Stoic virtue ethics, part I

virtueIt 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).

15 thoughts on “Stoic virtue ethics, part I

  1. Was Aristotle serious about expressing anger in the right way? Anger, not to mention rage, is mostly out of control. Perhaps irritation could be expressed in the right way but it seems that once real anger starts it has a life of its own– in the limbic brain? My guess is that this is why the Stoics were against anger without qualification.


  2. Yes, you got it precisely. For Aristotle, as well as for many moderns, it appears, that can be something like “righteous anger,” which is a positive, because it moves you to action. But Seneca said that anger is like madness, and not a reliable emotion to base one action’s upon. Needless to say, I agree with Seneca.


  3. Only righteous anger does seem like a strong reaction to a big unjust situation. So maybe it could be called righteous annoyance. No, that would be too weak. I would settle on righteous indignation which seems to capture a strong mood while leaving room for being a ‘thing under control’.

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  4. John, well, the Stoics did cultivate positive emotions, one of the most important of which is a sense of justice. And justice is one of the four cardinal virtues. So, no need to get angry in order to consider and do the right thing.

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  5. ” And justice is one of the four cardinal virtues. So, no need to get angry in order to consider and do the right thing.”

    I still wonder about that Massimo. Last night I watched a documentary on AIDS activist Larry Cramer. He took worked tirelessly and took courageous stands unpopular with both his peers and those in system he was advocating against. He consistently described anger as his source of motivation and I wonder if he could have accomplished what he did with a more reasoned based less emotional base of motivation. It is true he rubbed many people the wrong way, and I am not holding his approach up as the ideal. Nevertheless that particular crises needed urgent action, and I believe his confrontational approach was responsible saving many, many lives.


  6. Seth, I understand and share some of your qualms. Then again, I’ve never experienced a single good outcome from my anger in my entire lifetime, it really feels like temporary madness, just as Seneca said.

    Perhaps the “motivating anger” isn’t really anger at all, but a lower intensity emotion? In that case it wouldn’t be so far from the Stoic positive emotion of social justice. But I have to think some more about this.


  7. Hi Massimo: From the above article, what does this mean: “…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”?
    Can you define what “appearing to flourish” means? And how do I know if other people are flourishing or not? Is it based on their emotional appearance? Isn’t my neighbor’s flourishing defined by her own self-assessment?
    Just curious. Thanks.


  8. Vienna,

    Socrates (and the Stoics) means that we know of people who feel miserable even though they are healthy and rich, as well as people who are happy and yet poor and sometimes even sick. By “happy” here he means eudaimonic, i.e., flourishing. Flourishing in turns means that one is capable of living a life of purpose, pursuing her goals, aiming at excellence, and doing so morally. I hope this helps.


  9. OK, but if someone appears to be happy and yet is immoral, that would not be “flourishing,” is that correct? So the morality part is based on how one is treating others?


  10. Well, the phrase “happy and yet immoral” would not have made sense to Socrates (or the Stoics), since they defined happiness in a moral sense.


  11. Thank you, that is very illuminating, since I think our modern idea of “happiness” would definitely allow for “happy and yet immoral” people to exist (and even to appear to flourish–at least from the standards of most current developed countries).
    It would be great for you to write out the different world view that Socrates (or the Stoics) had in this regard. It seems vastly different from our present world view.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I think I like Stoicism, but I find reading about it difficult because there seems to be a strong bias by its adherents to want to parse ancient texts and use their Greek terms. Is this really necessary? You can learn everything you need to know about evolution without reading anything written by Charles Darwin, because the truths derive from the real world, not out of Darwin’s mind.

    Can’t we moderns take ownership of Stoic ideas and use our own terminology and our own examples, as is done in the world of CBT?


  13. Scott, valid question. However, there are other things to consider. To begin with, the ancient Stoics introduced a number of technical terms, which didn’t even have Greek equivalents, and are in fact cumbersome to translate in English. For example: oikeiosis, a word that captures the Stoic view about the place of other people in one’s life, from an ethical perspective.

    Second, a number of practitioners of Stoicism have an appreciation for the deep history of ideas, so they like to retain that connection, within reason.

    Lastly, as a biologist I can tell you that it’s a pity that so few biologists have actually read Darwin. They are missing out on a direct appreciation of his kin intelligence, style of argumentation, etc.


  14. Hi,Can you please clarify what you mean by “social justice” in this case? It’s just that from what I’ve seen of modern social justice movementism and of what its followers seem to believe, advocate and do, it would seem to be the exact opposite of stoic!


  15. Distorts,

    The sense in which I’m using the word “justice” here has nothing to do with the modern social justice movement, which, at best is something different from Stoicism, and at worst, as you point out, is antithetical to it.

    What the Stoics meant by justice was a virtue, not a comprehensive social theory. It was therefore an attitude, that of treating others with fairness and respect. There was no implication of rights or even necessarily of equality, beyond the basic one that we are all human beings.


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