The Teachings of the Stoic School

A paraphrase from the account of early Stoic teachings in Diogenes Laertius.

This is a more or less direct paraphrase from some key passages in Diogenes Laertius’ Life of Zeno, our main source for the teachings of the early Greek Stoa.

Some philosophers claim that all animals naturally seek pleasure, and everything else is then sought for the sake of pleasure. However, the Stoics forwarded detailed arguments disproving this assumption. Instead they argued that pleasure is a by-product of the animal achieving the goals of its natural constitution, and ultimately the goal of self-preservation. Being healthy and surviving is the real natural goal of animals, feeling pleasure and avoiding pain are incidental to this. For example, when an animal satisfies its appetite it feels pleasure, as a side effect, but its true goal is to satisfy its appetite and not simply to feel the pleasure. Pleasure is therefore a side-effect of achieving our natural goals, not the goal itself. There are several reasons why the wise man fixes his attention on the goal itself rather than the side effect:

  1. The pleasurable feelings that typically follow as consequences of achieving our natural goals are unpredictable and not guaranteed because they are not under our direct control.
  2. There is often a delay before the consequences follow, and in some situations, such as facing death in battle, there may never be an opportunity to enjoy pleasurable feelings as a reward of our actions.
  3. There may be other factors which intervene and prevent pleasurable feelings from attending the achievement of our natural goals from following. For example, when we’re extremely preoccupied with our actions, such as in the heat of battle, we may not have the leisure to notice or enjoy pleasurable feelings.
  4. There are, or appear to be, shortcuts to achieving pleasure that are unhealthy or unethical. For example, we may use drugs to achieve pleasure.
  5. The Stoics liked to give examples of animals enduring pain and foregoing pleasure for the sake of self-preservation, or even the preservation of their mates or offspring. For instance, a bull may endure the pain of injury and threat of death, attacking a lion in defence of his herd.

Our feelings can often be our best guide. However, that’s not always true, and in many crucial situations, our feelings may be a bad guide, and wisdom requires acting “against” them temporarily. For instance, the feelings of a pathologically depressed, anxious, or angry individual are often a poor guide to them in life. Pleasure and pain, likewise, are often misleading guides to life.

With the development of reason, human beings acquire an obligation not just to survive like other animals (self-preservation), but to fulfil their potential to live rationally (wisdom). The Stoics forward several arguments to demonstrate this. For example, most people would instinctively prefer to save their mind and lose their body, rather than lose their mind and save their body, which shows that humans identify more with their minds than their bodies. Reason is inherently goal-directed: to think is to seek to grasp the truth. So we’re already committed to the goal of truth and the Stoics conclude we should therefore aim to become wise. Moreover, reason is capable of co-ordinating our behaviour by reflecting on our instincts and desires, and responding to them. To put it crudely, nature has made reason our highest or master faculty, in charge of our behaviour. Our supreme goal is therefore to preserve reason and fulfil its potential, which means to become wise. The goal of life is therefore the art of living wisely.

Zeno was the first (in On the Nature of Man) to call as the goal of life: “life in agreement with nature”. This is completely synonymous with living a virtuous life because our nature is rational, and to fulfil it is to become wise, wisdom being the essence of virtue. The virtues are all forms of practical wisdom, applied to different aspects of life. For example, justice is wisdom applied to social relations, courage is wisdom applied to things hard to endure, and self-discipline is wisdom applied to things we tend to crave. The other Stoics followed Zeno’s definition. Chrysippus said that living wisely or virtuously is equivalent to living in accordance with our experience of the course of nature, or external events, because our individual nature is part of the Nature of the whole universe. By living wisely, we adapt to our experience of external events, even seeming adversity, our life goes smoothly, and we are no longer alienated but become at one with Nature as a whole.

This is why the goal of life may be defined as living in accord with nature, both our own human nature as well as that of the universe as a whole. This is what is meant by the virtue of the fulfilled (eudaimon) man and his smooth flow of life, when all actions promote the harmony of his inner self with the will of the universe. Chrysippus therefore said virtue is a harmonious disposition of our character, virtue is an end-in-itself and not sought out of hope or fear or any external motive. Moreover, fulfilment (eudaimonia) consists purely in virtue because virtue is the state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious, and therefore fulfilled. So how do human beings, rational beings, end up going wrong and forsaking the natural goal of wisdom? We are drawn into error because of the natural deceptiveness of external events, such as the sway that pleasurable and painful impressions have over us, or sometimes due to the influence of individual people, and society in general. But the starting point of our nature is completely sound and reason has everything it needs to guide us as long as we are not led astray by investing too much value in external things and other people’s opinions.

The original and more-general meaning of virtue (arete) is the perfection of anything whatsoever, such as the beauty of a statue or the speed of a horse. The goal of life for Stoics is to achieve the virtues of the mind, or of our character, such as wisdom and justice. However, the virtues (or strengths, if you prefer) of our body, such as physical strength and health, are sought as being of secondary and relative value. The physical virtue of health will tend to be a consequence of character virtues such as temperance or self-discipline. However, because physical virtues like health and strength merely supervene or follow on as consequences of mental virtues, they are also sometimes found even in bad men. Bad men sometimes become good, they observe, which suggests virtue can be learned. The Stoics disagreed with one another about how many virtues they were and how best to divide them. Some divided virtues into logical, physical and ethical, others said that practical wisdom is the only real virtue. The cardinal virtues are traditionally: wisdom, justice, courage and temperance. These are broad categories consisting of many subordinate virtues, though. Wisdom is defined as “the knowledge of things good and bad and of what is neither good nor bad”, i.e., the indifferent things.

The good is what is beneficial, or healthy, i.e., what is “good for us”. Only virtue and vice can truly help or harm us, in terms of our character. The Stoics mainly call virtue “good”, but speaking more loosely they also refer to specific virtuous actions themselves as good and the people doing them as being good men. They also define the good as “the natural perfection of a rational being qua rational.” This mainly corresponds to virtue, but some Stoics also refer to the healthy feelings (eupatheiai) that supervene on virtue such as joy and gladness, etc., as good, and as part of human fulfilment (eudaimonia).

We share natural preconceptions (intuitions) that tell us, on reflection, the nature of the good, which is synonymous with many different qualities. Among these, foremost are the sense in which what is good for a rational being, a human being, is also what is beneficial (or healthy, good for us), and what is praiseworthy (or honourable, good for society). For Stoics, these perfectly coincide. The good is also synonymous with what is truly beautiful in human beings, i.e., in terms of our true nature as rational beings to have a beautiful character is to be virtuous.

The good things are virtues such as wisdom, justice, courage, temperance, and their subordinates. The bad things are the vices opposed to these: folly, injustice, cowardice and intemperance, etc. Neutral things fall between the categories of good and bad and are called “indifferent” with regard to the good life, although some are naturally preferred above others. The main examples of the indifferent things are therefore: life and death, health and disease, pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness, strength and weakness, wealth and poverty, good reputation and bad reputation, being born into a good family and being born into a bad family, etc. Chrysippus and others class life, health, and pleasure, etc., as morally indifferent but nevertheless “preferred”. They argue that something cannot be intrinsically good if it can be put to good or bad use, but wealth and health, etc., can be used for good or bad ends, so are not good in themselves but merely indifferent. Likewise, that which is disgraceful cannot be intrinsically good, but some pleasures are disgraceful, so pleasure cannot be good in itself.

The Stoics use the word “indifferent” in a technical sense to mean things that do not contribute either to fulfilment (eudaimonia) or its opposite, they also speak of these things having selective “value”, but not as truly good or bad. It is possible for humans to be fulfilled without having health, wealth, or reputation, although, if they are used well or badly, such use of them tends to promote either fulfilment or misery. It’s therefore our use of “indifferent” things that’s most important, rather than the things themselves. The wise man uses all things well; the fool uses all things badly. Of the “indifferent” things, therefore, some are to be preferred by the wise man, some to be rejected, and other are indifferent in the complete sense. The things of value that are to be preferred they define as those which contribute directly, and those which contribute indirectly to living harmoniously and in accord with to nature. They therefore mean that the “value” of “preferred” indifferents may be due, for example, to “any assistance brought by wealth or health towards living a natural life”. Preferred things amongst mental qualities include natural ability and the like. Among physical qualities we naturally “prefer” life, health, strength, good functioning of organs, physical beauty, etc. In the sphere of external things the “preferred” things include wealth, fame, noble birth, etc. Qualities of character such as natural ability are preferred for their own sake, because they are in accord with our rational nature, whereas physical and external things are preferred merely as means to the end of achieving what is good in our mind or character.

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  1. Shouldn’t this be called “Stoic Ethics” with an introduction that states that the Stoics divided philosophy into logic, physics and ethics.