Ruth Bader Ginsberg – On the Passing of a Great American


By: Patricia Chadwick 

In a quiet moment of reflection after the announcement of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, it struck me that the example she set in the mission of her life could be exquisitely epitomized by the four cardinal virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance.

Those four pillars of virtue were first defined by Plato, in the fifth century BCE, and subsequently espoused in several books of the Old Testament. Centuries later, early Christian theologians – including Augustine – promoted them as standards of moral behavior and they continue to be so accepted to this day.

As an undergraduate at Cornell University majoring in Government, Ruth Bader Ginsburg would have read Plato’s Republic and become familiar with his articulation of those four pillars. She was formed in the traditions of the Jewish religion and assuredly knew the Old Testament, where she would have come across references to those virtues in Maccabees and the Book of Solomon.

PRUDENCE was exemplified by her sagacity, exhibited with quiet discretion, knowing she could be more effective by her writings and her actions. Bombastic rhetoric appeared to be anathema to her; honest and direct guidance was her forte.

The pursuit of JUSTICE was her life’s work from her earliest days as a young lawyer, arguing cases before the Supreme Court – a total of six, in five of which she succeeded in convincing a majority of The Nine. On the wall of her office at the Supreme Court she hung a poster with an inscription in Hebrew from the Torah: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

Throughout her career, she exercised FORTITUDE by challenging the prevailing conventions of the day. She was propelled by a steely dedication that did not flag in the face of determined opposition. And in her final years, she remained an alert and committed Justice despite illnesses that would have felled many.

TEMPERANCE – a term that was highjacked by the Temperance Movement of the early twentieth century – as a cardinal virtue connotes the calm middle zone between turbulent extremes where insight and accommodation can flourish. Her words exemplify that virtue: “Fight for the things that you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

The diminutive Ruth Bader Ginsberg cast an embracing shadow across some of the most challenging debates and people of our time. She also played the role of teacher, advisor and confidante to the array of brilliant young clerks who were fortunate enough to work for her.

A couple of years ago, I was witness to an example of her pedagogy when I attended the Washington National Opera. Justice Ginsberg had bought tickets for ten or more of her clerks and during the intermission, they encircled her, hanging on her every word, as she sat slightly hunched yet elegant in a long dress, complemented by her famous black lace gloves and white jabot.

In this season of political acrimony, I believe Ruth Bader Ginsberg would encourage all Americans to express their convictions according to the sacred right that she spent much of life protecting – to vote. We can best honor her by exercising that right on Election Day.