It is well known that Stoicism is a type of virtue ethical philosophy, in that respect similar to a number of other ones that developed in ancient Greek and Roman times, beginning of course with the Peripatetic school of Aristotle.
It’s interesting, however, to dig a bit deeper into exactly what sort of virtue ethics the Stoics had in mind, an opportunity for which is offered by a nice paper by Matthew Sharpe, published as chapter 3 in The Handbook of Virtue Ethics, edited by Stan van Hooft & Nafsika Athanassoulis (Acumen Publishing, 2014). (The paper is downloadable here.) I will cover about half of the paper in this post and the other half in my next one.
Sharpe begins by situating Stoic virtue ethics (henceforth, SVE) within the broader framework of ancient virtue ethics in general, and as one of the modern rival to approaches such as utilitarianism and deontology. Indeed, he goes so far as saying the SVE is the definitive virtue ethical system, since for the Stoics, distinctively, virtue was the only good in life.
The focus, of course, is on character development, and on the idea that virtue is best learned by example, not (just) by theoretical study of first principles — hence the Stoic insistence on role models, for instance. Moreover, for the Stoics virtue was tightly connected to human flourishing, meaning that for them only the virtuous person really flourishes. In his introduction Sharpe also points out that a major contrast between Stoic and Aristotelian virtue ethics is that for the Stoics (negative) emotions, such as anger, should be removed, not moderated (i.e., there is no such thing as the proper amount of anger).
I will not be able to do justice to the full paper, which is well worth a careful reading. However, I will comment of some of the highlights that are, in my mind, more likely to lead to reflection and generate discussion.
1. The highest good
The Stoics conceived of eudaimonia as euroia biou, or a good flow of life (according to Zeno, and then even more clearly Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus).
Sharpe continues: “The good life for the Stoa, if not for Aristotle, is the life lived in harmony (homologia) with nature (physis) (DL 87). And this, given human beings’ specific, rational capabilities, means a life lived according to reason, wherein our logos “supervenes upon” (epiginetai: DL VII 86) and redirects our first, animal impulses.”
The Stoics saw eudaimonia as consisting of a state of apatheia or tranquilitas, which is very close to the Epicurean ataraxia, but the contrast between the two schools is rooted in the Stoic claim that virtue is the only good for human beings, not just instrumental to their happiness (as it was for the Epicureans).
2. The only good
It is this rather singular claim of the fundamentality of virtue that preoccupies the second section of Sharpe’s paper. He reminds us that the key Stoic argument in favor of this position is derived from Plato’s Euthydemus, where Socrates asks his two Sophist interlocutors to reflect on the observation that alleged goods such as health, wealth and reputation are clearly neither necessary nor sufficient to flourish (since there are people who do not have them, and yet flourish, as well as people who do have them, and do not appear to flourish).
What’s necessary, says Socrates, is knowledge of how to use such goods, if one happens to have them. And this knowledge is precisely the one that a virtuous person possesses: “this epistēmē with which Socrates typically identifies virtue (arête) must be the only truly good thing for us, since it alone is always and only beneficial, never capable of harming its possessor.”
3. Living according to nature
Sharpe rightly claims that the Stoics’ position that external goods are “indifferent” to eudaimonia — because the latter consists of virtue (which means they are indifferent to virtue, not to other aspects of life) — is a break from Aristotle and puts the Stoics much closer to the Cynics.
But the Stoics were not Cynics: “Zeno’s founding break with the Cynics’ philosophy turned principally on the idea that, although all externals — from bodily health to disease and death — are by themselves neither good nor evil, we nevertheless can rationally select (eklogē) between them (DL VII 105–9; White 2010). Indeed, the Stoics note, these external goods provide the ‘material for virtue,’ with which all our actions are concerned, as soon as we venture to do anything in the world.” Hence the famous Stoic twin concepts of “preferred indifferents” (proēgmena) and “dispreferred indifferents” (apoproēgmena).”
Again this is related to what Socrates says in the Euthydemus: other things being equal, a healthy virtuous person is in a better position than a sick virtuous person, because the first one can practice virtue (including the Stoic discipline of action, based on the idea that we should help fellow human beings) more effectively than the second one. The crucial caveat is that one ought to never trade virtue for health (or wealth, or any other external).
Sharpe reasonably links the Stoic position on preferred indifferents to the naturalistic doctrine of oikeiōsis, a term which “names for the Stoics the process whereby all things in the natural world are adapted to, or belong in, their particular environs.” We humans are no exception, we have natural preferences (for food, drink, shelter, etc.), and these become our preferred indifferents.
Two crucial things happen, however, to humans when they reach the age of reason (around 14 years old), and these are the ones that distinguish us from other animals: a) We are capable of appreciating and admiring the general “pattern” of things in the universe, what makes us who we are; this in turns means that we can make choices that go beyond our immediate needs and wants, but are nonetheless “in agreement” with the broader cosmic pattern, including our ability to withhold immediate gratification in favor of broader goals. b) We can rationally enlarge our natural tendency to love ourselves and our kins, transforming it into the Stoic concept of cosmopolitanism as encapsulated by the famous image of Hierocles’ circles of expanding concern. This cosmopolitanism embodies the Stoics’ naturalistic concept of justice (and is, therefore, related to that virtue).