The Stoics had a specific ethical theory, and definition of virtue. They believed that by nature humans value certain things, although most people are confused about how to apply these values consistently to daily life. Animals and human infants instinctively value their own survival. As we acquire reason and language, though, adult humans gradually come to identify with and value certain character traits more highly. Eventually, reflection may lead to us to value “virtues” such as wisdom and integrity as the highest good, indeed the Stoics believed that virtue is the only true good. This transformation in our values, toward the love of wisdom and virtue, is started by nature, the Stoics thought. However, it is then left “up to us”, to be completed (or not) by our own volition. Virtue is what makes us fundamentally “whole and complete” as human beings, by allowing us to “ripen” and flourish in accord with our rational nature, and as part of the community of mankind.
The majority of ancient philosophers actually agreed with the Stoic view that developing virtue is central to the goal of life, although they didn’t go as far as the Stoics in claiming this was the only thing required for a good life. The Stoics wanted to be able to say that if someone is truly wise and virtuous, their life is as good as it gets, no matter how unfortunate they may be in other respects, such as being poor, weak, or outcast. Socrates’ life, they claim, would not have been fundamentally improved if he had somehow possessed greater wealth and social status. To have a good life, they might say, it suffices to be a good person. This hard line on the nature of the “good life” was one of the most important and distinctive aspects of Stoic Ethics but also one of the most controversial. It’s something we’ll need to evaluate carefully over time.
Likewise, some of the more-specific moral views of the ancient Stoics, about matters like religion, sexuality and slavery, reflect the historical period and culture in which they lived, and may be very different from the values of most modern readers. However, they also believed:
- That most reasonable people, on reflection, share fundamentally similar preconceptions (or intuitions) about morality but differ when it comes to applying them in practice.
- That being committed to living in accord with virtue was the most important aspect of morality, even if we sometimes differ over the correct course of action in specific situations.
So don’t worry! In this course, we’re not going to try to indoctrinate you into ancient Greek or Roman values. However, we’re going to ask you to carry out a two-fold experiment:
- Values clarification: Reflect on your own fundamental values more rationally and philosophically, and try to clarify what you consider to be the most important things in life.
- Living virtuously: Try to live your life, over the next three weeks, more consistently in accord with your own core values.
Following Socrates, the Stoics believed the most important use of philosophy was to reflect upon and critically evaluate our own conception of what it means to live a good life, or to live wisely. That can take the form of clarifying our values by reflecting on them, carefully defining them and checking their consistency with each other, and with our own actions. This aspect is sometimes neglected in modern discussions of Stoicism, which focus on its “self-help” or “therapeutic” applications. Ironically, though, modern “third-wave” cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) now places considerable emphasis on “values clarification” and “valued living” and cautions against placing too much importance on avoiding or reducing anxiety and other unpleasant feelings.
It’s a curious fact that despite cultural differences, when asked to clarify their values through reflection, people often (but not always) do tend to converge on similar conclusions, at least when speaking in general terms. Most (but not all) people tend to agree, for example, that harming others for pleasure is, in some sense, morally wrong. For our purposes, right now, it probably doesn’t matter if everyone agrees but you may find it interesting to discuss your conception of virtue with others in the forum, and swap notes. There’s a great deal to be gained by talking collaboratively with other people about your core values in life.
The Stoic Handbook
Sign up today for our free email course on the Stoic Handbook. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on passages from Epictetus.