Cicero’s Four Cardinal Virtues


According to Cicero, the sources of moral righteousness are four in number (De Officiis I.15):

1.  The perception and intelligent development of truth (In perspicientia veri sollertiaque versatur);

2.  The preservation of civil society, with the faithful rendering to everyone what he is properly owed (In hominum societate tuenda tribuendoque suum cuique et rerum contractarum fide);

3.  The greatness and power of a noble and unconquerable spirit (In animi excelsi atque invicti magnitudine ac robore);

4.  In the order and moderation of things which consist of temperance and self-control (In omnium, quae fiunt quaeque dicuntur, ordine et modo, in quo inest modestia et temperantia).

What is moral and good, according to Cicero, has to spring from one or more of these sources.  They can be connected with each other, depending on the situation.  The first of these sources, as listed above, revolves around the search for truth.  The remaining three relate to our conduct within organized society.

And this is where Cicero makes an important point.  The search for truth is a morally righteous thing.

Truth is not primarily an intellectual pursuit; it is a moral one.  It is an impulse that arises from the deepest core of our moral being.


To learn more about Cicero’s views on conduct, self-improvement, and ethics, check out my translations of his timeless classics On Duties and Stoic Paradoxes.


4 thoughts on “Cicero’s Four Cardinal Virtues

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  2. Thanks for posting; this helps my reading of II.45-47 in the De Finibus (using the Woolf translation). There’s a notable consistency between the De Finibus and the De Officiis here since Cicero gives the same list of virtues in the same order in DF II.46-7 as he does in DO I.15–i.e. wisdom, justice, courage, temperance. What strikes me is that there are also a few interesting differences in emphasis despite this similarity:

    Wisdom – The “perception and intelligent development of truth” above gets a little more commentary from Cicero in DF II.46, where he says our “desire to know the truth” is “most readily manifested in our hours of leisure, when we are eager to discover even what goes on in the celestial sphere.” He’s clear that this desire is “implanted in us by nature.” So, leisure that is faithful to our nature will also be leisure with moral worth, since wisdom, broadly construed, is the goal of healthy leisure. Presumably, immoral (or unnatural) leisure is occupied with other concerns.

    Justice – In both DF II.45 and 46 Cicero says, or at least strongly implies, that justice is necessarily subsequent to wisdom, whereas this ranking of priority (even in implication) is absent in DO I.15. Further, in II.45 Cicero seems to be making a causal claim about their relationship: it’s because we love truth that we’re able to live in society, since society requires a convergence between the speech and behavior (moral conduct, but also craftsmanship) of individuals which isn’t possible without a prior disposition to truth that manifests itself in intelligence. I take Cicero to be saying that since our relationships get progressively less “natural” as we move concentrically outward from the nuclear family, the quality of social bond increasingly rests on a corresponding shared commitment to truth to make up for the absence of natural affection. Justice as a predisposition to love “what is trustworthy, open and consistent; and likewise to hate what is deceptive, false and misleading, such as fraud, perjury, malice and injustice” seems to spring from this confluence of an ontologically prior love of truth with concentric social rings marked by decreasing natural affection.

    Courage – A rhetorically very similar description of courage’s dignity comes up in DF II.46 as in DO I.15 (“…lofty and noble, better suited to giving orders than to taking them. It regards all human misfortune as not just endurable but trivial. Reason takes wings and soars, fearing nothing, yielding to no one, ever invincible.”). What stands out to me is that the emphasis is somewhat different in DF II.45, where rather than praising courage for its strength alone, he connects this strength with our ability to act morally under any circumstances (“…[P]eople in general…do a great many things not because they see any advantage ensuing, but for no other reason than that it is the decent, right and honorable thing to do.”). As a side note, I’m far more familiar with Kant than I am with Cicero, and it’s well-known among Kantians that Kant incorporated much of Cicero into his ethics. This theme of reason’s ability to guide our actions in defiance of all external forces appears often, but is used in such a general way by Kant that it’s no longer related to the specific virtue of courage so much as it is one of Kant’s definitions of virtue in general. Cicero’s concept of courage also appears in Kant’s aesthetics, as the foundation of what he calls the dynamical sublime in the Critique of Judgment.

    Temperance – DF II.47 says temperance follows from these first three, but this is entirely absent from DO I.15. From wisdom, temperance “dreads thoughtlessness;” from justice, it “shrinks from harming anyone;” from courage, it is encouraged to be firm. Here at least, temperance is portrayed as the outcome of smashing the three other virtues together. This seems to me like a bad move, since it raises the question of why we should stop this crayon-melting of virtues at four. Would we get a fifth virtue if we, say, combine temperance, courage, and justice? Scruples aside, Cicero’s account in DF II.45-47 is worth remembering because, with the exception of courage, it offers something like a deduction of the 4 cardinal virtues. I’m not aware of any other ancient philosopher who

    I’m arriving at Cicero backwards via Kant, so these differences in emphasis may crop up later in the De Officiis and I just don’t know because of my relative unfamiliarity with the text.


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