What are the most important virtues for a man to live? Benjamin Franklin had his program of thirteen. We based our Manvotionals book on a set of seven. But is it possible to refine such lists further and whittle the large group of worthy human virtues down to its core? It is in fact, and Plato was the first to enumerate the result of such an effort. He came up with a backbone of four: prudence (or wisdom), justice, courage (or fortitude), and temperance. These, he argued, are the essentials of human excellence. The early Church fathers called these four virtues the “cardinal virtues.” Cardinal comes from the Latin “card,” which means hinge; these are the virtues upon which the door of one’s moral and ethical life swings–the ones that make all the other virtues possible.
I recently came across a little gem of a book from 1902 that wonderfully describes the four cardinal virtues. And I’ll be sharing each of its four sections each week during the month of April here on AoM.
From The Cardinal Virtues, 1902
By William De Witt Hyde
Whether in Cuba or the Klondike, in camp or in college, wherever men live together in close quarters, there they form a moral code.
The codes of college students, for instance, like the codes of mining camps, are couched in slangy terms; but the heart of them is sure to be sound.
For the strictly limited purposes of a college code — that is, for healthy, wealthy young fellows who have no immediate concern about earning their living, and who are free from domestic, business, and political responsibilities — these college codes serve fairly well. In substance, they all agree that a man shall be wide awake and tactful, genial and courteous, kindly in his comments on others, cheerful when things don’t quite suit him, generous in small things as well as in great; especially, that he shall give nothing less than his best, and take nothing from his fellows he has not fairly earned; that he shall lose thought of himself in devotion to some common ends, and put forth the last ounce of energy in him before he will give up the game he sets out to play, or the work he “goes in for,” or the friend whom he loves. The man who does these things is accepted as a thoroughly good fellow, a gentleman; he has all the virtues which are absolutely required to get on well in the limited sphere to which this code is applied. That our college youth, in entire unconsciousness of what they are doing, and without the remotest intention of drawing up a moral code, come to a tacit acceptance of principles so profound, so searching, and so comprehensive, is a magnificent witness to the soundness of young men’s ethical insight.
The Greeks worked out an ethical code for themselves in as direct a contact with actual social needs as is felt by our miners and soldiers and ranchmen and college students. Though there were many points which their code did not cover, yet it was much broader than any of these special codes which are being developed to-day, and with adequate amplification can be made to include the whole social duty of man…The straightest approach to the Greek point of view is through Plato’s doctrine of the Cardinal Virtues.
If we are to see life with the eyes of the Greeks, we must first free our minds of the notion that anything in the world, any appetite or passion of man, is either good or bad in itself. Life would be simple indeed if only some things, like eating and studying and working and saving and giving, were absolutely good; and other things, like drinking and smoking and spending and theatre-going and dancing and sexual love, were absolutely bad. To be sure, men and schools and churches have often tried to dissect life into these two halves; but it never works well. Material things and natural appetites are in themselves neither good nor bad; they become good when rightly related, and bad when wrongly related. The cardinal virtues are the principles of such right relation.
The first cardinal virtue is wisdom. Wisdom, in the ethical sense of the term, is a very different thing from book-learning. Illiterate people are frequently exceedingly wise, while learned people are often the biggest fools. Wisdom is the sense of proportion — the power to see clearly one’s ends, and their relative worth; to subordinate lower ends to higher without sacrificing the lower altogether; and to select the appropriate means to one’s ends, taking just so much of the means as will best serve the ends — no more and no less. It is neither the gratification nor the suppression of appetite and passion as such, but the organization of them into a hierarchy of ends which they are sternly compelled to subserve.
Of the many ends at which a wise man aims, such as health, wealth, reputation, power, culture, and the like, a single subordinate phase of a single end, the investment of savings, will bring out the essential feature of wisdom. Now, the end at which a man aims in investment of savings is provision for himself and his family in old age. It is the part of wisdom to keep that end constantly before the mind — not allowing other ends to be substituted for it; and to choose the means which strictly subserve that end — not the means which are attractive in themselves, or promise to serve some other end. Yet simple as this matter is, not one investor of savings in twenty has the wisdom to do it.
Investment of savings is an entirely different thing from the investment a merchant or manufacturer makes for purposes of profit; and to keep this distinction clear is one of the greatest signs of practical wisdom…
The expert banker and financier may seek larger profits where he pleases; but the man who puts his savings, be they small or large, on which he relies for old age, into any forms of investment more risky than these is a fool. There is nothing more pitiful than to see men and women, who have worked hard and lived close year after year, flattered and wheedled into putting their savings into some specious scheme which promises six or eight per cent, interest, or the chance in a few years to double their money, and then fails altogether just when the money they have saved is most needed, and the power to earn wages or salary has gone.
To sum up the dictates of wisdom on this point in a few simple rules, wisdom says: “Avoid high rates of interest; seek no business profits beyond the range of your own immediate and expert observation; lend money as a favor to no one, unless you are able and willing, if need be, to give the money outright; have no business dealings with your relatives in which business and sentiment are mixed up; sign no notes and assume no financial responsibilities for other people; … never put a large part of your savings into any one investment.” He who keeps these rules may not grow suddenly rich, but he will never become suddenly and sorrowfully poor.
This simple yet very practical example may serve as the type of all wisdom. It simply demands that we be perfectly clear about our ends, and the part they play in our permanent plan of life; and then, that we never leave or forsake these chosen ends to chase after others which circumstance or flattery or vanity or indolence or ambition may chance to suggest.