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From Vol. 5, Issue 10, October 2023

What is “honourable” in Stoicism?

Practicing Stoicism || A. A. LONG

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Seneca’s Letters on Ethics

In the past 100 years, there have been several translations of Seneca’s Epistulae Morales. Yet, not one of them is a complete translation of the entire 124 letters. Now we have a new translation of all letters, Letters on Ethics by Margaret Garver and A.A. Long. This new translation uses contemporary terminology while staying true to Seneca’s original Latin text.

One of the recurring themes in Letters is “only the honourable is good”. The term “honourable” occurs in this translation as well as in earlier translations. But what is “honourable?” It is not defined by Seneca, so I asked A.A. Long what exactly is “honourouble” in Stoicism. This is what he had to say.

Chuck Chakrapani

Defining what is honourable

“What is honourable?” is a very good question, which gets to the heart of Stoicism, and the answer to which should also be of relevance to its modern practitioners.

"Honourable" is the translation of Seneca's Latin word honestus (English derivative "honest", French honnëte). This is the standard translation, though you sometimes find "morally honourable" or "of moral worth". The latter translations, by adding "moral", make it clear that the honourableness at stake is not official status, as when a judge or political figure is called "the honourable so and so”, or when one’s kids are placed on the “honour roll”.

Goodness is defined by intention and effort, not by success

The problem, I suspect, is that “honourable” in modern use is a rather oldfashioned and dull word, defined in dictionaries by “creditable” or “upright” – hardly a very big deal, whereas what the Stoics were after was a very big deal - the notion that what confers true credit and goodness on people or actions is simply and entirely the decency of their character and motivation, not what they achieve or their outward results. Hence someone who tries their best to rescue a person from drowning, but fails, does what was honourable, and the goodness of the action consists entirely in that goodness of effort and intention, and would not be increased by success, much as one would have wished for that to happen.

Seneca's Latin for “only the honorable is good” is a rendering of the Greek sentence – monon to kalon agathon – "only the beautiful is good". Kalon means most basically "of fair appearance"/"good looking", and by extension whatever is "fine" of its kind, including especially outstanding people, whether their quality is by birth or status, and/or by achievement. Hence the heroes in Homer are so described, due both to their noble status and to their prowess. The opposite of kalon is a word that means ugly or shameful.

When Stoicism got under way kalon had begun to acquire the ethical senses of "admirable", "praiseworthy" in character and action by extension from literal beauty, and lose its connotations of high social status. Thus a courageous or generous action is kalon because it stands out and makes us say “wow!” – as we might today say "that's really great"; and it is "good" because it is useful, valuable, worth doing, desirable.

Virtues have special value

So in saying "only the honourable is good", the Stoic doctrine is that virtuous actions – of courage, justice, etc. – have a special kind of value because, unlike everything else that people like and want (health, wealth, esteem etc.), such actions are essentially admirable, beautiful, praiseworthy, etc. Of course, the notion that nothing else is good is a deliberate paradox, as the Stoics acknowledged. They pressed the point, in order to establish themselves as the true successors of Socrates (who had seemingly gotten there first). They granted that we naturally like and want health and wealth and esteem, but health, wealth, and esteem are not good in the sense of what makes a life admirable.

Unconditional goodness

The Stoics have largely anticipated Kant's notion of a kind of goodness different in kind from the value of these other things – a goodness that is unconditional, motivated only by right intentions, irrespective of results. However, Kant called it "the good will", which makes the motivation entirely internal. By deeming the only good to be "the honourable" the Stoics have retained the traditional connection of honour and beauty, as we might say: “that was such a beautiful thing to do”, a notion most familiar, perhaps, in heroism. The Stoics even said that honourable actions are visible as such: you can see their moral worth. And they also retained the high status of the honourable (as in their paragon of the “sage”) – not meaning that virtuous persons are literally ennobled, but that they stand out from everyone else because of their virtues. So we shouldn't translate Seneca’s honestum by "morally honourable" but simply by "honourable" because there is no other kind of honour.

Stoicism reverses our priorities

Why is this relevant? Because we live in a world where status and material goods and competition for them are paramount. Stoicism reverses these priorities. It teaches that high status, distinction, and beauty belong primarily and essentially to the virtues of moral character and the ensuing behaviour.

A, A. Long is the Chancellor's Professor Emeritus of Classics, Irving Stone Professor of Literature Emeritus, and Affiliated Professor of Philosophy and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.