Stoic ethics, Cambridge edition

ethicsI have commented on the general topic of Stoic ethics before (here and here), but given that ethics is the fundamental pillar of Stoic philosophy, I’m sure there will be plenty of other occasions to return to the subject. This post is about the treatment of Stoic ethics to be found in a chapter by Malcolm Schofield in The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics.

The first interesting bit comes when Schofield discusses Zeno’s views on ethics, as presented by Stobaeus. According to Schofield, Zeno’s views are eminently Socratic, in particular he adopts the four fundamental virtues (wisdom, courage, justice and temperance) from Plato’s Republic, and imports the idea that things like health and sickness are not bad or good in themselves from the Apology and especially Euthydemus.

In other texts we encounter a redefinition of the virtues, all cast in terms of wisdom. As Schofield puts it: “Zeno specified each of the other three in terms of phronêsis, practical wisdom (thus exhibiting a unity in plurality that Chrysippus would turn into a particularly subtle form of inseparability): justice as wisdom in matters of distribution, moderation in matters requiring choice, courage in matters requiring endurance.” I quite like this 1+3 version of the virtues, it makes more sense to me than to consider wisdom a fourth virtue on par with the other three.

Schofield then moves to consider Zeno’s views as found in Diogenes Laertius, and in particular his distinction between things that have value (preferred, such as health and education), those that have negative value (dispreferred, like sickness and ignorance), and those that have neither.

Zeno is also known for his idea that the goal of life is to “live consistently,” and that happiness is “the smooth current of life.” Consistently here means in accordance to reason. And Diogenes explains: “Living consistently with nature is living in accordance with virtue, since nature leads us to virtue.” To which Schofield adds the following comment: “The idea is that we all have as our natural endowment certain inclinations which are ‘starting points for virtue’ (Cleanthes) or the ‘foundation of appropriate behaviour and matter for virtue’ (Chrysippus).”

Zeno argued that human beings are “programmed” (we would say) by what the Stoics called oikeiôsis (i.e., affinity) to do the following:

  • to behave in ways that promote our health, wealth and reputation — goals that are facilitated by the practice of the Stoic virtues of moderation and courage
  • to identify with the interests of our parents, friends, and other fellow humans — related to the practice of the Stoic virtue of justice
  • to discover “what is appropriate” — which is achieved through the practice of practical wisdom, the fourth Stoic virtue.

Schofield then tackles the need the Stoics had to refute the Epicureans, who famously argued that pleasure (not virtue) is the fundamental good in life. According to Diogenes, Chrysippus argues — against the Epicureans — that the first impulse even of animals, let alone humans, is self-preservation, not pleasure. And Seneca points out, along the same vein, that human toddlers try to walk even though this actually causes them pain. Pleasure, then, cannot be the most fundamental animal or human instinct.

Schofield’s chapter, appropriately enough, ends with a section on practical Stoic ethics, since Stoicism was meant to be a living philosophy, not just a theoretical system. As Epictetus puts it in the Discourses (III.24.30): “The philosopher’s lecture room is a hospital: you ought not to walk out of it in a state of pleasure, but in pain – for you are not in good condition when you arrive!”

Indeed, much of what we know about Stoicism directly from Stoics belongs to the Roman period, and it is all about practical advice: Seneca writes letters to his friends on how to deal with life’s situations, Epictetus gives advice to his students, and Marcus Aurelius reminds himself of the right things to do and the right attitudes to countenance.

As Schofield writes: “It is in Stoic writings on practical ethics, which are still available to us, that we get perhaps our keenest sense of what it was like for ancient thinkers not just to subscribe to Stoicism as a philosophy, but also to move about in it as their intellectual home and as the air they breathed.” And he gives a number of examples, from which I cite in part.

Here is Epictetus on being on guard about becoming too attached to anything, including people: “Remind yourself that the person you love is mortal, not one of your own possessions, something given to you for the present, not undetachably nor for ever … If you long for your son or your friend like this, at a time when that has not been given to you, rest assured: you are hankering for a fig in winter.” (III.24.84-87)

And Seneca, on doing things for others: “This is in my opinion the least surprising or least incredible of the paradoxes of the Stoic school: that the person who receives a benefaction gladly has already returned it  .  .  . When a person gives a benefaction what does he aim at? To be the cause of profit and pleasure to the person to whom he gives. If he accomplishes what he wished, and his intention is conveyed to me, and affects me with a reciprocating joy, he gets what he aimed at. He didn’t want me to give anything in exchange. Otherwise it would have been not a benefaction, but a business transaction.” (On Acts on Benefaction, II.31.1-2)

Again Seneca, from the same book (II.17.3-4), making the analogy between playing ball with someone and teaching someone how to be ethical: “If we are dealing with a practised and educated partner, we should be bolder in our throwing of the ball. No matter how it comes, his ready, nimble fingers will whip it back. But if we are playing with an uneducated novice, we shall not throw it so hard or with such force, but lob it more gently – in fact we shall move towards him in a relaxed manner and guide the ball right into his hand. The same strategy should be adopted in helping people. There are some people we have to teach how to receive help. And we should judge it sufficient if they try, if they dare, if they are willing.”


14 thoughts on “Stoic ethics, Cambridge edition

  1. labnut

    What are the fundamental virtues?
    The Stoic view is that Wisdom, Courage, Temperance and Justice are the most fundamental. But why these?

    Dahlsgaard, Peterson and Seligman – Shared Virtue: The Convergence of Valued Human Strengths Across Culture and History Across Culture and History ( surveyed the main schools of thought in China, South Asia and the West.

    Their goals were:
    we undertook a historical survey with dual and complementary purposes. The first was a literature search and review of early and influential attempts to list virtues crucial to human thriving. The second aim was empirical: Would the virtue catalogs of early thinkers converge? Would certain virtues, regardless of tradition or culture, be widely valued?

    They concluded:
    Our literature review revealed a surprising amount of similarity across cultures and strongly indicates a historical and cross-cultural convergence of six core virtues: courage, justice, humanity, temperance, wisdom, and transcendence

    Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal; examples include bravery, perseverance, and authenticity (honesty)
    Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life; examples include fairness, leadership, and citizenship or teamwork
    Interpersonal strengths that involve “tending and befriending” others (Taylor et al., 2000); examples include love and kindness
    Strengths that protect against excess; examples include forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self control
    Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge; examples include creativity, curiosity, judgment, and perspective (providing counsel to others)
    Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and thereby provide meaning; examples include gratitude, hope, and spirituality.

    The authors are psychologists accustomed to dealing with the defects in human nature so it was natural they would end by saying:
    The ubiquitous virtues, we believe, are what allow the human animal to struggle against and to triumph over what is darkest within us.

    On this understanding we have an innate human drive to become better than we naturally are and the virtues arose out of an impetus to overcome our nature.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. labnut

    Park, Peterson and Seligman followed up with another study where they measured character(virtue) strengths in fifty-four nations and the fifty US states ( The measurements were done using a 5 point Likert scale(from 1 ‘‘very much unlike me’’ to 5 ‘‘very much like me’’).

    The US rated kindness, fairness, honesty, gratitude and judgment most highly(3.99 to 3.91).
    South Africa rated fairness, honesty, kindness, judgement and curiosity most highly(4.06 to 4.02)
    Britain rated judgement, fairness, curiosity, learning and kindness most highly(3.94 to 3.82)
    Germany rated curiosity, judgement, learning, fairness and beauty most highly(3.95 to 3.82)

    The differences between nations are small with it mainly being a question of differing emphases.

    In general they found:
    Higher (weighted) strength scores were found for kindness, fairness, honesty, gratitude, judgment, love, and humor, and lower scores were found for strengths of temperance: prudence, modesty, and especially self-regulation.

    They also found
    Regardless, the rank order of self-attributed strengths of character was similar across all nations in these comparisons
    We tried to cluster the nations in our study using both raw and ranked scores, with a variety of clustering algorithms and different end rules, but none of these analyses suggested a right or even a reasonable number of clusters

    Remarkably then, 54 countries around the world are in good agreement about the six core virtues, when broken out into their component virtues, as shown below:

    1. Wisdom and knowledge: cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge.
    . creativity: thinking of novel and productive ways to do things
    . curiosity: taking an interest in all of ongoing experience
    . judgment: thinking things through and examining them from all sides
    . love of learning: mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge
    . perspective: being able to provide wise counsel to others

    2. Courage: emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal.
    . honesty: speaking the truth and presenting oneself in a genuine way
    . bravery: not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain
    . persistence: finishing what one starts
    . zest: approaching life with excitement and energy

    3. Humanity: interpersonal strengths that involve ‘‘tending and befriending’’ others.
    . kindness: doing favors and good deeds for others
    . love: valuing close relations with others
    . social intelligence: being aware of the motives and feelings of self and others

    4. Justice: civic strengths that underlie healthy community life.
    . fairness: treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice
    . leadership: organizing group activities and seeing that they happen
    . teamwork: working well as member of a group or team

    5. Temperance: strengths that protect against excess.
    . forgiveness: forgiving those who have done wrong
    . modesty: letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves
    . prudence: being careful about one’s choices; not saying or doing things that might later be regretted
    . self-regulation: regulating what one feels and does

    6. Transcendence: strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning.
    . appreciation of beauty and excellence: noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life
    . gratitude: being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen
    . hope: expecting the best and working to achieve it
    . humor: liking to laugh and joke; bringing smiles to other people
    . religiousness: having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of life.

    There is one important caveat. The questionnaire was administered in English so this might reflect Anglo-Saxon influence though the authors claim that test samples in other languages yielded similar results.

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  3. jbonnicerenoreg

    I’ve been mulling over the virtues as a Gestalt whole — interconnected and interpenetrating each other. Each virtue is necessary for the others: can you be just without the courage to put something into practise; is excess a part of any virtue; can you be wise without a praxis of justice. Our focus and concentration on a specific virtue brings it into being just as our focus can show an old lady or a young girl. Also, there seem to be partisans of each virtue who make it the basis for all the others. Certainly they can’t all be first, except as a Gestalt.


  4. Massimo Post author


    “there seem to be partisans of each virtue who make it the basis for all the others. Certainly they can’t all be first, except as a Gestalt.”

    Well, the Stoics believed in what is called the unity of virtues, which they presented in different ways (there were differences between Zeno and Chrysippus). Fundamentally, though, wisdom is *the* virtue, and the others represent different aspects, or applications, of wisdom. Consequently, one cannot be a courageous mass murderer, because “courage,” in Stoic lingo, is inherently a moral virtue (like all the others).


  5. jbonnicerenoreg

    Certainly you can’t be a moral mass murderer but it seems to me that a MM facing overwhelming odds and overcoming fear could fulfill all the elements of courage except the morality. So what makes such an act immoral? It may be that in ancient times a MM would be a hero slaughtering a village of men, women and children to disable an enemy.


  6. labnut

    It may be that in ancient times a MM would be a hero slaughtering a village of men, women and children to disable an enemy

    Giving in to bloodlust is the natural thing to do, as our history shows again and again. It takes courage to restrain that bloodlust and wisdom to discern better courses of action. It takes courage to follow the better course of action against our natural impulses. It takes courage to persevere against all the odds and the questioning doubts of one’s fellows. It takes courage to keep a clear head amidst the clamour and fury of conflict. It takes courage in the aftermath to restrain the natural impulses for revenge and settling the score. It takes courage to show forgiveness and kindness to one’s enemies and to work for reconciliation.


  7. Massimo Post author


    but that’s the (Stoic, and actually also Aristotelian, and other Greek philosophies’) point: courage and the other virtues are inextricably infused with moral connotations, which means that a mass murderer cannot be courageous (in the sense of virtue) regardless of how much danger he willingly faces.

    Yes, it is then true that a warrior could still be called courageous if he kills a large number of enemies in defense of his polis, but that’s normally not what we mean by mass murderer. Indeed, the term “murder” wouldn’t apply, since it refers to *unjustified* killing.


  8. viennahavana

    I am commenting because I recently had an incite on this point: the “virtuous” thing to do is ~always~ the wisest thing to do in every situation. Therefore courage without wisdom (ie., the MM in this case) would be courageous, but not virtuous.
    Only Wisdom is ~always~ virtuous, because of its relationship to human reason. A human being cannot be wise and evil. These two moral characteristics do not coexist.
    Wisdom is knowing how to carry out the virtuous action at the right moment. The Wise human being will do the right thing (to the best of their ability in the moment).
    The other Stoic virtues are necessarily moral–inescapably moral. Therefore, you can only be wisely courageous or unwisely courageous (one is a sign of virtuous character and the other is the sign of a MM).
    I hope I got that right…


  9. Sun Jul

    Question: Does Stoicism have anything to say about the virtue of charity? E.g., helping the poor, tithing, volunteering in a soup kitchen, etc.? In my readings on this site and on linked sites I don’t see any reference to such things and am wondering if I’ve not yet encountered them or if there really isn’t anything to encounter. Or if perhaps I am failing to infer them from higher level Stoic principals.


  10. Massimo Post author


    you got it exactly right. The Stoics, like Socrates (in the Euthydemus, for instance) thought that the virtues were all aspects of one fundamental virtue, wisdom. And wisdom is the “chief good” precisely because it allows us to use properly everything else, as you say.


    “Does Stoicism have anything to say about the virtue of charity?”

    Not directly, though charity falls under the purview of Stoic cosmopolitanism and their Discipline of Action, and is therefore related to the virtue of justice (by which the ancients meant a much broader thing than the modern rather legalistic term implies).

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  11. sethleon2015

    Excellent Post, Thanks!
    I can go along with the idea wisdom as the unifying virtue. If I had to pick one that’s the one I would probably go with. I’m not sure however I would define wisdom as being based purely on reason. I think emotional intelligence is a key part of wisdom. Even if reason is defined on an optimal capacity for combining rationality and emotionality, I still think there are other residuals that contribute to wisdom. I think for example that perceptual capacities contribute quite a bit to wise action as well.


  12. Massimo Post author


    contra popular understanding, the Stoics didn’t define anything according purely to reason. For instance, they claimed that apatheia (tranquillity) is achievable only if one cultivates positive emotions. What they did claim was that reason ought to judge (give or not give assent) what is presented by the emotions, otherwise we are not different from animals.

    That said, however, the ancient Stoics were a bit too dichotomous about mind and body, a position that needs to be revised in light of the intervening centuries of science and philosophy.


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