As 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.