On Virtue

So last time we talked about Eudaimonia and how it essentially means having the best possible life that a human can have, full of happiness, contentment, and fulfillment. We also mentioned  that the Stoics believe that the best way to obtain Eudaimonia was to be virtuous.

The Stoics believed that virtue was both necessary and sufficient for a life of Eudaimonia. This differentiated them from many other Greek philosophical schools at the time who believed that virtue was necessary for a life of Eudaimonia. Other schools, such as the Peripatetics, believed that virtue was necessary for a good life, but that you also needed other things as well, such as friends, family, money, good food, etc…

So what did the Stoics mean by virtue? And how could virtue alone be sufficient for a good life?

What the Stoics really meant by virtue, aretewas something like excellence of character. There were four cardinal virtues that were required for excellence of character. These virtues were temperance, courage, justice, and practical wisdom. These virtues are very broad, and encompass a variety of sub virtues. Here is a general break down of the four cardinal virtues.

Practical wisdom – Understanding how to act and feel correctly. Includes good judgment, discretion, and resourcefulness. It is the all encompassing virtue, the other virtues are really just specific manifestations of practical wisdom.

Temperance – Knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, and lust. Includes propriety, sense of honor, and self-control. It is wisdom applied to matters of choice.

Courage – Knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful, especially death and disaster. Includes perseverance, confidence, and magnanimity. It is wisdom applied to endurance.

Justice – Knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level. Knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection. Includes piety, kindness, and sociability. It is wisdom applied to social living.

So essentially, if you have all of these virtues, and act on them correctly, you will live a good life. Sounds pretty good to me right?

But what about money, friends, family, pleasure, etc…?

Well, the Stoics thought that it would be nice to have these things, but they didn’t really think that they were necessary for a life of Eudaimonia, the good life. Why is this the case? This is because the Stoics classified these things as being outside of our control. The only thing that is fully within our control is how we act, essentially our character and our actions (they were compatibilists). If we allow ourselves to depend on externals for our happiness (money, pleasure, etc…), we will at some point become disappointed, or as Epictetus liked to say, we will become wretched. We will become anxious when we try to obtain these externals, and depressed when we fail. You should not rely on these externals for your happiness. Instead, you already have everything you need to live a good life full of joyfulness and tranquility, and that is a life of Virtue.

It is important to note that the Stoics did not forbid people from having money, friends, family, small pleasures, etc… they were not ascetics like the early Cynics were. They separated these thing into what they called preferred and dispreferred indifferents. It is ok to have and pursue these things (money, family, friends) as long as they do not detract from your ability to pursue a life of virtue. In pursuing these externals you must not turn to vice, the opposites of the virtues.

This is not an easy task to accomplish. The only one to fully accomplish this goal is considered to be a Stoic sage, and we are not even sure if such a person ever existed. Perhaps Socrates, Zeno, or Cato the younger are examples of sages, but we are not really sure. Consistently achieving these virtues is something that must be worked on every day, perhaps, for the rest of your life. And that is why we should all be prokoton, one who makes progress towards virtue.

And then, because I’m not naturally gifted, shall I therefore abandon all effort to do my best? Heaven forbid. Epictetus won’t be better than Socrates; but even if I’m not too bad, that is good enough for me.

– Epictetus, Discourses 1.2.35

For additional reading on Stoicism and virtue, I encourage you to read the r/Stoicism FAQ, the IEP entry on Stoicism,  and this blog post by Christopher Gill about the virtues. Much of the information in this particular blog post was pulled from these resources.

This will be my final post for 2016, so I wish all of you happy holidays and a eudaimonic new year!


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