires Aptly

Think of temperance as having an inner compass. This compass helps us steer clear of excesses and find a middle path—a balance in what we do and desire. Let’s dive deeper into what this really means:

  • Understanding Limits: We must know how far is too far. Imagine you're eating ice cream; one scoop may be enough, but eating the whole tub could make you sick.
  • Restraint: This means saying 'no' when it gets too much. It's like having a second piece of cake in front of you but deciding to pass because you’ve had enough.
  • Self-Control: Stand strong against urges that can harm us or others—like resisting the urge to stay up late watching movies when we need sleep for a big day ahead.

Living with temperance isn't about enjoying things; it's about enjoying them without letting them control us. Aristotle believed that through moderation, we could lead happier and healthier lives.

Adopting this way might not always be easy, but it sure is rewarding! We become masters of ourselves rather than slaves to our desires.

By practicing moderation—temperance—we find a sense of calm and steadiness in our life’s journey. And isn't that something worth striving for?

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

Courage – Not Too Little, Not Too Much

When we talk about Aristotle's idea of courage, we're diving deep into his moral philosophy. Courage, according to Aristotle, is one of the four cardinal virtues. He guides us to understand it as a special kind of balance.

Aristotle's Cardinal Virtues: Courage

From our viewpoint today, looking back at ancient Greek philosophy, we can appreciate Aristotle's wisdom in saying that courage is not about being fearless or reckless. Nor is it about running away from every danger. It's about finding the right spot in the middle - where you're brave enough to do what needs to be done but sensible enough not to take needless risks.

Valor In Balance

So, let's get up close with this concept. Imagine standing on a tightrope with fear on one end and rashness on the other. If you lean too much towards fear, you fall into cowardice; if you lean too much towards rashness, you're being reckless. Courage is like walking that tightrope without falling off.

Now think about how sometimes people say, "Be fearless!" But that isn't quite what Aristotle meant when he talked about courage as a virtue ethics principle in his Aristotelian ethics. Courage, for him, isn't a lack of fear but the ability to face it when important things are at stake.

It’s like when someone decides to stand up for what’s right even when they’re scared—that’s courage in Aristotelian terms because it's bravery with thought behind it.

To hit this just right amount of bravery means understanding yourself and your situation well enough not only to shy away from challenges but also to recognize when backing down is actually the smarter move.

Aristotle's Cardinal virtues teach us that true valor doesn't come from charging headlong into all fights; sometimes, real strength comes from knowing which battles are worth fighting and which ones aren't — a lesson definitely still relevant for our ethical dilemmas today!

Also Read: The Greek Philosopher “Socrates” and His Unforgotten Essence

Putting His Cardinal Virtues Together – Living a Virtuous Life

Aristotle, a very smart man from ancient Greece, talked a lot about how to be good. He had ideas about Aristotle's Cardinal virtues. These are like four big rules that help people live the best way they can.

Aristotle'sCardinal Virtues

Interplay Among Virtues for Moral Excellence

To understand Aristotle's idea of being good, we need to look at his four rules together. Think of them like parts of a puzzle.

The first rule is wisdom. This is about using your brain to think things through and make smart choices. It's not just knowing facts but also understanding life and people.

The second rule is courage. Courage means not being scared to do the right thing, even when it's hard or dangerous. You keep going even if you're afraid.

Third comes temperance. That's just a big word for not going overboard with anything – like eating too much cake or wanting too many toys.

Lastly, there is justice. Justice means treating everyone fairly and doing what’s right by them, not just what’s good for you.

Now, here comes the special bit. Aristotle thought these rules were all connected – they worked together like friends who helped each other out. When you use all four at once in everyday life, you start to get really good at knowing what's right (wisdom), having the guts to do it (courage), doing it in the right amount (temperance), and making sure it's fair for everyone (justice).

It’s like having a team inside your head where every player does their part - wisdom knows the game plan; courage takes action; temperance makes sure one player doesn't take over; justice checks if the play was clean and fair.

When we bring all these qualities together in balance, we start making really solid choices - ones that aren't just great for us but also great for those around us. And that's how we end up living virtuously, which simply means living in the best way possible, according to old friend Aristotle!

Also Read: The 4 Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism | Ancient Wisdom


Why did Aristotle consider these four values essential?

Aristotle thought the four virtues were key because they lead to a life of balance, reason, and moral excellence. To him, they were the root of good character.

How do these virtues apply in contemporary ethical dilemmas?

In today's times, these virtues guide us towards fairness and good judgment when tackling hard choices. They help us think deeply about what's right and stay true to our morals.

Can these teachings be adapted within different cultural contexts?

Yes, they can. While cultures vary widely, the fundamental ideas behind the virtues often align with universal human values and can be shaped to fit various cultural norms.


As we look back on our exploration of Aristotle’s cardinal virtues, it becomes clear that these principles are timeless. They offer a blueprint for personal development and moral ethics that can still guide us today.

Aristotle's insights into human behavior and ethical living aren't just relics of Ancient Greek Philosophy; they're tools we can use to shape a well-rounded character within ourselves.

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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