The Four Cardinal Virtues of Human Excellence According to Plato


“Wisdom is the leader: next follows moderation; and from the union of these two with courage springs justice.” ~ Plato

Human excellence is the art of character. Character is the art of practicing the four cardinal virtues. Practicing the four cardinal virtues (courage, moderation, wisdom, and justice) leads to moral virtue, which is best encapsulated by the concept of arete. And arete cultivated over a lifetime can lead to eudaimonia, human flourishing.

The concept of arete is from Homeric times. Although there is no specific definition, it is associated with bravery and effectiveness, intimately bound up with the notion of fulfillment and the act of living up to one’s full potential.

But it almost certainly hinges on the four cardinal virtues. In The Republic, Socrates assumed a wide acceptance of them as the core qualities in an excellent human. Let’s break them down…

1) Courage (fortitude):

“Without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” ~ Maya Angelou

Courage is the bedrock of human excellence. Without the initial leap of courage there is no freedom, and so there can be no excellence. One is merely restricted to the conventional, inhibited by the whims of others, imprisoned inside the box of the status quo, and hampered by outdated reasoning.

With the leap of courage, however, one is emancipated. One is delivered into liberation. The world unlocks. The mind unbolts. The soul unfastens. Inhibitions dissolve into serendipity, adaptability, and improvisation. Boundaries transform into horizons. Comfort zones stretch into adventure.

But, there is a fine line between courage and recklessness. Courage involves seizing one’s impulses just as much as it involves seizing the day. One must be able to respond to a given situation with the proper balance of apprehension and confidence. Too much courage leads to recklessness; too little, to cowardice. Fitting that the next cardinal virtue is moderation.

2) Moderation (temperance):

“After the ecstasy, the laundry.” ~ Jack Kornfield

The beauty of life is that in order for it to exist there must be balance. The ugliness of life is that we are usually unable to understand what that balance is. Moderation can be deceiving, especially when we’re not tuned into healthy frequencies.

Luckily, health is a benchmark for moderation. It’s the core of universal law. Unluckily, this benchmark is hidden in a ‘language older than words,’ which can sometimes seem impossible to decode.

Although some things must be moderated more than others, extremism in anything is the bane of health. We can breathe too much oxygen. We can drink too much water. We can even live too much in the moment.

We moderate ‘being in the moment’ with the realization that even the moment needs a past and a future to define it. We maintain our personal health through moderation so that health in general can become manifest. Indeed. I live simply, so that you may simply live.

A good rule of thumb is: moderation in all things, to include moderation. This way we’re proactively injecting balance into the cosmos, while at the same time enjoying life. The key is to accept responsibility for the consequences of both our moderate and immoderate choices. Tricky, but wisdom can help.

3) Wisdom (prudence):

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.” ~ Lao Tzu

Wisdom cannot be taught. Knowledge can be taught, but not wisdom. We can discover wisdom, live in it through experience, do wonders through it thereafter, but we cannot teach it.

If we define wisdom as a practical understanding of cosmic law and the skill (intention) in applying it to an ever-changing impermanent world, we see how it cannot be taught, only experienced. Wisdom is hands-on, never second-hand. Knowledge is second-hand, quantifiable, and measurable, but not wisdom.

As Dostoevsky said, “The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the man who calls himself a fool at least once a month.” It’s the humility at the heart of wisdom that cleanses hubris from the eye so that justice can be actualized.

4) Justice (liberty):

“The fairest rules are those to which everyone would agree if they did not know how much power they would have.” ~ John Rawls

Humans are social creatures. As such, we are also story-telling creatures that create deep mythologies out of the stories we tell each other. Some of these stories are fiction and some of them are nonfiction, but they all require honesty and forthrightness in order to be just. Honest communication is the key.

Justice, essentially, is honest social communication and interaction. It’s being responsible with our power, no matter how much power we might have. Human excellence is predicated upon how responsible we are with our power over others.

If we lord our power over others, we are being unjust. If we use our power to help others flourish, we are being just. If we hoard power at the expense of others, we are being unjust and tyrannical. If we expiate power to empower others, we are being just and prestigious.

Ethos (ethike arete) is the heart of justice. It’s an essential ingredient of a robust character. An ethical human tends to be an excellent human. The art of character is a mastery of ethics practiced through the four cardinal virtues. Courage frees character. Moderation balances character. Wisdom guides character. Justice socially stabilizes character.

Through these four virtues the excellent human emerges as a venerated and valuable catalyst for human flourishing. New, unique, incomparable human beings who give themselves values, who create themselves out of courage, moderation, wisdom and justice. Who set up platforms for the next generation and for the healthy and progressive evolution of humanity.

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Art by Brad Holland

Four Cardinal Virtues