Touching on the Four Cardinal Virtues

Touching on the Four Cardinal Virtues


The Four Cardinal Virtues are not inherently Masonic.  Masons are introduced to the virtues in their initiation.  The lecture of the first degree attempts to link the lessons of the Cardinal Virtues to the ritual and obligation of the first degree.  In this short presentation I will touch on some aspects of the Four Cardinal Virtues in historical writing, religion, and art. This review, as in most things Masonic, is only scratching the surface regarding the topic.

What are the Four Cardinal Virtues?

    The Four Cardinal Virtues are Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence and Justice.  Enciphered in the first degree lecture the newly initiated candidate is referred to the virtues and their definitions.  The four cardinal virtues are given to the candidate as guidelines for his interaction within the society in general and within the lodge in particular.  

Figure 1.  Four Cardinal Virtues, Temperance, Prudence, Fortitude, and Justice (L-R)

The Cardinal Virtues in Antiquity

    The word cardinal comes from the Lain “cardo,” meaning hinge and “cardinalis” meaning principal or most important.  Prudence, (Greek Phronesis, Latin prudential) entails the ability to judge between actions with regard to appropriate behavior at a given time.  Fortitude, (Latin “fortitudo”) is also listed as strength, courage, and the ability to confront fear and determination. Temperance (Latin “temperantia”) is simply defined as restraint, self-control, abstention, and moderation.  Justice (Latin “iustitia”), is translated simply as fairness.  The Greek word “dykalosene” also means righteousness.  

    In Western Civilization, the cardinal virtues first come into discussion with classical Greece.  In studying Greece, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle made a living questioning and attempting to define what is best in a “society” (Latin meaning “for companionship and friendly association with others”).  Note that when discussing Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, it’s important to know what they are known for. Socrates lived out his life questioning everything and devising theories and formulas relating to knowledge and love of wisdom (“philosophia”).  Socrates did not document his theories himself. Plato was a student of Socrates, and most of what we know of Socrates is from Plato’s writings. Plato’s work was directed to political philosophy and analysis (The Republic), as well as the written and dialectic arguments to find truth.  Plato’s student, Aristotle, concerned himself with logic, psychology, natural sciences as well as his study in metaphysics. Aristotle’s views on the natural world formed the basis of science in European universities until the age of the Enlightenment. The schools of learning which evolved from the teachings of Plato and Aristotle became known as the Stoics, the Skeptics, and the Epicureans.  Stoics believed virtue alone was adequate for one to find happiness, focusing on the material world and defining what made a man or society. The Skeptics questioned the certainty of knowledge, and whether true knowledge (truth) can be attained. The Epicureans (follower of Epicurus) believed in the pursuit of the physical, a form of hedonism, where pleasure is obtained by absence of pain or fear.  The remedy for this hedonism was not more physical pleasures, but less. A simple life was the goal.

    Plato describes what came to be known as the cardinal virtues in Book IV of The Republic.  In this debate, Socrates describes four virtues of a community. Temperance is needed in the producing classes (farmers, smiths), to keep animal appetites in check and avoid overconsumption.  Fortitude (strength, manliness) was needed by the soldiers and guards to protect the state during times of crisis. Prudence was used by the rulers to make sound judgements. Justice was unifying “cement” that all members of society depend on in how to act with each other.   

Figure 3.  Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (L-R)

    Aristotle’s work included defining ethics.  The cardinal virtues were used in his writings.  Courage replaced fortitude in Aristotle’s virtues.  Aristotle interpreted these virtues as moral, separate and apart from religion and vice.  Aristotle also defined several minor virtues with the goal of attaining beauty.

    The Roman philosopher and politician Cicero, himself a Stoic, cited four sources of moral righteousness in the waning days of the Roman Republic.  They are (1) “The perception and intelligent development of truth”, (2) “The preservation of civil society,” (3) “The greatness and power of a noble and unconquerable spirit,” and (4) “In the order and moderation of things which consist of temperance and self-control.”  These four sources of moral righteousness follow the definition of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

Figure 2. Cicero

The Cardinal Virtues in Christianity

The Apocrypha contains reference to the four cardinal virtues as well.  In particular, the virtues are mentioned in the Wisdom of Solomon, one of the seven Sapeintial (wisdom) books within the Sepptuagint (selected books of the Bible).  The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches both recognize the book as accessory to the Biblical canon. It was composed in Alexandria in the first century AD within the Jewish community there.  Within the book justice is listed seventeen times. Chapter eight verse seven describes the four cardinal virtues explicitly. The author uses a descriptive “her” when speaking of wisdom.

“And if a man love justice: her labors have great virtues; for she teacheth temperance, and prudence,   and justice, and fortitude, which are such things as men can have nothing more profitable in life.”

Saint Thomas Aquinas used the term cardinal in his discussion of the virtues.  Aquinas clarified that the four cardinal virtues were moral. As Benedictine, Aquinas ensured that the morals of virtue were part of a natural theology.  He argued the existence of God can be found within nature and reason, in addition to revelation. Aquinas also gave his opinion on the Unity of Virtues and their interwoven importance.  For example, “Courage without prudence risks becoming mere foolhardiness.”

The Catholic Church also added to the four cardinal virtues by adding the three theological virtues.  These virtues can be better understood through divine grace. The object of the theological virtues is the divine being (Theos).  The fellowcraft mason will recognize these theological virtues as Faith, Hope, and Charity, as described by St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians.

The Cardinal Virtues in the Age of Enlightenment and in Masonry

The Cardinal Virtues again, are not inherently Masonic.  Online Masonic discussions have listed that the Cardinal Virtues did not appear in Masonic ritual until the late eighteenth century, although I can’t find the references.  The Cardinal Virtues were placed into Masonic Ritual as lodges transitioned from operative lodges into speculative lodges, attempting to define how to make good men better.  Regardless of religious domination, political affiliation or station in society, the cardinal virtues were a goal all men should strive for. As the Enlightenment period of the 17th and 18th century unfolded, Europe and the Americas reviewed and studied classical art, architecture, history, sciences, and philosophy. Masonry could not be immune from this change in society as a whole.  The Cardinal Virtues, like the Orders of Architecture and the seven liberal arts and sciences, are topics from the classical age, rediscovered during the Enlightenment, written into lodge proceedings then, and are now permanent within Masonic Ritual.  

Albert Mackey commented on each of the Four Cardinal Virtues in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry.  I could not find an entry for justice in my copy of the Encyclopedia or online. I have listed the other virtues as they were written.




One of the four cardinal virtues; the practice of which is inculcated in the First Degree. The

Freemason who properly appreciates the secrets which he has solemnly promised never to

reveal, will not, by yielding to the unrestrained call of appetite, permit reason and judgment to

lose their seats and subject himself, by the indulgence in habits of excess, to discover that

which should be concealed, and thus merit and receive the scorn and detestation of his

Brethren. And lest any Brother should forget the danger to which he is exposed in the

unguarded hours of dissipation, the virtue of temperance is wisely impressed upon is

memory, lay its reference to one of the most solemn portions of the ceremony of initiation.

Some Freemasons, very properly condemning the vice of intemperance and abhorring its

effects, have been unwisely led to confound temperance with total abstinence in a Masonic

application, and resolutions have sometimes been proposed in Grand Lodges which declare

the use of stimulating liquors in any quantity a Masonic offense. Put the law of Freemasonry

authorizes no such regulation. It leaves to every man the indulgence of his own tastes within

due limits, and demands not abstinence, but only moderation and temperance, in anything not

actually wrongs”


One of the four cardinal virtues, whose excellencies are dilated on in the First Degree. It not

only instructs the worthy Freemason to bear the ills of life with becoming resignation, “taking

up arms against a sea of trouble,” but, by its intimate connection with a portion of our

ceremonies, it teaches him to let no dangers shake, no pains dissolve the inviolable fidelity he

owes to the trusts reposed in him. Or, in the words of the old Prestonian lecture, it is “a fence

or security against any attack that might be made upon him by force or otherwise, to extort

from him any of our Royal Secrets.”




“This is one of the four cardinal virtues, the praetise of which is inculcated upon the Entered

Apprentice. Preston first introduced it into the Degree as referring to what was then, and long

before had been called the Four Principal Signs, but which are now known as the Perfect

Points of Entrance. Preston’s eulogium on prudence differs from that used in the lectures of

the United States of America, which was composed by Webb. It is in these words: “Prudence

is the true guide to human understanding, and consists in judging and determining with

propriety what is to be said or done upon all our occasions, what dangers we should

endeavor to avoid, and how to act in all our difficulties.” Webb’s definition, which is much

better, may be found in all the Monitors. The Masonic reference of prudence to the manual

point reminds us of the classic method of representing her in statues with a rule or measure in

her hand.”


The Cardinal Virtues in Art

    The Cardinal Virtues are often portrayed as four maidens with ornaments around them signifying their purpose.  The drawing below shows Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence and Justice from left to right.

Figure 4.   The Four Cardinal Virtues, Mantegna Engravings

Temperance is portrayed with two vessels, or jugs.  She is pouring the water or wine between the vessels and must temper her intake.  I cannot make out the animal with Temperance staring into the mirror in Figure 4. The maiden Fortitude is portrayed with a broken column and a lion, both an emblem of strength.  Notice Fortitude’s breastplate is also the face of a lion. Prudence shows a multifaced being. A younger woman is looking into a mirror and an old man looking the other way. This represents introspection and reviewing different points of view.  Prudence also must deal with a dragon or snake near her feet. The dragon or snake is a representation of evil or difficulties. Justice is portrayed as a maiden holding a scale, weighing what is fair. She carries a sword in her other hand, dispensing judgements.  In Figure 4, a stork or pelican is shown in the background of the Justice engraving. In Catholic symbolism, a Stork is a symbol of prudence, vigilance, piety and chastity, associated with the Incarnation. A pelican may represent the Lord, the mother, or saints.

Figure 5.   Justice, Strength and Temperance in an example Tarot Illustration

The Tarot cards above keep key elements to each of the Maiden’s description.  Justice is wearing a crown, sitting on a throne between two columns, sword and scales in hand.  Strength (fortitude) is wrestling with a lion. Temperance is measuring between her two cups with a headdress containing a circle and dot.

Albert Mackey describes four tassels drawn in the English and French First Degree Tracing Boards.  The tassels are attached to four cords referring to the four principal points, the Guttural, Pectoral, Manual, and Pedal, and through them to the four cardinal virtues, Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice.

Figure 6.   Entered Apprentice Trestleboard with Tassels

    A final example of the Cardinal Virtues is in a tomb.  In the Cathedral of Nantes (France), the tomb of Francis II, Duke of Brittany is adorned with the four cardinal virtues in each of the four corners of his tomb.   Although Francis’ duchy was small at the time of his death, his daughter created a tomb for him (and two of his wives) in the cathedral. The Four Cardinal Virtues adorn the sarcophagus.  Below are some pictures of the tomb and each of the sculptures.


Figure 7.  Tomb of Frances II, Duke of Brittany, Nantes France

The maidens stand guard at the tomb of Frances II.  From left to right are Fortitude, Temperance, and the Two headed Prudence.

Figure 8.  Statue of Temperance (L), and Fortitude (R)

The statue of Temperance does not hold her measuring cups.  The small box in her left hand is decorated with a dot and circle.  Fortitude is pulling a dragon or lizard from a citadel. She is clothed in armor.

Figure 9.  Statue of Justice (L), Statue of Prudence (R)

The representation of Justice shows her sword and scales in her hand with a crown on her head.  Prudence is looking into a mirror, snake under her foot and compass in her right hand.


Figure 10.  Two Headed Statue of Prudence


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.