Every schoolchild used to know that the four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. These aren’t the only virtues, or even the only important ones, but rather those on which all the ordinary human virtues depend, for each of them can be viewed as one of the “parts” or aspects of one of the Four Big Ones.
Take, for instance, justice. There are different senses in which something can be a part of something else, but in one sense or another the parts of justice include giving the other person what he deserves, avoiding harm which he does not deserve, observing proportionality in exchange, gratefully honoring God, and gratefully honoring parents. All these and other such senses grow from a single root idea.
Although some people still talk about the cardinal virtues, it is interesting how thoroughly the doctrine has been forgotten in the general culture. My students are both fascinated and astonished to learn that people talked about the Four Big Ones in the time of Aristotle in the fourth century B.C., Jesus in the first century A.D., St. Augustine in the fourth, St. Thomas in the thirteenth, George Washington in the eighteenth, and for a long, long time afterward. No one has told them.
And no, the Stoics weren’t the ones who discovered them. And no, the Freemasons weren’t. And no, they didn’t come from Tarot cards. You can get all that misinformation on the web.
Equally interesting is how we try to reinvent the doctrine. Although only in a haphazard way, people are always coming up with lists of important qualities. Psychologists who talk about “emotional intelligence” do it. The army does it. Schools do it. Driving across town, my eye lighted on a sports field, the wall of which was emblazoned with the words “Discipline. Accountability. Toughness.” Obviously someone thought these virtues were cardinal. Granted, they seem to have been pulled from the air, and not much of a case can be made that all virtues, or even all athletic virtues, depend on just those three. They are also pretty loose: Accountability to whom and for what?
But at least someone was trying to survey the territory of moral character. That deserves some applause.