Stoic Q&A: the four virtues

The four virtuesI was planning on writing a post on the definitions of the four cardinal Stoic virtues: practical wisdom (or prudence), justice, courage, and temperance, because discussions (and confusion) often arise about them among people interested in modern Stoicism. But Don Robertson beat me to it, and he has done such an excellent job (here) that it would be futile for me to repeat or trying to improve on his effort. (However, this post of mine may be useful; also, a good Wiki summary is here; and here are Plato’s Definitions of philosophical terms, a little known but very useful resource.)

Nonetheless, because the topic is so crucial, I am transcribing the definitions below, from Don’s post, for easy consultation by my readers. I refer you to Don’s commentary for in-depth explanations. As he points out, other than Plato’s Dictionary, the pertinent sources are the Stoic fragments from Diogenes Laertius and from Stobaeus; modern commentaries are found in Pierre Hadot’s Inner Citadel and Anthony Long’s Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. (Below, boldface indicates the bits that are particularly relevant to Stoicism.)

Phronêsis (prudence/practical wisdom)

The ability which by itself is productive of human happiness; the knowledge of what is good and bad; the knowledge that produces happiness; the disposition by which we judge what is to be done and what is not to be done.

Dikaiosynê (justice/morality)

The unanimity of the soul with itself, and the good discipline of the parts of the soul with respect to each other and concerning each other; the state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved; the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just; the state underlying a law-abiding way of life; social equality; the state of obedience to the laws.

Sôphrosynê (temperance/moderation)

Moderation of the soul concerning the desires and pleasures that normally occur in it; harmony and good discipline in the soul in respect of normal pleasures and pains; concord of the soul in respect of ruling and being ruled; normal personal independence; good discipline in the soul; rational agreement within the soul about what is admirable and contemptible; the state by which its possessor chooses and is cautious about what he should.

Andreia (fortitude/courage)

The state of the soul which is unmoved by fear; military confidence; knowledge of the facts of warfare; self-restraint in the soul about what is fearful and terrible; boldness in obedience to wisdom; being intrepid in the face of death; the state which stands on guard over correct thinking in dangerous situations; force which counterbalances danger; force of fortitude in respect of virtue; calm in the soul about what correct thinking takes to be frightening or encouraging things; the preservation of fearless beliefs about the terrors and experiences of warfare; the state which cleaves to the law.

BONUS I: Aretê (virtue/excellence)

The best disposition; the state of a mortal creature which is in itself praiseworthy; the state on account of which its possessor is said to be good; the just observance of the laws; the disposition on account of which he who is so disposed is said to be perfectly excellent; the state which produces faithfulness to law.

BONUS II: Eu̯dai̯monía (“happiness”/fulfillment)

The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature.


7 thoughts on “Stoic Q&A: the four virtues

  1. David

    Thanks so much for this, Massimo. For my money, a regular and vigorous discussion of the virtues and how to cultivate them needs to be front and center in the modern Stoicism movement.

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  2. eloy001

    Thank you for sharing your view and Don’s. The virtues seem more complicated than the traslations of the words. I am no scholar but I recently found the Golden Verses of Pythagoras. That’s the 6th century BC. Fragments of these verses say:

    “9. Know that all these things are just as what I have told you; and accustom yourself to overcome and vanquish these passions:–
    10. First gluttony, sloth, sensuality, and anger.”
    These are four of the seven sins that have the seven virtues to overcome them. Mostly using temperance.
    “13. In the next place, observe justice in your actions and in your words.”
    Here is Justice (which I interpret as fairness).
    “14. And do not accustom yourself to behave yourself in any thing without rule, and without reason.”
    Here he is talking about Prudence or practical wisdom.
    “17. Concerning all the calamities that men suffer by divine fortune,
    18. Support your lot with patience, it is what it may be, and never complain at it.”
    Here talking about love your fate and Courage.
    “19. But endeavour what you can to remedy it.”
    Dichotomy of control here.
    “37. And do not be prodigal out of season, like someone who does not know what is decent and honourable.
    38. Neither be covetous nor stingy; a due measure is excellent in these things.”
    Here the sins of wastefulness and greed.
    “40. Never allow sleep to close your eyelids, after you went to bed,
    41. Until you have examined all your actions of the day by your reason.
    42. In what have I done wrong? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done?
    43. If in this examination you find that you have done wrong, reprove yourself severely for it;
    44. And if you have done any good, rejoice.”
    This is exactly what Stoics said about examining your actions at the end of each day.
    “54. You will likewise know, that men draw upon themselves their own misfortunes voluntarily, and of their own free choice.”
    Good and evil are in your own choice as Epictetus says.
    “55. Unhappy they are! They neither see nor understand that their good is near them.”
    Meaning that the only good are things within of our own volition as Epictetus says.

    And it goes on. My point here is that it seems virtues were pretty much well defined in the 6th century BC or maybe before that. It looks like these verses are very clear. What seems to me is that Stoicism was a school that made it very accesible for everyone to practice. But it also seems to me that a lot was lost from all schools of antiquity during different waves of persecution by later religions. I’d love to hear your comments on this professor. Thank you!


  3. Massimo Post author


    Not positive what your question is, actually. Yes, the concept of virtue seems to be old and cross-cultural, the Stoics developed one of many philosophies that makes use of the virtues. Virtue also plays a different role within different philosophies, for instance Aristotelianism vs Stoicism vs Cynicism (see:

    As for later religions, Christianity incorporated the four cardinal virtues, to which Thomas Aquinas added faith, hope and charity. It does seem that in later Christianity the emphasis shifted toward these last three, with the previous four being neglected.

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  4. gdevriend

    Popper describes the justice used by Plato quite differently, where justice is more like it is good for the state, not the individual. Where does this difference with these definitions come from?


  5. Massimo Post author


    Not sure of Popper’s treatment, it has been some time since I read that part of his work. But for Plato there was no such distinction, since in the Republic he makes a direct analogy between a just State and a just individual. Whether one buys that analogy or not is, of course, another matter (I don’t, and neither did the Stoics, so far as I know).


  6. gdevriend

    Dear Massimo. In Popper’s Open society…page 84 and further, he refers to Plato’s Republic and the four virtues. According to Popper, Plato’s justice has a different meaning than what the Stoics would have. What is also interesting is the link between the virtues and classes in society he makes.


  7. Massimo Post author


    Yes, that bit (the difference between Plato and the Stoics on the definition of the virtues, which is rather minor) is discussed in Don Robertson’s piece, linked at the beginning of the OP.

    Yes, Plato’s link between virtues and classes is interesting, but definitely not the Stoic take.

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