Manvotional: The Cardinal Virtues — Wisdom

by Brett & Kate McKay on March 31, 2012 · 31 comments

in Manvotionals

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.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Stephen Wood April 1, 2012 at 2:26 am

Great post, and to quote Ecclesiastes 7:12: “For wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence: but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it.”

2 Marion Singleton April 1, 2012 at 7:26 am

An excellent, practical and timely view of what American philosopher and metaphysican Ernest Holmes called one of the 12 spiritual virtues.

3 Mark Roberts April 1, 2012 at 8:31 am

Humility is the first requirement for wisdom. This is true whether one be a scientist, theologian or lover.

4 Daren Redekopp April 1, 2012 at 9:01 am

Thanks for this post, and kudos to Stephen Wood for the quote from Ecclesiastes. Another word from the ancient Hebrews: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. Fear in this case denotes reverential awe. I find this profound, because it tells me that any system of values will have an ultimate basis, and in the case of the sage of Proverbs, and myself, it is God.

5 M Herr April 1, 2012 at 9:23 am

It’s worth noting that the idea of “Wisdom” that he’s working with is very much the American notion of the time, and not really the Classical Greek notion at all. In fact he’s doing a very common, and unfortunate, thing by attributing a contemporary notion to a much earlier time and concluding that the contemporary notion is a timeless and obviously correct understanding.

For example, when he says that Wisdom (in the ethical sense) doesn’t mean “book-learning” he’s being at best questionably accurate. For Aristotle wisdom included both extensive book learning (Theoretical Wisdom – which was the greater sort of wisdom) and the sort of practical expertise he’s talking about (Practical Wisdom), and both sorts were kinds of knowledge people have about the world. And Plato seemed to have an even more intellectual view of wisdom.

6 Mato Tope April 1, 2012 at 12:37 pm

“Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding.
For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver and the gain thereof than fine gold.
She is more precious than rubies; and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her.”
Proverbs ch3 v 13-15

7 mike cregan April 1, 2012 at 2:57 pm

a fine topic,all virtue, being available through wisdom, becomes actual when one realizes that all wisdom, is in the moment.

8 Nathan Wiering April 1, 2012 at 5:33 pm

I think that wisdom is indeed something that should be pursued, but 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 says it best: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.2 And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor , and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing.” Then again, wisdom could be knowing/applying that…

9 Nik Rice April 2, 2012 at 3:02 am

I have wondered if wisdom is a division of knowledge that is valuable beyond just our mortal time on earth.

Knowledge- How to change spark plugs.
Wisdom- Knowledge of how to forgive.

What do you boys think of that?

10 Ty April 2, 2012 at 7:13 am

Wisdom is correctly applied knowledge in the exact situation in which it is needed. I also think that wisodom can at times circumnavigate our intellect and rest within our inner being as such being delivered by the hand of God. Wise men are able to discern situations and identify what it is that will be required of them at that given time.

11 Lukas April 2, 2012 at 7:57 am

Just recently heard a great message that talked about appetites being great servants but terrible masters. You can apply it to almost anything in life whether money, food, sex, alcohol, etc. Living in that tension is where wisdom lies. Great article.

12 Tony V April 2, 2012 at 8:11 am

Great article! I would also say wisdom is being able to learn from experience. For my part I was the “fool” looking to gain too much return from my “savings”. I did this through my 20′s and 30′s. Finally at 40 I started a good savings plan. I do miss the excitement of investing (gambling) but I have a inner satisfaction knowing that my family and I will be in better off in the future. The best example of foolishness (anti-wisdom) recently was the mega lotto madness this past week where people waited in line and one person I know spent $40 to play 1 in 170 mil odds. This person does not contribute any money to a savings plan but gladly hands over money for a fantasy. Anyway, it is great insight into the human nature.

13 thomas rule April 2, 2012 at 11:29 am

Reminds one of the old story about the cat and hot stove, often attributed to Mark Twain.
A cat jumps up on a stove and sits on a hot stove lid and then jumps off.
From that day forward that cat will never sit on a hot stove lid– that is ” experience” The cat will never jump up and sit on a cold stove lid either —that is “knowledge or wisdom”

14 Josh April 2, 2012 at 1:16 pm

I think it needs clarifying that wisdom is indeed different from practical knowledge, but the two are not mutually exclusive. In order for one to possess true wisdom, they must first be informed.

The informed individual may even make an unwise decision at first, but from the power to understand precisely why that decision is unwise, wisdom arises.

I think it’s best expressed as the difference between reading about a subject and directly experiencing it. The educated man may know that he should walk a certain path, but unless he knows why he walks that path, and where he will end up, then he is indeed just as ignorant as the man who walked the crooked path.

15 John Galt April 2, 2012 at 8:44 pm

The most important step upon the path to wisdom is admitting ignorance. The wisest man is the one who seeks to expand upon the scope of his knowledge in all things.

16 Chase Christy April 2, 2012 at 11:04 pm

One of the wisest things anyone ever told me came from one of my college professors, Dr. Abel Alves, who happened to have a very different worldview than me.

One class, he said something to the effect of, “Why do you believe what you believe? For instance, you can’t say you believe the Bible because the Bible says you have to believe it. That doesn’t make any sense.”

It was in response to this question that I created my most foundational belief statement that I still hold onto even to this day. “I would rather believe in a God that ‘may or may not exist’ than in the perfection of science, which I am positive, does not exist.” From there I go to the belief that God created everything and wants to communicate and be a part of his creation. How does he do that? I believe he does it through the Bible…etc, etc.

17 Bryan April 2, 2012 at 11:48 pm

@Nik, good observation. I think that’s headed in the right direction. But maybe more than just, for example, “knowledge of how to forgive” but actually an ability to do it. ( I’ve talked with bitter people who knew what they needed to do and how to do it, but refused to forgive someone) Or maybe with the spark plug, wisdom (on a practical level) is being able to take care of the car, giving it the care it needs and foreseeing and fixing problems with it before they arise. What do you think?

@ Chase, well-put, sir

18 Daryl J. Yearwood April 3, 2012 at 2:18 pm

I just graduated with my BA in May 2011 at 55yrs. old, and I found that many, but not all, of the professors were lacking in the wisdom department. It seems that locking into the academic world limits life experience for many who pursue advanced degrees.

I’ve done many different things in my life, including volunteer fire service, and it appears to me that wisdom is gained by experience in the public realm and interactions with many different people at varying levels of economic and social position.

19 Hans Guevin April 3, 2012 at 4:14 pm

“Illiterate people are frequently exceedingly wise, while learned people are often the biggest fools.”

That is quite a cliché, and one that’s not true at all. In one fell swoop, you’re berating learning and exulting ignorance. A better-worded sentence could be: “Illiterate people can be exceedingly wise, while learned people can harbor the biggest fools.” To say “are often” and “they’re frequently” is vague, yet let’s transpires a profound disdain for academics. There are foolish illiterates and wise academics, just as there are wise persons to be found in both categories and in the intervening spectrum – which is probably more representative of people in general than these two extremes!

Otherwise, this is another mighty fine piece of writing and it has given some new food for thoughts! Thanks!

20 Thom April 4, 2012 at 12:09 am

“Middling wise every man should be:
Beware of being to wise;
happiest in life most likely he
who knows not more than is needful.”
Havamal 54

A simple reminder from the Viking Age about wisdom and knowledge.
Like many who have commented I believe wisdom is applying knowledge when it is needed. I may know a fair amount about Ancient history, but this quote is all that is needful for me to apply.

21 Magnate Frank April 4, 2012 at 10:04 am

True wisdom can only be gained in the ‘classroom of life’ rather than the theoretical learning in conventional schools. I do believe that wisdom is best learned through experiences.

22 Kent April 4, 2012 at 8:39 pm

@Magnate Frank, actually, to be wise is to learn from your own experience. HOWEVER, and perhaps most importantly, wisdom is having the capability of learning from those who have already been there themselves. This is why school is always a wise choice. An aspiring engineer can surely discover all the rules of mechanics on his own, and it would take him years. A wise aspiring engineer would go to school and learn from the wisdom (experience) that has been built by all of his predecessors.

23 JMC April 5, 2012 at 5:05 pm

The problem, I think, with some of the issues here when comparing this with Greek philosophy is that this virtue is traditionally rendered “prudence,” not wisdom. Using the correct (and classical) wording would help us who are trying to balance different “types” of knowledge.

24 Nik Rice April 6, 2012 at 5:29 pm

@ Brian,

I would still wonder if “ability to forgive” is still knowledge. Everyone can forgive; it’s a non-physical task. Therefore, it comes down to pride and ignorance. Ignorance being knowledge based.


25 Bryan April 7, 2012 at 11:11 pm

@Nik, Do you think that the proud and ignorant can truly be said to be wise? (Pride used in the negative sense here)

26 Nik Rice April 9, 2012 at 4:55 pm

I should have clarified. Ignorance and pride are the source of all tragic events in life.
Either you knew what to do or you didn’t and it resulted in regret/loss.
Wisdom is action based knowledge that is rooted in humility.

This is fun.

27 Bryan April 10, 2012 at 10:47 am

“Wisdom is action based knowledge that is rooted in humility.” I think you’ve hit something significant there. and worded it well. Although wisdom itself isn’t an action, one isn’t really wise if he knows the right thing and does nothing about it. Well-put.

The more I think about a definition of wisdom, the more amazed I am at how complex a concept it is. And after that comes the challenge of getting it. I love the tribute to wisdom given by the ancient sage Job in Job 28 in the Bible. He compares man’s search for wisdom with man’s search for the unknown in exploration, mining, and technology. It is a quest as old as time.

28 Ralmon April 12, 2012 at 2:35 am

Wahh! The discussion of Wisdom is quite mind boggling. I had a personal idea of what Wisdom is, but after reading other people’s idea of wisdom, I kinda have to review mine a bit. I’ve also searched for words that is synonymous or similar to wisdom and I found out lots of it!:

Foresight, cunning, prudence, curiosity, creativity, open mindedness, understanding, knowledge, love of learning, experience, insight, shrewdness, reasoning, caution, circumspection, good judgment, good counsel, thinking, enlightenment, … and maybe many others that had to be discovered.

I need to understand more what wisdom is and what defines it because I’m all confused right now. I also have known the original four cardinal virtues and I know it is prudence not wisdom that was listed and I wonder what is the difference between the two (or maybe they are the same).

Great manvotional but it just given me confusion. At least it put wisdom to the limelight.

29 Shemsi April 21, 2012 at 8:20 am

Very nice article and truly keeps one thinking how much we can still grow as gentlemen in every aspect of life.

30 Larry Hill September 29, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Amazed at the high quality of the comments on this short article on wisdom. Good group interacting. Often not the norm on internet.

31 David Thompson May 16, 2013 at 8:46 am

Great article. I’ve studied OT and Biblical sources on the division of “knowledge”, “wisdom” and “understanding”. From what I’ve gathered, knowledge is something we know (either by sense-knowledge learning (e.g. Seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling), or by spiritual revelation (s.v. God said to___ in a vision; or false revelation s.v. Witch of Endor): wisdom being the right application of knowledge; and understanding bring an experienced “scope”…whereby we see thebig picture. How i process it anyway.

The Greek words for “to know” are illuminating. Oida is to know by learning our without reference to how, while ginosko denotes learning by effort and experience. The difference between studying farming and being a farmer. Dr. Ethelbert W. Bullinger has a very eliminating work- The Companion Bible-and the appendices in the back will as both knowledge, wisdom and learning.

Happy hunting everyone!

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