Stoicism and Virtue: The Stoic Code of Honor

Something about the chivalric codes of the Middle Ages seems curiously akin to the ethical ideals of Stoicism. Ancient Stoic philosophy didn’t have an explicit code of honor, as far as we know. However, a basic code of ethical conduct is clearly implicit in the surviving writings of Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and our other sources for the philosophy.

Stoics liked to have lists that could be easily committed to memory. Most obviously, there is their list of four cardinal virtues, which goes back at least as far as the portrayal of Socrates in the dialogues of Plato: Wisdom (sophia), Righteousness (dikaiosune), Fortitude (andreia), and Temperance (sophrosune); or Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Moderation, in more modern language.

The doxographer Diogenes Laertius said that the Stoics described the supreme good as “honourable” because it consists of the four factors (virtues) required for the perfection of human nature: wisdom, justice, courage, and orderliness (self-discipline). The “honourable”, he says, denotes those qualities which make their possessor genuinely praiseworthy, by allowing him to fulfil his natural potential as a human being. The Stoics that the wise man alone is honourable and “that only the honourable is good”. The good and the honourable are synonymous, in other words, as far as the Stoics are concerned. However, the good is also that which is beneficial. The Stoics believed that doing what is honourable is in our own best interests because it allows us to flourish as human beings.

We might briefly summarize the Stoic code of honor described below as follows:

  1. Love truth and wisdom
  2. Act with justice, fairness, and kindness
  3. Master your fears and become courageous
  4. Master your desires and live with self-discipline

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