Meet the Stoic’s Four Cardinal Virtues and Understand What They Mean

Cardinal Virtues

What do you want to do with your life? What would make you feel like you had a life well-lived? Untold riches, an impossibly hot partner, opportunities to travel or even just a good old house with 2.5 perfect children? Cool, cool—no one would fault you for that. But what if your goal was just to be happy?

Maybe you’ve got everything you want, or maybe you’re working long hours in a less-than-fulfilling job and think that monetary gain is the key to what ails you. Maybe it seems like real “happiness” is the stuff of fantasy. If you listen to the Roman Stoic philosophers, however, happiness comes from achieving the four cardinal virtues—and once you’ve got those down, everything else flows naturally.

Why not give it a try?

Wisdom

Wisdom can be interpreted as moral wisdom—the only “true” good in the world. Think of it as the difference between posting that passive aggressive social media comment, and knowing you could, but that it wouldn’t serve you in the long run.

Wisdom is understanding appropriate action under the circumstances and distinguishing good from bad. In a lot of cases, wisdom is hard-won—just think back to the mistakes that you made at 15 that you know better than to make at 35.

Courage

To have courage is to know something is hard—but to do it anyway. It’s when you speak up to your racist aunt at Thanksgiving, knowing the rest of the family is going to shun you. You might do it when you fight for the underdog, or you might do it for your own personal reasons, like when you defend your Masters thesis.

If you have courage, you act according to your ideals, even if it costs you personally. Maybe you speak up when you know your boss has been sexually harassing women at work, or maybe you just say “hey, not cool” when your bros say something misogynistic. To have courage is to act on the right thing.

Temperance

To embrace temperance is to make a commitment that you won’t go to extremes—whether in the pursuit of truth, justice and the American way, or simply not flying off the handle when someone points out an area in which you can do better. Temperance is a sweet spot. Like wisdom, this is usually a trait gained with experience.

Temperance doesn’t mean you have to cast off worldly vices, either. It means you know your limit, whether with alcohol, television, Target runs or binging reruns of Solar Opposites. If you haven’t yet achieved temperance, it’s always there waiting for you to discover—or rediscover.

Justice

Justice is the fourth cardinal virtue, and it’s one that we’re probably all familiar with. Whether you’re a wholehearted supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement or you spent your youth in law school hoping to change the legal system from the inside out, justice (or the lack thereof) is a theme prevalent in today’s news and media.

According to the Roman Stoics, justice boils down to one essential thing: doing good for other people. We must understand that no person is an island: everything we do affects one another, and it is our moral obligation to make sure that everyone is taken care of. Sometimes that means marching in protests to make our voices heard, but there’s also everyday justice: speaking up when someone cuts in line in front of an elderly person, holding the door open for someone who’s struggling or making sure every kid gets a turn in looking at a museum exhibit. Most importantly, justice is not vengeful.

Applying the four cardinal virtues

If you’ve read about these virtues and think “this just sounds like growing up,” you’re not wrong. As we get older, we typically learn that there’s a much bigger world outside of ourselves—one that isn’t necessarily fair to everyone else. When you strive to embody these four cardinal virtues, what you’re really doing is making a commitment to treating yourself, others and the world at large better than you would have otherwise.

Will embracing these virtues bring earthly riches, the perfect partner and vacation houses in other countries? Maybe, maybe not. But we can probably agree that trying to embody them will make you a better person—and kinder, happier people are more likely to get a boost from their numerous friends.

What do you have to lose by trying?

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