The Threefold Nature of Stoic Ethics

Some notes on Stoic Ethics understood in terms harmony and consistency across our threefold relationship with ourselves, other people, and the world.

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.

Discussions of Stoic Ethics usually focus on the fourfold division of the cardinal virtues into wisdom, justice, temperance, and fortitude.  These are frequently mentioned by the Stoics, although they go back to Plato.  They may have originated with Socrates, or possibly even with an earlier source.  However, the Stoics actually refer more often to a threefold structure that permeates their philosophy.  (See Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel for more on this.)  For example, Zeno was reputedly the first to divide Stoicism into the three topics called Logic, Physics, and Ethics in his book Exposition of Doctrine.  Most other Stoics shared the same division, although some treated them in a different order.  All seem to have agreed that these three subjects overlapped, though.  Moreover, according to Diogenes Laertius, some Stoics actually referred to virtues as Logical, Physical, and Ethical.  My hypothesis in this article is basically that Stoic Ethics, particularly the Stoic concept of virtue, can best be understood in terms of this threefold structure, as a way of living harmoniously across three domains or relationships we have in life: with our own self, with other people, and with external events in the world.

  1. Living at one with our own true nature, as rational beings, with natural self-love, and without inner conflict, division, or tension.
  2. Living at one, or harmoniously, with other people, even our “enemies”, by viewing ourselves as part of a single community or system.
  3. Living at one with external events, by welcoming the Fate that befalls us, without complaint, fear, or craving for more.

The Stoics were pantheists, who believed that the totality of the universe, the whole of space and time, is divine.  By contemplating the unity of the whole, and our place within it, as our guide in life, we help ourselves to fulfill our nature and approach virtue and wisdom.  Alienation, conflict, frustration, and complaint, toward ourselves, other people, or our Fate, is symptomatic of vice for the Stoics.  I take it that living wisely and harmoniously across these three levels is part of what Zeno and other Stoics meant by “living in agreement with Nature”.  Even though the Stoic Sage may experience pain, and flashes of emotional suffering (propatheiai), he still retains a fundamental composure in his voluntary responses to self, others, and world.  His life goes smoothly, in a sense, because he responds wisely, and harmoniously, to everything he experiences.

Living in Agreement with Nature

The famous slogan of Stoicism, that encapsulated the supreme goal, was “the life in agreement with nature” (to homologoumenos te phusei zen).  Diogenes Laertius says that Zeno coined this expression in his book On the Nature of Man.  It also resembles the title of another, presumably later, book by Zeno: On Life According to Nature (Peri tou kata physin biou).  The composite Greek word translated “agreement” literally means same-saying, or same-thinking.  To agree with Nature, in other words, means echoing its laws in our thoughts.  For the Stoics, in more theological terms, Nature is synonymous with Zeus, so it’s easier perhaps to think of agreeing with the laws of Nature as agreeing with the teachings of Zeus, by studying them and mirroring them in our thoughts and actions.  We’re told, by Diogenes Laertius, for example, that the Stoics described virtue or fulfillment as a way of being where every action helps to bring our inner spirit into harmony with the Will of Zeus.

The phrase “living in agreement with nature” probably implies both living in harmony with the universe and in acceptance of its nature, or laws.  It means the opposite of being alienated from nature through either ignorance or complaining.  Diogenes says that for the Stoics this life in agreement with nature is identical with virtue because when we follow nature we are guided by it toward the goal of virtue.  We’re told that Chrysippus said living excellently (virtuously) is synonymous with living in accord with our experience of the actual course of nature, because our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe.  In other words, by genuinely understanding the cosmos as a whole, of which we’re part, and living accordingly, we simultaneously flourish as individuals and fulfill our own human nature.

They say virtue, in this sense, also consists in a “smoothly flowing” life, which has the connotation of a state of inner serenity.  Diogenes writes: “By the nature with which our life ought to be in accord, Chrysippus understands both universal nature and more particularly the nature of man, whereas Cleanthes takes the nature of the universe alone as that which should be followed, without adding the nature of the individual.”  This twofold distinction between human nature and cosmic nature appears to become the basis for a threefold distinction between our own inner nature, the nature of other people, and the Nature of the whole.

Consistency and Elenchus

According to Diogenes, Cleanthes said that virtue consists in a “harmonious disposition”, i.e., a habit of living in agreement with nature, or a “state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious.”  And he emphasised that virtue is its own reward, and not to be chosen as a means to some other end, i.e., out of hope for something desirable or fear of some unwanted consequences.  Moreover, they say it is in virtue that happiness consists because virtue is the state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious.  The good is defined as “the natural perfection of a rational being qua rational”, which encompasses virtue as well as its supervening healthy passions.  They hold that the virtues involve one another, and that the possessor of one is the possessor of all, inasmuch as they have common principles, as Chrysippus says in the first book of his work On Virtues.  However, virtue or wisdom is also understood as a kind of consistency.  Contradictory opinions must be false, therefore, the Sage’s world view must be totally internally-coherent.

The Stoics admired the Socratic method of elenchus, which attempts to expose contradictions in the opinions of the another person by penetrating questioning.  The Sage would be like someone who has endured this interrogation about his life, and resolved any conflicts between his thoughts or actions.  The connotation of the phrase “living in agreement”, therefore, also appears to be living “in agreement with ourselves” or consistently.  It seems novice Stoics probably had teachers who acted as personal mentors, cross-examining their life and actions in terms of consistency with their moral principles.  Galen, the personal physician of Marcus Aurelius, described this in detail in his writings, apparently drawing on lost works by Chrysippus.  In Marcus’ own case, it’s possible that his main Stoic teacher, Junius Rusticus, served this role.   Marcus mentions that he often felt angry with Rusticus, perhaps because he questioned him very bluntly.  However, it’s easy to see how enduring this cross-examination could lead to a more consistent world-view and way of life.  When Seneca describes cross-examining himself after reviewing his actions throughout the day, at the end of each evening, he may be describing a similar exercise, intended to be used in the absence of a teacher.

The constancy of the Sage is a major theme running through Stoic literature.  The Sage is the same in every eventuality.  His world view is free from contradictions and totally coherent.  His thoughts don’t “flutter” between contradictory opinions, which is one Stoic definition of emotional disturbance or unhealthy passion.  The Athenian decree in honour of Zeno, after his death, highlights the fact that he was known as a teacher whose life was completely in accord with his philosophical doctrines.  He was supremely consistent, his thoughts were in harmony with one another, and his actions were in harmony with his thoughts.  We could say that the Sage is a fully-integrated individual, free from inner conflict, who doesn’t struggle against himself, although he still exerts one kind of inner “tension” in paying attention to and remaining detached from incipient proto-passions and misleading impressions.

Oikeiôsis and Natural Affection

This wisdom and harmony that operates across all of his relationships in life can also be understood in terms of the Stoic concept of oikeiôsis, which is central to Stoic Ethics.  It’s a tricky word to translate but is derived from the Greek for “household” and related to the English word “economy”.  It denotes the action of making something or someone part of your household.  Sometimes it’s therefore translated as “appropriation”, although we could also describe it as a process of taking “ownership”.  However, it seems to me that it’s best understood as a process of moral and metaphysical identification.  Sometimes it’s also translated as “affinity” and I believe it’s much easier to understand oikeiôsis by considering its opposite: alienation.  According to the Neoplatonist Porphyry, those who followed Zeno, the Stoics, “stated that oikeiôsis is the beginning of justice” but it’s much more than that, as we’ll see.  As Porphyry’s words imply, though, oikeiôsis was a concept particularly associated with the Stoic school of philosophy, and their use of it distinguished their position from other Hellenistic philosophies such as Epicureanism.

The most familiar sense of the word is the one in which it refers to the Stoic progressively extending moral consideration to other people and as such it’s closely related to their concept of “natural affection” or “familial affection” (philostorgia).  The Stoics believed that we humans, like many other species, have a natural (instinctive) tendency to care for their own offspring, and also their mates.  Plutarch says that in The Republic of Zeno, perhaps the founding text of Stoicism, the ideal society was described through the analogy of a herd (presumably of cattle) feeding in a common pasture.  The theme of the Stoic hero or wise man as a mighty bull who protects weaker members of his herd recurs throughout the surviving Stoic literature.  The Stoics frequently repeat their fundamental claim, in opposition to the Epicureans, that man is by nature both rational and social.  (So, in one sense, the two most fundamental cardinal virtues for Stoics were wisdom and justice.)  The bull identifies with, and has “familial affection”, for the rest of his herd.  He will face a lion and endure pain and injury from his claws, to defend the weaker members, because their lives instinctively matter to him, as members of his herd or, if you like, his “household”.  (Incidentally, a number of important Stoics came from the great city of Tarsus in Cilicia, which was traditionally associated with the symbol of the bull.)  Stoicism involves progressively applying oikeiosis to other people, cultivating natural affection toward them, and bringing them into our “household” or “family”, as if we were all members of the same herd.

For Stoics, because humans possess reason, we have an obligation to extend our “household” to encompass all rational beings, as our kin.  The ultimate goal is to attain the supremely “philanthropic” (loving mankind) and cosmopolitan (citizen of the universe) attitude of the Stoic Sage, who views his “household” as the cosmic city and the rest of humanity as his brothers and sisters.  The Stoic Hierocles actually recommends that we imagine our relationships as consisting of a series of concentric circles.  We are at the centre, our family and friends in the next rings, then our countrymen, and the rest of humanity.  He advises us to imagine drawing those in the outer circles closer to the centre, i.e., treating others progressively more and more as if we identified with them, bringing them further into our metaphorical household.  He even suggests we call friends “brother” or “sister” and so on, using our language to encourage a stronger sense of kinship.  Indeed, we can see Stoics like Marcus Aurelius actually do remind themselves to refer to others in this way, he even calls strangers “brother”.  When asked to define what a friend is, Zeno said “a second self” (alter ego), which perhaps assumes the level of identification found in the perfect Sage.  Aristotle also uses this phrase several times in the Nicomachean Ethics, saying both that the friend of a virtuous man is a second self to him and that parents naturally treat their offspring as a second self.  On the other hand, the Stoics are keen to avoid alienation from the rest of mankind, which they see as a symptom of vice.  Even toward one’s enemies, there should be a sense of connection.  As Marcus puts it, we should view other people as though we’re the top and bottom rows of teeth, designed by nature to work together, even in opposition to one another.  Zeno reputedly said in The Republic that the good alone are “true citizens or friends or kindred or free men” and that those lacking wisdom, the vicious, are the opposite, i.e., foreigners to the cosmic city, enemies to one another, alienated from the rest of mankind, and inner slaves to their own passions.  Indeed, in the case of humans, he said that even parents and their offspring become enemies, as opposed to having natural oikeiôsis for one another like animals, insofar as they are foolish and vicious.

However, it’s long been understood that for Stoics oikeiôsis functions at two levels: self and social.  The Stoics believed that it was important to give a developmental account of moral psychology.  The explain that human infants resemble other animals but gradually develop psychologically and acquire the capacity for language use and abstract reasoning.  At birth, we’re driven by our self-preservation instincts.  Gradually, we come to identify more with our mind than our body.  If you were to ask someone whether they’d rather lose their mind and keep their body, or vice versa, most people would obviously rather be a brain in a vat than a mindless zombie.  The Stoics think of this increasing identification with the mind, and our capacity for thinking, as a form of oikeiôsis that operates within the individual.  On the other hand, we’re to avoid alienation from our true selves, from reason and our capacity for virtue.  As Epictetus puts it, someone who succumbs to unhealthy passions and abandons the law of reason has, in a sense, turned themselves into an animal, and lost touch with their true nature, which is rational and even divine.  We become divided within ourselves, and at conflict with our own rational nature, when we allow ourselves to be degraded by vice.

When combined with our social instincts, it drives the social oikeiôsis that causes us to feel an affinity with other thinking beings.  For example, if a stone could think and speak, we might come to assign more rights to it than to a human being who’s trapped in a permanent vegetative state, incapable of thought or consciousness.  For the Stoics, this means also that we’re akin to the gods, with whom we share reason.  It should also have meant that Stoics viewed themselves as akin to the people Greeks and Romans called “barbarians”, foreigners who didn’t speak their language.  Race and culture are less important than whether someone is rational and therefore capable of attaining wisdom – that’s what makes them our brother or sister in the Stoic sense.

Those two forms of oikeiôsis are familiar to many students of Stoicism but In The Elements of Ethics, the Stoic Hierocles explicitly states that oikeiôsis was understood by Stoics as operating across the three levels we mentioned earlier: self, others, and world.  That maps the central ethical concept of oikeiôsis directly onto the same threefold model that recurs throughout the surviving Stoic literature.  I would presume that when Hierocles speaks of oikeiôsis applied to the level of the world that actually denotes a theme that’s already familiar and occurs frequently throughout the Stoic literature.  In part, it’s what we call amor fati, borrowing Nietzsche’s phrase: the Stoic acceptance or love of fate.  Alienation from our fate is a common theme in the Stoic literature and is marked by frustration and complaining.  Ownership of our fate requires, first and foremost, that we grasp the indifferent nature of externals.  If we believe that externals are intrinsically good or bad, in the strong sense, then we’ll be disturbed either by the loss of things we desire or by the occurrence of things to which we’re averse.  To avoid being alienated from life, to live at one and in harmony with events beyond our control, we have to view them with Stoic indifference.

The Four Virtues and Threefold Structure

As Pierre Hadot and others have observed, in the Stoic literature, particularly in Marcus Aurelius, it’s possible to discern a rough correlation between the three topics of Physics, Ethics, and Logic, and the four cardinal virtues.  It may also be that Epictetus’ three “disciplines” map onto this triad as suggested below:

Virtues Relationships Topics Disciplines
Wisdom Self Logic Assent
Justice Others Ethics Action
Courage and
World Physics Fear and

Note that there are some passages in the Stoic literature, though, that appear to conflict with this schema.  However, arguably it appears consistent enough to treat those as exceptions.  Even if this model was employed by some Stoics, it’s likely not universal, and would be contradicted by other Stoics.

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