From Vol. 2, Issue 7, July 2020
You have an in-built capacity to make progress
All human beings have the in-built capacity to make progress
All human beings have the starting-points of virtue.
Of all Stoic ideas, I find most inspiring their view that all human beings have the in-built capacity to make progress towards virtue and happiness, whatever our specific inborn natural talents, upbringing, social context or state of education. This view might seem absurdly over-optimistic, although the Stoics are far from underestimating the factors in human nature and in social influences that militate against our developing in this way. But their view has credible foundations. They characterize ethical development in terms of features that can reasonably be seen as fundamental parts of a good life for any human being and are not confined to any one socioeconomic, educational, or racial sub-group.
Two basic motives that are common to all: to take care of ourselves, and to take care of others
The Stoics see ethical development as rooted in two basic motives that are common to all human beings (indeed, all animals, as they see it): to take care of ourselves, and to take care of others of our kind, most obviously our children. Human beings, as the Stoics think, are capable of learning to express these core motives in a rational way (through language, communication, belief-formation, deliberate action, for instance). Humans can learn that the best way to care for ourselves and others of our kind is to come to understand and live according to the virtues: meaning the four key virtues of wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance (or self-control) that map out the four main areas of human experience. We can also learn to express the motive of care for others not only in relationship to children, relatives, and members of our own community. We can come to recognize any other human being as potentially someone for whom we may care, as one who shares the same core human nature of being rational and sociable (and in this sense our brother, sister or co-citizen).
Achieving happiness (eudaimonia), is understanding and acting according to the virtues
Human beings can also learn to recognize that the decisive factor in leading the best possible life, that is, achieving happiness (eudaimonia), is understanding and acting according to the virtues. Other things normally considered valuable parts of a human life, such as health, property, and the welfare of our families, are indeed valuable (in Stoic terms, they are “things according to nature”). But they do not make the difference between leading a good life or not, that is, between happiness and misery. Ethical development in this sense also changes the character of our emotional life, leading us towards becoming free of misguided “passions” and able to experience “good emotions.”
So I think the Stoic view of ethical development is not only inspiring but also credible; it identifies capacities that can reasonably be seen as integral to leading a good human life, regardless of our cultural context or time of life.
What can give a definite shape and purpose to our lives is aiming to make progress on this pathway.
The Stoics recognize that carrying this process to its final conclusion is difficult, and may even seem impossible. But what is not impossible, and what can give a definite shape and purpose to our lives, is aiming to make progress on this pathway. Stoic ethical advice or guidance, typically, takes the form of encouragement (which the Stoics call “protreptic”) to make progress on this path, a call that has validity whatever the situation we find ourselves in during our passage from cradle to grave.
Christopher Gill is Professor Emeritus of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter and author of many books on Stoicism.