4 Stoic Virtues – The Core of Stoicism Belief System

The Stoic Virtues

The Stoics, one of the most influential philosophers in history, emerged in the 3rd century BCE, founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium.

Zeno was born aound 34 BCE, in Citium, a Cypriot city. He was a prosperous merchant who sold the highly expensive Imperial Blue dye to the royals to color their robes. On one voyage, his last one, he had a shipwreck and saw all his dye get lost into the sea. This forced him to switch his profession, and thus were laid the roots of Stoicism.

Zeno taught all his life from “the painted porch” or Stoa Poikile, and his followers were called “philosophers of the porch” or Stoics. Unfortunately, his writings are lost forever.

In the second century, lived two of the most prominent Stoics, whose writings have survived: Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Their lives were sharply different. Epictetus was a slave, born or sold into it; Marcus Aurelius was adopted by a Roman emperor and went on to become an emperor himself.

To the philosophical mind of the Stoics, only a life that is lived with virtue is the best form of life.

But, what were the Stoical virtues?

What Are The Stoic Virtues

All philosophers have these two basic questions to understand and answer:

  • What is the highest good in life?
  • What should we ideally aim for in this life?

The Stoic philosophers felt the answer to both these is virtue. They seemed to completely accept and guide their lives by the idea that virtue is the only good thing for humanity. They believed goodness and doing good for its own sake was the highest virtue of human life.

To them, virtue was also the only thing that makes for our eudaimonia or happiness.

The 4 cardinal virtues of Stoicism are:

1. Justice

From the Stoic point of view, justice is our duty to our fellow men and our society. It is is the virtue concerned with distribution. It’s the morality behind how we act, especially with our community and the people in it.

Musonius Rufus, said, “to honor equality, to want to do good, and for a person, being human, to not want to harm human beings—this is the most honorable lesson and it makes just people out of those who learn it.”

2. Temperance

Also called moderation, the virtue of temperance relates to self-restraint, self-discipline, and self-control. It is the virtue concerned with the acquisition. With temperance, we can choose long-term wellbeing over short-term satisfaction.

Seneca said, “You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.”

3. Courage

Courage is not the elimination of fear, desire, or anxiety. Rather, it is acting despite our fear, desire, and anxieties. It is is the virtue concerned with endurance.

Once someone asked Epictetus which words would help a person thrive. “Two words should be committed to memory and obeyed,” he said, “persist and resist.”

4. Wisdom

Stoicism specifically describes wisdom as the ability to know what is good, bad, and indifferent. As explained by Diogenes Laërtius in Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, wisdom is the “knowledge of what should and should not be done, or knowledge of what is good or bad or neither.”

The Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius said, “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.”

what are the Stoic virtues
The Four Stoic Virtues

The Stoic thinkers considered the four aspects of virtue to be closely linked. And although one may tend to believe it is right to consider virtue as synonymous with wisdom, the Stoics were of the opinion to separate the four virtues so as to determine their correct distinction.

Origins of Stoic Virtues

The Stoic ideas of virtue seem to be based at least in part on their interpretation of Socrates and Socrates himself. In Anscombe’s famous phrase, the Stoic virtues are “conjured up by Aristotle.”

Socrates said wisdom is good because it is best if only human abilities are good, and not because wisdom is the only good thing.

And according to Aristotle, an action counts as virtuous when one chooses the action knowingly and for its own sake. In simple terms, it means virtue shows itself in action.

By the way, Aristotle was Plato’s student, and it was Socrates who taught Plato.

Zeno used Socrates’, Aristotle’s, and Plato’s writings as a base to define the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism. These, he declared, are necessary for the highest good of a man. Learning the Stoic virtues trained one well at thinking correctly, and so that they could always act virtuously.

The Usefulness of Stoic Virtues

The Stoical ideas hold that the most important thing for a human is to understand that virtue and wisdom are the only true good, and to live in accord with these. Only virtue can lead humans into flourishing.

A Stoic describes wisdom as the ability to distinguish between things that are good, evil, or indifferent. But for virtue, we need a slightly different definition to explain human virtue as practical wisdom.

The Stoics believe whatever is good is also morally perfect (as a virtue, virtuous acts, and virtuous people). A true Stoic did a good and morally virtuous act because it was good to do so. That is, to them, living with virtue was the sole doctrine of a good life.

Virtue and virtuous things belong in a league of their own. If you were virtuous, according to the Stoics, you were good, therefore ought to be happy. This was moral perfection.

If you were virtuous, you always did what was good and morally right. And you avoided the things that are bad because they are morally imperfect (not virtuous), and therefore evil and wicked.

Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, said:

A man’s excellence or virtue does not depend on his success in obtaining anything in the external world; it depends entirely on having the right mental attitude toward things.

– Zeno of Citium

Zeno explained that “the single plan by which life should be lived must be a plan formed by correct reason, and this would be one that is natural in the sense that it accords both with man’s nature and with universal nature.”

Stoicism also emphasizes another kind of ethics, according to which virtues are good only in the sense of raising questions. The purpose of virtue ethics is to assert that there is no right of one’s own to be good or bad.

This is important because we need to understand practical wisdom as a means to reach correct reasoning. And the Stoic goal is to gain wisdom, particularly wisdom that is practical.

Practical wisdom is a hallmark of the wise. And the wise is also a synonym for the sage. Thus interpreted, it gives us even more reason to believe that practical wisdom is the proper expression of the virtue of wisdom. It shows this in the ability to manifest wisdom, which is another sign of a sage.

This interpretation allows us to say we can act virtuously if we think we are wise. However, this might also mean that Socrates would have received first knowledge, then wisdom, and then prudence.

4 cardinal virtues of Stoicism
Image: The Philosophy of Stoicism by Massimo Pigliucci on TED-Ed

The Stoics believe people should aim to preserve a will – the prohairesis – in harmony with nature.

They believe one must understand the rules of the natural order because everything in the cosmos has its roots in nature. When living in accordance with nature, we have the littlest of destructive emotions and make the slightest of misjudgments.

In particular, we know that virtue teaches us there is no good or evil, that it is only good for people, and that external things like pleasure have no value unless material virtue can influence them. If we live a good and happy life and do not necessarily understand the rules of the natural order, if we believe it is good and evil, we will behave in the wrong way.

Many Stoic teachers, such as Seneca and Epictetus, emphasized that the wise man was emotionally resilient to misfortune and courageous in the face of adversities because they held virtue was sufficient for their happiness.

The Stoics were clear that indifference is less valuable than their virtues. Even when indifference was good, it was worth less than virtues. So, a Stoic should not sacrifice virtue to achieve indifference.

If someone finds he makes his decisions based on virtue, but does not have eudaimonia because he lacks indifference, then this is not a sign that he places too much emphasis on indifference, but rather on a lack of respect for virtue.

It is not that a person lacks something that makes them lack it, but that something is missing in them that prevents them from achieving it, even if he or she acts virtuously. The reason is that he places too much emphasis on things that are not a virtue, and too little on things that are a virtue.

Final Words

Stoicism teaches the universe is rational. They feel the Gods organized the cosmos rationally, and therefore it can be explained rationally. Stoics taught that logos, the ability of humans to think, plan, and express themselves, is inherent in the cosmos. Therefore, logos is a part of Nature or God.

Stoicism’s virtue-thinking seems to help avoid social and personal conflicts, as disrespecting others or flaunting a bloated sense of entitlement.

If we were to describe Stoicism in one sentence, it’d be this: A Stoic believes they don’t control the world around them, only how they respond—and that they must always respond with courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice.

– Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic

And now, here is a nifty guide on How To Practice Stoicism In Modern Life.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.


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