Stoic Serenity 1.4: The Virtues

Yesterday we covered the subject of indifferents in Stoicism. We looked at the dialogue between Socrates and Clinias and saw that there are two types of goods, the Virtues and the Conventional Goods, or now referred to as the Indifferents. The Virtues are 100% good, inside and out, no matter the context, and we must strive for them in all circumstances in order to attain well-being and live a life well. The Indifferents, however, are neither intrinsically good nor evil. Their value depends entirely on whether they are used with the guidance of the Virtues.

So today we look at these Virtues a little more closely.

There are 4 Virtues, and I appreciate how Keith Seddon describes them in his book:

  • self-control – “When it is appropriate we must act with self-restraint.”
  • justice – “We must be just towards others.”
  • courage – “We must face difficult or painful circumstances with courage.”
  • wisdom – “We must choose our activities and carry them out wisely.”

And that’s the secret to Stoicism, to living well, and to flourishing fully. The End.

A Change of Attitude

Just kidding. If we were masters at practical application, then that could be the end. The thought once crossed my mind how fantastic it would be if all that was required to learn a foreign language fluently was to read the textbook from cover to cover, and voila! You speak Finnish! But of course, it doesn’t work like that. We must practice.

The difficulty lies in changing our attitudes towards the indifferents. We’ve spent most of our lives viewing wealth, beauty, talents, etc. as good things. But from this sentence onward, you must commit to entirely changing your outlook. You must wipe these “conventional goods” from the “Good” category in your mind. The only 4 things that belong in that Good category are the Virtues: self-control, justice, courage, and wisdom. That’s it.

This is more difficult than it seems, and the problem is this: we have devoted our lives up to this point to striving to attain these indifferents. We work to acquire wealth, we see our personal value in our physical attractiveness, we make careers out of talents. It doesn’t help that society is all around us telling us that we need these things! But to continue striving for them will never give you a life well-lived. When we strive for the indifferents, we obtain some, and then we strive some more for them because there is always more to acquire. We will quite literally “never have it all.”

The Stoics say that once we know that Indifferents will never be fully attained and will not lead to a well-lived life, then to continue pursuing them is foolish. We are now asked to read an excerpt from Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, Letter 9 “On Philosophy and Friendship.” (begin 2/3 down the page with Nevertheless, though the sage may love his friends dearly).

If I may, I’ll paraphrase the excerpt for readability and once more to demonstrate my understanding of the selection. But if you wish to read verbatim from the source, go ahead and follow the link provided above.

Nevertheless, a wise man (sage) loves his friends dearly, even putting them above himself, but despite this love, the wise man knows that the only things that are good are limited to within himself. He will speak the same words spoken by the philosopher Stilpo. For Stilpo, after his country was captured and his children and wife died, he survived the terrible event and emerged from the desolation alone, yet he was happy. When terrible Demetrius, “Sacker of Cities” asked Stilpo if he had lost anything, Stilpo replied: “I have all my goods with me!” Now that is a courageous and solid man! The enemy had physically conquered Stilpo’s country, but Stilpo had conquered his conqueror. “I have lost nothing!” He forced Demetrius to question if he had accomplished anything at all by conquering the country. “My goods are all with me!” In other words, for Stilpo, anything that could possibly be taken from him was not considered a good to him.

We marvel at some animals because they can pass through fire without injury; but how much more amazing is a man who has marched forward unhurt and unscathed through fire and sword and devastation! Do you understand now how much easier it is to conquer a whole tribe than to conquer one man? This saying of Stilpo resonates with Stoicism; the Stoic also is able to carry all of his goods unharmed through cities that have been burned to the ground; for the Stoic is self-sufficient. He creates boundaries for his own happiness.

But don’t think that only our school can say noble things; Epicurus, who hated Stilpo, spoke similarly. He says: “Whoever does not consider that which he has to be ample wealth, is unhappy, even if he is master of the whole world.” Or to put it simply, “A man may rule the world and still be unhappy, if he does not feel that he is supremely happy.” This is a universal sentiment suggested by Nature, as we find in one of the comic poets this quote;

Unblessed is he who thinks himself unblessed.

or, what does your condition matter if you consider it bad in your own eyes? You might ask, “What about that man who is rich,  and that other man who is master of many? They consider themselves happy. Won’t their own opinion make them happy?” But I tell you, it doesn’t matter what one says, but what one feels; and not how one feels on one particular day, but how one feels at all times. But don’t worry if you think foolish people are happy; only the wise man is truly pleased with his own. Foolishness always gets tired of itself. Farewell.

I absolutely love that quote, “Do you understand now how much easier it is to conquer a whole tribe than to conquer one man?” It gives me goosebumps.

So we just read about the philosopher Stilpo who was one of Zeno’s teachers and lived too early to be a Stoic. Stilpo lost literally everything, yet he remained poised and happy amid the loss. The idea of maintaining this type of attitude sounds absurd to beginning students of Stoicism like ourselves. But Stilpo’s secret was that the only things he considered valuable were his character traits, or Virtues, which no one could ever take away from him. And anything that could be taken away from him, Stilpo did not regard as valuable. Do you see how this works? By following the path of Stoicism and “making progress” towards a philosophic life, we become strong as rocks. Nothing that truly matters can ever be taken from us. We hold our happiness and peace in our own hands.

This doesn’t mean that Stilpo didn’t care about his family or his possessions. God (or Fate, or what have you. But I will be using the term “God” throughout my posts, in efforts to see the ties between Stoicism and Christianity) had put Stilpo’s family and possessions into his life, and Stilpo cared for them with good character. Keith Seddon goes on to help us understand this point:

What Exactly Has Been Harmed?

We need to distinguish between interests and projects, and the way we pursue our interests and projects. Remember our discussion of indifferents and Virtues? All that we do in our daily lives will contribute to progress in our projects, which will satisfy an interest that we have. Interests include things such as education, health, or earning an income. Projects are activities that further an interest, such as taking a philosophy class, training for a marathon, or searching for a new job. However, the way we go about pursuing our projects and interests are entirely separate from the projects and interests themselves. To apply our previous lesson to today’s, projects and interests are indifferents, and it is the manner in which we pursue them (preferably with Virtue) that gives them their value. We must strive to act in ways “characteristic of the person who has perfected their character.”

Once we understand that our character, the Virtues, are the only thing of importance, we can handle any disaster that may strike. We will see that whether it is a small setback or a huge disaster, it is only the project or interest that has been harmed. But because we consider Virtue, or the perfection of our characters, to be of the only true importance, we ourselves have not been harmed.

Seddon goes on to say that Stilpo could have gone on to say, “All my interests and projects have ended today. My interests to be a good husband and a good father have been brought to an end — I can no longer pursue them. So too for all my other activities. I can no longer be a good friend to my neighbors, for all my neighbors have been slain.”

But Stilpo could have continued even further, “But my wife and children, my neighbors and all my possessions, were never really mine to begin with. [God] entrusted them to me for a time, and now they have been taken back. What is truly my own, my capacities to act wisely and with self-restraint, to be just and courageous, I still have, and these truly good things I will deploy upon my new interests and projects. I will be a good friend to all whom I meet; I will deal fairly with people — in short, I will carry on as before, doing my best to perfect my character and to be a good man.”

Stoics state that happiness and well-being are found only in good characters, and we use our character qualities on the situations we encounter on a day-to-day basis. The circumstances themselves are beyond our control, “from an eyelash falling in our eye, to the death of a loved one.” Recognizing this truth can be difficult, but it is the first step towards a fulfilled life.

3 responses to “Stoic Serenity 1.4: The Virtues

  1. Tony Maletich March 27, 2015 at 6:46 pm

    A Christian parallel to the attitude of Stilpo could be found in Romans 8:35-39 “35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

  2. Kirsten March 27, 2015 at 7:59 pm

    Excellent. Stilpo was certainly sure of his priorities. He was looking to something beyond material goods. I also think of Matthew 6:19-21:
    “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal [or in this case, where conquerors destroy]. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

    Your comment has also led me to consider, a bit off topic, but what if the Virtues are the answer to the meaning of “made in God’s image” (Genesis 1:26-27)? God is ultimately Good, and perhaps if we’re made in God’s image, not only have we been given the ability to reason, but perhaps that means we’re ultimately responsible to develop our characters to be like God, that is, to exercise self-restraint, courage, justice, and wisdom. Just a thought.

  3. Tony Maletich March 27, 2015 at 10:10 pm

    Here I believe Stoicism and Christianity meet. Paul speaks of the Fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Paul speaks of humans as having two natures, one sinful (fleshly) and one spiritual. The same can be found in Epictetus, “in our birth these two things are commingled—the body which we share with the animals, and the Reason and Thought which we share with the Gods, many decline towards this unhappy kinship with the dead, few rise to the blessed kinship with the Divine.” (Aphorism 9, from The Golden Sayings of Epictetus).

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