From Vol. 4, Issue 3, March 2022
Stoic virtue, the only good
“Stoic virtue should be the blade we use to sculpt our character into an excellent one.”
Virtue guarantees happiness
The Stoics believed that virtue (arete) is the only good because it is the one thing that guarantees our happiness. In Stoic teachings, developing a virtuous (good) character is solely achieved by the choices we make. Whether someone is wealthy or poor, well-educated or not, sick or healthy, has no bearing on their ability to pursue a virtuous life. As the ancient Stoic philosophers themselves indicate, slaves and emperors alike can achieve happiness by living a virtuous life.
The teaching that everyone, regardless of their circumstances, can progress towards eudaimonia (a complete state of human flourishing), was not widely accepted when Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, first made this claim. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, for example, believed that the capacity to develop a good character necessitates a certain set of external circumstances. For Aristotle, someone with a quality education has the cognitive ability to ponder and improve upon their character and wealth gives them the time to reflect on this higher calling (because they are not overly occupied with survival). Therefore, those in less fortunate circumstances could never hope to achieve a virtuous character.
Externals cannot be responsible for our happiness
Zeno disagreed with Aristotle. He believed that externals such as wealth, social status, and health are things outside of our control and cannot, in any way, be responsible for our happiness. In other words, while wealth is typically to be preferred over poverty, and health typically preferred over sickness, neither have a positive or negative impact on our character.
Our actions and thoughts impact our character
Only our actions and thoughts, including our choices, impact our character, which is why we have everything within ourselves to achieve virtue. Possessing money cannot make us good or bad people. It is what we do with money (or how we cope without it) that counts. For example, if we have $100.00 and use it to buy a weapon to murder someone, then we have used both the money and the weapon in an inappropriate (vicious) way. If, instead, we use the money to help someone in need, then we have used the money in an appropriate manner. It is our choice, not the money or the weapon itself, that makes the moral difference.
We can always choose not to behave appropriately
It is always our choice as adults to think and act in ways that align with the Stoic call to strive for virtue, meaning courage, justice, self-control, and wisdom. We can always choose not to behave appropriately, but then we also chose to destroy our character. In that case, we only have ourselves to blame and cannot point the finger at our poverty or our troubled upbringing. While a difficult childhood and poverty, undoubtedly, make life more challenging, we cannot, as grown adults, hide behind them. In the same way, attempting to use wealth or an Ivy League education to shield ourselves from scrutiny when we have, say committed a crime, doesn’t erase our bad character – even if we “get away with it”.
Living a life that is worth living
If we wish to strive for the happiness that can only come from living a life worth living, then Stoic virtue should be the blade we use to sculpt our character into an excellent one. It takes consistent practice to become a better person, and no one becomes good at anything, least of all being a good person, overnight. The virtues guide us when we are confronted with difficult situations or when we feel stuck. Keeping our mind centered on virtue can help us to overcome any circumstances, no matter how dire they may seem. This is because we give ourselves space to prioritize what is truly important and worth pursuing. We can only fail to live a virtuous life if we choose to do so. The Stoic philosophers directed us on the path to flourishing (eudaimonia). It is up to us whether we embark on our journey to life a worth living.
Santara Gonzales is the Executive Director and co-founder of Wisdom Unlocked, a non-profit organisation that uses Stoic principles to help people cultivate good character in difficult circumstances.
Kai Whiting is a co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In. He is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium. He Tweets @kaiwhiting and is a co-founder of the WalledGarden.com, a place for Stoic community, discussions and debates!