The 4 Virtues

In books II and Iv of Plato’s Republic, Socrates introduces and describes the four chief virtues needed for justice to thrive  in a polis He presents them as Courage, Moderation, Justice and Wisdom. To be sure the ancient Greeks meant something different than later cultures, but the signal importance of these virtues to the moral life remain  largely in tact.  Indeed, in subsequent centuries the early Christians and later the Catholic tradition would wholly adopt these 4 virtues as the Cardinal Virtues. Any serious student of ethics would do well to study what these terms mean and whether or not they are applicable tot he modern world. To that last questions–their applicability–I emphatically state that they are applicable.

The first obstacle any student of moral theory encounters is the degree to which contemporary society is so thoroughly suffused with moral relativism. Living as we do in a pluralistic capitalistic society, we are loath to limit or regulate our lives including our moral sensibilities.  I choose not to go any further into these aspects at this point, but suffice it to say that the serious student of moral theory will find relativism a canard.

Courage, the first of the virtues, is  arguably in decline. Witness Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn 1978 Harvard University commencement speech,

“The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society.”

This recognition fits with Plato’s diagnosis that a luxurious state would inevitably decline into a rabble of nonsense and inactivity leading to political quietism and apathy. In short, this characterization seems a trenchant reminder of where we are at in contemporary society. We have few examples of genuine courage worthy of our respect and moral admiration. While it is easier to find examples of physical courage, moral courage is difficult to find in contemporary society.

Moderation is even more difficult to find. Popular culture advances those who are intemperate and immoderate. Think of T.V. shows such as “Man vs Food” or the tragic national epidemics of drug addiction and obesity.

The Greeks so held moderation–σωφροσύνη- in high regard that it is purported to be one of the phrases etched into the wall at the most sacred shrine or oracle at Delphi.  The phrase “nothing to excess”  would become a canonical expression of the moral life for centuries of Greek philosophers including the great Classical trinity of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.  For them, sophrosyne was not only a balance of one’s physical desires but moral discipline and self knowledge.

In his “Symposium” Plato has Socrates recount his meeting with his teacher on love, the philosopher Diotima. He tells that it was she who taught him the path to true knowledge or wisdom. Wisdom, our fourth virtue, is inextricably linked with our third,  justice.  One of the steps along the road to wisdom, she taught Socrates, was the understanding of justice. The most eminently political of the virtues justice has been one of the most neglected. It really was not until John Rawls’ magisterial work “A Theory of Justice” published  in 1971 that thinkers became interested in the political manifestation and effects of our policies on the people they governed.  Apart from the occasion reference, justice was not really a central concern for moral philosophy until the 20th century.

Like Diotima’s counsel to Socrates, this inquiry, as all inquiry does, leads us back to wisdom…


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