Frequestly Asked Questions (and answers) about Stoic philosophy

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What did the Stoics mean by “virtue?”

When applied to humans in the context of Stoic ethics, ἀρετή/arete (usually translated as “virtue”) meant something like “excellence of character,” and kalos/κάλος (sometimes translated as “virtuous,” but sometimes “honorable” or “becoming” instead) meant “morally beautiful.” The Stoics thought that the two referred to the same thing. There are two basic approaches to describing in more detail what the Stoics meant by “virtuous:” practical, and theoretical.

When offering practical advice, Stoic writers seem to assume that what is virtuous and what isn’t is pretty obvious. From Seneca’s Letter 71:

To infer the nature of this Supreme Good, one does not need many words or any round-about discussion; it should be pointed out with the forefinger, so to speak, and not be dissipated into many parts.

From Seneca’s On Benefits book IV:

Just as there is no law which bids parents love and indulge their children, seeing that it is superfluous to force us into the path which we naturally take, just as no one needs to be urged to love himself, since self-love begins to act upon him as soon as he is born, so there is no law bidding us to seek that which is honourable in itself; for such things please us by their very nature, and so attractive is virtue that the disposition even of bad men leads them to approve of good rather than of evil… Nature bestows upon us all this immense advantage, that the light of virtue shines into the minds of all alike; even those who do not follow her, behold her.

One’s ability to know what is virtuous is perhaps analogous to one’s ability to recognize certain sounds as being music. Although they did offer theoretical explanations, they did not rely on these to motivate being virtuous. You are not going to persuade anyone to take guitar lessons using a neurological account of why people like music, or definitions of music in terms of harmonics, beats, etc. The only real way to do it is to play them examples of music and say, “see, that!”

The classical Stoics did something very similar in arguments for why virtue is the only good, or that the way to live a good life was to be virtuous. See, for example, paradox I of Cicero’s Stoic Paradoxes, or Seneca’s Letter 120, or Of a Happy Life. When trying to persuade their audience to be virtuous, they describe virtuous acts. There are also categorizations of virtues and vices. From Yonge’s 1853 translation of Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius:

Among the virtues some are primitive and some are derived. The primitive ones are prudence, manly courage, justice, and temperance. And subordinate to these, as a kind of species contained in them, are magnanimity, continence, endurance, presence of mind, wisdom in council…

… And analogously, of vices too there are some which are primary, and some which are subordinate; as, for instance, folly, and cowardice, and injustice, and intemperance, are among the primary vices; incontinence, slowness, and folly in counsel among the subordinate ones. And the vices are ignorance of those things of which the virtues are the knowledge.

Such virtuous and vicious character traits do seem to be widely (although perhaps not universally) admired and condemned even across cultures, and similar traits show up in modern psychology as well (see Peterson and Seligman’s character strengths and virtues, for example). The Stoics used this to get across what they were talking about when describing virtue, much as someone trying to get across what they mean by “music” might use examples of performances or recordings of music.

The classical Stoics took a theoretical approach as well, perhaps analogous to a description of music in terms of patterns of sound and human psychology.

Diogenes Laërtius (VII.LII) lists a number of variations on the Stoic definition of “the chief good”, attributing them to a variety of different specific Stoics.

From Zeno, Cleanthes, Posidonius, and Hecaton:

The chief good was confessedly to live according to nature; which is to live according to virtue, for nature leads us to this point.

From Cleanthes:

Virtue is a disposition of the mind always consistent and always harmonious; that one ought to seek it out for its own sake, without being influenced by fear or hope by any external influence. Moreover, that it is in it that happiness consists, as producing in the soul the harmony of a life always consistent with itself; and that if a rational animal goes the wrong way, it is because it allows itself to be misled by the deceitful appearances of exterior things, or perhaps by the instigation of those who surround it; for nature herself never gives us any but good inclinations.

From Chrysippus:

To live according to virtue is the same thing as living according to one’s experience of those things which happen by nature… For our individual natures are all parts of universal nature; on which account the chief good is to live in a manner corresponding to nature, and that means corresponding to one’s own nature and to universal nature; doing none of those things which the common law of mankind is in the habit of forbidding, and that common law is identical with that right reason which pervades everything, being the same with Jupiter, who is the regulator and chief manager of all existing things.

From Diogenes of Babylon:

The chief good is to act according to sound reason in our selection of things according to our nature.

From Archidemus:

[The chief good is] to be living in the discharge of all becoming duties.

Arius Didymus, included in Stobaeus’s anthology, gives a similar catalog, but asserts that Zeno’s original formulation was simply to “live consistently,” and that “with nature” was added by Cleanthes, his immediate successor.

By “nature” they mean something rather different from what a modern English speaker thinks of, such that these definitions just transform the question of what they meant by virtue to that of what they meant by “nature.” See this question, below.

They also have a theoretical discussion of how humans develop a concept of virtue, which is in itself informative (on a theoretical level) concerning what they thought “virtue” is. See this page on oikeiosis.