And are they relevant today?
The classical world identified four virtues to be emulated in society. Plato described these virtues in his Republic when discussing what constitutes a good city, putting his thoughts in the mouth of Socrates:
I think our city, if it has been rightly founded, is completely good. Clearly, then, it will be wise, brave, sober, and just.
These four attributes of a “good city” became identified as virtues (from the Latin word for merit). Other philosophers of the time similarly highlighted them.
Later, the Roman philosopher Cicero echoed Plato’s words by writing:
Virtue may be defined as a habit of mind in harmony with reason and the order of nature. It has four parts: wisdom, justice, courage, temperance.
The Catholic Church adopted what was true, good and beautiful in ancient Greek philosophy. The Church, then, describes these four classical virtues as “human” (in contrast to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, which are of divine origin). We know them as the cardinal virtues — the word cardinal meaning “hinge” — because on these qualities hinges the whole moral life.
The cardinal virtues are habits that, when practiced and cultivated, allow us the ability to make right choices.
These human virtues can be “acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts.” However, to grow in perfection they must be “purified and elevated by divine grace. With God’s help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good” (CCC 1810).
If we want to achieve a true and just society, the cardinal virtues are essential building blocks. It is impossible to create a moral culture without first encouraging the practice of these basic virtues of life.
As a short introduction to the cardinal virtues, the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a summary of each and explains how they affect our souls (CCC 1806-1809). Below is a short excerpt that highlights each virtue.
Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.”… it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience.
Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor … Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good.
Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions.
Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable … In the New Testament it is called “moderation” or “sobriety.” We ought “to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world.”
It’s clear that these qualities are as indispensable today to the life of the good person — and to the functioning of a good society — as the ancient Greeks considered them to be.