An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church

Cardinal Virtues

For Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), the cardinal virtues form the basis for moral growth and development in all persons, although for Christians they can only be understood and fully achieved through God's grace as given in the theological virtues. Initially stated in Book Four of Plato's Republic, Aristotle develops the cardinal virtues in his Ethics as moral virtues, the perfection of human powers as they lead to happiness. Translating from the Greek, the cardinal virtues are referred to in English as wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Translating the equivalent English from Latin, they are referred to as prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice. Prudence is the perfection of the intellect as a matter of practical wisdom. It concerns knowing what to do and when to do it. Fortitude is the perfection of the will in terms of being neither timid nor foolhardy but holding steadfast to what needs to be done. Temperance is the perfection of the appetites, seeking enough but not too much. Justice is the perfection of the whole in which the parts are fairly balanced in relationship to the whole. In the fourth century Ambrose assumed this understanding of the cardinal virtues in his instruction for the clergy in De Officiis Ministrorum. Other theologians, most notably Augustine in On the Morals of the Catholic Church, tie the human virtues to the ultimate end of the love of God. Thomas draws this thought to its most systematic formulation in his Summa Theologica, which became the basis for subsequent Roman Catholic thought. It was also the source for much of Anglican thought at the time of the English Reformation and in Anglo-catholic moral theology arising from the Oxford Movement.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.