Classical educators talk a lot about the ‘cardinal virtues’ of fortitude, prudence, temperance, and justice. Plato was actually the first person to come up with the idea of four ‘cardinal’ virtues, and later Aristotle expounded upon the concept. The word cardinal here isn’t referring to the Virginia state bird, or those guys with the funny red hats; it actually means that something is ‘of great importance, or fundamental‘. In Latin it was defined as a hinge; because all of the other virtues fall under them and “hinge” upon them.
Over the years, there has been a lot of discussion about which cardinal virtue is the most important. I don’t know why we always want to quantify and rank things, but we do (me included). I’ve thought a lot about which cardinal virtue is the most vital and, as you would expect, there’s no clear answer.
Aristotle argued that all the virtues can’t exist without prudence, and this makes sense. Prudence is defined as wisdom in action. A prudent person considers the pros and cons of all scenarios before taking action. As a result, it would be impossible to be truly courageous without also being prudent, to show forgiveness without first considering prudence, or to to act with justice without prudence.
So. Maybe the most important cardinal virtue is prudence.
But then we have to consider fortitude. Have you ever stood up for what’s right (justice) without first needing courage? Is it possible to be honest or generous without first being courageous? I would argue that no other virtue can be truly displayed without first needing courage.
So. Maybe the most important cardinal virtue is fortitude.
But what about temperance? Temperance is ‘going the right length but no further’. Aristotle talks about virtue being ‘the Golden Mean’ between two vices. In essence, temperance IS Virtue. You actually cannot display virtue without temperance…or that virtue will end up turning into a vice.
So. Maybe the most important cardinal virtue is temperance.
But then the arguments stop. What about justice? Of the four cardinal virtues, there aren’t too many arguments for why justice is the most important. We can be temperate without it. We can show fortitude without it. And we can be prudent without it.
So. Why is justice a cardinal virtue? Should it be?
As I look back on this semester, almost every difficult conversation I’ve had comes back to justice. I haven’t had anyone sit in my office this year frustrated about someone else’s lack of temperance. No one has come to me annoyed about how their peer displayed prudence. But justice…definitely. Whether it is a conversation with a parent, a colleague, or a student; they tend to all be rooted in the desire for justice. God has created us with a craving and search for justice. Yet often, we disagree on what that should look like. I think (and this is just me, no ancient Greek philosopher), that justice is a cardinal virtue because it is a fundamental prerequisite to us living in harmony with one another.
So how do we reconcile our varied opinions of justice? How do we, as Christians, continue to desire justice (which God has instilled within us) while also living peaceably with those around us? One of my favorite verses is Micah 6:8 which says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Yes we should be just; be we should also be kind and humble. Another thing I noticed was how often the word justice is lined with the word righteousness in the Bible. Verse after verse that I read included both words. A biblical view of righteousness is being ‘right in the eyes of God’; right in our character, attitude, actions, and words.
When we are spurred towards justice, are we also being kind and humble? Are we also striving to live right in the eyes of God with our character, attitude, actions and words?
So yes. Justice IS a cardinal virtue. And I think…I would argue that it might also be in the running for ‘most important. It is the virtue that allows us to fight for God’s righteousness with kindness and humility.