Vol. XXVIII No. 8 — August 1950

Seven Cardinal Virtues

The word cardinal comes from the Latin cardinalis, essential, and from the Greek kardan, to swing; therefore cardinal means the first, principal, most important, on which other matters depend.

Freemasonry names but four cardinal virtues as such: the original principal virtues of antiquity; temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice. But Freemasonry also refers to Jacob’s ladder — called the “theological ladder” in many rituals — the three principal rounds of which denominate the virtues of faith, hope and charity, which the ancient church added to the four cardinal virtues as the theological virtues, the seven constituting what was considered most admirable in human character.

Freemasonry also has its principal tenets, which might as well be called cardinal as they are among the most important. In most jurisdictions these are brotherly love, relief and truth; in some, friendship, morality and brotherly love. Some jurisdictions teach both sets of tenets.

Tenet is a curious word in its many derivations and permutations. Latin has tendere, “to keep holding” and also tennis, thin, from which the French have tendre and English tender, meaning delicate. Many words come from these roots: tenure, the right to hold; tenement, the fact of holding (now applied to a building which is held); tenon, a projection to hold; tenor, the meaning held in a document or discourse; tend, from attend — to stretch towards, as the hearing and attention; tense, tension, implying a stretching and a holding back; and tenet, a belief strongly held as a matter of faith. There are many more, but these examples are sufficient to attest the importance and the versatility of the syllables.

Temperance, prudence, and justice are all mentioned in the Great Light. Fortitude does not appear in that form, but courage does, many times. Wisdom is much set forth in the Bible and wisdom was one of the original cardinal virtues of the Greeks, who had wisdom instead of prudence, and courage instead of fortitude in their list. This seems but a matter of words, since prudence is a form of wisdom and fortitude a brand of courage.

These virtues first definitely appear in philosophy and ethics in the time of Plato (4th century, B.C.), but he implies that they were already traditional. Plato considered these virtues innate; Aristotle believed them acquired by habit. It is interesting to note that philosophers generally follow Plato but that those who agree to some extent at least with Aristole (who enlarged the list of virtues), think that benevolence is almost, if not quite, as important as the four cardinal virtues. Certainly Freemasonry, in its brotherly love and relief, its friendship and its expression of selfless interest in another as set forth in the five points, stresses benevolence, although not under that name.

Temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice are functions of the mind. A man restrains his desires when he practices temperance; he undergoes danger and trials for a cause by means of fortitude; he is prudent when he allows wisdom to rule his actions, and justice is wholly a man made conception. Moralists who form systems for the practice of ethics believe that the heart and soul, emotions and feelings, must also have play in the development of the perfect character; hence the Pauline triad of faith, hope, and love (or charity as it is translated in the King James version — love is the reading in the authorized version).

“Wisdom, strength, and beauty” are emphasized in lodge by the three of four cardinal points of the compass — East, West and South. If the words are taken literally, strength and beauty are not virtues. Masonry makes of beauty not only that which is beautiful, but that which makes for beauty, constructs beauty, beautifies structures; Hiram, the widow’s son, may or may not himself have been beautiful but he conceived and wrought beauty; in this sense, beauty is, indeed, a virtue.

Strength is either power or resistance; a man’s arms have power, a rope or a log are strong to resist the pull of power. There is no virtue in either as both may be used for good or ill. Virtue or its lack are in the use, not the thing. But the strength taught in Masonry is “the strength to support” which implies a desire to support; whether it be a building or a fellow being, the desire to make strong to avoid evil is virtuous.

Hence strength and beauty can be considered as underlying the wisdom which — called prudence — is one of the cardinal virtues. The five points of fellowship also find their place among the teachings of Masonic virtues, for considered as a whole they spell benevolence and unselfishness, both of which are parts of brotherly love, relief and friendship.

Here are a few examples other than Paul on the subjects:

If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. (Matthew 17:20)

If we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it. (Romans 8:24)

And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8)

To many, if not to most initiates, the lecture of the Entered Apprentice Degree which teaches the four cardinal virtues “means just what it says.” Temperance is abstinence from strong drink; fortitude is not telling what you know even if threatened with bodily harm; prudence here seems directed to keeping Masonry for Masons and not informing the profane; and justice is apparently more a matter of laws and courts and judges — (“cement and support of civil society”) — than an inherent quality in a good mind.

Preston, who was father to the Webb work which is the foundation of most American Masonic ritual, was concerned with making Freemasonry a liberal education for men who had had few if any educational advantages. He wrote, as he believed, in the language which the majority of those who sought admission to the ranks of Masonry would best understand.

No Mason today would depart from the Prestonian work, but all recognize that the world has come a long way since Preston’s day. The modern Masonic conception of the four cardinal virtues reaches greater heights than Preston explored.

Temperance as a virtue applying to only strong drink is modern; temperance as a virtue set forth in the Old Testament meant a reasonable restraint upon all desires; excess was deplorable in those days whether it was food, or drink, or lust, or war, or revenge, or pride, or covetousness, or sloth, or malice, or indifference to others and so on. In the Masonic teaching of temperance means, literally, a tempering — Latin temporare, to apportion, moderate, regulate all human actions; in this it is akin to the ancient wisdom which makes it one of the four cardinal virtues.

Fortitude in the Masonic lecture seems to be directed against cowans who might attack a Mason, even as a highwayman; the initiate must have fortitude to withstand “any illegal attack” rather than disclose the secrets of the Craft. A well known story — “Any pain, peril or danger” - is based on this interpretation.

This seems to put fortitude on a level with limited intelligence and belittles a virtue of which the Greeks thought most highly. Fortitude is not only physical courage in the face of “any pain, peril or danger” but moral courage; the strength to make a decision which may have undesirable consequences, because it is right; the venturesomeness and audacity to fly in the face of all accepted standards, because it seems right.

So considered, fortitude becomes what its inner Masonic meaning intends, a foundation stone of character, and not a mere ability to refrain from giving the ransom of Masonic secrets in exchange for freedom from danger.

Prudence in Masonry means wisdom; wisdom was anciently a cardinal virtue and the mere changing of the syllables by which it is denominated does not change its nature. It is the wisdom which was meant by the writer of Proverbs who said "the heart of the prudent getteth knowledge.”

Freemasonry is a system of wisdom of heart, wisdom of mind, wisdom, if the Mason so will its, of soul. It is an approach of man to his Creator. It is a looking forward to better days and a looking up to higher things. Its whole structure is aimed at helping a man in the formation of good character. Wisdom is an essential for this, from thinking, rather than from education and teaching. Consider prudence as meaning a wisdom of both heart and mind and it becomes something high and holy and much more impressive than mere precaution, judged by the modern and colloquial meaning of the word prudence.

As for justice, while the lecture does set forth one of its important aspects (the keeping together of society and making all men equal before the law) its Masonic meaning must now be considered as going beyond that. Justice is usually represented by a blindfolded woman holding scales and a sword. The ancient Greeks made statues of Themis, or Justice, as a woman of mature years with large and wide open eyes. To the Greeks, Themis was the personification of a divine law of right as opposed to might; a right which could not be changed by human influences; a right which was inherent and unquestionable.

It is in this sense that the initiate may consider the fourth cardinal virtue. He may, and doubtless does, admire the administration of justice as it is given in courts of law by learned men in accord with pronouncements laid down by the supreme legislatures. But justice in the Masonic sense is something loftier than this — the justice that beholds with open eyes rather than that which weighs blindfolded and threatens with a sword.

In the last analysis, the justice of civilized society rests upon force. In a criminal case a prisoner is either found innocent or guilty. If the latter it is force — the force of a policeman, prison bars, a jailor, which “enforce” the law which is the handmaiden of justice. In a civil suit a judgment is rendered for plaintiff or defendant. Both must abide by it or suffer a legal penalty which will be administered by force. If a court awards damages and they are not paid, the law will stretch forth the arm of an officer of the law and, by force, take them from bank account or safe deposit box. Good citizens obey the law without force but the force is there to make civil justice work.

The justice taught in Masonry includes this, of course — indeed the ritual so specifies. But it also means the abstract justice of personal judgment, the justice by which a man governs his actions and determines his conduct towards others with no force whatever behind his practice save that which he supplies. The vast majority of men live up to their obligations because they wish to, not because they will go to jail if they do not. It is the justice inherent in a man’s soul which Freemasonry stresses in her inner meaning; the justice which is behind all unselfishness, all altruism, all self-sacrifice, accomplished “because they are right” and not “because otherwise is force and prison bars.”

The “theological virtues” which we have via Jacob’s ladder: faith, hope, and charity (or love); the principal tenets: brotherly love, relief, and truth, and friendship, morality, and brotherly love; can easily be considered as variations in description of the same conceptions. Brotherly love and charity (or love) are the same; morality is one facet of truth; friendship certainly encompasses relief of the friend.

“The chain of sincere affection” which demands soothing of sorrow, sympathy, compassion, and restoring “peace to troubled minds,” are evidence that relief and friendship belong together. Faith and hope are inseparably interwoven in brotherly love, for faith and hope are altruistic in the extreme and brotherly love is an expression of unselfishness.

Like other systems of ethics and teachings of character, Freemasonry tries in many ways to convey her gentle behests to the understanding of her hearers. Who shall question her because she repeats for emphasis, emphasizes for importance, and lays distinctions without differences before her devotees?

Truth, one of the principal tenets as explained in the lecture, appertains to the absence of deceit; here the man who is "true” is “telling the truth.” He practices “sincerity and plain dealing.” But truth is developed throughout the degrees in its higher meaning of the ultimate foundation of knowledge; the eternal verities. Here again the ritual commences with what is easily understood by the average candidate yet provides the greater meaning for those whose education has made them thoughtful. Character is not only for the Ph.D. and the graduate summa cum laude; it is for the ignorant, the illiterate, the common man, the laborer as well as the overseer. In Masonry each may find, appreciate and understand the definition and the worth of “truth” as his education and experience make possible.

One of the many joys of the gentle philosophy of Freemasonry is the total absence of threat, punishment, or catalog of errors to be avoided. Not in the Ancient Craft are there “seven deadly sins” or “venial sins” or "mortal sins.” Not in her instructions is “thou shalt not” except in obligations where it is “I will not.” Like all else in Freemasonry, assuming these promises is voluntary and not made a mandate. Freemasonry's commands are happy commands; she considers neither initiates nor members as sinners, erring humans, and decadent characters. She has light to see by, not dark pits in which feet may stray and a traveler fall. One of the great holds the fraternity has upon those who love her is this note of faith in man as well as faith in a Great Architect, and the seven cardinal virtues are attestations of this for him who may read as he runs.

The Masonic Service Association of North America