The four Stoic virtues lie at the core of the philosophy of Stoicism. To the Stoics, virtue is the only thing that could make for our eudaimonia or life-satisfaction.
But what are the Stoic virtues? And how can they let us think clearly and stay calm in a chaotic world?
How Did Stoicism Came About
The Stoics, one of the most influential philosophers in history, emerged in the 3rd century BCE. Though ancient, the philosophy seems to be back by popular demand and going through a resurgence.
It was Athens that saw the Stoicism school of philosophy founded by an unlikely person. Born in Citium, a Cypriot city, Zeno grew to be 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 dyestuff get lost into the sea. It forced him to switch his profession and thus led him to lay the roots of Stoicism.
Zeno taught all his life from “the painted porch” or Stoa Poikile, and his followers came to be called the “philosophers of the porch” or the Stoics. His first-hand writings are lost forever, unfortunately.
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; and Marcus Aurelius got adopted by a Roman emperor and became an emperor himself.
What Are The 2 Pillars of Stoicism
Stoic philosophy is built upon two main pillars:
- The Dichotomy of Control
- The Stoic Virtue
The Dichotomy of Control
The first pillar of Stoicism is the Dichotomy of Control, which means we divide things based on whether we can control them or not.
For example, things within our control: thoughts, like judgments and desires, and actions, like impulses and reactions.
And the things that lie outside of our control: everything else, like the body, the material stuff, other people’s opinions. Epictetus, the slave-to-sage teacher, called these “externals.”
Epictetus explains the idea as follows:
Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing… If you regard that only that which is your own as being your own (as is indeed the case), no one will ever be able to coerce you, no one will hinder you, you’ll find fault with no one, you’ll accuse no one, you’ll do nothing whatever against your will, you’ll have no enemy, and no one will ever harm you because no harm can affect you.— Epictetus
According to the Stoics, we should not give in to fretful emotions when we face things we cannot control, because most of the times, there is nothing we can do to make them better. It is better to accept them as they are, and move on.
In fact, the principle of ‘dichotomy of control’ became the basis of The Serenity Prayer, a prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1932-33. It was later adopted by the twelve-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The Stoic Virtue
The second pillar of Stoicism is held up by Virtue. The Stoics completely accept the idea that virtue is the only good for living as humankind. In fact, they guide their whole lives by that principle.
They believe having goodness and doing good for their own sake is the highest function of human life. They feel living with virtue is the only right way to live that can give us mental clarity and peace in this chaotic world.
To the philosophical mind of the Stoics, a life that is lived with virtue is the best form of human life. Stoicism holds the only thing to bring about our ultimate happiness is a life of virtue.
What Are The 4 Virtues of Stoicism
The Stoics divided Virtue into a taxonomy of four cardinal virtues. They suggested we deal with the things under our control only after sifting them through the four virtues.
The four virtues of Stoicism are 1. Wisdom or Phronêsis, 2. Justice or Dikaiosynê, 3. Temperance or Sôphrosynê, and 4. Courage or Andreia. These virtues apply to the things under one’s control, not to the “externals” of Epictetus.
Perhaps the most authoritative and informative definition of the Stoic virtues was given by Cicero, the greatest orator of the late Roman Republic, as:
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.— De Inventione (II.53-54)
The Stoic thinkers considered the four aspects of virtue to be closely linked, but also distinct from each other.
Let us delve a little deeper into the 4 virtues of Stoicism:
1. Wisdom or Phronêsis
Stoicism describes wisdom or phronêsis specifically as the ability to know what is good, bad, and indifferent. The virtue of prudence or practical 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.
As 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.“
Wisdom has a direct hand in our happiness. When we can tell apart the wicked from the virtuous and can judge what to do and what not to do, it takes the stress off our head and keeps us calm.
Can we live this life without facing harsh criticisms or negative people? No. What we ought to do in such situations is to use our wisdom to judge correctly if there is any truth in them or not and change 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.
And although one may tend to see wisdom as synonymous with virtue, the Stoics thought the four virtues were separate in identities. The opposite of the virtue of wisdom is the vice of ignorance.
2. Justice or Dikaiosynê
In simple words, justice means doing what is rightful and fair to others and ourselves.
From the Stoic point of view, justice is our duty to our fellow men and our society. Justice is the virtue involving distribution: the state of distributing to each person according to what they deserve.
It is the morality behind how we act and how we decide what is legal and just, especially in our community and the people in it.
People without a sense of justice live in much mental chaos. Since they have to constantly pick from a lot of options, they are mentally drained and lost in willpower because of worrying about which one would serve them the best.
A just person would simply guide their decisions based on what is fair and thus manage to keep a cool head even in turbulent times.
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 of the highest important of the virtues, and he managed his reign with this virtue the most.
3. 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.
With temperance, we can choose long-term wellbeing over short-term satisfaction.
Marcus Aurelius was insistent on having this virtue and wrote what sets humans apart from animals is the ability to control their impulses.
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.
You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.
Donald Robertson, cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist, and author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (2019) and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013), 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.”
4. Courage or Andreia
Courage or fortitude is the state of standing strong and thinking correct in dangerous and fearful situations.
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.
It is being intrepid in the face of death.
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. These two words were 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.
And Marcus Aurelius wrote:
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.
How Did The Stoic Virtues Originate
The Stoic seemed to base their ideas of virtue on their interpretation of Socrates and Socrates himself. In Anscombe’s famous phrase, the Stoic virtues were “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.
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, so they could 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.
What Is The Importance of Stoic Virtues
The Stoics believe the most important thing is to realize and adopt the idea that virtue and wisdom are the only true good for human life. And one must live in accord with these to attain peace and fulfillment.
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.
A Stoic describes wisdom as the ability to distinguish between things that are good, evil, or indifferent. With virtue as practical wisdom, the Stoics find it easier to make that distinction.
When one is virtuous, they always do what is ethically good and morally right. The virtue-abiding people also avoid the bad stuff because those things are immoral and unethical, and therefore evil and wicked.
Virtue and virtuous behavior are indispensable and non-negotiable units in a Stoic’s arsenal of principles. To a Stoic, the sum of the moral sequence is this: If you are virtuous, then you are good, and therefore you will be happy.
Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, said:
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.”
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
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
A Stoic’s goal is to gain wisdom, particularly wisdom that is practical. And the need to acquire practical wisdom is because it is a means to reach the correct reasoning.
Stoicism teaches the universe is rational. They feel the Gods organized the cosmos rationally, and therefore we can explain it 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.
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
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 the destructive emotions and make the slightest of the 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 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 says he makes his decisions based on virtue, but yet does not have eudaimonia because he lacks indifference, then this is not a sign that he places too much emphasis on indifference. Rather, it shows he has 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.
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.
[Frankly, I don’t quite get it what that last paragraph says. (Stoic Wink!)]
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 and believed the answer to both these is virtue.
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 list of 5 Free Books On Stoicism For Beginners.
• • •
Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – a 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.
√ If you enjoyed this, please share it on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn.
This post may contain affiliate links. Disclosure.