The cardinal virtues are wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. They are so called because they are traditionally regarded as the “hinge” (cardo) on which the rest of morality turns. We find them discussed in Plato’s Republicand given a more given systematic exposition in Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae.
For Plato, these virtues are related to the three main parts of the soul and the corresponding three main classes in his ideal city. Wisdom is the characteristic virtue of the highest part of the soul -- the rational part -- and of the highest class within the city, the ruling philosopher-kings. Courage is the characteristic virtue of the middle, spirited part of the soul, and of the soldiers who constitute the second main class in the city. Moderation is the characteristic attribute of the lowest, desiring part of the soul and of the lowest, productive class of the city. Justice in turn is the proper ordering of the three parts of the soul and the city, each doing its part.
When reason is in charge and the spirited part of the soul -- the part driven by a sense of honor and shame -- is doing reason’s bidding in keeping down the desiring part of the soul, allowing its appetites to be indulged only when reason dictates, the soul is just. And when the philosopher-kings -- those motivated by a rational, disinterested pursuit of the good of the city -- are in charge of the city, the soldiers following their lead in governing the city, and the productive class focusing their attention on that to which they are best suited (farming, building, craftsmanship, and the like), the city is just. Injustice is a deviation from this order -- the spirited part or the desiring part dominating the soul, or the soldiers or productive class dominating the government of the city.
Plato’s famous analysis of the four main types of unjust regime develops this theme. A timocracy or honor-oriented society puts the military virtues ahead of reason. This is disordered, but still the least bad form of unjust city in Plato’s view, since at least it is an objective and non-appetitive standard -- the will to pursue what is honorable and avoid what is shameful -- that is idealized. An oligarchy or money-oriented society is worse, because it is driven by the appetitive part of the soul, but it is still not the worstkind of regime, since the pursuer of wealth must at least puts chains on his appetites to some extent, respecting bourgeois values like thrift and long-term thinking. Democracy, as Plato understands it, is worse still, since it effectively puts the lowest appetites in charge. Like the never-satisfied and competing impulses toward food, sex, and drink that dominate a degenerate individual soul, a democratic society is dominated by the same impulses, and its social life and politics are chaotic, characterized by passing fads and resistant to the idea that there might be any permanent and objective standard against which the fads and impulses might be judged. Tyranny, the worst kind of regime, is essentially what results when a particular democratic soul, driven by especially strong appetites, imposes its will on the rest.
This analysis and its relevance to modern politics and culture deserve a write-up of their own, but for the moment let’s consider the fate of the cardinal virtues in a modern democratic society. The words “wisdom,” “courage,” “moderation,” and “justice” are certainly not absent in such societies. To some extent the content of the traditional virtues is even respected -- democratic citizens will approve of the courage they read about in military history or see portrayed in movies like Saving Private Ryan, will commend moderation where overindulgence might affect bodily health, and so forth.
But much more prominent than the cardinal virtues -- and to a large extent coloring the conception democratic man has of the content of the cardinal virtues -- are certain other character traits, such as open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance, and fairness. The list will be familiar, since the language of these “virtues” permeates contemporary pop culture and politics, and it can be said to constitute a kind of counterpoint to the traditional cardinal virtues. And in each case the counter-virtue entails a turn of just the sort one might expect given Plato’s analysis of democracy -- from the objective to the subjective, from a focus on the way things actually are to a focus on the way one believes or desires them to be.
Hence wisdom, as a Plato or Aquinas conceives of it, is outward-oriented, involving a grasp of objective truth in the speculative and practical spheres. Open-mindedness, by contrast, is oriented inwardly, toward the subjective, concerned not with objective reality itself so much as with a willingness to consider alternative views about objective reality.
Courage has to do with the will to do what one ought to do in the face of danger or difficulty. The courageous man will do his duty even though he is afraid or feels uncomfortable or put upon, and we praise him precisely for ignoring these subjective feelings. Empathy, by contrast, involves precisely a focus on such feelings -- indeed, even to the point of sympathizing with the one who has failed to be courageous. Courage says: “Yes, it was difficult; but you should have done it anyway.” Empathy says: “I understand why you didn’t do it; it was so difficult!”
Similarly, moderation tells us that we sometimes need to refrain from indulging our appetites, in some cases even when we have an extremely powerful desire to indulge them. Tolerance, by contrast, refuses to condemn such indulgence. Toleration works in tandem with empathy, as moderation works together with courage. Just as courage is reason’s ally in keeping the appetites at bay -- it reminds us that it is weak and shameful to indulge when reason says we shouldn’t -- so too is empathy the ally of the appetitive part of the soul in its war with reason, giving it permission to indulge and to ignore what unkind, unfeeling reason is saying. Courage and moderation command: “You’re a human being! Don’t act like animal!” Empathy and toleration respond: “We understand, go ahead, you’re just an animal anyway!”
Finally, whereas justice requires us to conform our desires to the order of things, fairness commands the order of things to conform itself to our desires. Justice says: “John is richer than you are and Paul has more authority. But that is as it should be, since John worked harder and Paul is wiser.” Fairness says: “John is richer than you are and Paul has more authority. That’s not fair!” Justice treats equals equally and unequals unequally. Fairness treats everyone equally; or rather, it treats everyone the way the one shouting “Unfairness!” thinks they should be treated.
Now, all of that makes the counter-virtues in question sound pretty bad -- or it should make them sound bad, anyway -- but I hasten to add that none of this entails that there is nothing of value in open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance, and fairness. Far from it. The objective truth at which wisdom aims is not all built into us and it is not all obvious; it needs to be acquired through hard work. Open-mindedness facilitates that. Realistically inculcating the virtues, including courage, requires an understanding of actual human circumstances, including human weaknesses. That requires empathy. The road to virtue is, given human weakness, inevitably paved with repeated failures to live up to it. Tolerance of these failures (albeit not approval of them) is, accordingly, no less necessary to the realistic inculcation of virtue than empathy is. And some inequalities really are rightly decried as unfair insofar as they arise from injustice. (John might be richer than you because he is more hard-working. But it might instead be because he is a thief or a fraudster or someone who knows how to game the system.)
So, there can be real value in open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance, and fairness, and a wise man will acknowledge this. But it is crucial to see that their value is instrumental. They are of secondary value, of significance precisely insofar as they facilitate the acquisition of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. A soul which strives primarily to acquire those traditional cardinal virtues, even while acknowledging the value within limits of open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance, and fairness in the process of acquiring them, is rightly ordered. But a soul which primarily values open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance, and fairness, and either rejects the traditional cardinal virtues or relegates them to second place, is disordered. Similarly, a rightly ordered society will value the traditional cardinal virtues over open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance, and fairness, whereas a society which celebrates the latter over the former is disordered. Even if it uses the language of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice, it will not respect or promote true virtue, but only its counterfeit.