The Nature of the Good in Stoicism

Brief article summarising the Stoic theory of the nature of the good, and the Greek terms used by early Stoics to describe the good.

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2012.  All rights reserved.

In a sense, the most fundamental question posed by ancient Stoicism was: “What is the nature of the good?”  Wisdom, the essential virtue, was sometimes said to consist in having a firm grasp of the difference between the good, the bad, and the indifferent, and the ability to apply this knowledge to specific situations.  However, the Stoics defined the good in a number of different ways.  It’s clear that virtue or “excellence”, in accord with nature, is the chief good in life, particularly the cardinal virtue of wisdom.  However, the Stoics also repeatedly equate the good with the “beneficial” (or “helpful”), the “profitable”, the “honourable” (or “beautiful”), and other terms.

Indeed, both Stobaeus and Diogenes Laertius report that for the original Stoics the good was understood primarily as “benefit” (ôpheleia), for example, in the sense that a physician might “benefit” or “help” his patient, or an army might help or support an ally.  This may particularly be of interest to those, like myself, who wish to relate Stoicism to modern psychological therapy.  What the Stoics meant by someone “benefitting” themselves, in accord with their essential nature as a rational animal, may arguably be interpreted as meaning something not to what we mean by helping (or “healing”) someone psychologically, through therapeutic processes.

Hence, the good is most generally “that which is such as to benefit”, and that the bad is understood as “that which is such as to harm”.  Elsewhere, Diogenes Laertius says very clearly “For just as heating, not cooling, is a property of the hot, so benefitting, not harming, is a property of the good” (to agathou to ôphelein, ou to blaptein).  And he explains: “To benefit [ôphelein] is to set in motion or sustain in accordance with virtue; whereas to harm is to set in motion or sustain in accordance with vice.”  Hence, according to Diogenes Laertius, the virtues are good, and the additional qualities of every good (agathon) are given as:

  • Beneficial or helpful (ôphelimon), “because it is such as to benefit”
  • Advantageous or expedient (sumpheron), “because it brings such things as we are benefitted by when they occur”
  • Morally binding, a duty (deon), “because it holds together in cases where this is needed”
  • Profitable, repaying more than was expended (lusiteles), “because it pays back what is expended on it, so that it exceeds in benefit a mere repayment of the effort”
  • Useful for things (chreisimon), “because it makes available the use of a benefit”
  • Well-used or artfully-used (euchrêston), “because it renders the use of it praiseworthy” (by contrast, the indifferents are typically said to be capable of being used either well or badly)
  • Honourable or beautiful (kalon), “because it is symmetrical with its own use” also “because it has all the features sought by nature or because it is perfectly symmetrical” and “the honourable uniquely means that which makes those who possess it praiseworthy; or a good which is worthy of praise; otherwise: what is naturally well suited for its own function; otherwise: that which adorns [its possessor], [as] when we say that only the wise man is good and honourable.”
  • Worth choosing or to be chosen (haireton), “because it is such that it is reasonable to choose it”
  • Just or fair (dikaion), “because it is consonant with law and instrumental to a sense of community”

Stobaeus gives a similar list, saying that “all good things are”:

  • Beneficial as opposed to harmful
  • Well-used as opposed to ill-used
  • Advantageous as opposed to disadvantageous
  • Profitable as opposed to unprofitable
  • Virtuous as opposed to base
  • Fitting as opposed to unfitting
  • Honourable as opposed to shameful
  • “…and there is an affinity to them” and with bad things “there is no affinity to them”

However, he goes on to say, once more, that “benefit” is the fundamental sense of the good in Stoicism.

The definition of the good is, moreover, divided into three senses by the Stoics, as follows, according to both Diogenes and Stobaeus:

  1. Virtue: “The good is that from whichbeing benefited is a characteristic result”
  2. Virtuous actions: “It is that according to which[being benefited] is a characteristic result, for example, action according to virtue”
  3. Virtuous men: “It is he by whom [being benefited is a characteristic result]; and ’by whom’ means, for example, the virtuous man who participates in virtue.”

According to Diogenes Laertius, goods are also defined as internal, external, or neither:

  1. In the soul: Virtues and virtuous actions
  2. External: Having a virtuous fatherland and friend, and their happiness
  3. Neither: Someone in and for himself to be virtuous and happy

Goods are also final, instrumental, or both:

  1. Instrumental: “a friend and the benefits derived from him”
  2. Final: “confidence and prudence and freedom and enjoyment and good spirits and freedom from pain and every virtuous action are final”, but he implies below that the primary final good is “happiness”
  3. Both: “The virtues are both instrumental and final goods. For in that they produce happiness they are instrumental goods, and in that they fulfil it, such that they are part of it, they are final goods.”
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One reply on “The Nature of the Good in Stoicism”

This is a very thoughtful and useful article which can help a person think through what is really important and what they should act on in the short life we all have.

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