Landscape of Ancient Greece, by Pierre Henri de Valenciennes

The 4 Cardinal Virtues: Stoicism’s Roadmap to the Best Life Possible

The Stoics think the only thing needed for a good, happy life is excellent character, something we can all develop — regardless of our circumstances — by cultivating four core virtues. This article discusses what the four virtues are, and how we can live up to them.

Jack Maden
By Jack Maden  |  March 2023


While Aristotle’s golden mean suggests virtuous or excellent character is simply the result of using reason well in all that we do, the Stoics — following Plato — home in on four virtues in particular:

  • Wisdom. Understanding the world and successfully navigating its complexity.
  • Courage. Standing up for what’s right.
  • Justice. Treating others with respect and dignity.
  • Temperance. Responding to situations appropriately, without excess or deficiency.

These four cardinal virtues were actually later incorporated into Christianity by the philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas, who added three more (hope, faith, and charity) to create the seven heavenly virtues, which stand in opposition to the seven deadly sins. They also feature in some form in virtually every other global religion.

Putting their lasting influence to one side, the four cardinal virtues should be thought of as the Stoic roadmap to the good life. If you can live up to them, then you will achieve the ultimate end in life, Stoics advise: eudaimonia (meaning happiness or flourishing).

Why? Because the four cardinal virtues represent the peak of rational human behavior: living up to them means living in perfect accordance with our rational natures.

In fact, Zeno, the ancient Greek founder of Stoicism, describes happiness (i.e. embodying the four cardinal virtues) as simply ‘living in agreement’ — agreement with ourselves, agreement with circumstances outside of our control, and agreement with the nature of the cosmos.

The demands of living up to the four cardinal virtues

It is one thing to describe the characteristics necessary for being a good or virtuous person. It is another to actually live up to them. Practicing wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance is all well and good — but what about when we’re hungry? What about when we’re tired? Can’t we sometimes just relax and give ourselves a break?

The Stoics might respond that, well, the life of excellence is demanding. Being a good person in the face of all that life throws at you is demanding.

No one is born with mastery of the four cardinal virtues. We must work at them, all the time. This is what it takes to live a life we can ultimately be proud of, the Stoics think.

The demanding nature of Stoicism is what leads the three major Roman Stoics — Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — to dedicate so much of their writing to practical advice (see our pick of their and Stoicism’s best books here).

Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius
Though all lived in the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries, the lives of the Roman Stoics were very different. Seneca (4 BCE - 65 CE), left, was adviser to the Roman Emperor Nero, and was eventually exiled and forced to take his own life, as depicted in Peter Paul Rubens’ famous 1615 painting. Epictetus (50 CE - 135 CE), center, was a slave who gained his freedom and set up a philosophical school. Marcus Aurelius (121 CE - 180 CE), right, was Emperor of Rome during a time of constant crisis, be it war or plague, and outlived most of his children.

Drawing on their wide-ranging experiences, the Stoics are intent on equipping us (and, as we’ll see, themselves) with the tools and techniques we need to live good lives in the face of both everyday fluctuations (being hungry, tired) and genuine adversity (persecution, grief).

Develop the four cardinal virtues with an evening journal

For example, one important device for the Stoics is the evening journal — a tool for self-reflection to help us learn from our experiences and better ourselves.

In his essay On Anger, Seneca helpfully explains what this involves in detail:

The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: ‘What bad habit of yours have you cured today? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?’ Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat. What can be more admirable than this fashion of discussing the whole of the day's events? How sweet is the sleep which follows this self-examination? How calm, how sound, and careless is it when our spirit has either received praise or reprimand, and when our secret inquisitor and censor has made his report about our morals?

By knowing our own judgment awaits us at the end of the day, Seneca says, we can better check our less desirable behaviors, and day-by-day develop our characters. He continues:

I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my case before myself: when the lamp is taken out of my sight… I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done: I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, ‘I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore’?... A good man delights in receiving advice: all the worst men are the most impatient of guidance.

It’s not only Seneca that recommends the practice of daily self-reflection. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations — the most famous and widely-read Stoic text — is simply a collection of his personal journal entries over the course of around a decade. It was never intended for public readership; it’s just him at the end of each day reflecting on how he can be better the next.

And, even though he was a Roman emperor writing almost 2,000 years ago, the struggles Marcus writes about are often remarkably relatable to our lives today. When you’re next finding it difficult to get out of bed one cold morning, for instance, consider this passage:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’ So you were born to feel ‘nice’? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands? You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you.

And, when you’re just annoyed by people in general, consider this passage:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own ― not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate them. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on them: these are unnatural.

All of the practical advice in Marcus’s Meditations was intended for himself, because he felt he wasn’t doing an optimal job as a human being, and was determined to better himself.

This is perhaps equal parts reassuring, daunting, and inspiring: that one of the strongest advocates and practitioners of Stoicism struggled daily to apply its lessons himself.

The therapeutic use of philosophy

Beyond the evening journal and self-reflection, the Stoics also provide much more advice for helping us live in accordance with the four cardinal virtues in the face of adversity.

In this way, Stoicism displays a key similarity with its rival philosophical school, Epicureanism, in that it recommends philosophy as therapy.

The Garden of Epicurus

We are all capable of happiness and living well, both philosophies agree: we just have false beliefs about what will make us happy. Philosophy can act as a healing balm to undermine our false beliefs about the world and thus rid us of pain and anxiety, and ultimately empower us to live happy lives with untroubled minds.

While Epicureans have the fourfold cure (which summarizes the first four aphorisms of Epicurus’s Principal Doctrines), one of the most crucial therapeutic devices in Stoicism for helping us live happy lives is the so-called dichotomy of control.

Learn more about Stoicism

You can learn exactly what the dichotomy of control entails — as well as additional Stoic advice for mastering our emotions, dealing with adversity, living up to the four cardinal virtues, and facing up to death (as Seneca advises in his essay, On the Shortness of Life) — in our new course, Philosophies for Living: The Ultimate Guide to Enriching Your Personal Philosophy.

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