January 20, 2021

Christian Traditions 101: The Seven Cardinal Virtues


Quick – name the Seven Cardinal Virtues.  Can’t do it, can you?

It’s funny (or maybe not) that many of us can name the Seven Deadly Sins but have no clue what the Seven Cardinal Virtues are.  It seems sins are still objective, nameable things, especially the deadly ones; post-modern people can still find some wisdom in identifying conditions of the heart that lead to wrong action and lack of action.  Or maybe sins are just more familiar to us.  But there are also foundational virtues that lead to right action.  I think this generation has forgotten them partly because  “virtue” has become a quaint, stiff, slightly embarrassing word that denotes virginity and connotes librarians, and “goodness” is seen as either a vague, pink cloud of niceness and tolerance or Randian self-fulfillment at all costs, and is no longer an objective standard one can train for.

But let’s buck the trend of our generation and consider the Seven Cardinal Virtues.

  • •          The word “cardinal” comes from the Latin root for hinge, hence the pivot on which all other things turn.  These virtues are pivotal to our actions and understanding.
  • •          Like all elements of Christian tradition, they serve as checks or guideposts to keep us from veering off the narrow path after the enthusiasms of our own age.
  • •          They remind us that any virtue, even (especially) our favorite one, can be distorted into a vice when it’s not kept in balance with all the others.
  • •          It is an act of humility in us to remember and apply the wisdom of tradition rather than trying to reinvent wisdom every generation.
  • •          An acknowledgment of universal virtues presumes a realistic view of the world.  The ancient philosophers, Church Fathers, and great souls of all times and places focused on training in virtue, because they knew that they had to prepare to live in a world of suffering, temptation, and imbalance.  Confucius, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, St. Francis de Sales, and Gandhi all understood this.
  • •          For thousands of years people have thought that one of the reasons we exist was to develop virtue.  Whether because developing virtue provided one with immortal glory or because it aligned one with the gods or God, generations have seen life as the battleground of character, not (as we do now) the playground of whim.
  • •          Finally, the Seven Cardinal Virtues give us a vocabulary to talk about an essential but neglected part of human history and human character.  It’s a vocabulary that needs to be retaught, I think.  The names of many virtues have fallen out of common use, which makes me wonder whether the virtues they represent are equally unfamiliar.


Definition.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a virtue as “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good.  It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself.  The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.”  The pagan Aristotle would have felt comfortable with this definition, but the Catechism goes on to quote St. Gregory of Nyssa, reminding us that “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God” (CCC 1803).

So according to the Catechism, virtue is more a disposition than an action, though it leads to action; it is what we are as well as what we do.  It is the ground from which all the fruits of our lives grow.  It is the habit of goodness.  Virtue doesn’t just buff us up to make us more attractive; it enables us to act with generosity and integrity to give the best of ourselves to others.  Its goal is Christlikeness – a Jesus-shaped life, in Michael Spencer’s words.

Like the Seven Deadly Sins, the Seven Cardinal Virtues are divided into two categories.  There are four human, or natural, virtues and three theological virtues.

The Human Virtues

These dispositions are considered natural to humankind, not because they are regularly achieved but because they are widely accepted throughout time and space as admirable human qualities.  They are also, to some degree, achievable through human effort and training aided by common grace and therefore can be seen in religious people and atheists alike.  They are Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance.

Prudence.  The word is another illustration of the degradation of the language of virtue.  A “prude” is a coward unwilling to embrace life fully, a snooty Puritan condemning other people’s fun.  Even those who use “prudence” in a positive way strip the word of most of its robustness.  Prudence is not just the careful, almost miserly, meting out of money, time, and self; it is “right reason in action,” according to St. Thomas Aquinas; it is the charioteer of the virtues.  It is the practical wisdom that forms and guides our conscience and our ability to make choices.  It is, if I may use a probably inaccurate metaphor, the gear that connects the engine of our moral judgment with the wheels of our actions.  Without prudence we would neither recognize the right nor choose to do it.  We train our children in prudence before letting them behind the wheel of a car or allowing them to go to school, work, or social gatherings without us.

Justice.  Justice is the only one of these four words that retains some of the richness of its original meaning.  Justice, however, is not simply sentencing evil-doers or instituting fair laws.  Justice is the virtue that gives everything its due.  The just person treats creation, other people, and God as they should be treated, according to their natures and their rights.  Justice cares for the poor and weak, upholds laws, respects human dignity, and shows honor to those in authority.  It implies self-knowledge and an ability to understand one’s place in the universe.  If prudence is a virtue that would appeal to Aristotle, justice, on a natural level, is the virtue that would most resonate with Confucius.

Fortitude.  What does that even mean?  The word is never used in conversation these days.  Its closest synonyms are courage and strength.  Fortitude faces fear and death unflinchingly.  It perseveres and remains constant against all trials.  All people admire fortitude, even if they don’t know the word.  C.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, saw fortitude, or courage as he called it, as the foundation of all human goodness: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.”  He explained that any virtue – prudence, justice, kindness, generosity, etc. – that buckles in the face of threat or persecution is no virtue at all.

Temperance.  This is probably the most degraded word – and virtue – of this list.  At its best temperance means abstaining from alcoholic beverages; at its worst it conjures up the comical picture of indignant Victorian matrons waving placards and smashing storefronts.  Even more than prudence, temperance is seen as the stingy denial of fun by narrow, frightened people.  This is a distortion of the truth.  According to the Catechism, temperance “moderates the attractions of the pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods.”  It “keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable” (CCC 1809).  Ironically – from the point of view of the ignorant – temperance actually makes fun possible.  As rules and taking turns permit a game to be enjoyed, as an evening with friends is more pleasant without waking up on the bathroom floor afterward, temperance, or the moderation of desires, is actually essential to “fun.”  That’s not the common perception, however.  Justice and fortitude are still admired nowadays, and prudence – or at least cleverness – is accorded some respect, but temperance is absolutely at odds with the deepest assumptions of our culture.  The practice of temperance would take from the advertising industry its most potent tools – “More!  Now!  Quick!  Go for all the gusto you can get!”  It would undermine the economic imperative of maximizing profit.  It would put an end to unsustainable exploitation of natural and human resources.  It would challenge the casual acceptance of lust, avarice, and gluttony that is such an integral part of our society.

In my next post I’ll look at the theological virtues, how their lack affects our society, and the role of grace in virtue.


  1. Thanks, Damaris. I think the only list of 7 things I can name are the 7 dwarfs from Snow White. 😉

    Actually, Wikipedia shows me there have been 12 different versions of their names. I go with the 1937 list.

    I like your: “Justice cares for the poor and weak, upholds laws, respects human dignity, and shows honor to those in authority.”

  2. Excellent, Damaris.

  3. David Cornwell says

    Excellent subject Damaris.

    I’m glad you discussed the defintion of the word “cardinal” because this sense of the meaning excapes so many of us these days. And so many of us are simply embarassed or turned off by a discussion of such virtues.

    Using one example, “reality television” has helped set up a new kind of world for us, namely a world without virtue, and one that is centered entirely on self regard and self interest. When women or men are paraded around lke so many livestock on the auction block for one to try out, then take the one of choice, leaving the others to degraded rejection, we see the opposite of any such virtue. And then we see other examples on other programs of coalitions of self interest, hateful words, and elimination, all with the object of winning the game for oneself, virtue is flushed down to the septic tank of modern life.

    Ayn Rand provides the real bible for today’s economic reality. What suits “me” is what wins the day. Eveyone else be damned.

    Living out the virtues, as good as they are, will prove to be impossible without the formation of Christ within us. Thus the subject of choice for several days, spiritual formation, takes on much of it’s real value. Christ calls us to follow him into this kind of life, not simply attempt to act like him. Until this happens the virtues may hang over us as unheeded admonishment, with a sentence of judgement, rather owning our hearts.

  4. cermak_rd says

    I think the reason temperance has a bad reputation is because the temperance movement in its later years became about imposing temperance (and a particular form of it) onto others. A modern word for it might be self-control and I don’t really think modern folk have a problem with people living their lives with self-control.

    And I think the same is true of prudence. Not many modern folk have a problem with people using wisdom and delaying gratification in their own life (so they can, say go to college and prepare for a career). The conflict starts when others want to impose virtue on others.

  5. I have never understood how the word “temperance” was allowed to take on the meaning of abstinence and eventually prohibition without anyone objecting. Maybe because the concept of moderation and the image of enraged, axe-wielding harpies refuse to hold hands. The mind boggles.

  6. Catherine says

    I’m doing a project for the next six months where I try to strengthen each of the cardinal virtues in my life. Last month was faith, this month it’s hope. Perfect timing, iMonk.

  7. Damaris, have you been reading Tom Howard? I had him for a couple of classes at Gordon back in the early 80s and he was always talking about this.

    And, I notice you’ve mentioned C.S. Lewis. In Howard’s book The Achievement of C.S. Lewis (pages 14-15) he says,

    Lewis struggled to find a way of speaking to an epoch with which he shared virtually no suppositions at all. He called himself an “old Western man,” meaning thereby that he held the view of things generally held in Judaeo-Graeco-Christian tradition. He witnessed with dread, even with sickness of soul, the program of modernity and tried to find a way to lodge in the modern imagination some reminder of an alternative vision.

    I may illustrate this problem by referring to my own experience of teaching prep school and college students. I have sometimes given a class the following list of words: majesty, magnanimity, valor, courtesy, grace, chastity, virginity, nobility, splendor, ceremony, taboo, mystery, purity. The reaction is quite predictible: either a total blank, embarrassed snickers, or incredulity. The entire list of words lands in their laps like a heap of dead basalt meteorites lately arrived from some other realm. They don’t know what to do with them. They have never encountered them. The words are entirely foreign to the whole set of assumptions that has been written (or should I say televised) into these students’ imaginations for the whole of their lives. Majesty? The man must be mad. Valor? What’s that? Courtesy? What a bore. Virginity? Ho-ho—there’s one for you! Chuckle chuckle.

    After I have gotten my reaction I point out to them that this awful list of words names an array of qualities that any Jew, any pagan, and any Christian, up until quite recently in history, would have not only understood, but would have extolled as being close to the center of things. Their vision of reality presented them with a picture in which these things appeared as not only natural, but blissful.

    I should go back and read this stuff. I remember talking to you about Howard’s book Chance or the Dance, and you’d do well with this if you haven’t already.

    Off-topic, but I’m re-reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water and that’s a really good companion to Tom Howard’s Evangelical is not Enough, which Headless Unicorn Guy clued me into a few years ago.

    • David Cornwell says

      And yet so many of the same persons who dismissively laugh at these words would in a second embrace “spiritual, but not religious,” or some such statement almost empty of value.

    • I still haven’t finished Chance or the Dance, and now my daughter has it. I liked what I read, very much. I’ll have to look up more of his writing. You were lucky to have hi in class!

  8. At the risk of engaging in a ‘grass is greener’ type attitude, I have to say that one of the most gratifying aspects of living in China is that, over here, concepts like ‘virtue’, ‘goodness’, ‘honour’, etc. don’t seem quaint or antiquated at all. Folks are no more virtuous here than anywhere else, but if a young person stands up in class (I’ve seen this happen) and starts talking about how she needs to become a more virtuous person, she will be met with sober looks and nods of agreement rather than snickers. Such things are still seen as serious and important. It’s wonderfully refreshing.

  9. About that, if you were to judge the chinese by how virtuous they are. Think about if the government ever decided to ban church and all it’s virtues, the population would follow quickly because their loyalty lies with the system, so don’t think they are better there than we are back here in the west. There are many, many virtues to follow and many countries to live in, in the end it’s all up to the individual, there are none other to blame.

    Yours truly ~

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