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I picked up a book called “Aristotle for Everybody” by Mortimer J Adler (a Philosophy professor) from the Lodge Library. This 168 page book spells out the ancient philosopher's thoughts in a more modern (as of 1968)  and accessible language. While reading through the section on his moral philosophy and “living a “Good/Virtuous Life,” I came across several parallels with the lessons of Freemasonry; particularly relating to the four cardinal virtues of Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice which presented to me a fresh (despite its’ age) way to examine and utilize them. 


In order to get into those virtues as they relate to Aristotelian ethics specifically, it is necessary to take a brief detour to give a summary of his definition of a “Good Life” and virtue to give some context to the explanation of the virtues.


According to Aristotle, to live the “Good life”, we must have “Real Goods”:

  1. Bodily goods (health, vitality, vigor, and pleasure)

  2. External goods to have the bodily goods (food, drink, shelter clothing and sleep)

  3. Goods of the Soul (knowledge, skill, love, friendship, aesthetic enjoyment).


He notes that we must also develop good moral character by developing good habits which enable us to seek the aforementioned Real Goods in the right amount, order, and relation to each other. This is “moral virtue.” 


It’s worth noting that bodily goods are Limited Goods (too much is bad) and goods of the soul are Unlimited Goods (can't have enough on the road to Virtue).


Moral Virtue is making the right choices and moving steadily in the right direction. Making good actions a habit makes them easier to internalize and perform. Moral Virtue has a special role in the “pursuit of happiness.”


Now for the virtues…



Avoiding overindulging. One must strike the balance of satisfying the bodily goods with the correct amount of external goods. Eat too much and become unhealthy. Spending time mostly chasing carnal pleasures, it becomes an addiction that prevents you from making a human connection. A couple of alcoholic libations increases dopamine to an enjoyable level, too much and poor judgment (and a hangover) rears its ugly head.


This one tends to be taken in terms of avoiding outwardly bad things (alcohol, marijuana, etc.), not as much on the personal application of some is good, or even required (food), but too much is bad. This makes temperance seem more as finding balance rather than being a limitation.




Aristotle calls this courage but was likely changed to fortitude during some translation when the cardinal virtues were adopted by Christian philosophers in the late medieval period. Our ritual notes that this virtue is equally distant from Cowardice, which Aristotle defined as avoiding temporary pain for a future reward. 


Cowardice can take the form of sleeping in instead of waking up and doing what needs to be done familially, professionally, or otherwise. It can take the form of skipping a workout because of whatever poor excuse is made (being sore, no time, tired from the workday, sleeping in, etc.). It can be avoiding a difficult conversation with someone to avoid the unpleasantness of said conversation. In all of these situations, long term benefits are being deprived for short term pleasures.


On the surface, it seems that fortitude is about courage in the face of danger or against an external enemy. Aristotle’s explanation couches it in terms of an internal struggle. This expanded my thinking about applying this virtue and why this is an important Masonic precept. 




Aristotle does not mention prudence specifically. Prudence as outlined in the Entered Apprentice lecture is the virtue that enables us to figure out how to act within the spectrum of the other virtues. One needs to use prudence in their actions to develop good habits which lead to a virtuous life. To use the sleep instead of exercise example, if you have to wake up at 6 and you didn’t get to bed til midnight because of some external uncontrollable circumstance, it might be more prudent to sleep the extra hour instead of waking to exercise.




The application of justice per Aristotle deviates a bit from the lessons to live the virtuous life but it is an interesting way to look at it and still useful Masonically which is why it is mentioned here. 


Aristotle described justice as “the bond between men in states.” Humans naturally form groups (families, societies, states) to serve the needs of everybody within that group to live well. Others have the right to expect from others that they do not impede their obtaining of “Real Goods” (defined above) that are needed to live a “Good Life.” It doesn’t present a requirement to help them. Helping comes from love for another person. Justice merely requires not impeding others which is why there are laws. This seems to have more to do with living within the State than specifically within the fraternity. Obviously, masons should never intentionally impede others' pursuits of real goods. Masons’ are also obligated to help one another within certain bounds spelled out in said obligations. But isn’t that what brotherly love is? 


Further Study


There are breadcrumbs throughout western philosophical thought whence came our masonic philosophy. The four cardinal virtues per Aristotle is but one example. A study of these philosophies (and Eastern philosophies… but not as directly) can enrich our understanding and application of Masonic teachings to our lives. 

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