The Cardinal Virtues
Posted by Victoria | Filed under Victoria
In the ancient and medieval world, there was much talk of what were called the four cardinal or moral virtues: Temperance, Prudence, Fortitude, and Justice. They were moral as opposed to theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity in the Christian tradition), and I think they’re an interesting way to think about our efforts here to get our financial lives in order. We talk about them on this blog already, just under different names.
The moral part of moral virtue is fairly obvious, though it has a lot to do with customs — mores — as well as ethics. They’re not really religious virtues so much as social ones. They have to do with the balance of one’s own soul, but also, and more importantly for the Romans, they have a lot to do with our actions with respect to other people. These are the four virtues that will make you a good citizen.
They help you be oriented in society, which is where the term cardinal comes from. It’s meant in the same way that the four main directions (north, east, south, and west) are the cardinal directions, the ones that give you the orientation — here, the four virtues are the points of the moral compass. Cardinal comes from cardo, which means a ‘hinge’, and was also the word for the main north-south street in a Roman town. (In case you’re curious, the main east-west street was called the decumanus. Next time you go to Yonge and Bloor in Toronto, you can think to yourself that you’re standing on the cardo and decumanus of the city.)
Temperance is moderation: it’s all that careful balancing between spending and saving we do, so that we don’t constrain ourselves into being misers or over-extend our resources as spendthrifts. Temperance is often shown as someone watering her wine, tempering it. Sometimes she holds a book. (I like to think it’s her budget.) We could call it being frugal.
Prudence, on the other hand, is also translated ‘wisdom’, meaning in this case ‘practical wisdom’. Prudence is represented as a woman with a mirror or, sometimes, a third eye: either way, she looks carefully at things. When we save for retirement or a rainy day, when we take out extra insurance, when we budget, we are trying to be prudent.
Justice and fortitude are a little less obviously related, but, again, these virtues have to do with balance in the soul so that you can live properly in the world. Justice means giving to each person (and situation) its proper due. You pay what is owed. It’s important, I think, to give ourselves what is properly due to us, as well, not to sell ourselves too short (or hold out for too much); to take care of ourselves and others. I’m sure you know what Justice looks like: the woman with the scales and the sword.
Fortitude is courage. Not so much the blazing courage of diving into a river to save someone from drowning, but steadfastness and whole-hearted perseverance in difficult times. We all know the importance of this one: not giving up when the going gets tough. Fortitude often looks rather like the warrior goddess Athena, with helmet and shield, bravely continuing forth on her chosen field, fighting off the opposing vices. Sometimes she carries a torch or a heavy anvil — maybe our debts? Difficulties weighing her down, anyway.
So, next time you think about how there’s that one thing that always throws off your budget (an unfortunate tendency to gluttony — or ‘living well in the moment’, as I prefer to call it — in my case), you can array the virtues in all their personified glory to fight on your side.