Cultural Psychology

A Better Diagram of the Cardinal Virtues

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RECENTLY I noticed some diagrams of the traditional four cardinal virtues of prudence (phronesis), temperance (sophrosyne), courage (andreia) and righteousness (or justice; dikaiosyne) arranged as a square. Such a configuration is problematic in that it ignores the unique relationship that righteousness has with the others.

Another more general issue is that Plato — from whom the tradition of cardinal virtues originates — arguably proposed five, not four.  A new diagram above attempts to redress both issues.First, the lower half of the diagram helps show the affinity of the usual four cardinal virtues to Plato’s famous tripartite model of the psyche that distinguishes the (1) rational, (2) appetitive and (3) spirited elements of the soul.In Plato’s system, courage is the excellence (or right-tuning) of the spirited element, temperance the excellence of the appetitive element, and prudence of the rational element. Righteousness, in turn, is the harmonization of the three other virtues.  Hence it makes more sense to place righteousness in the center of the other three.

Second, while Plato sometimes lists these four cardinal virtues, other times he mentions a fifth: piety or holiness. In fact, he seems almost deliberately vague about this — but we also know that Plato sometimes reveals his most important points subtly.

Writing a few centuries later, Philo, the famous Jewish Platonist of Alexandria, was more explicit. In his in his influential allegorical interpretation of Genesis he saw the Garden of the Eden a symbolizing human virtues generally. The four rivers that surround and water Eden, he suggested, correspond to prudence, temperance, courage and righteousness: these nourish the other virtues.

The Tree of Life in the center of the Garden is theosebeia (θεοσέβεια), or reverence towards God’s goodness. This, he says, is  “the greatest of the virtues, by means of which the psyche is made deathless”  (i.e., it does not ‘die’ by lapsing into sin; On the Creation of the World, 154).

This virtue of perfect piety, godliness and ongoing trust in God constitutes the apex of the spiritual life.  It is a progression beyond purification and illumination to what mystics call the unitive life: assimilation to God, erasure of the distinction between self-will and divine will, and the Reign(ing) of God in ones soul.

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