Founding Virtues:

Wisdom, Courage, Temperance 

It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour.
—Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia

America’s Founding Fathers avidly studied history to understand the underlying cause for the certain degradation that follows national greatness. Their readings uncovered that virtue is the oft-dismissed quality that lies at the heart of national vigor and the diviner between glory and lamentation. For in trying to understand how strong nations degrade into mere shadows of their former selves, one need gauge national character. It was the classical tradition codified by Plato and Aristotle that made national character a collective one—inextricably bound to the spirit of the citizenry. Ancient philosophy backed by centuries of evidence highlighted enduring character as correctly arranged virtues, whether in an individual or in society. So men and nations burdened with confused character were ineffectual and directionless, inevitably inviting attack as a Darwinian reminder that unstructured virtues undermine personal and national vitality. For the ancients, character was a necessity and not an option; victimization was earned and not accidental. This was the principle that the Founding Fathers took to heart.

The foundation of personal and national character was built upon three primary virtues—an immutable trinity as manifest as any physical phenomenon. Aristotle rationalized metaphysical theories when proclaiming that “the student of politics must study the soul.” (67, 950) His logic established a paradigm that began with three souls: the rational soul with its intellect, the spirited soul as the motivator of action, and the appetitive soul which harbored man’s desires. Ideally, each of these three souls would exhibit a correctly formed virtue. The rational soul should possess enough wisdom to make proper decisions about life’s priorities, the spirited soul should have the courage to do what the intellect has determined is best, and the appetitive soul should have its emotions checked by the virtue of temperance.

These three primary virtues must be hierarchically arranged for the human animal to function optimally. Wisdom was deemed by the Greeks to be preeminent, closely followed by courage, and then, at the lowest level, temperance. Logically, the intellect should guide the enlightened creature possessing ample courage to act on reasoned convictions with enough temperance to constrain irrational desires. By such ordering, the holistic creature would be better able to handle the challenges of life. Plato’s and Aristotle’s correct ordering of these virtues formed their fourth virtue, justice. Their definition of justice was not a manifestation of a specific soul per se, but instead a correct ordering of the primary three.


Building a healthy state relied on the principle that virtues shape each person’s abilities and should determine one’s role in society. For example, a man with great courage but little intelligence would make a good soldier but probably not a capable teacher. Consequently, Plato and Aristotle divided society into three occupational groups that aligned with the three primary virtues; that is, those with wisdom should lead, those with courage should fight, and those driven by the appetitive soul should be producers. If a society was correctly organized and governed, each person would do what was dictated by his innate virtues. This made for a just society; that is, one organized for correct function and not for some vague notions of fairness.

Aristotle recognized that any correct (and just) society naturally stratified social classes in a hierarchy similar to character’s virtues. The metaphor holds when observing that there are many members of society who follow their materialistic desires as commercial people, a smaller group of warrior-aristocrats, and finally a single wise king or ruler. This represented a natural stratification comprising the One, the Few, and the Many.

History records that social discord was a constant threat to any state’s health, because the three social classes—rulers, aristocracy, and commoners—constantly battled one another for power. As the preeminent classifier, Aristotle categorized governments according to the class they represented and whether power was held by the One (a King), the Few (an Aristocracy) or the Many (a Democracy). He noted that each of these governments had a correct manifestation as well as a deviant counterpart. Aristotle’s study of history, presaging Polybius, revealed that inevitably Monarchy descended into Tyranny, Aristocracy corrupted into Oligarchy, and Democracy gave way to mob Democracy.

With no perfect alternatives to build an enduring society using a single form of government, Aristotle recommended a republican solution. This combined all three types of government with their attendant social classes and corresponding virtues. Accordingly, any mixed constitution codifying Aristotle’s republic exactly mirrored his prescription for personal enlightenment, balancing the three virtues in a logical hierarchy. For example, the Roman republic had three governing branches: a pair of Consuls who led the government, a Senate comprised of aristocratic magistrates, and an Assembly of plebeians. Ideally, wise rulers would lead courageous aristocrats supported by temperate masses busily engaged in agriculture, industry, and commerce. Romans revered this structure of the One, the Few, and the Many, as their ultimate source of power, inspiring the ubiquitous inscription SPQR (“the Senate and the Roman people”). Julius Caesar’s assassination was motivated by his disregard of SPQR when he was declared Dictator for Life, placing the power of the One above the Few (in the Senate) and the Many (plebeians). Thus, the trinity of virtues forming personal character became a template for healthy governments as set forth in republican constitutions.

Ancient societies explicitly valued action over intellectual musings. For practical people struggling to survive endless wars, plagues, and famines, words were considered insignificant unless backed by tangible deeds. No amount of talk earned respect without demonstrated utility: fighters had to fight, healers had to heal, and rulers had to produce a better life for their subjects. Even the gods were held accountable once sacrifice was given to them. In the hard world of ancient times, talkers were ignored until effective action bore them out, demonstrating worthy character. Heroes were not only honored for their physical prowess but also for the triumph of good character over bad. This meant that performance on the battlefield was deemed the ultimate test of character making generalship a frequent precursor to rule. But no matter how brave the warrior, leaders had to display all three primary virtues to earn the respect and the devotion of their subjects. Pax Romana’s five good emperors were profoundly wise, eminently brave, and appropriately prudent. Although not a republican consul, Marcus Aurelius was regarded as Rome’s prototypical leader—combining wisdom, courage, and temperance in a Stoic icon of philosophy in action.

Aurelius lamenting the fall of empires has been echoed by historians and rulers before and after him. Almost all have embraced some version of the Punic Curse as in Durant’s, Story of Civilization, with the observation:

It is almost a law of history that the same wealth that generates a civilization announces its decay. For wealth produces ease . . . it softens a people to the ways of luxury and peace, and invites invasion from stronger arms and hungrier mouths.

A necessary addition to Durant’s maxim is Cicero’s warning that an increasingly dissolute aristocracy combines with a softening population to set the stage for national decline. For in the absence of virtuous role models, hypocritical doctrines flourish without unforgiving realities to check dysfunctional values. Whether promulgated by kings, priests, or a confused public, lack of role models makes citizens oblivious to the obfuscation of character.

When societies become diseased and no longer healthy, it too can be said that their citizens are similarly infected. For the strength of any country is built upon the composite power of its individuals: strong citizens, strong society; weak citizens and decline is imminent. Only in societies with a clear-thinking public is there a promising future for the collective body. Confusion, as manifested in a variety of ways, is the contagion that kills nations one individual at a time. For when wisdom, courage, and temperance are lost, disease sets in with consequences affecting mind, body, and spirit. There is no greater injustice than when politicians and priests poison the character of those to whom guidance has been entrusted. Without a virtuous aristocracy, contentment, grace, and health give way to confusion, damnation, and disease.

With the soul of any nation a reflection of citizen virtue, and its strength derived from the composite power of its individuals—as manifested by character—America’s future is entirely dependent upon whether its virtues are well structured or confused. Indeed, is the body of American society a collection of misguided souls or is public virtue alive and well?

Fortunately the ancients provided the means for measuring character in a way that is unambiguous and straightforward. When Aristotle wrote that “actions are signs of character,” (Rhetoric I, 1367b), he and others, like Cicero, identified citizen behavior as character’s gauge—beginning with the aristocratic class. In the metaphorical yardstick of character, observable action sets the scale and not immeasurable social values. Such a practical approach, no matter how derived from ancient voices, seems consistent with America’s pragmatic heritage and enduring mythologies. For good men and their deeds are the étalon; doers and not talkers manifest national character, and aristocracy’s possession of classical virtues adequately gauges the American soul.

Nations are formed and invigorated by their founding fathers; for people follow leaders and not abstract ideals. Human nature requires that any new society be built upon the power manifested by its founders and not by faceless committees. The Greeks had Alexander to rally independent city-states and conquer Persia; the Romans had their Caesars to build a military machine and conquer all known Mediterranean civilization; the French had Napoleon to fight adventurous wars; and the Nazis had Hitler to turn Europe’s most tolerant society into a racist regime. History has proven that the cult of personality can establish an empire almost overnight. And then it’s up to constitutions and aristocracies to sustain it.

It is interesting to note that while emerging societies require the inspiration of leaders, so too do religious institutions need similar physicality. It is no accident that prophets transmitting the word of God, not angels, launched the great religions. Christianity needed Christ, Islam needed Mohammed, and Buddhism needed the Buddha, the Enlightened One. Divine revelation may or may not require a prophet to serve as middleman, but mobilization of the masses to form a religious institution does. Indeed, building nations or conjuring faiths requires extraordinary men as enablers.

So, great nations are built by great men. The two are inextricably bound. For a nation to have staying power, it needs a personality, a character that defines its being. Identified from classical times as the “soul” of the nation, it is the elemental force that empowers generations. Once formed under a defining constitution, institutions of government supported by aristocracy reinforce the underlying ideals of the founders. Rome’s enduring SPQR represented its soul and its constitution. But it all begins with men, not notions; virtues manifested in human form.

America’s birth was no different. It took the convergence of the right situation and the right men to wrench a new nation into the world. It was three Founding Fathers’ collective vision and their actions that launched the fledgling republic. George Washington’s sword, Thomas Jefferson’s pen, and Ben Franklin’s homespun philosophy nurtured the embryonic state. As a group, they represented a seminal combination of warrior, philosopher, and entrepreneur; they were thinkers who acted.

America’s national character reflected the combined consciousness of these founders, each contributing some aspect to the American gestalt. Not only did their ideas and actions lead to founding the country, they lived their lives as prototypical Americans. It is by their example that we should assess modern behavior, for it was their collective philosophies that formed our national identity and thus form the étalon of founding beliefs. History has shown that when great nations flounder we should “go back for Discipline to former times; Old Customs are the Nation’s main support.” (Emperor Antoninus, The Life of the Emperor, by Monsieur D’Acier, p. 87)

There were many revolutionaries who contributed to America’s birth, including John Adams, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, but Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin are the three essential Founding Fathers. They each represented and unconsciously championed a cardinal virtue essential for the nation’s vitality. As enlightened men, they possessed all three virtues in admirable amounts, but each was a perfect realization of a single primary ancient virtue: Jefferson was the national mind, inspired by the Greeks, the penman of American philosophy; Washington was the colonial warrior, motivated by Roman ideals, believer in the role of aristocracy; and Franklin was the voice of the common man, our entrepreneur and originator of American ingenuity. Philosopher, warrior, entrepreneur—Aristotle’s three components of society—were divinely manifested in three extraordinary revolutionaries.

Original American character is a composite of the three essential founders who formed our national spirit. In their conduct they shared a common approach to all aspects of their lives but with varying accents within a consistent philosophy; that is, they possessed entirely complementary outlooks. Their shared thoughts and lifestyles allow us to construct a view of early American philosophy by observing how they conducted their lives as the country discovered its soul. And in this emerging self-awareness, these men, along with other American leaders, possessed a bond of mutual respect and an emotional connection exceeding reasoned cooperation. John Adams, their most active contemporary, wrote that after studying the histories of Greece, Rome, England, and France, “the examples of Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson are enough to show” character “more efficacious than argument and oratory.” 

Implicit in this approach is the recognition that these founders governed their lives with the same principles that they hoped the nation and its citizens would govern theirs. The Essential Founders’ collective character is the American character. They serve as corporeal manifestations of our country’s body, mind, and spirit who took their obligations to establish an American spirit seriously, as when Washington proclaimed at the conclusion of the Revolution,

“We have now a national character to establish.” 

It is not possible that any state should long remain free, where virtue is not supremely honored.

                                                         -   Samuel Adams