Stoicism is a philosophy of two halves:

  1. A philosophical world view that helps us use logic and reason to perceive the world differently and live a happier life.
  2. A set of ethical virtues that instruct us on how to live well.

Recently, I’ve seen a trend in modern Stoicism where people tend to focus more on the world view half (The Dichotomy of Control, Amor Fati, Memento Mori, etc.) and less on the virtues and ethics of the philosophy.

This isn’t necessarily an issue, but without virtue ethics, people can use Stoic practices in ways that aren’t aligned with the ethical framework of the philosophy.

For example, a person can use a simple idea from Stoicism like The Dichotomy of Control as a way to get an edge in business. This isn’t necessarily an issue, but when our actions or intent become divorced from the ethics and we focus on personal gain, money, fame, or possessions at the expense of others or our morality, we’re no longer aligned with Stoic practice or what it means to be a good person.

Stoic Ethics in a Nutshell:

Ethics, in ancient philosophy, is about what is good and what is bad, what we should do and what we should try not to do, what are right actions, what we value and what we don’t.

To the Stoics, the only good is the excellence of our character, or how well we can display virtue (or good character traits). Similarly, the only evil is vice, or behaviour that contradicts virtue.

So then, to live a good life, we must do everything we can to reflect virtue in everything we do. The Stoics also noticed that passion, desire, and strong emotions have the potential to control our behaviour and cause us to behave in ways we might not like. Therefore, to consistently reflect virtue in our behaviours, we need to learn to free ourselves from the power that external things might have over how we behave and instead use reason when acting.

Stoic Ethics and Virtues

The ancient Stoics believed that when we reflect virtue in our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviour, we put ourselves on the path to emotional wellbeing, a good and happy life, and being free from destructive emotions.

Today we’ll be exploring Stoic ethics and the four cardinal virtues of Stoic philosophy that the ancient Greeks and Romans believed could guide our actions and help us do the right thing, regardless of what is going on around us. These are:

  1. Wisdom
  2. Courage
  3. Justice
  4. Temperance

These virtues are essential qualities that help guide us on the best ways to live and toward living a fulfilling and meaningful life.

“To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden.”

– Seneca The Younger

The ancient Stoics, from the founder of stoicism, Zeno of Citium, to Marcus Aurelius, used these four virtues as a guide for their actions, a compass to point them in the right direction during hardship or times of confusion. Some even went so far as to suggest that virtue is the path to happiness and that when you live a virtuous life in alignment with nature, you naturally become happier and flourish.

So, what are the Four Stoic Virtues, and how can you use them?

Page Break Image of a Greek Temple

What Are The Four Stoic Virtues?

1. The Virtue of Wisdom:

Wisdom is about understanding the world around us, seeing it for what it is, and putting aside our own judgments, biases, preconceptions, and prejudices in order to see things as they really are.

With that information, wisdom then becomes about making sound decisions based on reason and knowledge. In the Stoic context, it involves examples like recognizing the difference between what we can control and what we cannot, focusing our efforts on the things we do have influence over, and accepting the things around us that lie outside the reach of our control.

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own”

– Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4–5

Practical wisdom is also about learning from our experiences (and the experiences of others), reflecting on our actions, and using our understanding to find the best ways to navigate everyday life.

The Stoics believed that wisdom could help us divide life into three categories: good, bad, and indifferent.

For example:

  • Good: This is acting with virtue. Many Stoics believed that virtue was the only good and that anything outside of virtue could only be indifferent or bad. Good can be showing courage in the face of fear, showing moderation despite the desire to be greedy or indulge in addictive behavior, and being just and fair to those around us and not allowing our own incentives to get in the way of what is right.
  • Bad: This can be any action that is not virtuous. For example, lying to someone to avoid responsibility, ignoring moderation, and choosing laziness, greed, and bad habits. It could be ignoring justice and taking advantage of other people, or the community, to get ahead.
  • Indifferent: To the Stoics, there were many things that fell under indifference. For example, money, possessions, fame, etc. can all be things that we can use for good or for bad. In and of themselves, these things are not good or bad; they are simply indifferent.

A Note on Preferred Indifference: The wise person sees things like money, possessions, and fame as indifferent. They were not good or bad; they simply were. However, Stoicism does split this up a little further. There are some things that are indifferent but preferred. Wealth is preferable to poverty, friends are preferable to solitude; health is preferable to illness; etc.

2. The Virtue of Courage:

Courage is the opposite of cowardice. Courage is not the elimination of fear, desire, or anxiety; it is acting in the right way despite our fears, desires, and anxieties. It’s not just about physical bravery, but also about mental and emotional resilience.

“Don’t you know life is like a military campaign? One must serve on watch, another in reconnaissance, another on the front line. . . . So it is for us—each person’s life is a kind of battle, and a long and varied one too. You must keep watch like a soldier and do everything commanded. . . . You have been stationed in a key post, not some lowly place, and not for a short time but for life.” 

– Epictetus, Discourses, 3.24.31–36

It’s the ability to face difficult situations, adversity, and challenges head-on without being overwhelmed by fear or uncertainty. In ancient Greece, courage was about standing up for what is right, even when it’s difficult or unpopular, and staying true to our principles in the face of opposition.

Seneca once wrote:

“There are misfortunes which strike the sage – without incapacitating him, of course – such as physical pain, infirmity, the loss of friends or children, or the catastrophes of his country when it is devastated by war. I grant that he is sensitive to these things, for we do not impute to him the hardness of a rock or of iron. There is no virtue in putting up with that which one does not feel.”

By this, he means that a person who does not feel fear cannot conquer it, and therefore does not show courage. Courage is the act of overcoming those feelings that threaten to cause cowardice. It is doing the right thing even if we are afraid to do so.

There is an ancient story of a Stoic teacher on a boat in a terrible storm:

Travelling across the waters of the Ionian sea, a violent storm began to beat at the hull and the sails of a ship. The waves grew higher and began to fill the ship with water.

Among the passengers was a Stoic teacher from Athens. During the storm his face turned white, and the look of fear was strewn across the details of his face.

When the skies cleared and the sea calmed, another passenger approached the Stoic and asked him, “What does this mean, sir philosopher, that when we were in danger you were afraid and turned pale, while I neither feared nor changed color?”

The Stoic dismissed the man because of his disrespectful tone.

Later in the journey, another passenger approached the Stoic and respectfully asked him the reason for his fear.

The Stoic responded differently to this curious man and offered him a part of Epictetus’ work specifically related to fear.

In this work, Epictetus explains that the first stages of fear are unavoidable. The initial reaction to a falling building or a sinking ship is to panic and feel the grips of fear. A grip that can threaten to take hold of rational thought and a clear mind.

However, Epictetus explains that the wise man does not entertain these initial reactions. He does not consent to them, he condemns them.

Epictetus said:

“And they say that there is this difference between the mind of a foolish man and that of a wise man, that the foolish man thinks that such ‘visions’ are in fact as dreadful and terrifying as they appear at the original impact of them on his mind, and by his assent he approves of such ideas as if they were rightly to be feared, and ‘confirms’ them …. But the wise man, after being affected for a short time and slightly in his colour and expression, ‘does not assent,’ but retains the steadfastness and strength of the opinion which he has always had about visions of this kind, namely that they are in no wise to be feared but excite terror by a false appearance and vain alarms”

– The Discourses by Epictetus

So, courage is the ability to retain strength of character and our morals in the face of fear and the desire not to do so.

3. The Virtue of Justice:

Justice in Stoicism is broader than the way we define it in our language and legal systems today. For the Stoics, justice is our duty to our fellow man and to our society. It’s the morality behind how we act, specifically in relation to our community and the people within it.

“And a commitment to justice in your own acts. Which means: thought and action resulting in the common good. What you were born to do.”

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.31

Justice is all about fairness, kindness, and treating others with respect. It involves understanding our place within society and working to create harmony and balance within our communities. In the Stoic view, practicing justice means treating others as we would like to be treated, and upholding our responsibilities to our fellow humans, whether they be family, friends, or strangers.

Are we kind, courteous, understanding, respectful, fair, and generous? Do we provide support when people need it? Do we give back to our community, or do we just take?

Cicero, the Roman statesman and philosopher, said:

“Justice is the crowning glory of the virtues.” 

Justice guides all other virtues because it is your moral compass. It serves to focus your actions toward the betterment of the whole rather than just yourself.

Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“What is not good for the beehive, cannot be good for the bees.”

If we damage our community, we ultimately damage ourselves. Justice, then, is our ability to benefit the hive.

“It’s in keeping with Nature to show our friends affection and to celebrate their advancement, as if it were our very own. For if we don’t do this, virtue, which is strengthened only by exercising our perceptions, will no longer endure in us.”

– Seneca, Letters, 109.15

Page Break Image of a Greek Temple

4. The Virtue of Temperance:

“Pleasures, when they go beyond a certain limit, are but punishments.”

– Seneca

Temperance can also be called moderation or good discipline. It relates to self-restraint, self-discipline, and self-control. It is our ability to choose long-term well-being over short-term satisfaction.

Moderation is about finding balance and harmony in our lives, avoiding excess, and seeking contentment in simplicity. The Stoics believe that we should strive for self-control and manage our desires and emotions to maintain a sense of inner peace.

Through the practice of moderation, we can prevent ourselves from being swept away by external events or desires, allowing us to focus on cultivating our inner virtues.

“Since habit is such a powerful influence, and we’re used to pursuing our impulses to gain and avoid outside our own choice, we should set a contrary habit against that, and where appearances are really slippery, use the counterforce of our training.”

– Epictetus, Discourses, 3.12.6

Temperance helps us detach our well-being from extremes like a dependence on material goods, drink, drugs, social media, video games, porn, etc. Many Stoics chose to live lives of simplicity and frugality, refraining from buying expensive clothes, eating rich foods, sleeping on soft beds, or even warming themselves.

Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome, was known to sleep on a soldier’s bed. Seneca swam in cold water and took cold baths, and Cato the Younger was known for living a simple and frugal life despite being a Roman Senator.

“I, a great lover of cold baths, who used to celebrate the new year by taking a plunge into the canal, who, just as naturally as I would set out to do some reading or writing, or to compose a speech, used to inaugurate the first of the year with a plunge into the Virgo aqueduct [part of the Roman baths]”

– Seneca, Letter 83 (10) to Lucilius

Now, I’m not saying you should sell your TV and your car and move into the mountains to raise goats. But, I think you’ll agree with me when I suggest that moderation of comfort and pleasure is normally a good thing.

Seneca wrote about being overindulgent with our possessions:

“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realise how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.”   

Why is virtue important?

Stoicism teaches us that the ultimate goal in life is to achieve happiness, or what they called eudaimonia (a deep sense of fulfillment and well-being).

As we’ve seen, according to the Stoics, the path to happiness lies not in seeking external pleasures or material wealth but in developing and cultivating our inner character and striving to live a life in harmony with nature and reason. With this in mind, it’s easy to see the importance of virtue and the value in building the four virtues above into our thoughts and actions.

Virtue, in the Stoic view, is the highest form of excellence and the best expression of human nature. Vice is the opposite of these things, dragging us down to the level of beasts, pulled this way and that by our desires.

The Stoics believed that reflecting these virtues in our own lives was important simply because they are good. If we are to live a good life, we need to build a virtuous character.

As Epictetus says, we only really control our thoughts and actions, and if these things are within our control, they are our responsibility, and if they are our responsibility, then it is up to us to make sure they are good.

“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.

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, Meditations 3.6

Similar Posts

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *