As we get mature, we often ponder if we have lived a good life—a life we would be proud to live again without changing much of it. And incredibly, anyone from among us can have that kind of exemplary life. The hack lies in the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.
The Stoical way of philosophy was more about practicing it in daily life, rather than discussing it in elite circles to prove one’s grand knowledge. Anyone could become a Stoic, and in fact, a slave, a senator, a water-bearer, and an emperor were its famous exponents.
So, if you aim to live a life worthy of prideful memories, practicing the Stoic virtues is one of the surest ways.
To a Stoic, a life of the highest good is the ultimate goal and achievement of human life, and everyone has the same rights and means to achieve it. The path goes through 4 virtues that lie at the core of Stoicism. If we practice these virtues, we can live in harmony with others and stay unruffled through hardships.
But what are the Stoic virtues? And why are they important for living a peaceful life in a chaotic world?
What Are The 4 Virtues of Stoicism
Aretê or Virtue is the all-embracing quality of a good human and carrying it out in every situation is the most desired ambition of each Stoic. Virtue, meaning moral excellence, applies to everything that is under one’s control in life.
Stoics divide Aretê or Virtue into four cardinal virtues: 1. Wisdom or Phronêsis – identifying good, bad, indifferent. 2. Temperance or Sôphrosynê – self-discipline, self-awareness, social decorum. 3. Justice or Dikaiosynê – righteousness, kindness, fairness. 4. Courage or Andreia – fortitude in facing fears.
According to Cicero, one of the greatest orators of ancient Rome:
Virtue is a habit of the mind, consistent with nature, and moderation, and reason. … It has then four divisions — prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Prudence is the knowledge of things which are good, or bad, or neither good nor bad. … Justice is a habit of the mind which attributes its proper dignity to everything, preserving a due regard to the general welfare. … Fortitude [i.e., courage] is a deliberate encountering of danger and enduring of labour. … [And] temperance is the form and well-regulated dominion of reason over lust and other improper affections of the mind.— Cicero, De Inventione (II.53-54)
All Stoics uphold the Dichotomy of Control as the first colossal pillar of Stoicism. The second pillar is Virtue.
To a Stoic, Virtue is the only thing to make human life worthwhile. It is the key character trait in a Stoic and a Stoic does not exist without it. Any Stoic will attest Virtue is indispensable for attaining eudaimonia — the Greek word for human flourishing or life-satisfaction.
Since Virtue is a learnable skill, Stoics believe all humans should master it to live their best possible lives and attain the highest good or summum bonum.
Now, the early Stoics divided this central Virtue into four sub-types—wisdom, temperance, justice, courage—each a separate cardinal virtue. Stoic founders seemed to base their ideas of virtue on the teachings of Socrates and The Republic of Plato.
Stoic thinkers see the four aspects of virtue as closely linked, but also as distinct from each other. To know more, let us delve into the virtues of Stoicism.
1. Wisdom or Phronêsis
Also called prudence, Stoics explain practical wisdom or phronêsis as the ability to understand and differentiate what is good, what is bad, and what is indifferent to human life. The virtue of wisdom allows us to make logical decisions and sound judgments from our knowledge and experience.
The reason we need to acquire wisdom is that most of our sufferings arise from our beliefs from past experiences. With wisdom, we challenge those set-beliefs and move towards building a new self with a peaceful mind.
Diogenes Laërtius says 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 opposite of the virtue of wisdom is the vice of ignorance.
- Wisdom is further divided into discretion, deliberative excellence, good calculation, quick-wittedness, good sense, good sense of purpose, and resourcefulness.
We need the virtue of wisdom to attain peace and fulfillment. Wisdom has a direct hand in our happiness. Seneca said, “Without wisdom the mind is sick, and the body itself, however physically powerful, can only have the kind of strength that is found in a person in a demented or delirious state.”
When we can tell apart the dubious from the virtuous, identify the just from the unjust, differentiate between pride and hubris, it takes away the stress of overthinking. We no more waste time deciding if we should proceed with an action or accept someone’s offer. Since the virtue of justice helps us sift fast through the goodness/badness of a situation, it maintains our calm.
On a similar note, can we live without facing harsh criticisms or negative comments? No. Even if we are at our best, there will be faultfinders trying to pull us down. What we ought to do in such situations is use our wisdom to judge correctly. If there is truth in what the critics say, we go ahead and change ourselves. If not, then we ignore their words and continue being ourselves.
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.”
Although one may see wisdom as synonymous with the overarching Virtue/Excellence, the Stoics thought the four cardinal virtues were separate from Virtue.
Practical wisdom or prudence is a hallmark of the wise. The Stoics had reasons to believe practical wisdom is the proper expression of the virtue of wisdom. That is, wisdom is not of much value if it is not used in a practical sense.
Look at it this way. We know the wise is a synonym for the sage. So, a wise person can manifest wisdom, like a sage. But a sage not only displays wisdom, but he also practices it. Therefore, if we think we are wise as a sage, then we can also act virtuously like a sage. However, this might also indicate that Socrates would have first received knowledge, then wisdom, and only then gained prudence.
Massimo Pigliucci, the Professor of Philosophy at the City College, New York, and author of The Stoic Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living says, “The reason why virtue/wisdom is the only good thing because, by definition, it cannot be used to do bad. A wise person is the one that takes the right course of action, not just instrumentally, but morally. A wise villain, by contrast, is an oxymoron.”
2. Temperance or Sôphrosynê
Also called moderation, the virtue of temperance relates to self-restraint, self-discipline, and self-control. It is the virtue concerned with the acquisition, the state by which a possessor is full of caution about what he should acquire before choosing what to get.
- Temperance is subdivided into organization, orderliness, modesty, self-control, good discipline, and seemliness.
It is about controlling yourself from overeating, overthinking, or overindulging. It is not getting carried away by praise or grudge, happiness or sadness, love or hatred. With temperance, we can choose long-term well-being over short-term pleasure. In a way, it is in step with the principles of Epicurus and the Epicurean way of life.
Temperance is the practice that helps us thrive. It can get us abundance if we practice it at the right time and to the right degree. Stoics commonly equated temperance with self-control. It is doing what is necessary and essential, and not more.
Marcus Aurelius was insistent on having this virtue and wrote what sets humans apart from animals is the ability to control their impulses. He says, “Most of what we say and do is unnecessary: remove the superfluity, and you will have more time and less bother. So in every case one should prompt oneself: ‘Is this, or is it not, something necessary?’ And the removal of the unnecessary should apply not only to actions but to thoughts also: then no redundant actions either will follow.” (Meditations 4.24)
Seneca sagely advised, “You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.” And again, “People who know no self-restraint lead stormy and disordered lives, passing their time in a state of fear commensurate with the injuries they do to others, never able to relax.” (Letters From A Stoic)
The Stoics remind us to practice moderation in all forms — wealth, power, appetite, or any other form of indulgence. In today’s times, we can add to that list the dopamine-spawning social media.
Donald Robertson, a cognitive-behavior therapist and a leading Stoic thinker who authored the excellent How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, says of this virtue: “Stoics employed it to rise above their fears and desires and achieve apatheia or freedom from unhealthy passions and attachment to external things.”
3. Justice or Dikaiosynê
Also called the virtue of morality, justice means doing what is right and fair, and doing it at all times, more so in times of weakness and adversity.
- Justice is subdivided into piety, good-heartedness, public spiritedness, honesty, equity, and fair dealing.
It is our sense of justice that stands behind how we act towards others and how we decide what is legal and just, especially in our community and the people in it. Stoics hold the view that all moral corruptions are equally vicious.
People without a steady sense of moral justice live in mental chaos. Since they have to pick from a handful of options each time they face a moral dilemma, they are mentally drained and lost in willpower overanalyzing which one would serve them the best. Their idea of justice shifts from case to case, as they try to balance each situation with how much it is beneficial to them against how much it is fair to others.
From the Stoic point of view, justice is our duty to our fellow men and our society. A just person guides her decisions based on what is fair and gives others their proper dues even in turbulent times. Justice is thus also the virtue that involves distribution: the state of distributing to each person according to what they deserve.
Musonius Rufus, one of the four great Stoic philosophers of the Roman empire, along with Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, said of this: “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.”
Marcus Aurelius held Justice as the highest importance of the four Stoic virtues and reigned over the vast Roman empire with this virtue the most. As a ruler, he was the most just of all emperors of Rome before and after him. He writes in Mediations (4.37), “Your death will be soon on you: and you are not yet… convinced that justice of action is the only wisdom.”
4. Courage or Andreia
Also called fortitude, the virtue of courage is the state of standing strong and thinking correctly in dangerous and fearful situations.
- Courage is subdivided into endurance, confidence, great-heartedness, stout-heartedness, high-mindedness, cheerfulness, and industriousness (love of work).
Courage is not the elimination of fear, desire, or anxiety. Rather, it is deciding to act and taking steps despite our fear, passion, and anxiety. It is is the virtue concerned with endurance and resilience in the face of fear.
The Stoics warned us that courage without other virtues—most of all, justice and wisdom—stops being a virtue; instead, it becomes a vice. So, one cannot be courageous without being also “good and straightforward, lovers of truth.”
Courage also touches upon other emotions. Cicero points out we need to deal with excessive desire (cupiditas), pain or grief (aegritudo), immoderate pleasure (voluptas), and anger (iracundia) with courage.
Once a student asked Epictetus which words would help a person thrive. He said: “Two words should be committed to memory and obeyed by alternately exhorting and restraining ourselves, words that ensure we lead a mainly blameless and untroubled life: persist and resist.”
Epictetus held without persistence, we can not endure hardships well, and may give in to sinful vices. And without self-control, we can not resist the pleasures and give in to overindulgence. But being courageous is not only facing our fears and doing the right things, it is also showing indifference to external situations.
Marcus Aurelius wrote of the virtue of courage, “So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.”
✶Memento mori, a Latin phrase that means remember you have to die, reminds us of the shortness of human life. Read the fascinating origin story of memento mori here!
Finally, courage is being intrepid in the face of death. Find out what the Stoics thought of Death.
This is what Seneca says of this cardinal virtue: “[Courage] is neither rash bravado nor thrill-seeking nor love of danger. Rather it is a knowledge of how to distinguish between what is bad and what is not. Courage is very careful of its own safety, yet it is also very well able to endure things whose bad appearance is false.”
How To Hack Your Way To A Good Life With Stoic Virtues
So, now you know about the four virtues, why do you think they are important for a good life? How can you use them as useful and time-saving hacks to a happier life?
The knowledge and practice of the four cardinal virtues are important because we can respond to every situation with these. Whenever life presents us with a dire situation, a condition of physical or mental pain, adversity and penury, an attack on our person and reputation, a temptation, or a threat, we can choose to respond with virtue.
You can ask yourself before taking an action, for example, “Does it make good sense?” or “Is it the fair thing to do?” or “Am I losing my self-control?” Let the Stoic virtues answer these for you, and if it is virtuous, only then you do it.
Even if you do not have anything of worldly or materialistic value, you can and must have Virtue. If you have only this, then you can have happiness, honor, success, praise, and love. Cicero said, “The man who has virtue is in need of nothing whatever for the purpose of living well.”
Stoicism recognizes the importance of carrying out the right actions or duties in a given situation. The Stoics believe the most important thing is to first realize and adopt the idea that Virtue is the only true good for human life. Second, one must always try to live with Virtue.
The deliberate practice of a cardinal virtue, especially temperance, also prepares us for future adversities. The wealthy Stoics used to set aside some time each year to practice strict moderation and self-control. They ate the bare minimum, wore tattered clothes, talked little.
Seneca says of this, “Set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, coarse clothing, and will ask yourself, ‘Is this what one used to dread?’ It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times.”
The Stoics believe whatever is good is also morally perfect, like a virtuous act or a virtue-driven person. A true Stoic carries out a deed that is ethical, moral, and virtuous, simply because it is good to do so. To them, living with virtue is the sole doctrine of a good life.
But why vie for a good life?
Because no man is an island entire of itself, and a person cannot live without others — people or nature. The Stoics strongly believed in Sympatheia—mutual interdependence and oneness among everything in the universe. Of this, Marcus Aurelius said, “What injures the hive, injures the bee.”
Constantly think of the universe as one living creature, embracing one being and soul; how all is absorbed into the one consciousness of this living creature; how it compasses all things with a single purpose, and how all things work together to cause all that comes to pass, and their wonderful web and texture.— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.40
So, if we are to live beyond bare survival, we need others; and to keep others accessible and helpful, we must practice virtue with them. Seneca warned, “Otherwise, we shall repel and alienate the very people whose reform we desire; we shall make them, moreover, reluctant to imitate us in anything for fear they may have to imitate us in everything.“
Stoicism teaches the universe is rational. They feel the Gods organized the cosmos rationally, and therefore we can explain it rationally. They 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.
The Stoics believe people should aim to preserve a will—the prohairesis—in harmony with nature.
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.
The purpose of Stoicism’s virtue ethics is to assert that there is no right of one’s own to be good or bad. The three basic concepts around which virtue ethics are built are aretê (virtue, excellence), phronêsis (prudence, or practical wisdom), and eudaimonia (flourishing).
The fundamental goal (of virtue ethics) is to live a life worth living, a eudaimonic existence, though what this means, precisely, varies from school to school. We achieve this goal by practicing a number of virtues, practical wisdom being the one that teaches us the crucial difference between what is and is not good for us, morally speaking.— Massimo Pigliucci
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 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 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.
Suppose one says they take all their decisions based on Virtue, but yet have not achieved eudaimonia. Then, probably, it is not because they lack the ability to exercise indifference or place too much emphasis on indifference. Rather, it shows they have a lack of respect for Virtue.
Not that a person lacks a thing that makes them lack it, but that there is something amiss in them that prevents them from having it, even when they were acting virtuously. The reason is they placed too much emphasis on things that are not a virtue and too little on things that are.
Virtue and virtuous behavior are indispensable and non-negotiable units in a Stoic’s arsenal of principles. Marcus Aurelius speaks beautifully about this:
If, at some point in your life, you should come across anything better than justice, prudence, self-control, courage—than a mind satisfied that it has succeeded in enabling you to act rationally, and satisfied to accept what’s beyond its control—if you find anything better than that, embrace it without reservations—it must be an extraordinary thing indeed—and enjoy it to the full.— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.6
But if nothing presents itself that’s superior to the spirit that lives within—the one that has subordinated individual desires to itself, that discriminates among impressions, that has broken free of physical temptations, and subordinated itself to the gods, and looks out for human beings’ welfare—if you find that there’s nothing more important or valuable than that, then don’t make room for anything but it.
Marcus Aurelius explains how to use Virtue to the best of our ability: “They cannot admire you for intellect. Granted — but there are many other qualities of which you cannot say, ‘but that is not the way I am made’. So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power — integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude? And yet you are still content to lag behind.” (Meditations, 5.5)
How Did The Stoic Virtues Originate
Zeno, the first Stoic, used Socratic, Aristotelian, and Platonic writings to name and classify the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism. These together, he declared, are necessary for the highest good of a man.
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.
Aristotle was Plato’s student, and it was Socrates who taught Plato. So, in Anscombe’s famous phrase, the Stoic virtues were “conjured up by Aristotle.”
Learning the Stoic virtues trains one well at thinking correctly to always act justly and righteously. Stoicism’s virtue-thinking also helps one avoid social and personal conflicts, such as disrespecting others or flaunting a bloated sense of entitlement.
Any philosopher worth their salt has 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 and held the answer to both these is Virtue and its four cardinal divisions of sub-virtues — wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage. With these, we can live better lives than the “mob.”
As Seneca said, “Let our aim be a way of life not diametrically opposed to, but better than that of the mob.”
[Here is a list of the Best Books On Stoicism For Beginners (5 of them free).]
As Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic, says, “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.” To a Stoic, the moral sequence leading to happiness in life is this:
✶Memento mori, a Latin phrase that means remember you have to die, reminds us of the shortness of human life. Read the fascinating origin story of memento mori here!
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder and chief editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.
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