The Cardinal Virtues

Posted by Byron Pendason on , in Heathenry, Philosophical musings, Reconstruction, Stoicism

Wes hāl!1 One of the things that Heathenry lacks is a definitive cohesive theory on ethics. The reason for this is due to its tendency to be based upon reconstructionist methodology, and the fact is that no records from the pre-Christian Heathens survive. The closest we have is parts of the Poetic Edda, but even that comes to us from the Christians that wrote it down and probably modified it to better fit their worldview.

When someone asks questions about a religion’s ethics, they’re generally expecting a list of dos and don’ts, because that’s what we’ve been given from Christianity (the Ten commandments). But virtue ethics is based upon an entirely different model of ethics altogether, and this is the model that most attempts at codifying Heathen ethics have taken. In this blog post, I’m going to explore the Cardinal Virtues of ancient philosophy, explore how it can be integrated into a Heathen lifestyle. So let’s dive in!

Virtue Ethics

Systems of ethics can be divided into three categories. There’s duty or rules based ethics, consequences based ethics, and virtue based ethics. All three characteristics (rules/duty, consequences, and virtue) can be found in most systems of ethics, but they tend to have one as their main focus. Virtue ethics focuses on developing one’s virtue, a moral character of excellence. With Heathenry being a religion that highly values reputation (which can be seen as other people’s perception of a person’s virtue), it makes sense that virtue would be the main focus of most Heathen systems of ethics.

Virtue ethics focus on the development of a good moral character rather than focus on lists of rules or duties to others. They do this by providing lists of virtues, which are characteristics that are meant to be memorized. Practitioners can reflect upon their actions to see where they’ve fallen short so they know where they need to improve themselves. The idea is that if one has a virtuous character, they will make the right decision naturally.

Heathen Systems of Virtue Ethics

The question is, where do you derive these virtues from? The most famous list of Heathen virtues is probably the Nine Noble Virtues. Supposedly derived from the Eddas and Norse Sagas, the nine virtues in this list are courage, truth, honor, fidelity, discipline, hospitality, self reliance, industriousness, and perseverance. While this seems like a good list of virtues, the list has been tainted from being formulated by a racist Heathen organization (the Odinic Rite) and being adopted by the folkist group Asatru Folk Assembly. As such, the Nine Noble Virtues are typically shunned in inclusive Heathen spaces.

But even beyond it’s problematic origins, I see a problem with citing self-reliance as an ancient virtue. People in the ancient world were reliant on their families and their communities for their own survival. There’s a reason that outlawry was such an effective form of punishment; it was often a death sentence. Other than self-reliance, though, I think the virtues themselves might make a good starting point for developing an in ethical system.

The Invaeonic Society recently released its list of cardinal virtues. There are seven virtues on this list: Courage, decency, piety/devotion, fidelity, magnanimity, prudence, and truthfulness. The author gleaned these virtues from the Old English corpus, choosing those virtues which the Anglo-Saxons seemed to admire the most. This is also a good list of virtues and, if consistently followed, would lead one to living a virtuous life.

The problem that I see with these lists is that I feel they’re overly reliant on Heroic literature. I am not sure that these ancient sources were written with teaching morality in mind, they were written to entertain and/or preserve their culture. While it’s generally a good thing to emulate one’s heroes, it can sometimes be difficult to glean from a story about a person with super human powers what one should do.

I also see a potential issue in that these sources are all post-Christian. All of them were recorded by Christians who were openly hostile to the various pagan faiths. I’m not suggesting these sources are worthless, but merely saying that we probably need a non-Christian check for them.

Fortunately, we have related cultures where pre-Christian pagans wrote their own stuff down. I am referring to, of course, the Romans and the Greeks. There are differences of culture, of course, between the Germanic tribes, the city-states of Greece, and the Republic (and later Empire) of Rome. But these cultural differences are usually obvious, and the similarities are plenty enough that scholars have been able to reconstruct quite a bit about the common culture from which they derived thousands of years before.

Simply put, I think the paganism of the Greeks and Romans would be closer in theology and morals to the pre-Christian Germanic tribes than the Christian clergy that wrote and/or recorded our Heroic literature such as Beowulf or the Sagas. So let’s look at what their ethics were based upon, attempt to translate it to the Germanic worldview, and see if what we get fits into a Heathen lifestyle or not.

The Cardinal Virtues

The cardinal virtues come to us via Greek philosophy. They were first recorded by Plato in his Republic, but its near universality in the post-Socratic schools of Greek philosophy leads me to think it goes back to at least Socrates. It’s a distillation of their ethics into four virtues. These virtues are prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice.

We have an Old English translation of a Latin work on philosophy (The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius), which mentions the cardinal virtues. From this, we can glean how the Anglo-Saxons probably saw each of these concepts and how they may have applied them, and from that fit them into our own ethical theory.

Modern English Old English
Prudence Wærscipe
Temperance Metgung
Fortitude Ellen
Justice Rihtwisnes

Let’s go over each word, and see what we can glean from the meanings of these words. Keep in mind that these virtues were often seen as not independent of each other but rather interconnected. Very rarely will a decision involve just one of these virtues, but rather will need consideration from the angle of more than just one of them. They can, therefore, be thought of as skills that need to be developed in order to develop a moral character of excellence.

The Old English word for prudence is wærscipe, from the root wær, meaning aware, wary, cautious. (The first few stanzas of the Havamal come to my mind when I think about this etymology.) We should be cautious in all our actions, being wary of all the dangers it could lead to, staying aware of the consequences (both positive and negative) of what will come from them. It is, therefore, practical wisdom that helps us determine what is right and wrong. This practical wisdom is gleaned from our experiences, experiences of other, and study.

The Old English word for temperance is metgung, meaning temperance, moderation. It comes from the verb metgian, meaning to assign due measure, to moderate or regulate, to measure in the mind, consider, meditate upon. Temperance is about self-discipline and moderation, acting in well thought out ways. Anything done in excess becomes at best a waste of precious time (leading to neglecting other areas of our life), but it often also hurts ourselves and/or others. Eating too much food can lead to obesity and not having enough food for others. Too much exercise can lead to health issues. Too much generosity leads to not having enough for yourself.

The Old English word for fortitude is ellen, which means strength, power, vigour, valour, courage, fortitude. In the context of virtue, it refers to having moral strength to do what is right in spite of fear and/or opposition.

The Old English word for justice is rihtwisnes, meaning justice, fairness. It’s from rihtwis meaning just, fair. We often think of justice today in the context of criminals being punished, but this is a very narrow view of justice. Justice is about fairness for all. Of course, in the ancient world, their concept of fairness was colored by their culture, a culture that included slavery and a hierarchy that just doesn’t exist anymore. We should update their view of justice with our modern understanding of freedom. In the context of virtue, justice refers to treating others fairly, as dignified equals rather than as being below us. Many of the ancient philosophers saw this as being the chief virtue.

In modern times, you will often see these virtues listed as wisdom, moderation, courage, and justice. While this may be a good starting point for someone exploring the cardinal virtues, I feel like it restricts the meanings too much, as these more modern words tend to have more narrow meanings.

Simply put, prudence is practical wisdom to differentiate between what’s right and wrong (generally gleaned through our experiences and research), temperance is the self-discipline to not over indulge or chase after vain desires, fortitude is the strength to do what is right, and justice is treating those around us with fairness and integrity. All ethical questions can be answered through the consideration of these virtues. It’s not an easy list of dos and don’ts that you may get from other ethical systems, it’s a system that requires considering your options carefully and making the decisions that best line up with our ethics.

The Cardinal Virtues in Practice

Upon hearing about my Stoicism, several people have asked me how the Cardinal Virtues play into my praxis. The truth is, they don’t. The Cardinal Virtues are an ethical system. It’s only one facet of Stoicism, and the Cardinal Virtues are far from unique to it. Most schools of Hellenic philosophy held to them. So as an ethical system, they don’t really play a part in my rituals.

My day to day life is a different story. There’s several areas of my life that I’ve realized have been contrary to the virtues. Particularly those related to the virtue of prudence. As an example, I’ve been overly argumentative online since the early days of my Heathenry (I chalk it up mainly to over zealousness), but pointless arguments are something that many philosophers have taught against. It’s not prudent to waste precious time on arguments that aren’t going to accomplish anything. It’s also not fair to my loved ones who deserve my time more than strangers on the Internet. I still fall prey to it sometimes, but less often than I used to.

I try to spend the time from when I lay my head down on my pillow to when I actually fall asleep thinking about my day, about the ways I did not live up to my virtues, and the ways that I can do better next time a similar situation arises. Self reflection is an important aspect of virtue ethics. I’m not perfect, and I’m not likely to ever be perfect. But life is about improvement, not perfection, and living with the consequences of the times that we do fail.

So, dear readers, what’s your thoughts? What’s your system of ethics based upon? Feel free to let me know in the comments below! Until next time, beo gesund!1

  1. Wes hāl and Beo gesund are Old English greetings and farewells that literally mean Be well/whole/healthy. The first seemed to be more common among the Anglian dialects and the second more common among the Saxon dialects. I prefer to use both though, the first as a greeting and the second as a farewell.  2