The Four Cardinal Virtues: Guideposts for War and Peace

In an earlier article I touched upon the importance of martial artists committing themselves to some sort of ethical framework by which their potentially dangerous skills could be harmoniously integrated into society. 

History has given us a wide variety of warrior codes and martial ethics from a great many times and cultures. But although there are elements of these that are useful and insightful for us today, they are generally products of their time and place of origin of which much—the maintenance of rigid class divisions, the use of violence to preserve personal ‘honour’, or unquestioning loyalty to one’s ‘superiors’ even unto death, for example—is less relevant to us today. 

For myself, I have found that another set of guiding principles exists which is both of considerable age yet timeless enough to speak to us now. While not specifically martial, they have proven very useful in managing martial ability—the capacity for trained violence—both in times of peace and war. Furthermore, these qualities have shown themselves to possess both strategic and tactical applications, giving us not only a means of approaching daily life, but also a set of tools to effectively deploy our training in combat. 

I am referring to the four qualities known in the West as the Cardinal Virtues: Fortitude, Prudence, Temperance, and Justice

The Cardinal virtues go back at least to Antiquity, being outlined by Plato and Aristotle and later by Roman luminaries such as Cicero and Marcus Aurelius. They were later incorporated into Christian thought, and thus carried on in the works of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and other medieval and Early modern philosophers through to the present. While their packaging in this form is particularly Western, they are at the same time universal; qualities which would not be out of place in any culture, past or present.

I’d like to take this opportunity to briefly explore these four virtues with you, and discuss how they serve not just as a guide to living, but also to effectively putting our martial skills to use. 

Fortitude – The Means to Act 

‘Training is nothing! Will is everything! The will to act.’  ~ Ra’s Al Ghul, Batman Begins

Fortitude generally encompasses both strength and physical capability, as well as the courage and determination to act in the face of danger. 

Applied to the martial arts, cultivating Fortitude means, first and foremost, acquiring both the physical ability to perform the techniques, and a sufficient grounding in the them. Once our body is suitably conditioned, and we are comfortable with performing our techniques, then comes the second part: the ‘will to act’ as Mr. Al Ghul so succinctly put it. This means not only the willingness and ability to bring our techniques to bear, but also to do so in situations where our natural impulse would be to flinch or retreat.

In day-to-day life, Fortitude teaches us first the necessity of preparation; of doing the work. If you are not prepared for what you are trying to accomplish, you will struggle to act even when it is easy, nevermind when circumstances are difficult. Furthermore, we learn to overcome timidity and second-guessing ourselves to take that first step. Finally, we learn to cultivate grace under fire, so to speak; the willingness to keep pressing forward even when things are hard and there is much set out against us. 

Prudence – When to Act

‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’ ~ Viktor Frankl

Prudence is often referred to alternatively as Wisdom. It is the ability, when faced with a particular situation, to select the most suitable course of action. Moreover, Prudence teaches us not only how best to act, but also when the best action is no action. 

For martial artists, this virtue is useful when, in the heat of the moment, we are required to choose from our catalogue of techniques the most appropriate one in response to what is in front of us. As with Fortitude, this will often be in stark contrast to our instinctual response, so the practice of Prudence can also be seen as the difference between appropriate action and reflexive reaction. 

Much the same can be said for applying Prudence to our daily living. Navigating society with grace comes in no small part from knowing how best to act in the variety of circumstances that one could encounter. But we also need to learn to pick our battles, so to speak, and know when not responding at all is the best course of action. 

Temperance – How to Act

‘Temperance referred not to abstaining, but going the right length and no further.’ ~ C.S Lewis

While Prudence grants insight into the appropriate course of action, Temperance governs the degree to which it is performed. Although sometimes associated these days with prudish restraint thanks to the not quite aptly-named Temperance Movement and similar cultural artefacts, a truer understanding of Temperance is the notion of ‘just right’; no more or less than is necessary. 

This is an essential principle for martial artists in ensuring both the effectiveness of techniques and maintaining the stamina to continue fighting for extended periods. Too little energy put behind an attack or defense will render it useless. On the other hand, too much energy will at best make you exert yourself more than is needed, or at worst leave you over-committed and prone to your opponent taking advantage. The middle road between these two is the obvious best course. 

Such a middle road applies to all aspects of life. By avoiding excess, whether in terms of food and drink, other activities such as screen time or sleep, or even our jobs, we keep our bodies and minds in good working order and see to it that we get things done without burning ourselves out needlessly. At the same time, if you’re going to do something, there’s no point in doing it by halves and ending up with an unsatisfactory outcome for your troubles. 

Justice – Why to Act

So, a man of Ren [Human-Heartedness] helps others become established if he desires to establish himself, and helps others reach their goals if he desires to reach his. Being able to make analogies between his own situations and those of others around him could be called the approach to Ren. ~ Gang Xu

Justice is the most difficult of the Four Virtues to articulate, and yet it is the single most important. For it is the quality which underlies and generates the other three. 

In the most general sense, cultivating Justice means cultivating a sense of equity; ensuring that you and those around you co-exist on the level, in a spirit of fairness. Conflicts and transgressions are dealt with not for the goal of revenge or punishment, but out of a desire to see this balance restored and maintained. 

There is no division between the ways that Justice is practised from the perspectives of the martial arts or in daily life. In both settings, for the one cultivating Justice, their activities are performed in the spirit of promoting and, when necessary, defending this principle. Of particular importance is to avoid falling into the trap of acting with righteousness or of blind adherence to the letter of the law, and instead keep in mind that every situation has its own unique circumstances and there are some cases where the rules don’t quite apply the way they normally would.

It’s not enough to simply practise these qualities, although that is certainly a good start. The ultimate goal is to not practise them at all, but rather to live them. One of the best articulations of what I mean by this comes from the renowned 12th-century scholar and philosopher, Hugh of St. Victor. In his De arca Noe morali (On the Morality of Noah’s Ark), Hugh describes three levels of cultivating morality. 

At the first level, we learn about the qualities we wish to cultivate, and begin to make deliberate efforts adjust ourselves to better align with them.

At the second level, we have applied ourselves to this deliberate cultivation long enough, and with sufficient discipline, that we are comfortable maintaining them as parts of our lives. Yet, at this point, doing so is still a matter of conscious intention. 

At the third and final level, the qualities have become so infused into ourselves as a result of extended practice that we live them without any effort at all. They have simply become part of who we are and how we behave. Nowadays we might summarise this approach as ‘fake it till you make it’. 

The way this applies to the cultivation of the four virtues, both as martial principles and as guideposts for living, is clear. First we learn what these qualities are and how we practice them in our lives, both on and off the field. Eventually we achieve proficiency and comfort with applying them, but the real work doesn’t stop there. Only when they become second nature, as reflexive and normal to us as breathing, have we truly achieved our goal.