What are the four classical virtues and are they relevant to us today?

The four-fold “excellences or virtues of human conduct” are prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance

Whether called excellences or habits or virtues, they are intrinsically relevant and causally related to realizing our full potential as citizens of the Kingdom of God.  So important are the classical or cardinal virtues that in the third century A.D. a friendly Church Father named Origen of Alexandria would go so far as to suggest that our divinization requires mastery of these virtues.  (First Principles, IV: iv.10)  Origen also added to the cardinal virtues the specifically Christian virtues of endurance and holiness.

From indeterminate desires to a righteous nature.

To become prudent, just, courageous and temperate, our vague desires for good must result in good choices.  When we “let his whisper govern choice,” as Hymn 143 states in its second verse, choices become our good decisions.  With repetition, good decisions start to shape us, and good habits result.  Good habits in turn shape our very character, because we have then shaped our previously disorganized, even random desires.  When we become predictable in our decisions for good, our identities solidify who we truly are.

When decisions mature into habits of action, it is a habit’s nature to be pleasant habits of other-regarding conduct towards God and neighbor-or the opposite:  bad habits (vices).  Or we remain unformed altogether, just a bundle of unshaped desires, which in the present age is a recipe for becoming a couch potato, becoming inactive (and not just regarding Church activity, but slothful or inactive), and we may become depressed and miserable.  But not necessarily, lots of couch potatoes are happy in their bad habits.  Aristotle explained that with time any habit will become both pleasant and our cage.


What is inevitable is that sooner or later, perhaps even as time turns into eternity, we become awake to the external reality that also includes our stake in that reality, for both good and evil:  “is it expedient that I should awake you to an awful reality of these things?”  (II Nephi 9:47)


Alternatively, we can gain the self-confidence that comes from trusting ourselves and loving God and our neighbor–habitually.  Within us, the transformation of what was just a desire -originally “enticed” between good and evil (2 Nephi 2:16; Alma 32)-can strengthen into a good habit, with God’s help (Ether 12:27).  The result is a type of inner beauty.  We can gain a “beautiful soul” that is characterized by a trustworthy fixity of our selfhood as “our second nature.”  This second nature transcends our “first nature” as a natural man (Mosiah 3:19), and overcomes “the unsteadiness of the hearts of the children of men” (Helaman 12:1).  Eventually, we can become completely trustworthy for the Lord’s purposes, willing what He wills (Helaman 10).


Executive summary

Simplified, here is the formula:  desires to choices to decisions to habits to discipleship.


The cardinal virtues focus our faculties on reality. They aid us in acting wisely again and again with regard to our reality and what the Lord has in store for us. Prudence, justice, courage and temperance when habitualized make us powerhouses for good, including our own good.

We all shall shuffle off our mortal coils’ and progress to the Judgment.  “My days are like a lengthening shadow” I sometimes feel as the psalmist wrote (Psalm 102:12).  How will we feel then, dead and waiting for the Judgment?  At our day of Judgment, our consciousness of having never stopped wrestling with and reforming our desires, choices, decisions and habits (Moroni 9:25), will fill us I believe not with stress, but pleasant anticipation; so when our game clock is up, provided we had the courage to never give up, we can then look up instead of hanging our heads (Mosiah 16:2).


Prudence ranks first of the four classical virtues because it is “the mother’ of all the other cardinal virtues, of justice, fortitude (or courage), and temperance (or moderation).”

Prudence transforms our cravings or desires into governed cravings or desires.  “If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies” (James 3:3).

“[M]y servant shall deal prudently,” states the Lord in 3 Nephi 20:43, even as Isaiah says in 2 Nephi 20:13, “the Lord is prudent.”

A good Book of Mormon example is pointed out by Truman Madsen in his book Four Essays on Love:

“Alma knew whereof he spoke.  See that ye bridle your passions.’  [Alma 38:12] 

“Focus on the word bridle.’  What is a bridle for?  To kill, to diminish, or even to limit the spirit and power of the steed?  Never . . . .  [W]e are given our bodies not to destroy but to ride.  They magnify our feelings and increase enjoyments.  The body is a step up in the scale of progression.

“I defy anyone to get the Spirit in harmony with a runaway body.”

A too-strong desire for (a) justice can destroy mercy, just as (b) an over-dose of courage can be too bold and become “over-bearance.”  [Alma 38:12].  And (c), too much moderation in a perfectly good thing -let’s say ice cream-if consumed in imprudent amounts, causes obesity, type II diabetes and coronary disease. 

In these ways, temperance can be viewed as the controlling habit for other habits.  One final and quick point.  In the classical tradition, to choose imprudently, unjustly, cowardly and intemperately was wrong and immoral.  Therefore, for example, a person who acts imprudently regarding their income is both unwise and even immoral, because they have not bridled their passion for economic consumption.


Justice means at least this:  Each of us ought to be given what is our due.  Accordingly, as Aquinas put the matter, “Justice is a habit, whereby a person renders to each one his due with constant and perpetual will.”

The Book of James provides a good example of the vice of injustice. 

“Behold, the hire of the laborers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud [.]”  The “hire of the laborers” today is sometimes “kept back” if a laborer separates from his or her employment.


To help employers achieve justice in such a situation by paying the departing employee what is owed for unpaid wages for past labor, many states, including Utah, have legislated what are called Wage Acts.  A Wage Acts affords an employee a quick remedy, without costly recourse.

When we as Mormons think of Justice our thoughts often go to the Atonement.  I write this on Easter weekend and am especially mindful of how the scriptural narrative leading up to the Lord’s crucifixion focuses on how Old Testament prophecy of the injustice He suffered was fulfilled. 

Mark 14:65; 15:17-20 and Psalms 27 and 109 both manifest the fact of false witnesses against Christ.  Under accusation, Jesus remains silent (Mark 14:60-61), taking the role of Isaiah’s ebed (Isaiah 53:7).  He suffers smiting and spitting (Mark 14:65; 15:17-20), again in the Suffering Servant’s role (Isaiah 50:6).  The soldiers cast lots for his clothes ((Mark 15:24), reenacting a scene from a psalm of lament, Psalm 22.  And when Jesus commends his life to the Father (Luke 23:46), he does so with the words of yet another of Israel’s laments (Psalm 31:5).

I am also mindful this Easter (May 5 is the day Eastern Orthodoxy celebrates Easter, so on that calendar my thoughts are still timely) of three verses contrasting mercy and justice in 2 Nephi 9:

“Wherefore, he has given a law; and where there is no law given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation; and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel have claim upon them, because of the atonement; for they are delivered by the power of him.

“For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice . . . .

“But WO [intending, scholars explain, a priesthood cursing] unto him . . .  that wasteth the days of his probation, for awful is his state!”  (Verses 25-27, emphasis added)


In Section 60 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord makes clear that courage is a good habit.  That’s an understatement:

 “[W]ith some I am not well pleased, for they will not open their mouths, but they hide the talent which I have given unto them, because of the fear of man.”  (Section 60:2)

I recently returned from an Eastern European country where I lectured on basic principles of my education I had long since forgotten.  As is so often true, the dumbest student knows more than the professor.  Section 38:30 came to my mind:  “if ye are prepared, ye shall not fear.” 

Apparently never comfortable with my preparation, before each 2 hour lecture I was literally dripping with sweat from my fear of lecturing.  Easier, I thought, to have been Daniel and faced the lions.  Yes I prepared and prayed.  And an old lesson learned when I was 12 was about to be taught me again. 

When I opened my mouth to speak, not only did coherent speech issue, but in seconds my literal fear and trembling was gone.  (Ether 12:27)  Fear was even replaced by enjoyment-at least for me.  I lectured without needing my notes.

Courage is as courage does, it seems, for to receive His grace to overcome my fears followed upon having faith sufficient to make myself open my mouth.’ 


One of the most important applications today of temperance may surprise us. 

This is that obeying the law of chastity is an application of temperance. 

I remember the first time I was awoken in a college lecture by Professor Paul Ramsey’s point that unchastity violated the virtue of temperance.  What startled was being in a lecture at Princeton and hearing a professor make a fascinating argument to even Princeton undergraduates to be chaste.

“Temperance mandates chastity,” my notes of Ramsey’s lecture reflect.

Though admittedly not nearly as persuasive as the commandment to be chaste, which I add because like all intellectual arguments, how temperance mandates chastity contains subtle distinctions sometimes challenging to the understanding, I continue to believe that this argument is important.

Pieper’s presentation of the argument from temperance to chastity in his book, The Four Cardinal Virtues, is compelling.  Accordingly, in what follows, I will not use quotation marks (to make the reading easier) but will draw from his articulation extensively.  Temperance requires chastity for a handful of solid reasons, explains Pieper.

Unchastity destroys in a very unique way the human person within us.  Unchaste abandon and the self-surrender of the soul to the world of sensuality will paralyze our primordial powers in our highest capacity as moral beings.  Why?  Significantly because we lose our ability to perceive “the call of reality.”  (See 2 Nephi 9:47) 

Therefore, we also lose the ability to make decisions appropriate to the concrete situation of concrete action.  We blind our spirits, and we split our power of decision. 

Split between enticements (2 Nephi 12:16), we are like a donkey equally spaced between two piles of hay that chooses to starve from a failure to act. Like the donkey in the analogy, as persons, to stay destabilized (literally) forever between opposite enticements is intemperate as well as imprudent.  “[F]or the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:8).  “Everybody serves somebody” sings Bob Dylan.  One can choose to trust and embrace even agnostic ambivalence, as Pharaoh and Pilate did.  It is inevitable to trust in something, (Doc & Cov 115:2-9).  But as James warns, in not deciding we are not serving the Lord. 


The destruction to our soul from unchastity lies in the fact that unchastity constricts the person and thus renders him or her incapable of first seeing and then acting objectively.

In an unchaste heart, Pieper explains, attention is not merely fixed upon a certain track, but the window’ of our soul has lost its transparency.  Acquired Attention Deficit Disorder is the pathology of our epoch.  We lose our capacity thereby for perceiving reality, for correctly reading reality as it applies right now to our existence.  It is as if a selfish interest had covered our soul with a film of dust.

Temperance as unchastity is not only immoral in itself.

  It is also immoral because it is imprudent to cover the windows of the soul with dust blocking a clear view of reality and consequences, and because it is unjust to do such damage to another person.  Then especially, as Elder Maxwell writes, “[t]his life’s temporal life distorts.  The things of the moment are grossly magnified, and the things of eternity are blurred or diminished.”  (The Neal A. Maxwell Quote Book)  This interconnection between the cardinal virtues is a good example of how the four-fold virtues all need each other to work properly.

And such intemperance displays an absence of courage by being like a Ping-Pong ball that just bounces along with the pressures of pleasure of the moment, despite the cost.  As Elder Russell M. Nelson once quoted in a Youth Fireside I was at, quoting Shakespeare:

“‘What win I, if I gain the thing I seek?

A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy.

Who buys a minute’s mirth to wail a week?

Or sells eternity to get a toy?”

From Shakespeare, The Complete Works (Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc.:  NYC, 1968 (1948)) at page 1564.

As Elder Bruce Hafen once explained in a “New Era” article, in this sphere we are close to God and therefore in a holy zone.  The academic work of the Chicago historian Mircea Eliade points out in his book, The Sacred and the Profane, that the sacred is the manifestation of “a reality that does not belong to our world[.]”  (11)  As such, intemperance in physical matters not only corrupts our very power of correct decision-making, but additionally, it will render us unholy if we disobey this zone of activity’s holy imperatives.  Unholiness can be so stark it keeps us from the gain in acuity from God’s ordinances.

Not only do we hurt ourselves intrinsicially:  vice is its own punishment.  We also damage our relationship to God by pushing away the Spirit and ignoring the powers of the Atonement.  (Isaiah 6:5)

In place of deliberation, we choose a reckless disobedience, a hasty judgment that will not wait until reason has weighed the pros and cons.  Only when we recognize this state of existence can we likewise understand the depths to which the unchaste heart permits destruction to invade our very being.  (160-62)

In sum, to be open to the truth of “things as they really are,” and then to live by that truth which one has grasped, demonstrate rationally how the habit of being chaste is important to being a good person.

Repentance:  Now, Today and Forever

Do our habits relative to Virtue need changing, amending, and reversing?  For the third time in this article, I cite to the Scripture that has helped so many so much: 

Ether 12:27:  “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness.  [We can’t see our own weakness without His help if the windows of our soul are fogged-up.]  I give unto them their weakness [don’t feel alone, in his “very good” Creation (Genesis 1:31), God created all of us with some weaknesses] that they may be humble [notice the worshipful humility in the brother of Jared’s prayer to the Lord at Ether 3:2]; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me [that was the lesson relearned for me in lecturing], then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”


We will all fall off the horse before mastering how to ride, which hurts.  “For all of us make many mistakes” (James 3:2).  All of us at times need “to build up our waste places.”  (Helaman 11:20)  Even Professor Pieper closes his Preface instructively when he writes of himself that he has “boldly” drafted “a moral standard for humanity which he, in his own daily life, is utterly unable to meet.”  (xii)  To which I can only add:  Ditto.

But we have a divine hope that will sustain us amidst the sting of failure.  With the Psalmist we “rejoice with trembling.”  (Psalm 2:11)  Because the Book of Mormon not only contains prudence, justice, courage, temperance, endurance and holiness as habits for us to internalize in mortality “while the sun shines” (because “today, there is no tomorrow, there is only today,” as the Hymn 239 says). 

The Book of Mormon provides us a radical hope in this teaching:  that our weakness is a sign that God loves us.  Each of us has weaknesses that are God-given, as the Book of Ether states.  Our sense of weakness is a signal that God is there to be found -even in our weakness- which signifies there are no black-out dates with God, and that we can go to him for help even when enticed by good and evil and, through weakness, evil triumphs.  “And now, O Lord,” pleads a prophet for his people in Helaman 11:16, “wilt thou try again if they will serve thee?”

In sum, I imagine that Lucifer finds Ether 12:27 very conflicting, for eight reasons.  He is (1) always seeking out our weakness, no less (2) to exploit us viciously with vices (3) for misery’s sake, but also (4) to turn our God-given weaknesses into (5) inordinate guilt and (6) even depression (7) for misery’s sake–before we can (8) experience personally that the Savior’s grace is sufficient for all men and women that humble themselves before Him.