Some Musings on the Nature of the Good in Stoicism

Some musings on Stoic Ethics and the nature of the good, as defined by them.

The Nature of the Good

Some Musings on Stoic Ethics

Cato-StatueThis will be a bit of a different blog post from me.  Rather than publishing a finished piece of work, I’m just going to post some thoughts on a work in progress.  I’m currently writing something on Stoic Ethics and particularly the definition of the good in Stoicism.  This is arguably the central definitive feature of Stoicism.  Famously, Stoicism was divided into three topics: ethics, physics and logic.  However, when ancient authors compare Stoicism to other philosophical schools they typically focus on the uniquely uncompromising ethical doctrines adopted by the Stoics.  Although there are many similarities between Stoicism and certain other schools of philosophy, particularly the “Academic” (Platonic) and “Peripatetic” (Aristotelian) schools, there are also some celebrated differences.  The other philosophical schools generally recognised that the most important good for man was virtue or excellence (aretê).  The main exception was the Epicurean school, which taught that the chief good in life was pleasure, or the avoidance of pain – although even they recognised an important, albeit secondary and instrumental, role for virtue.  However, those schools that recognised the central importance of virtue tended to endorse a composite view of the good life, which required other non-moral goods as well, i.e., external goods as well as the virtues.  The Aristotelians introduced a threefold distinction between types of good, in descending order of value:

  1. Goods of the soul, such as virtue
  2. Goods of the body, such as physical health
  3. Goods of accident or external goods, such as wealth and reputation

Perfection of the soul is, at least to some extent, under our direct control, because it depends on our voluntary thoughts and actions.  Perfection of the body is theoretically attainable but not within our direct control.  However, possession of all external goods, and avoidance of all external evils, is clearly impossible for anyone to achieve – nobody can actually own everything in the universe and be friends with everyone, etc.

Happiness and fulfilment (eudaimonia) was generally understood by all schools to be the chief goal in life, although they defined it differently.  Eudaimonia isn’t a subjective feeling but rather the exalted condition of the person who is living the supremely good life; it literally means having a good daimon or “divine spark” within.  The “good life” was assumed to be a life that is, in a sense, complete: lacking nothing good, and containing nothing bad.  Hence, Cicero wrote: “When we say ‘happy’ the essential significance of this word is that everything that is bad shall be excluded and everything good shall be included.”  Virtue may be essential but it might also be said that someone cannot have a good life and be happy, unless he has also been blessed with a healthy body and possesses external good fortune, such as property and good reputation.  That might seem like common sense.  However, it does leave it somewhat in the hands of fate whether someone has a good life and attains happiness/fulfilment or not because out of these three categories of “good”, only the first is actually under our control.  Hence, Theophrastus (the Peripatetic) apparently wrote: “Chance, and not wisdom, rules the life of men”, which Cicero says his critics called “the most demoralizing utterance that any philosopher has ever made.”  By contrast, even Epicurus wrote: “Over a man who is wise, chance has little power”, which is also the Stoic position.  Indeed, for philosophers in the Socratic tradition, particularly the Stoics, the pre-eminent example of the good life was the life of Socrates, who flourished even in the face of external “misfortune” and persecution.

Hence, the Stoics notoriously challenged this notion of a composite good life encompassing three distinct classes of good, and adopted instead a stridently moral position.  They vigorously argued that good men necessarily have good lives, regardless of their external fortune.  As Cicero wrote:

The belief of the Stoics on this subject is simple. The supreme good, according to them, is to live according to nature, and in harmony with nature. That, they declare is the wise man’s duty; and it is also something that lies within his own capacity to achieve. From this follows the deduction that the man who has the supreme good within his power also possesses the power to live happily. Consequently, the wise man’s life is happy. (Tusculan Disputations, 5.28)

This forces them to reject the threefold view above and to argue that “the only good is moral good” or virtue.  Health, wealth, and reputation might be called “goods” but this is only a figure of speech.  They are not truly “good” in the same sense as virtue.  Crucially, the life of the virtuous man lacks nothing, even if it is deprived of health, wealth, and reputation.  The Sage is complete, whatever misfortunes befall him.  His is the good life and he is therefore supremely happy.

scalesThe life of a wealthy and famous man, who is full of vice, is not one iota better than that of a poor and ridiculed Sage.  Cicero illustrates this using the metaphor of a set of scales, a kind of “moral balance”, which he attributed to a Peripatetic philosopher called Critolaus of Phaselis.  He said that if virtue is placed on one side of the scales, no matter how many external (or bodily) goods are heaped up on the other side, it would never be enough to shift the balance.   This is a vivid way of expressing the notion that moral and external goods are absolutely incommensurate for the Stoics.  Indeed, for these reason they refer to external and bodily things as “indifferent”.  Epictetus advises his students to rehearse literally saying in response to them: “This is nothing to me.”  No amount of health, wealth, and reputation, can outweigh the importance of wisdom, justice, courage, self-control, etc.  Now, the Stoics (with some exceptions) did recognise that health, wealth, and reputation, etc., were naturally to be desired, and preferred to disease, poverty, and condemnation.  Rather than refer to these as “good” and “bad”, though, they refer to them as “preferred” and “dispreferred” or “advantageous” and “disadvantageous” to make it clear that they were talking about a second (different) system of value.  This led some ancient authors to argue that the Stoics were merely introducing a terminological distinction.  However, others felt that they were making an important ethical distinction that marked their whole philosophical system out from the other schools.  Of course, among different Stoics, Platonists, and Aristotelians, some were closer to the views of rival schools and some further removed, in terms of their own philosophy.

For example, some of the arguments employed by ancient Stoics to defend the view that “moral goodness is sufficient for perfect happiness” are as follows:

The Sage is Beyond Emotional Disturbance

It’s not the absence of external goods that determine unhappiness but our fears and desires with regard to them.  Someone who has absolutely no craving for wealth and is totally unafraid of poverty, rises above his circumstances in this regard and is no less happy for lacking it.  Hence, the Stoics said that Diogenes the Cynic, although poor and naked, was (paradoxically) wealthier than Xerxes, the “Great King” of Persia.  Xerxes was, despite his boundless wealth, notoriously insatiable in his craving for more luxuries.  However, Diogenes famously desired nothing he did not already possess.  Emotional disturbance is incompatible with peace of mind and complete happiness.  Human (moral) goodness necessarily entails the possession of virtues such as wisdom, courage and self-control, through which we overcome emotional disturbance.  The perfectly good man is therefore free from emotional disturbance.  Or rather he’s as free from disturbance as he can be, through voluntary action, although he may still experience some distress in the form of automatic thoughts and feelings, which may occur unbidden.  The good man therefore also has a good and happy life because he is not distressed even by the lack of external and bodily goods.

The Sage is Confident about Fortune

Unlike the Skeptics who believed the wise man must embrace uncertainty, the Stoics thought that the Sage must necessarily have certainty in key areas of life and a firm grasp of his philosophical principles.  Cicero therefore argues that the ideal Sage must have an unshakeable sense of security.  If he does not know that the good life is under his control then he is doomed to experience anxiety and insecurity.  The Sage is inconceivable unless we assume that all of the ingredients of the good life are under his control, that happiness is entirely within his grasp.  Moral good must therefore be the only good and sufficient for happiness because perfect happiness that depends on external fortune would necessarily be polluted by uncertainty over the future.  Cicero says, “nothing that there is the slightest possibility of eventually losing can be regarded as an ingredient of the happy life”, which would relegate all bodily and external goods to the level of “indifferent” things.

The Good Life is Praiseworthy

The good life of the Sage is thoroughly praiseworthy.  However, only moral good is praiseworthy.  We do not praise a man because of his wealth, health or reputation but because of his virtues.  Although people desire external goods for themselves, in other words, they do not really praise their possession in others.  The only true good therefore is moral good, because only moral good is agreed to be truly praiseworthy.  A foolish and unjust man is no more praiseworthy if he is healthy, rich, and famous.  A Sage, like Diogenes or Socrates, is no less praiseworthy if he is physically frail, poor, and ridiculed.  In fact, ironically, the Sage may actually be even more praiseworthy if he retains his virtues despite misfortune, i.e., the loss of bodily and external goods.

I will give you a short rule of thumb by which to measure yourself, by which you will perceive that you are now perfect; you will have your own good when you understand that the successful are the most unsuccessful. (Seneca, Letters, 124)

In particular, although foolish men may sometimes judge the “good” otherwise, someone who is wise and good will judge the value of all things in terms of how praiseworthy they are but only the morally good is praiseworthy, he will therefore judge his own life and that of others in terms of how praiseworthy and morally good they are.  The Sage will therefore not judge the value of his life as the majority of men do, but because of his possession of virtue, he will judge his life to be good or bad purely in moral rather than material terms.

What is Truly Good Cannot be Made Bad

The Stoics argue that what is “good” in the true sense of the word, what is intrinsically and absolutely good, cannot be turned into something bad.  If it seems something “good” has turned into something “bad”, that suggests that it was never really good at all, but that its use was good.  For example, the wealth of a good man is “good” insofar as it is used virtuously, but the wealth of a bad man is judged a “bad” thing, if used viciously by him.   Hence, these things are actually indifferent, but the wisdom and virtue of the person using them are what is truly good.  External things are made apparently “good” or “bad” by the use we make of them, but the presence or absence of external goods cannot affect virtue.

The Finitude and Transience of Virtue Doesn’t Affect its Value

The Stoics would perhaps want to argue that contemplating the transience of all material things and the finitude of human existence allows us to see the whole picture more clearly, in a way that allows the mind to naturally better discern where true value (the good) really lies. Heaping up wealth, enjoying pleasure, or acquiring fame, for a few seconds might seem very trivial, and when considered in relation to the whole cosmos, all human life appears as if it might as well be a few seconds in duration. However, do we naturally judge virtue’s worth in the same way? An act of great courage and integrity may take place in a few seconds but would we naturally discount that as worthless in the way we do with fleetingly brief pleasures? Someone might say that we don’t normally focus on the bigger picture, so why should we care? The Stoics might respond that the totality is the truth and that our normal, narrow perspective on events is a falsehood, a kind of “selective thinking” or lie of omission.  It’s striking that a split-second of absolute bravery appears so valuable whereas pleasure, wealth, and public acclaim, seem to lose their worth if they are merely fleeting.  All mortal things are miniscule and fleeting, though, compared to the whole of Nature, the Cosmos, or the Olympian perspective of Zeus.

Socrates and Cato Looked Down on Death

As Epictetus puts it very bluntly: Death cannot be an evil for if it were then Socrates would have judged it to be so also.  He’s alluding to a more general Stoic argument which says that if external things were truly “good” or “bad” then everyone would agree that they are, especially the most wise.  It’s our own judgements that make external things appear good or bad, and consequently distress us.  The Stoics argue that some animals will risk injury and death to protect their young, so they do not judge these things to be absolutely bad.  Likewise, even foolish men will often endure things others fear or renounce things others desire, in order to achieve other (foolish) goals.  Acrobats, soldiers, and lovers, will often risk their lives, because of something else they judge more important than avoiding death.  Hence, things are neither good nor bad but thinking makes them so.  However, wisdom is defined as the knowledge of good and bad, and so it is the only thing which we can truly say is good, and folly is bad.  The virtues are all defined as forms of knowledge and therefore species of practical wisdom.  So perhaps the Stoics, who do note this circularity, might say that nothing is good except the wisdom to know that “nothing is good except wisdom”.  (This recalls Socrates’ “ironic” claim to know only that he knows nothing, and to be wiser than other men in that respect alone.)

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5 thoughts on “Some Musings on the Nature of the Good in Stoicism”

  1. Aristotle’s ethical theory is eudaimonist because it maintains that eudaimonia depends on virtue. However, it is Aristotle’s explicit view that virtue is necessary but not sufficient for eudaimonia. While emphasizing the importance of the rational aspect of the psyche, he does not ignore the importance of other ‘goods’ such as friends, wealth, and power in a life that is eudaimonic. He doubts the likelihood of being eudaimonic if one lacks certain external goods such as ‘good birth, good children, and beauty’. So, a person who is hideously ugly or has “lost children or good friends through death” (1099b5–6), or who is isolated, is unlikely to be eudaimon. In this way, “dumb luck” ( chance ) can preempt one’s attainment of eudaimonia.

  2. Great essay. The question of “what is good and why” is absolutely fundamental to Stoicism, and I’ve seen too little written about it by modern writers. And it’s not a question I’ve sussed out entirely, either.

  3. Excellent. I can’t wait to see the finished product. I especially liked the short section “What is Truly Good Cannot be Made Bad.” Would it be legitimate to mention that the 4 cardinal virtues are those that are always good and should never be subordinate to any other virtues? Or do I misunderstand the CVs?