Why virtue is sufficient for a life worth living

My friend Dan Kaufman, over at the Electric Agora, has written a nice compact piece arguing that the Aristotelian view of eudaimonia — the life worth living — is significantly more defensible than the Stoic one. (Except, as even Dan acknowledges, when things aren’t going well and people live in times of turmoil. Which, one could argue, is most of human history.)

Dan and I, together with our colleague Skye Cleary, are assembling a collection of essays by multiple contributors offering a panorama of possible philosophies of life, that is, of different philosophical frameworks one may adopt as a compass to guide them to a better, more meaningful life. So this exchange between Dan and I can be seen as a preview of what the book is about, as well as of how to compare and contrast two of the most ancient philosophies of life.

The Aristotelians and the Stoics battled for the soul of their practitioners, so to speak, already 23 centuries ago, after Stoicism was established in Athens by Zeno of Citium, so this exchange belongs to a long tradition of which, I’m sure Dan would agree, the two of us are among the latest, and least worthy, interpreters.

The debate was about the sufficiency, or not, of virtue for a eudaimonic life. The Stoics (together with their close cousins, the Cynics) argued that virtue is both necessary and sufficient. In particular, the four cardinal virtues of phronesis (practical wisdom), courage, justice, and temperance. The Stoics (unlike the Cynics), also recognized that people want a number of other things, including health, wealth, education, love, friendship, and so forth. They referred to those as “preferred indifferents” (and to their negative counterparts, such as sickness, poverty, ignorance, etc., as dispreferred indifferents). They are preferred because it is reasonable for people to pursue them, so long as they do so without compromising their virtue (i.e., their moral character), but they are indifferent because, in themselves, they do not make one more or less virtuous. And since virtue is the only thing that matters for eudaimonia, they do not contribute to that either. It is a perfectly coherent system. But is it “true”? (I will come back later to why I put scare quotes around that word.)

The Aristotelians thought not. As Dan says, their philosophy also belongs to the eudaimonic tradition, and they too thought that virtue is necessary for a life worth living. But they did not think it was sufficient. Those things that the Stoics refer to as “preferred” are also needed. If your life does not — even through no fault of your own — include at least some health, wealth, education, and even good looks, you are screwed. No eudaimonia for you.

The distinction sketched above makes Aristotelianism an elitist philosophy, as it applies only to a subset of humanity. How large of a subset depends on the time and place, and also on just how much externals are really needed (Aristotle was pretty vague on this point). By contrast, Stoicism is for everyone: rich or poor, healthy or sick, educated or ignorant, you can still be eudaimon. Unlike the case of Aristotelianism, where luck is needed, for Stoics your eudaimonia is entirely up to you, Fortuna simply doesn’t enter into the equation.

As Dan clearly perceives, much — if not all, really — here depends on exactly what eudaimonia is taken to mean. I completely agree with my friend that translating the Greek word, as is often done, as “happiness” misses the mark. Happiness, in modern parlance, chiefly (though not exclusively) refers to a state of perceived wellbeing in the moment. It’s a feeling of elation, as in “I’m happy when I play the piano” (or when I have sex, or when I read a book, or whatever). This, very clearly, is not what either Aristotle or the Stoics had in mind.

But Dan makes a mistake, I think, when he seems to assume that the Aristotelians and the Stoics meant the same thing by eudaimonia. They didn’t, nor did several of the other Hellenistic schools. Indeed, a major way to classify and understand the differences among those schools is precisely to look at how they construed eudaimonia and the path to its achievement. Aristotelians and Stoics certainly disagreed between them, bu they both thought that the Epicureans, with their emphasis on ataraxia (tranquillity of mind), and their recipe of virtue plus physical and mental pleasure minus physical and mental pain, were far more misguided.

Dan, not surprisingly, adopts the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia, that of the flourishing life. Flourishing means that a eudaimon being is capable of pursuing a number of personal projects because she has sufficient material and psychological resources, including of course a measure of the above mentioned externals. She is sufficiently educated, say, to become a university professor. She is attractive enough to marry a good and interesting person and have children. She has meaningful relationships with her family and friends. And so forth. If we conceive of eudaimonia that way, it then becomes obvious that externals are not just preferred indifferents, they are necessary.

But the Stoics explicitly referred to their school as “Socratic” (which the Aristotelians definitely didn’t), in part because they inherited their definition of eudaimonia from the Athenian sage: it consists in a life worth living. This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it isn’t. Certainly an Aristotelian life of (virtuous, let’s not forget) flourishing is worth living, but that’s not the only kind falling into the broader category favorite by the Stoics.

Take, for instance, the example of Cato the Younger, a Roman Senator during the last years of the Republic that is one of the Stoics’ preferred role models, particularly by Seneca. Although Cato had access to some of the externals that Aristotelians think are necessary, he gladly did without them. While wealthy, he often walked around the streets of Rome in tattered clothing. He ate simple meals, though he could afford extravagant ones. And when he served as commander in the army he walked side by side with his soldiers, instead of comfortably travel on horseback.

More importantly, Cato’s life was marked by repeated failures. He lost two crucial elections, as praetor and as consul, that would have allowed him to more efficaciously oppose his political archenemy, Julius Caesar; he was unjustly accused of hoarding wealth for himself during his governorship of Cyprus, even though he was actually one of the few Roman officials immune from corruption; and, most of all, lost the civil war against Caesar, something that meant everything to him not juts as a politician and commander, but as a Roman citizen.

And yet, how did Cato react to such misfortunes? When he heard of the election results he went off to play with his friends. When he was accused of financial improprieties he showed his fellow citizens what sort of men he really was by way of his conduct, so much so that Romans adopted a saying for excusing their own moral failures, “not everyone is a Cato.” And when he lost everything, he had the courage to commit suicide by literally ripping his guts out of his self-inflicted dagger wound, in order to retain his integrity and not be used by Caesar for political gain.

Was Cato’s life a flourishing one? Hardly. Was it worth living? The very fact that we are still talking of the man in admiring terms more than two millennia after his death is a testament to that, one that even Aristotle (who thought that eudaimonia could be assessed only after one’s demise) ought to have bowed to.

And it is not difficult to find modern examples like Cato’s either. James Stockdale was shot down in Vietnam and survived seven years of torture and isolation (which left him crippled for life) in part thanks to his studies of the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus. Nelson Mandela was not a Stoic, but his pivotal change from angry and bitter victim of the apartheid government to peaceful and forgiving leader of the resistance was helped by a smuggled copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. He still had to suffer 28 years in prison, though, hardly a life of flourishing in the Aristotelian sense, but certainly one worth living in the Stoic one.

The Stoics, as Dan acknowledges, do want to succeed at their endeavors. Cato wanted to beat Caesar; Stockdale not to be captured in Vietnam; Mandela not to spend decades in prison. But while the Aristotelians give up and declare one’s life a failure when things don’t go well enough, the Stoics find inner resources in their conviction that the true measure of a person is in her character, not in the vagaries of fortune.

The Stoic attitude is not at all the cheap consolation prize that Dan describes when he says that it is akin to telling a kid who lost the race that he “did his best.” The point isn’t to feel better, the point is to look squarely at what cards life deals us and play them to our best, because that is all we can do. Dan is therefore profoundly mistaken when he characterizes the Stoic approach as a way to be happy with one’s life even if it isn’t a eudaimonic one. Happiness doesn’t enter into the Stoic equation. Knowing that one has done one’s best, and especially that one has tried to be the most moral person one can be, that is the standard by which a life worth living is being measured.

Dan argues that the Hellenistic philosophies are “philosophies under siege.” They, like Christianity thereafter (and like Buddhism in India, or Confucianism in China) are good for when people feel they have no control over their lives, especially in terms of the big picture. Aristotelianism, by contrast, is conceived by Dan as a “bourgeois” philosophy well tailored for “a time and place where there is unprecedented material prosperity, longevity, and overwhelming safety, as there is in the modern, industrialized world.”

Well, even if that were the case, I would remind my friend that most of the world, much of the time, has been, and still is, in a decidedly non bourgeois state of affairs. Even in the 21st century very large numbers of people live in poverty, war zones, slavery (literal or in terms of labor conditions), famine caused by environmental catastrophe or by the actions of fellow humans, and so forth. But in fact even we lucky (in the Aristotelian sense), or privileged (as the current parlance goes) Western white males face major uncertainties at both the macro- and the micro-scale.

At the macro-level, one only has to open a newspaper to find news of unfolding global environmental disaster, the possibility of a nuclear war triggered by an incompetent narcissist currently seating in the White House, and the resurgence (yet again) of a greedy Wall Street that is gearing itself to possibly cause another global financial catastrophe as if 2008 had never happened. And you think the death of Alexander the Great was destabilizing? Ah!

At the micro-level, we are all guaranteed to suffer major setbacks in our lives. If for nothing else because we are destined to die. And so are our loved ones and friends. We get sick, we lose love, and we may lose our job. Every such turn of events is a nail in the coffin of your eudaimonia, according to the Aristotelian way of looking at life. But for the Stoics every single one of those unhappy instances is an opportunity to test our character and to demonstrate to ourselves that we can get through it. As Marcus Aurelius put it: “Our actions may be impeded … but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Meditations V.20)

This attention to the everyday life of every human being is what makes Stoicism appealing, and what condemns Aristotelianism to elitism. Dan says that plenty of things that are elitist and unfair are nonetheless true. But “true,” when applied to a philosophy, is a category mistake, as I’ve argued at book length. Philosophies in general, and philosophies of life in particular, are neither true nor false. They are, instead, more or less useful ways of thinking. They provide users, that is, practitioners, with a framework by which to organize their lives, to set their priorities, and through which to attempt to cope with whatever life — which truly is neither fair nor just — throws at them.

Stoicism is one such powerful tool, and so are kindred philosophies like Buddhism and Taoism. They are not meant to “console” people, which would be patronizing. They are, rather, meant to empower them, to show them that no matter what happens, they can still find meaning in what they do. As Marcus, again, says: “In the morning, when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am rising to the work of a human being.” (Meditations V.1) And what does the work of a human being look like? Something along these lines:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations II.1)

That is, life is always hard and full of challenges, even for a privileged member of the bourgeois. But we can all look at how things are, eschewing wishful thinking, and decide — regardless of the vagaries of Fortuna — to act in the right way toward ourselves and our fellow human beings. That, really, is all there is to it.


33 thoughts on “Why virtue is sufficient for a life worth living

  1. Massimo Post author


    I agree with E.O.’s comment above. Also, Stoicism has worked well, for some people, for more than two millennia, it’s not a bad option at all, tested by time. Finally, recall that people like Larry Becker and myself are working on updating the philosophy, which makes the point that it is not at an end, and is constantly open to revision.


  2. ajoseph12013

    Tku Massimo! Question is not whether Stoicism is good or not. For ppl in the world,it offers a matchless life attitude. But for those who follow philosophy as a way, Stoicism is a kind of resignation to a certain given idea of life. Life stands already judged, as in d case of existentialism.

    For then,it might be difficult to take up new developments such as what this person shared with you in my last comment.

    It is similar to the difficulty classical physics now finds in accepting what Quantum physics has come out with; it questions even d very base old principle,that reality is independent of observers!

    I politely seek, what you observe about the proposition, that Reason could be an unrecognised inner sense-organ. If this proposition is found at least near to truth, it cud alter our old epistemology, and help man to find, that Existence is a ‘live’ phenomenon,not some thing to be armoured with a philosophy like Stoicism!


  3. Massimo Post author


    Again, I don’t understand why you think that Stoicism is about resignation. I’ve explained several times on this blog why nothing could be further from the truth.

    E.O. has also already explained why Stoicism is not closed to further developments, so that point also does not stand.

    And honestly, I really don’t see the parallel with quantum mechanics. At all.


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