Living Virtuously

Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do.
Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you.
Sanity means tying it to your own actions. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

There’s an aspect of this Stoic theory of value we’d like you to adopt, though, as a kind of behavioural and philosophical experiment.  It turns on a crucial distinction between two different types of motivation.  Today, behavioural psychologists express something similar as follows:

  1. External “goals” are the outcomes or consequences of your actions, such as losing weight, getting a job, finding someone you love, etc.
  2. Internal “values” are qualities of your own character or actions that you value, such as exhibiting friendship, integrity, generosity, patience, or perseverance, etc.

The outcomes or “goals” of our actions may or may not be achieved, and we anticipate getting them in the future, which leaves our mind somewhat in suspense.  Inner “values” are qualities of actions themselves, and we have them immediately, in the “here and now”, as soon as we start acting in the right way.  That also means that the pursuit of such external things can, theoretically, end, when we get them, although then we tend to move onto something else.  The pursuit of character-based values, however, never really ends in the same way – there’s no end to “being a good friend” or “living with integrity”.

This is quite similar to the distinction made in ancient Stoicism between:

  1. Externals, such as health, wealth, and reputation, which are merely “preferred”.
  2. Virtues, such as wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline, which are considered the chief “good” in life.

You’ve already practiced distinguishing carefully between what’s “up to you” and what is not.  For the ancient Stoics, only what’s under your direct control, only your own acts of will, can be virtuous or vicious, i.e., intrinsically good or bad.  The Stoics refer to external events as “indifferent” and view them.  Nevertheless, they “prefer” some outcomes to others, they just don’t “demand” that things turn out as they prefer but try to pursue these things “lightly” and with detachment.  To paraphrase slightly, the early Stoics joked that although the wise man believes that virtue is the only true good in life, he can still “prefer” to own a bar of soap and have a bath occasionally rather than remain dirty.  (They actually refer to the ancient practice of cleaning with oil.)

Current behavioural therapy approaches for clinical depression, and many other problems, encourage clients to experiment for several weeks by paying more attention to their “values” in this sense, meaning the quality of their own actions, rather than external goals or outcomes. As we’ll see, this can be done by actively planning and scheduling even small periods of additional time each day to carry out activities that are considered more intrinsically rewarding, and in line with your core values, such as cultivating “virtue”. Once again, it doesn’t necessarily take more time overall to do this, and you may actually save time by reducing the frequency and duration of activities that serve no purpose, in relation to your core values, each day, such as procrastination, etc.

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