Aristotle's four virtues, as I understand it, in the modern context is that if I think of carrying out a job, then

1). Prudence: That I have sufficient reasons to carry out the job

2). Justice: That I have the right will to carry out the job

3). Fortitude: That I do not fear to carry out the job

4). Temperence: That I will not overdo the job

Now somebody has ruined my family and wealth, and now I want to take revenge. Then

1). Prudence: Sufficient Reasons: Yes I have. My family comes first.

2). Justice: Right Will: Yes I have. I will take revenge keeping law in mind by breaking the law without anybody knowing it (remove the traces)

3). Fortitude: Yes I do. I do not know what fear is when it comes to my family

4). Temperence: Yes I will not go ballistic in my revenge. I will leave all those in ``his'' family who did not play a role

Can the four virtues be applied in such a case?

  • I do not think that "my family comes first" is always prudent, that "breaking the law without anybody knowing it" is just, or that acting on "I want to take revenge" is temperate. At least, not according to Aristotle.
    – Conifold
    Apr 23, 2019 at 20:26
  • Hi. Justice is not about "right will", but about fairness, and lack of personal bias. Apr 25, 2019 at 20:19

1 Answer 1


Interestingly enough, the ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tzu poses your exact point in one of his parables of Robber Chih:

One of Robber Chih's followers once asked Chih, "Does the thief too have a Way?"

Chih replied, "How could he get anywhere if he didn't have a Way? Making shrewd guesses as to how much booty is stashed away in the room is sageliness; being the first one in is bravery; being the last one out is righteousness; knowing whether the job can be pulled off or not is wisdom; dividing up the loot fairly is benevolence. No one in the world ever succeeded in becoming a great thief if he didn't have all five!"

From this we can see that the good man must acquire the Way of the sage before he can distinguish himself, and Robber Chih must acquire the Way of the sage before he can practice his profession. But good men in the world are few and bad men many, so in fact the sage brings little benefit to the world, but much harm.


Conversely, in the Platonic tradition, virtue and goodness are one, you can't have one without the other. Plato would probably not have an issue with your interpretations of Temperance and Fortitude, but he'd have to argue that your "good reasons" don't qualify as "good" and that your "right will" isn't right.

So what about Aristotle? He isn't a playful skeptic like Chuang-Tzu or Socrates, but he also isn't a Platonic Idealist. His definitions tend to be pragmatic, and aimed at the best possible real-world embodiment of any given principle or ideal. I'd hazard a guess he'd be sympathetic to Chuang-Tzu's claim that virtue is useful to everyone, even to the wicked. Ultimately however, he'd agree with Plato that your revenge plot is neither good nor right, and therefore neither Prudent nor Just.

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