PLATO (427 B.C. – 347 B.C.)

  • Plato was a great Greek philosopher. He is known as a true disciple of Socrates. Plato’s doctrine of cardinal virtues is based on his concept of virtue. According to Plato, goodness consists of the natural and proper functioning of human nature. Besides, man is social by nature; therefore, society is a normal background of moral life of human beings.



  • Socrates had said that virtue is knowledge. For Plato, good life is the life of virtues. Like later Greek and mediaeval thinkers1, Plato assumes that virtue is necessary for happiness, an assumption that remains unchallenged until the modern period.
  • Plato has described four important virtues in his theory of morality. According to him the cultivation of these four virtues – wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice – constitutes a morally good life.
  • Later on, these four virtues came to be called ‘Cardinal virtues’. The four virtues are cardinal because they support moral life of man in society. They are fundamental virtues. Other virtues depend upon them and are therefore subordinate to them. These four virtues are said to be the basic and important constituents of moral life or goodness of man.
  • Morality consists in knowing and maintaining the harmony between the rational and non-rational elements of the self. It is called ‘Justice’ by Plato. Malfunctioning of any part of the self will have adverse effects upon the other parts. Thus, the key to moral life is the proper integration of the three parts of the self.
  • According to Plato, the human self or soul is tripartite. The three elements or parts of human beings are:
  • Passionate or Appetitive Element (Passions)
  • Spirited or Dynamic & Executive Element (Will)
  • Philosophical or Rational Element (Reason or Intellect)
  • This integration can be achieved when the spirited element helps the reason to keep the passions in check.




  • Wisdom is the virtue of reason. It consists in knowing and mastering the non-rational elements viz. spirited element and passions.
  • It includes knowledge, insight and foresight based on that knowledge. It is not bookish knowledge/data/information only.
  • It implies the active choice of values as against disvalues, or virtues as against vices. A man is wise in whom reason rules over the other impulses.
  • Courage is the virtue of the spirited element. It must perform its heroic function within the limits set by reason.
  • It is of two types viz. physical courage of a soldier and moral courage of a thinker or a reformer.
  • Thus, one can be courageous in war as well as in intellectual convictions. Courage, therefore, is the excellence in the activity of the will.
  • A man is brave when the spirited element holds fast to the instructions of intellect.
  • Temperance or self-control consists in keeping bodily satisfactions within limits.
  • Passions are not to be condemned. Even they are to be satisfied. The passionate element is both non-moral and non rational.
  • It needs to be regulated and subjected to the rules of reason.
  • Temperance is not complete abstinence. It is the principle of self-restraint and moderation. It is the controlling and ordering of natural instincts, desires and sensuous pleasures.
  • A man is temperate when the spirited element or passionate element yields to intellect and obey its commands.
  • Justice is the virtue of the whole self or the complete person. It is the proper integration of different parts of the self.
  • Thus, justice also consists of the harmonious functioning of the three parts of personality. Each part must do its function for which it is fit. When these three parts of the personality or the self with their three virtues of wisdom, courage and temperance function harmoniously together and are ordered and ruled by reason, then justice emerges as the resultant virtue.
  • Each man is fit for a particular job in accordance with his nature. Justice consists in doing one’s own job. Being morally perfect, therefore, is tantamount to being wise, valiant, temperate and just. Justice, then, is the supreme virtue. Just man will not indulge in the pursuit of material pleasures only.
  • According to Plato, the four cardinal virtues have both individual and social significance. They are found both in the individual and in the society. Human beings are rational and social animals.
  • They have the natural tendency to live in communities. Morality of the society is the same as it is for the individual. According to Plato, society is the individual ‘writ large’. For society is made up of
  • Each individual self consists of three parts. All the three elements are not equally dominant in all individuals. In some persons, the rational element is predominant, while in others the spirited element is powerful. Majority of the people give more importance to the passionate element. Thus, as we have three elements of the self so we have three classes in a society. They are: Guardians, Auxiliaries and Civilians.



  • Guardians constitute the class of rulers. They are drawn from that type of men in whom the rational or the philosophical elements is dominant. Such persons live only for truth. They are truth-seekers. They can be philosopher-kings. They are men of knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom is their chief virtue.
  • The auxiliary class consists of those in whom the spirited element is dominant. They live for honour and success. They are good for the execution of laws and to protect the society from internal disorder and external attack. Courage is their principal virtue. They support the guardians and execute the laws made by the enlightened rulers or philosopher kings
  • The class of civilians consists of producers, such as farmers, blacksmiths, fishermen, traders, carpenters, etc. In them the element of passion is dominant. They live for material gains. Temperance is their main virtue.
  • The guardians are enlightened or wise rulers. They direct and control the majority of the people with the help of the members of the auxiliary class. When each class does its appropriate function, justice emerges. In a just society, the latter two classes willingly accept the rule of the wise (guardians). Wisdom is an important virtue. It helps a person to control his passions and perform his duties efficiently. The virtue of justice takes note of different aspects of a human person and integrates them. It thus stands for the harmony in the individual as well as harmony between the individual and community.





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