Stoic Ethics: Specific Examples

Summary of specific Stoic moral precepts from Diogenes Laertius, with commentary.

Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.
Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.

Stoic Ethics is often articulated in abstract terms as being based around the doctrine that virtue is the only true good.  Indeed, some Stoics, such as Aristo, believed that grasping the true nature of the good was all that really mattered because individuals could then infer their own moral precepts from that insight.

However, in his summary of early Stoic philosophy, Diogenes Laertius does provide the following list of Stoic precepts that offer more specific guidance.  In some cases, the context is obscure or there are puzzles over translation but this is what he says, with some minor editing for readability:

  1. “Now they say that the wise man is passionless [has apatheia], because he is not prone to fall into [passions]. But they add that in another sense the term apatheia is applied to the wretched man, when, that is, it means that he is hard and unrelenting.”  Note: That this means we would have to be cautious in talking as if apatheia is the goal of life.  These first three comments refer to three key qualities of the wise man having to be carefully distinguished from similar qualities in the bad man, viz., his aloofness from passions, the opinion of others, and pleasures.
  2. “Further, the wise man is said to be free from arrogance for he is indifferent to the good or bad opinions [of others].  However, he is not alone in this, there being another who is also free from arrogance, he who is ranged among the rash, and that is the wretched man.”  Note: Stoics would therefore also have to be cautious in viewing their goal as indifference to opinions of others because that could as easily lead them into folly and vice.
  3. “Again, they tell us that all good men are austere or harsh [i.e., strict], because they neither have dealings with pleasure themselves nor tolerate those who have.  The term harsh is applied, however, to others as well, and in much the same sense as a wine is said to be harsh when it is employed medicinally [bitter medicine] and not for drinking at all.”  Note: Stoics are not harsh like bitter medicine but they are wary of pleasure-seeking.
  4. “Again, the good are genuinely in earnest and vigilant for their own improvement, using a manner of life which banishes evil out of sight and makes what good there is in things appear.”  Note: Zeno says that we should focus on what we can learn about virtue from others.
  5. “At the same time they are free from pretence; for they have stripped off all pretence or ‘make-up’ whether in voice or in look.”  Note: Marcus particularly emphasises the value of honesty and plain-speaking, but this can be traced back to the Cynics.
  6. “Free too are they from all business cares, declining to do anything which conflicts with duty.”  Note: They may make money, but are not entangled in business obligations that divert them from philosophy or virtue.
  7. “They will take wine, but not get drunk. Nay more, they will not be liable to madness either; not but there will at times occur to the good man strange impressions due to melancholy or delirium, ideas not determined by the principle of what is choiceworthy [i.e., healthy] but contrary to nature.”  Note: Even the wise man may suffer from clinical depression or delirium.
  8. “Nor indeed will the wise man ever feel emotional suffering; seeing that such suffering is irrational contraction of the soul, as Apollodorus says in his Ethics.”  Note: That is not to say that he will not experience emotional reactions that impinge on his mind from impressions.
  9. “They are also, it is declared, godlike; for they have a something divine within them; whereas the bad man is godless. And yet of this word godless or ungodly- there are two senses, one in which it is the opposite of the term ‘godly,’ the other denoting the man who ignores the divine altogether: in this latter sense, as they note, the term does not apply to every bad man.” Note: The good man is divine himself, whereas the bad man is not.  Although some bad men are religious, and worship the gods, they are nevertheless all alienated from the divine.
  10. “The good, it is added, are also worshippers of God for they have acquaintance with the rites of the gods, and piety is the knowledge of how to serve the gods. Further, they will sacrifice to the gods and they keep themselves pure; for they avoid all acts that are offences against the gods, and the gods think highly of them: for they are holy and just in what concerns the gods. The wise too are the only priests; for they have made sacrifices their study, as also the building of temples, purifications, and all the other matters appertaining to the gods.”  Note: Only the wise can truly be pious, in other words, and they are the only true priests of Zeus.  However, Stoics will typically observe the outward rituals of their society’s established religion.
  11. “The Stoics approve also of honouring parents and brothers in the second place next after the gods.”  Note: This resembles The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, quoted by both Seneca and Epictetus.
  12. “They further maintain that parental affection for children is natural to the good, but not to the bad.” Note: Natural affection is the basis of Stoic Ethics, and part of our instinctive animal nature, but in the foolish and vicious it is presumably corrupted.  Obviously, some parents do not love their children, though, and the Stoics want to say this is unnatural.
  13. “It is one of their tenets that sins are all equal: so Chrysippus in the fourth book of his Ethical Questions, as well as Persaeus and Zeno. For if one truth is not more true than another, neither is one falsehood more false than another, and in the same way one deceit is not more so than another, nor sin than sin. For he who is a hundred furlongs from Canopus and he who is only one furlong away are equally not in Canopus, and so too he who commits the greater sin and he who commits the less are equally not in the path of right conduct. But Heraclides of Tarsus, who was the disciple of Antipater of Tarsus, and Athenodorus both assert that sins are not equal.”  Note: This doctrine is well-known from other sources.  However, here we’re told Stoics were able to reject it, beginning with the scholarch Antipater.  It’s notable that it’s here linked with the bivalent theory of truth.
  14. “Again, the Stoics say that the wise man will take part in politics, if nothing hinders him -so, for instance, Chrysippus in the first book of his work On Various Types of Life– since thus he will restrain vice and promote virtue.” Note: The Stoic will engage in public life, Fate permitting, as he has a duty to restrain vice and promote virtue in his society.  This was a well-known contrast with Epicureanism, which advised a life of relative seclusion.  Zeno himself was a moral, and perhaps political, advisor to King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia; he later sent two of his best students to advise him at court.
  15. “Also, they maintain, he will marry, as Zeno says in his Republic, and beget children.” Note: Again, this contrasts with Epicurus who reputedly said his students should typically avoid marrying and having children.  Epicetus’ students also allude to this obligation and gently make fun of him for failing to marry himself.  Though he never married, he reputedly later adopted a child.
  16. “Moreover, they say that the wise man will never form mere opinions, that is to say, he will never give assent to anything that is false…”  Note: This is a well-known Stoic doctrine.  He will however give assent to self-evident impressions, particularly the firmly-grasped nature of the good.
  17. “He will also play the Cynic, Cynicism being a short cut to virtue, as Apollodorus calls it in his Ethics.”  Note: Diogenes Laertius and Epictetus seem particularly influenced by this reading of Stoicism but Seneca, by contrast, does not often mention Cynicism.  By “playing the Cynic” he probably means sincerely adopting the Cynic lifestyle, while accepting Stoic doctrines.
  18. “He will even turn cannibal under stress of circumstances.”  Note: This was used as a criticism of Stoicism.  However, in this passage it seems clear that they’re talking about turning to cannibalism being acceptable under extreme circumstances.  It’s probably also related to the Stoic interpretation of Greek tragedy, in this case Thyestes who was tricked into eating his children.  Presumably Chrysippus said this act was not morally evil because it was unintentional on his part and that the “tragedy” is always due to the protagonist’s value judgments.
  19. “They declare that he alone is free and bad men are slaves, freedom being power of independent action, whereas slavery is privation of the same;  though indeed there is also a second form of slavery consisting in subordination, and a third which implies possession of the slave as well as his subordination; the correlative of such servitude being slave-ownership; and this too is evil.”  Note: This passage appears to distinguish between i) inner slavery (to passions), ii) being subordinated by another, iii) being owned as a slave and subordinated by a master.  Remarkably, we’re told slave-ownership is morally bad, which appears to be a criticism of the institution of slavery.
  20. “Moreover, according to them not only are the wise free, they are also kings; kingship being rule unaccountable to others, which none but the wise can maintain: so Chrysippus in his treatise vindicating Zeno’s use of terminology. For he holds that knowledge of good and evil is a necessary attribute of the ruler, and that no bad man is acquainted with this science.”  Note: As the Cynics said earlier, only the morally wise man truly has the mind of a king.
  21. “Similarly the wise and good alone are fit to be magistrates, judges, or orators, whereas among the bad there is not one so qualified.”  Note: This naturally follows, but what implications does it have for Stoic attitudes toward legal institutions?
  22. “Furthermore, the wise are infallible, not being liable to error.  They are also blameless; for they do no harm to others or to themselves.”  Note: Although, no perfectly wise person actually exists – this is an ideal.
  23. “At the same time they are not pitying and make no allowance for anyone; they never relax the penalties fixed by the laws, since indulgence and pity and even equitable consideration are marks of a weak mind, which affects kindness in place of chastizing. Nor do they deem punishments too severe.” Note: The Stoics are supposed to be kind and fair but not pitying, because if the laws (derived from nature and reason) are applied fairly then there should be no need to be more lenient or bend the rules for individuals.
  24. “Again, they say that the wise man never wonders at any of the things which appear extraordinary, such as Charon’s mephitic [noxious] caverns, ebbings of the tide, hot springs or fiery eruptions.” Note: The wise man is not incredulous at unusual natural phenomena.
  25. “Nor yet, they go on to say, will the wise man live in solitude; for he is naturally made for society and action.” Note: He will not live in seclusion, like Epicurus in his Garden, and withdraw from public life.
  26. “He will, however, submit to training to augment his powers of bodily endurance.”  Note: We have many examples of this from Cynicism, such as hugging bronze statues, naked, in winter, to become used to intense cold, but also the Stoics recommend moderate exercise, perhaps walking briskly or running, which Cynics traditionally did barefoot.  Seneca mentions other forms of physical exercise such as athletic jumping and lifting weights.
  27. “And the wise man, they say, will offer prayers, and ask for good things from the gods: so Posidonius in the first book of his treatise On Duties, and Hecato in his third book On Paradoxes.”  Note: However, Epictetus says that the good things we should prayer for help with are our own virtues rather than external “goods”.
  28. “Friendship, they declare, exists only between the wise and good, by reason of their likeness to one another. And by friendship they mean a common use of all that has to do with life, wherein we treat our friends as we should ourselves. They argue that a friend is worth having for his own sake and that it is a good thing to have many friends. But among the bad there is, they hold, no such thing as friendship, and thus no bad man has a friend.”  Note: This is another well-known doctrine, derived from Zeno’s Republic.  Here friendship seems to imply common use and possibly ownership of external “goods”, i.e., possibly communal property.  Zeno, like Aristotle, said a friend is another self (alter ego).  Friends are worth having for their own sake, not because they help us achieve peace of mind, pace Epicureanism.
  29. “Another of their tenets is that the unwise are all mad, inasmuch as they are not wise but do what they do from that madness which is the equivalent of their folly.”  Note: Another well-known Stoic doctrine, but as the wise man is exceedingly rare, that surely means everyone, even the founders of Stoicism, is technically classed as mad.
  30. “Furthermore, the wise man does all things well, just as we say that Ismenias [a famous Theban flautist] plays all airs on the flute well.”  Note: This surely can’t mean that the wise man has every practical skill but that he does all things morally well.
  31. “Also everything belongs to the wise. For the law, they say, has conferred upon them a perfect right to all things. It is true that certain things are said to belong to the bad, just as what has been dishonestly acquired may be said, in one sense, to belong to the state, in another sense to those who are enjoying it.”  Note: Again, this perhaps suggests a sense in which all property would be communal in the ideal Stoic Republic.
  32. It is a tenet of theirs that between virtue and vice there is nothing intermediate, whereas according to the Peripatetics there is, namely, the state of moral improvement. For, say the Stoics, just as a stick must be either straight or crooked, so a man must be either just or unjust. Nor again are there degrees of justice and injustice, and the same rule applies to the other virtues. Note: See above.  This is a well-known Stoic doctrine.
  33. Further, while Chrysippus holds that virtue can be lost, Cleanthes maintains that it cannot. According to the former it may be lost in consequence of drunkenness or melancholy; the latter takes it to be inalienable owing to the certainty of our mental apprehension.  Note: This seems to be a trivial disagreement.  Presumably, Cleanthes meant that knowledge of important matters cannot be lost under normal conditions, unless our thinking is impaired – and Stoic virtue is a form of knowledge.
  34. 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. Note: Virtue is its own reward, in other words.  This is a central doctrine of Stoicism.  We are typically ashamed of bad conduct regardless of its consequences, which implies that it is bad in itself, and by contrast, that the good is good in itself.
  35. Moreover, they hold that it is in itself sufficient to ensure well-being: thus Zeno, and Chrysippus in the first book of his treatise On Virtues, and Hecato in the second book of his treatise On Goods: “For if magnanimity by itself alone can raise us far above everything, and if magnanimity is but a part of virtue, then too virtue as a whole will be sufficient in itself for well-being -despising all things that seem troublesome.” Panaetius, however, and Posidonius deny that virtue is self-sufficing: on the contrary, health is necessary, and some means of living and strength.  Note: This suggests that Panaetius and Posidonius shifted closer to the Platonist or Aristotelian position.
  36. Another tenet of theirs is the perpetual exercise of virtue, as held by Cleanthes and his followers. For virtue can never be lost, and the good man is always exercising his mind, which is perfect.
  37. Again, they say that justice, as well as law and right reason, exists by nature and not by convention: so Chrysippus in his work On the Morally Beautiful.  Note: This is in contrast to the Epicureans, who held that justice is a social contract or convention.
  38. Neither do they think that the divergence of opinion between philosophers is any reason for abandoning the study of philosophy, since at that rate we should have to give up life altogether: so Posidonius in his Exhortations.  Note: This is obviously in contrast to the Skeptics who held that contradictory opinions between philosophers is evidence of the impossibility of arriving at a firm conclusion.
  39. Chrysippus allows that the ordinary Greek education is serviceable.  Note: This is notable because Zeno apparently denounced the ordinary Greek education, in rhetoric as opposed to philosophy, in the Republic, although that caused some controversy.
  40. It is their doctrine that there can be no question of right as between man and the lower animals, because of their unlikeness. Thus Chrysippus in the first book of his treatise On Justice, and Posidonius in the first book of his De officio.  Note: Human rights are intrinsically more important than animal rights, presumably because we possess language and reason.
  41. Further, they say that the wise man will feel affection for the youths who by their countenance show a natural endowment for virtue. So Zeno in his Republic, Chrysippus in book i. of his work On Modes of Life, and Apollodorus in his Ethics.  Note: The Stoics thought virtue showed itself in a person’s facial expression, movement and gestures, etc.  True beauty is the inner beauty of virtue, which nevertheless we know through a person’s behaviour.
  42. Their definition of love is an effort toward friendliness due to visible beauty appearing, its sole end being friendship, not bodily enjoyment. At all events, they allege that Thrasonides, although he had his mistress in his power, abstained from her because she hated him. By which it is shown, they think, that love depends upon regard, as Chrysippus says in his treatise Of Love, and is not sent by the gods. And beauty they describe as the bloom or flower of virtue.  Note: Some commentators take Thrasonides to be an otherwise unknown Stoic philosopher.  Love is a judgement, like other passions in Stoicism, and not a form of divine madness or an irrational impulse.  It’s the desire to be loved, reciprocally, by someone whom we judge to be good (equivalent to friendship), and whose physical appearance we find attractive, although physical pleasure is not its true aim.
  43. Of the three kinds of life, the contemplative, the practical, and the rational, they declare that we ought to choose the last, for that a rational being is expressly produced by nature for contemplation and for action.  Note: This appears similar to the division between contemplation and action used by Aristotle, although here the conclusion is decidedly in favour of using reason to live for both contemplation and action.
  44. They tell us that the wise man will for reasonable cause make his own exit from life, on his country’s behalf or for the sake of his friends, or if he suffer intolerable pain, mutilation, or incurable disease.  Note: Stoic euthanasia.  A foolish man, which is the majority, though, is not justified in taking his own life, especially if driven by a passion like clinical depression.
  45. It is also their doctrine that amongst the wise there should be a community of wives with free choice of partners, as Zeno says in his Republic and Chrysippus in his treatise On Government [and not only they, but also Diogenes the Cynic and Plato]. Under such circumstances we shall feel paternal affection for all the children alike, and there will be an end of the jealousies arising from adultery.  Note: It’s known Zeno said this in the Republic.  Presumably he meant that both husbands and wives are shared in common.  The Stoic ideal of oikeiosis, means bringing others into our family or household.  Hierocles described ways of helping us imagine this by referring to cousins as “brother” or “sister” and picturing concentric circles representing our relationships, bringing them gradually closer to the centre of our concern.  However, in Zeno’s Republic it sounds like everyone is actually part of the same household and family in a more literal sense, and this helps to illustrate the Stoic moral ideal.
  46. The best form of government they hold to be a mixture of democracy, kingship, and aristocracy (or the rule of the best).  Note: Presumably this was not the utopian government of Zeno’s Republic, as it is populated by wise men, but rather a prescription for real-world government, among the imperfectly wise.

“Such, then, are the statements they make in their ethical doctrines, with much more besides, together with their proper proofs: let this, however, suffice for a statement of them in a summary and elementary form.”

1 thought on “Stoic Ethics: Specific Examples”

  1. #30 might mean that the wise can do all things well. So Socrates when he was a soldier was ‘good’ at it. It is never said he was a bad stonemason. He was renowned as a philosopher and teacher.