In this edition of Freemason Information’s Symbols and Symbolism we consider, together, the four cardinal virtues of Freemasonry as gathered form Albert Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry. Mackey (and Freemasonry) originally sourcing the virtues from Plato’s scheme, discussed in Republic Book IV, 426–435. Mackey writes of the cardinal virtues saying, The pre-eminent or principal virtues on which all the others hinge or depend. They are temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice. They are referred to in the ritual of the first degree, and will be found below under their respective heads. Oliver says (Revelation of a Square, ch. i.,) that in the eighteenth century the Masons delineated the symbols of the four cardinal virtues by an acute angle, variously disposed. Thus, suppose you face the east, the angle symbolizing temperance will point to the south, It was called a Guttural. Fortitude was denoted by a saltire, or St. Andrew’s Cross. This was the Pectoral. The symbol of prudence was an acute angle pointing towards the south-east, and was denominated a Manual; and justice had its angle towards the north and was called a Pedestal or Pedal.
Of the particular virtues, Mackey says:
One of the four cardinal virtues; the practice of which is inculcated in the First Degree. The Freemason who properly appreciates the secrets which he has solemnly promised never to reveal, will not, by yielding to the unrestrained call of appetite, permit reason and judgment to lose their seats and subject himself, by the indulgence in habits of excess, to discover that which should be concealed, and thus merit and receive the scorn and detestation of his Brethren. And lest any Brother should forget the danger to which he is exposed in the unguarded hours of dissipation, the virtue of temperance is wisely impressed upon is memory, lay its reference to one of the most solemn portions of the ceremony of initiation. Some Freemasons, very properly condemning the vice of intemperance and abhorring its effects, have been unwisely led to confound temperance with total abstinence in a Masonic application, and resolutions have sometimes been proposed in Grand Lodges which declare the use of stimulating liquors in any quantity a Masonic offense. Put the law of Freemasonry authorizes no such regulation. It leaves to every man the indulgence of his own tastes within due limits, and demands not abstinence, but only moderation and temperance, in anything not actually wrongs.
Plato’s text on temperance says, “the virtue of temperance has more of the nature of harmony and symphony…Temperance…is the ordering or controlling of certain pleasures and desires; this is curiously enough implied in the saying of ‘a man being his own master;’ “ Something he finds as a “ridiculous in the expression ‘master of himself;’ for the master is also the servant and the servant the master; and in all these modes of speaking the same person is denoted,” but to which he denotes “…in the human soul there is a better and also a worse principle; and when the better has the worse under control, then a man is said to be master of himself; and this is a term of praise: but when, owing to evil education or association, the better principle, which is also the smaller, is overwhelmed by the greater mass of the worse—in this case he is blamed and is called the slave of self and unprincipled.”
One of the four cardinal virtues, whose excellencies are dilated on in the First Degree. It not only instructs the worthy Freemason to bear the ills of life with becoming resignation, “taking up arms against a sea of trouble,” but, by its intimate connection with a portion of our ceremonies, it teaches him to let no dangers shake, no pains dissolve the inviolable fidelity he owes to the trusts reposed in him. Or, in the words of the old Prestonian lecture, it is “a fence or security against any attack that might be made upon him by force or otherwise, to extort from him any of our Royal Secrets.”
Spence, in his Polymetis, when describing the moral virtues! says of Fortitude: “She may be easily known by her erect air and military dress, the spear she rests on with one hand, and the sword which she holds in the other. She has a globe under her feet; I suppose to shows that the Romans, by means of this virtue, were to subdue the whole world.”
Plato encapsulates courage (fortitude) as “a kind of salvation…[a salvation] of the opinion respecting things to be feared, what they are and of what nature, which the law implants through education; and I mean by the words ‘under all circumstances’ to intimate that in pleasure or in pain, or under the influence of desire or fear, a man preserves, and does not lose this opinion.”
This is one of the four cardinal virtues, the practice of which is inculcated upon the Entered Apprentice. Preston first introduced it into the Degree as referring to what was then, and long before had been called the Four Principal Signs, but which are now known as the Perfect Points of Entrance. Preston’s eulogium on prudence differs from that used in the lectures of the United States of America, which was composed by Webb. It is in these words: “Prudence is the true guide to human understanding, and consists in judging and determining with propriety what is to be said or done upon all our occasions, what dangers we should endeavor to avoid, and how to act in all our difficulties.” Webb’s definition, which is much better, may be found in all the Monitors. The Masonic reference of prudence to the manual point reminds us of the classic method of representing her in statues with a rule or measure in her hand.
In Plato’s Republic, Wisdom is harder to tease out as a virtue, but can essentially be distilled down as knowledge “first among the virtues…” where “good counsel is…a kind of knowledge, for not by ignorance, but by knowledge…so by reason of the smallest part or class, and of the knowledge which resides in this presiding and ruling part of itself, the whole State, being thus constituted according to nature, will be wise; and this, which has the only knowledge worthy to be called wisdom, has been ordained by nature to be of all classes the least.” The takeaway, perhaps, is that knowledge (education) leads to wisdom.
One of the four cardinal virtues, the practice of which is inculcated in the first degree. The Mason who remembers how emphatically he has been charged to preserve an upright position in all his dealings with mankind, should never fail to act justly to himself, to his brethren, and to the world. This is the cornerstone on which alone he can expect ” to erect a superstructure alike honorable to himself and to the Fraternity.” In iconography, Justice is usually represented as a matron with bandaged eyes, holding in one hand a sword and in the other a pair of scales at equipoise. But in Masonry the true symbol of Justice, as illustrated in the first degree, is the feet firmly planted on the ground, and the body upright.
Justice, Plato encapsulates as, “being concerned however, not with the outward man, but with the inward, which is the true self and concernment of man: for the just man does not permit the several elements within him to interfere with one another, or any of them to do the work of others,—he sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself; and when he has bound together the three principles within him, which may be compared to the higher, lower, and middle notes of the scale, and the intermediate intervals—when he has bound all these together, and is no longer many, but has become one entirely temperate and perfectly adjusted nature, then he proceeds to act, if he has to act, whether in a matter of property, or in the treatment of the body, or in some affair of politics or private business; always thinking and calling that which preserves and co-operates with this harmonious condition, just and good action, and the knowledge which presides over it, wisdom, and that which at any time impairs this condition, he will call unjust action, and the opinion which presides over it ignorance.