The Cardinal Virtues, Value, and Justice

Walking home today from the undisclosed location in New York City where I spend most of my days, I passed a woman from Amnesty International who was very intent on stopping passers-by to discuss human rights. I smiled, avoided eye contact, and waved her off with a polite “not today” before I continued my walk home. As I passed her, I saw an unmistakable flicker of anger in her face, and I could almost hear her thoughts: Not today? How do you not have time to fight for human rights? Do you have no sense of basic human decency?

Many moons ago, I wrote a post here about my overwhelming sense of disengagement from the suffering of others. For anyone who didn’t read that post and doesn’t want to bother to look at it now, the general gist was as follows:

[W]here other people see suffering and are inflamed to act, to try to make the world a better place, I see it and go, ‘Yup. That’s suffering.’ And then I proceed about my daily business.

In other words, not only am I not able to imagine a better world, I can’t find it within myself to be upset that the world is not better than it is.

This is a pretty bleak and (I’m told) cynical outlook on the world. In brief, it’s an adamant refusal to care. There are a lot of big and scary issues affecting various disempowered demographics in the world (most notably women and minorities, be those minorities racial, religious, sexual, or otherwise), as well as the world as a whole (e.g. global warming*). I don’t deny the size, scariness, or reality of those issues; I just don’t necessarily care about them. I’m willing to accept the suffering of others to an extent that most find intolerable and, frankly, sickening.

I fear I may be one of those men, Alfred. I won’t start the fire, but having noticed that the world is burning, I’ll gladly sit by and watch rather than trying to put it out.

Now, this is all very dismal and dark, and may even have been embellished somewhat by my subconscious. I’m told my those near me that, loath though I am to admit it, I’m actually a very good person, and that I’m always eager to believe I’m crueler** than I really am. Nevertheless, hyperbole or not, there’s a kernel of truth in what I say.

And yet…

And yet I think my unmoved shadow-self is not just some dark passenger that rides hunched on my shoulders. I think it’s an integral part of me, and that my distaste for optimism and political engagement is derived from the affirmation of certain values that I hold dear, not just from the rejection of values I don’t hold.

Many people would accuse me of this. They’re not necessarily wrong.

Here’s the thing: It’s not that I don’t value justice (or equality, or general non-crappiness-of-life-for-the-rest-of-humanity). It’s that there is something else I value more. Value theory is a really interesting and complicated area of contemporary philosophy, and at its heart lies the central question: how do we prize one value over another when they come into conflict? There are certain things that everyone considers valuable (be that value monetary, aesthetic, moral, intellectual, or otherwise), but sometimes we find ourselves in a position where we choose not to pursue one value because doing so would infringe on the fulfillment of another. A classic example of this is the work-life balance: on the one hand, money and career success are valuable, but having a lot of money may come at the expense of a happy home life. So we choose one value or the other: do you want money, or do you want happiness?

To many of us, the answer to this and questions like it is a no-brainer. I hear some of you in the bleachers shouting “happiness!”. But the thing is, there are also people shouting “money!” just as loudly. Although the hierarchy of values may be clearly defined for you, there is nothing universal about the way individuals prioritize different values. The things that you consider most valuable may, for someone else, be least valuable.

So when I talk about being indifferent to injustice and suffering, I am not saying that I don’t value justice and general non-crappiness. I am saying, rather, that I value those things less than many other people do–that they are lower on my personal hierarchy of values.



In the classical world, there were four cardinal virtues. The first (which appears to be the dominant value for my Amnesty International friend) is Justice. The others are Wisdom, Courage (also called Strength), and Temperance.*** Three of these four cardinal virtues are instantly recognizable as cards from the Major Arcana of the Tarot. The fourth, Wisdom, is not immediately apparent, but I think it’s reasonable enough to say that the Hermit represents Wisdom in the context of the Tarot.****

So we have four great virtues, descended from antiquity to influence modern Tarot and the values that we hold in our modern society. Each of these virtues is, undeniably, good in its own right. I don’t think anyone would deny that it’s a good thing to want a just society, or a wise society, or a courageous/strong one, or one that is temperant (ahem, “balanced”, since “temperant” isn’t actually a word). The problem is that these four classical virtues often come into conflict with each other. To be brave, we sometimes have to be foolish. In the pursuit of justice, we must sometimes abandon the restrained attitude of Temperance. And so on.

'There's no such thing as a free lunch' -- that'll be ten bucks.'
If you own the copyright to this cartoon and want it taken down, just let me know.

I do value justice (or rather, Justice with a capital J). But I value it the least of the four cardinal virtues. The one I value the most is, without a doubt, Wisdom. I am the sort of person to watch injustice from afar, to try to evaluate it intellectually. I will always choose understanding a problem over fixing it. I’m a follower of the Hermit, watching kingdoms rise and fall from the top of a mountain a safe distance away. And in some ways, that inevitably leads me to stand by and become complacent in injustice***** (see the Desmond Tutu quote above), in ways that some people cannot abide.

The woman I met from Amnesty International was undoubtedly a justice-oriented person, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In many ways, I think it’s probably objectively more valuable and more beneficial to society as a whole. But it’s not who I am. It’s not what I value. And sometimes, that fundamental difference in values can lead to an unbridgeable gap in understanding between me and a well-meaning volunteer who glares holes in my back as I walk away from an opportunity to defend basic human rights.


*2016 was the hottest year on record, and was the third year in a row that global temperature records were set. Yaaaaay!

**Mary, Joseph, and Schmeezus, I could have sworn there were two Ls in the comparative form of the word “cruel”.

***Some really interesting things can be done in terms of the four cardinal virtues and the four elements. Temperance is water, Courage is fire, Wisdom is air, and that leaves Justice with earth.

****Once again, really interesting things to notice here. I don’t think I’ve ever written a post about the three septenaries in Tarot (note to self: do this next), but Strength, the Hermit, Justice, and Temperance all belong to the second septenary, which has to do with social and moral influences on human life.

*****And, for that matter, complacent in cowardice and excess.

4 thoughts on “The Cardinal Virtues, Value, and Justice

  1. Interesting. Have you read Paul Huson’s book Mystical Origins of the Tarot? In it, he covers the issue of the four virtues in the Tarot. The Hermit, High Priestess, and the World are three contenders for the virtue Prudence (as he calls Wisdom). Ultimately, he settles on the World for Prudence, based on historical versions of the card which show the woman standing on top of the world-orb (rather than within it), holding a mirror, which is the object supposed to have been held by Prudence. Whether you agree with this designation or not (I go back and forth on it, myself), it brings me to my next comment, which has to do with your elemental assignments. Again based on historical versions of the cards, Huson associated the cards with elements as follows: Fortitude (Strength) with Fire and the suit of Wands (since Fortitude was sometimes shown to be breaking a wand-like column rather than taming a lion), Justice with Air and the Swords (for obvious reasons), Temperance with Water and Cups (again, fairly self-explanatory), and Prudence with Earth and Coins (equating the mirror with the Coin based on shape). As with the World as Prudence, there is no definitive proof that Huson’s theory here is the correct one, since it seems to be based primarily on the objects held by the virtues rather than the virtues themselves (although that brings up the question of the symbolic nature of these objects and why they are held by each virtue), but I thought it would provide some food for thought in any case.


    1. Huson’s work is interesting and I think a lot of his reasoning is sound. However, he’s working from medieval (Christian) adaptations of the virtues, rather than from their Classical Greek iterations. It’s certainly possible–and even likely–that the Christian versions had a more direct impact on the formation of the Tarot, in which case his attribution of Prudence to the World makes perfect sense. However, Greek Wisdom is not quite the same as Christian Prudence. It’s less, well, prudish. The prototypical example of a wise hero in Greek myth is Odysseus (in contrast, say, to courageous Achilles). Wisdom for the Greeks was very much about the application of the intellect (it might better be called Cleverness), which is why I say that Wisdom is air and Justice is earth.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s