The Stoics recognise an important place for feelings such as joy and tranquillity in their philosophical system, and they very frequently refer to them. However, from the writings of the earliest Stoics onward these “good feelings” (eupatheiai) appear to have been regarded as merely “supervening” upon virtue, i.e., side-effects of the good rather than intrinsically good themselves (Lives and Opinions, 7.94). The principle that “virtue is its own reward” (virtus ipsa pretium sui) was fundamental to Stoic Ethics. Many subsequent authors have been inspired by this doctrine. Spinoza and Kant held similar views to the Stoics, in this regard. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
The heroic soul does not sell its justice and its nobleness. It does not ask to dine nicely and to sleep warm. The essence of greatness is the perception that virtue is enough. (Heroism)
Likewise, according to Diogenes Laertius, Cleanthes (or possibly Chrysippus) said that “Virtue is a harmonious disposition, worthy of being chosen for its own sake and not from hope or fear or any external reward.” Elsewhere he reiterates this:
And virtue in itself they hold to be worthy of choice for its own sake. At all events we are ashamed of bad conduct as if we knew that nothing is really good but the morally beautiful. (Diogenes Laertius)
Julia Annas sums up the Stoic attitude toward virtue and tranquillity in her scholarly analysis of Hellenistic philosophies, The Morality of Happiness,
If we are tempted to seek virtue because it will make us tranquil and secure, we are missing the point about virtue that is most important [according to the Stoics]; it is virtue itself that matters, not its results. (Annas, p. 410)
P.A. Brunt wrote in his essay on Late Stoic Moralists:
Strictly indeed both spiritual calm and joy do not constitute the summum bonum [the supreme good], which is virtue; they are ‘consequential on and not perfective of it’. But this is a scholastic caveat; it is clear that Seneca conceived of the happy life as necessarily comprising them.
However, Seneca does explain several reasons why he thinks this distinction is of practical importance.
The French scholar Pierre Hadot wrote:
Unlike Epicurean pleasure, Stoic joy is not the motive and the end of moral action: rather, virtue is its own reward. Virtue seeks nothing above and beyond itself; instead, for the Stoics, joy, like Aristotelian pleasure, comes along as an extra surplus in addition to action in conformity with nature, “like beauty for those in the flower of youth”. (The Inner Citadel, p. 240)
He quotes Seneca who dedicates one section of On the Happy Life to this issue, where he addresses it very clearly:
But, in the first place, even though virtue is sure to bestow pleasure, it is not for this reason that virtue is sought; for it is not this, but something more than this that she bestows, nor does she labor for this, but her labor, while directed toward something else, achieves this also. As in a plowed field, which has been broken up for corn, some flowers will spring up here and there, yet it was not for these poor little plants, although they may please the eye, that so much toil was expended — the sower had a different purpose, these were superadded — just so pleasure is neither the cause nor the reward of virtue, but its by-product, and we do not accept virtue because she delights us, but if we accept her, she also delights us.
The highest good lies in the very choice of it, and the very attitude of a mind made perfect, and when the mind has completed its course and fortified itself within its own bounds, the highest good has now been perfected, and nothing further is desired; for there can no more be anything outside of the whole than there can be some point beyond the end.
Therefore you blunder when you ask what it is that makes me seek virtue; you are looking for something beyond the supreme. Do you ask what it is that I seek in virtue? Only herself. For she offers nothing better — she herself is her own reward. Or does this seem to you too small a thing? When I say to you, “The highest good is the inflexibility of an unyielding mind, its foresight, its sublimity, its soundness, its freedom, its harmony, its beauty, do you require of me something still greater to which these blessings may be ascribed? (On the Happy Life, 9)
Likewise, in one of his Letters to Lucilius, Seneca argues that although virtue is the only true good, we also refer to the consequences of virtue as good in a looser sense, insofar as they derive from it. This includes the healthy expansion of the soul that tends to follow wisdom and virtue. (The Stoics interpret healthy and unhealthy emotions, in part, as expansions and contractions of the soul.) “Sometimes as a result of noble conduct,” he writes, “one wins great joy even a short and very fleeting space of time”. We can glimpse Stoic joy in moments of action because it is a “delight” to contemplate our own virtue.
But that man also who is deprived of this joy, the joy which is afforded by the contemplation of some last noble effort, will leap to his death without a moment’s hesitation, content to act rightly and dutifully. (Letter 76)
Virtue is the only real motive for the Stoic’s actions. Someone who posits the joyful feelings, which supervene on virtue, as his goal in life would be morally compromised in certain difficult situations. He would hesitate in the face of danger, because pleasant feelings are often inaccessible in the heat of battle, and he may die before ever reaping these fruits of virtue. The Stoic does not wait for a warm glow to descend on him before taking action because his only goal is virtuous action, and the feelings which may (or may not) follow are merely an added bonus, or side-effect – they’re irrelevant to his motivation.
Likewise, in On Benefits, Seneca writes:
What can be more base than for a man to consider what it costs him to be a good man, when virtue neither allures by gain nor deters by loss […] You will gain the doing of it – the deed itself is your gain. Nothing beyond this is promised. If any advantage chance to accrue to you, count it as something extra. The reward of honourable dealings lies in themselves. (On Benefits, Book IV)
Later he says: “If you wish for anything beyond these virtues, you do not wish for the virtues themselves.” If we’re virtuous for the sake of some other word then, arguably, that’s not really virtue at all. It’s essential to the concept of virtue that it’s an end in itself, rather than merely a means to an end, or what’s known as an “instrumental” good. By definition, something that’s merely instrumentally good, isn’t really good at all, in itself, it’s morally indifferent. Again, “All our arguments start from this settled point, that honour is pursued for no reason except because it is honour.” He opens On Clemency by stating “the true enjoyment of good deeds consists in the performance of them, and virtues have no adequate reward beyond themselves”.
Hence, Epictetus asks his students “Do you seek a reward for a good man greater than doing what is good and just?” (Discourses, 3.24). And elsewhere he puts the concept that “virtue is its own reward” forward very strongly indeed:
So, you say, what good do I get [from virtue]? But what more good do you want than this? Instead of being a shameless man you will become a dignified man, instead of chaotic you will become organized, from being untrustworthy you will become trustworthy, instead of being out of control you will become sane. If you want anything more than this, keep on doing what you are already doing: not even a God can now help you. (Discourses, 4.9)
Marcus Aurelius also frequently returns to this theme.
These are the properties of the rational soul: it sees itself, analyses itself, and makes itself such as it chooses; the fruit which it bears itself enjoys- for the fruits of plants and that in animals which corresponds to fruits others enjoy- it obtains its own end, wherever the limit of life may be fixed. Not as in a dance and in a play and in such like things, where the whole action is incomplete, if anything cuts it short; but in every part and wherever it may be stopped, it makes what has been set before it full and complete, so that it can say, I have what is my own. (Meditations, 11.1)
He says elsewhere that when we feel others are ungrateful rather than blaming them we should rather blame ourselves because when we conferred some kindness upon them we expected an external reward and did not act in such a way as to have received from the very act itself our reward in full (9.42).
Virtues like justice, are their own reward, and we need ask for nothing further because in doing them we have fulfilled our nature, and are flourishing.
Have I done something for the common welfare? Well then I have had my reward. Let this always be present to thy mind, and never stop doing such good. (11.4)
Likewise, the Stoics claim that virtue is synonymous with what is beneficial, or rewarding in itself.
No man is tired of receiving what is beneficial. But it is beneficial to act according to nature. Do not then be tired of receiving what is beneficial by doing it to others. (7.74)
Frank McLynn, biographer of Marcus Aurelius, writes:
To act morally brings joy, which is a key motif in Marcus’s writings, and denotes the emotion we feel when we are truly fulfilling the function for which we were put on the Earth, and when we consent to the reality of Providence, pantheism and the ‘city of the world’. Here we see that virtue is truly its own reward, for joy is not the end of moral action, as the Epicureans thought. The sage does not choose virtue because it causes pleasure, but it is a fact that, if chosen, virtue does cause pleasure. (McLynn, p. 235)
Stoic Therapy Toolkit
Five-page summary of key Stoic ideas and practices.
Subscribe to download my Stoic Therapy Toolkit (PDF) free of charge, and receive your email newsletter.