Stoic mindfulness and resilience training, week 2

the-batmanAs I mentioned last week, I have enrolled in the Stoic mindfulness and resilience training course offered by the good people at Modern Stoicism, and coordinated by Donald Robertson (the author of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness). I’m doing this in part for my own benefit, and in part as an exercise in philosophical journalism, in preparation for one of my forthcoming (fate permitting) books on Stoicism.

I figured, then, that I would write a series of posts, one for each of the four weeks of the course, focusing on the suggested “big question of the week,” to bring the discussion to people who have not enrolled in the course and to perhaps broaden the appeal of what Modern Stoicism is doing.

This week’s big questions are: What constitutes true human ‘virtue’ or makes a person genuinely admirable? What qualities might define someone’s character as truly good or bad?

To begin with, there is no direct translation for the Greek word Arete, which roughly means excellence, broadly construed. Virtue, therefore, is only an approximation. This is partly why Robertson, in the course I am following, sometimes uses the more modern term “value living,” rather then the more accurate but perhaps a bit pretentious sounding “living according to virtue.” I like to stick as close as possible to what the Stoics said, so I’ll risk pretentiousness here.

As is well known, the various Greek-Roman schools differed somewhat in their conception of virtue, as well as about its importance. Aristotle listed a whopping 12 virtues, while the Stoics stuck with four: courage, justice, self-control, and (practical) wisdom. For Aristotle the virtues were necessary but not sufficient for a eudaimonic life (one also needed good nurturing, a bit of education, some financial resources, and even a certain degree of physical attractiveness), while the Stoics considered them both necessary and sufficient.

The Stoics also subscribed to a notion referred to nowadays as the unity of virtues, essentially thinking that the four virtues are in fact different aspects of the same fundamental concept. Socrates, who highly influenced the Stoics, agreed. So did Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics. I find it interesting, by the way, that in the Platonic dialogues, Socrates refers to five virtues: justice, courage, temperance, piety, and wisdom. The list is almost identical to the Stoic one referred to above, except for the addition of piety, which was apparently dropped by the Stoics, in spite of their own theological leanings.

When reflecting on the concept of virtue I find it enlightening to frame it in the terms posed by Robertson in this week’s question: what makes a person genuinely admirable? Now, of course we can admire people for all sorts of things, including their beauty, their physical prowess, or even — despite ourselves — for how cannily they can pull off an unethical deed, for instance because of their misguidedly applied intelligence.

But none of the above (beauty, physical prowess, intelligence) seems to deserve the appellative of “virtue.” This, by the way, is not because virtue requires work and those other attributes don’t. After all, one can be smart or strong or attractive by nature, but one can also work hard at improving all those qualities. Likewise, while the sort of virtue we are talking about requires constant application, I’m sure some of us are naturally born with a character that lends itself more easily to the cultivation of virtue.

So we are really talking about moral virtues here, things at which at the least in theory anyone can excel (it’s easier to imagine natural limits imposed on one’s intelligence, prowess or beauty), and that are worthy of social praise. That’s why Robertson expresses the question also in the second fashion reported above: what qualities might define someone’s character as truly good or bad? Good or bad are understood as moral qualities in this context, not in the generic sense that might include being good or bad at playing soccer or chess.

Perhaps it will help, like the Stoics themselves did, to think of role models — both real and imaginary ones. For the ancient Stoics, an example of the first kind was Socrates, and one of the second kind was the mythical Heracles (he of the twelve labors). Of course, no role model can be a perfect embodiment of the virtues (that would make him or her a Sage), but role models are people we adopt for inspiration, not worship.

I’d be curious to hear from readers about who some of their contemporary, or historically recent, role models might be, and why. For my part, I’ll stick with the (modern) mythological variety. I have recently taught an introductory philosophy class using entirely comic book characters and story lines, and my sympathy lies most definitely with Batman. He is clearly courageous, both in the physical sense but also in the sense of being willing to make tough decisions if the situation calls for it; he is just (hey, that’s the whole point of being a superhero, as opposed to a supervillain…); he is wise, since he tends to make the right decisions in a bewildering variety of difficult circumstances; and he possesses self-control, as evidenced not only by his dedication to training, but perhaps more importantly in his decision to draw an ethical line at never killing his opponents (for instance, the Joker), even though he has both the occasion and plenty of motivation, at the least from a consequentialist perspective.

For the Stoics, then, Bruce Wayne / Batman is a happy, in the eudaimonic sense, person. Despite the fact that he has experienced the horrible trauma of losing his parents when he was a boy; despite his constantly facing evil and its consequences; despite often suffering debilitating physical pain; despite losing friends and comrades in battle; and despite not really having a sustainable romantic relationship with anyone, he is a virtuous individual, and virtue is both his goal and his constant reward.

9 thoughts on “Stoic mindfulness and resilience training, week 2

  1. For courage I look to Malcolm X, not because I agree with anything he stood for, but that he publicly changed his mind about something that was integral to his public persona whilst knowing it would get him killed (he made reference to the possible implications in his Autobiography). He chose to do what was right (in his mind) despite the consequences.

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  2. Thanks for this, Massimo: interesting discussion and an interesting pedagogical technique to consider role models. For myself when I think of what makes someone really admirable I turn more towards virtues such as honesty, generosity, tolerance, kindness, and equanimity. (Not incidentally, these are several of the Pāramīs). When I think of Batman, I think of a vigilante motivated mostly by anger and vengefulness, which I would not consider admirable, much as I enjoy reading some of the comics.

    This may touch on my earlier concern with how one goes about defining the virtues. I don’t mean we need to work out necessary and sufficient conditions; that will not be possible, nor I think even desirable. But for example how do we understand “courage”? The courage Batman displays seems to me a kind of martial courage, of cool-headedness under extreme physical danger. That can be admirable, but when motivated by anger I’m not sure it is.

    If on the other hand we think of courage as something more akin to dedicated effort and determination, we may find that the single mother working two jobs to support a family is in a sense as courageous, and to my mind more virtuous, than Batman.

    It ends up that I don’t really expect role models to be famous people, except perhaps a very few like Nelson Mandela, MLK, or the Dalai Lama. (All of whom have their faults). Most truly virtuous or admirable people don’t need or seek out fame. Indeed, although fame is compatible with virtue, the wish or need for fame is not.

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  3. I’m also participating in SMART this year. When I read week two’s question, I interpreted it as asking for a personal interpretation of “virtue”.

    So while the stoics believed in courage, justice, self-control, and (practical) wisdom I’m curious if you (and others) feel that this is the definition of virtue you personally choose to live by.

    I answered that virtue is made of Integrity Reason, and Wisdom. I define wisdom as not only having good/insightful judgement but living according to that judgement. It’s important that actions are in line with beliefs.

    I believe that integrity, rationality/reason and wisdom would lend themselves to being courageous, just, and self-disciplined.


  4. Professor Pigliucci I consider the fictional Jedi Knights of the Star Wars Universe to be Stoic role models. I’m not sure if you are a Marvel Comics fan, but within the Marvel universe, I found the Silver Surfer to be a Stoic role model. Among those figures already mentioned I would include Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


  5. Douglass,

    yes, this does go to your concern about how we understand (rather than formally define) virtue. I have a better opinion than you do of Batman 😉 but I think you are correct that many role models can be found among people who are not famous — perhaps for the reason you hint at. The problem with that, of course, is that such role models are harder to share with others, who likely don’t know them personally.


    “I’m curious if you (and others) feel that this is the definition of virtue you personally choose to live by”

    In my case, yes, which is why I practice Stoicism to begin with.


    “I’m not sure if you are a Marvel Comics fan, but within the Marvel universe, I found the Silver Surfer to be a Stoic role model”

    Indeed! If we are talking Marvel, I would also include Captain America, Spider-man, and Sue Richards.


  6. I agree with the general gist of what Douglas stated. Here is an excerpt from the Tao Te Ching chapter 67 which deals with various virtues:

    “I have three treasures which I hold and keep.
    The first is mercy; the second is economy;
    The third is daring not to be ahead of others.
    From mercy comes courage; frome economy comes generosity;
    From humility comes leadership.

    Nowadays men shun mercy, but try to be brave;
    They abandon economy, but try to be generous;
    They do not believe in humility, but always try to be first.
    This is certain death.”

    I like this way of thinking about courage. Can we dare not to go along with others and speak what we see as right when it is not popular. Even harder can we have the courage to examine the grounds of our own beliefs exposing our ego from it’s protective wall of confirmation. This requires humility and is unlikely to result in praise or fame, but this is a courage rooted in a unity of other virtues (those stated plus kindness, understanding, etc….).

    I think it is difficult to find role models for multiple reasons. One is because this type of virtue often conflicts with qualities that allow names to rise to the top. Another is that humans (even great ones) simply tend to be flawed in one way or another. So I think it is more useful to recognize virtuous acts or virtuous ways of being than it is to attach the label to a whole and ever changing human being. This way we also don’t have to worry about idolization and worship.

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