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The Stoic LifeEmotions, Duties, and Fate$

Tad Brennan

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780199256266

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2006

DOI: 10.1093/0199256268.001.0001

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An Overview of Stoic Ethics

An Overview of Stoic Ethics

(p.35) 4 An Overview of Stoic Ethics
The Stoic Life

Tad Brennan (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents an overview of the Stoic system. Stoics assume that all human beings wish to be happy, and that happiness is the end of everything one does. They insist that it is wrong to think that pleasure is good; that money and fame are good; and that health, freedom, and life are good. It is also wrong to think that their opposites (poverty, dishonor, illness, slavery, and death) are bad. Vice alone is bad; and everyone is awash in vice. Stoics like to discuss ethics by describing what a perfectly virtuous person, a Stoic Sage, would be like.

Keywords:   Stoic ethics, Stoic system, philosophy, Stoicism, Sage

Now it is time to take an overview of the Stoic system, before we look more deeply into particular parts in later chapters. Our survey of the previous systems has helped us to see what the Stoics would expect an ethical system to contain.

To begin with, the Stoics assume that all human beings wish to be happy, and that happiness is our end, that is, that for the sake of which we do everything we do. They also tell us what happiness is: it consists in following nature. To follow nature means to act in accordance with our own nature as human beings, but also to act in accordance with Nature as a whole, that is, the entire cosmic order governed by Zeus.1 By following nature, we will be happy. By following nature, we will also be virtuous. In fact, this second point explains the first, since the Stoics tell us that only the virtuous are happy. Furthermore, they say that virtue is the only thing that is good in any way, shape or form. Only what can benefit us, that is, make us happy, is good; and only virtue does that.

In particular, the Stoics insist that we are wrong to think that pleasure is good; wrong to think that money and fame are good; wrong to think that health, freedom, and life are good. We are also wrong to think that their opposites (poverty, dishonor, illness, (p.36) slavery, and death) are at all bad for us—they do us no harm, and do not make us unhappy. Only vice does that—it alone is bad. Unfortunately, all of us are awash in vice—everyone that was alive in the time of the Stoics, including the Stoics themselves; every historical figure they knew of, including their most revered predecessors such as Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic; and (I am confident they would say) everyone alive in this day and age as well.2 We are all of us tainted by vice.

Well—none of us is perfect; perhaps that's not such a strange claim to make. But the Stoics made it stranger, by insisting that every one of us is equally vice‐ridden or vicious, equally far from virtue, equally sinful and unhappy. Socrates was not more virtuous than his persecutors; Zeno himself, the founder of Stoicism, was just as vicious as the most hardened criminal. And accordingly, all of us are equally far from being happy, equally far from attaining our end, equally far from living in accordance with nature.

The Stoics liked to discuss ethics by describing what a perfectly virtuous person, a Stoic Sage, would be like—they talked about what the Sage does, and how the Sage is, as a way of saying what we ought to do, and how we ought to be. There is also a contrary character, the non‐Sage, who is the embodiment of vice.3 But far from a fictional device or hypothetical illustration, non‐Sages are to be seen everywhere, according to the Stoics, since all of us are non‐Sages.

The Stoics did allow that virtue was possible for human beings—it is not an unrealizable ideal, merely a very demanding one—and they described what it would be like to make progress towards virtue. They even allowed that some people do make progress. They simply denied that making progress towards virtue was the same thing as becoming more virtuous, or less vicious. The person making progress is not in an intermediate category between virtue and vice. Progressors are wholly vicious—they are full‐fledged non‐Sages, as vicious as those making no progress at all. The Stoics employed vivid analogies to drive this home; the person who is a foot below the surface of the ocean may be making progress towards fresh air, but he is drowning just as much as the person fifty fathoms under.

(p.37) Sages, in contrast, are completely virtuous, and their virtue permeates every one of their actions. They are not only virtuous when they do things like rescuing drowning children, abstaining from pleasure, or donating their worldly goods to charity. Every action that Sages perform—shopping for groceries, brushing their teeth, going for a walk—originates from the same virtuous state of their soul, and every one is a virtuous act. Nor are some of their actions more virtuous than others, or some virtuous because they facilitate others. It is not that the buying of the groceries is virtuous because it will allow the Sage to give them away later, or that the brushing of teeth is virtuous because it will keep the Sage healthy enough to rescue drowning children when needed. It is tempting to think that we can tell, in advance, what sorts of actions virtuous actions are—for example, the rescuings, the abstainings, and the donations—and that these are virtuous in some primary, intrinsic, or paradigmatic way, where the shoppings, brushings, and walkings are virtuous only derivatively, instrumentally, or by courtesy. But the Stoics deny this.

They also deny that any one vicious action is more vicious than another. It is a bad thing to murder your parents. It is the sort of thing that non‐Sages do—though not many, luckily—and it is a vicious action, which stems from their vice. And if you are a non‐Sage, it is also a bad thing to brush your teeth—even if you brush them in the same way that a Sage would, it is still a vicious action, because done by a non‐Sage. Indeed, if you are a non‐Sage, it is a bad and vicious thing to honor your parents selflessly and from a heart brimming over with love and esteem. It is no less vicious than the murder; it is vicious to the same degree, and for the same reason, that the murder is: because it stems from a vicious state of the soul. Someone who honors their parents selflessly and lovingly may be making progress, but their progress does not make them any more virtuous or happy, and it does not make their action any less an act of vice.

How might we set about living in accordance with nature, and how could we—or at least someone—come to be virtuous? The greatest impediment to our progress is our false beliefs about what is really good and bad. We must come to learn that nothing but virtue (p.38) is good, nothing but vice is bad. The rest are all said to be indifferent; it makes no difference towards one's happiness or unhappiness whether one has wealth or poverty, health or disease. But it is hard to come to see this—hard to break ourselves of the habit of believing that money and honors are good.

Non‐Sages desire money, and desire honors, and when they get them they feel pleasure, believing that they now have something really good. Non‐Sages fear poverty, and fear disgrace, and when they encounter them they feel dejection, believing that they now have something really bad. Desire, pleasure, fear, and dejection: these are the four great emotions or passions that characterize the mental life of the vicious and unhappy non‐Sage. Sages do not feel these things. That is because they do not have the false beliefs about what is good and bad. Not believing that money is good, they neither desire it when they lack it, nor feel pleasure when they have it. Not believing that poverty is bad—or illness, pain, mutilation, or torture—they neither fear these things in prospect, nor feel dejection when they are present.

Stoic Sages live without these four passions. But they are not thereby reduced to catatonic paralysis; they still have motivations to act. The life of a Sage looks, in most respects, like any other life; they eat food, avoid unnecessary risks to life and limb, and hold jobs that earn them money. What allows them to pursue things like food, and avoid things like injury, both of which they view as indifferent to their happiness, neither good nor bad, is the fact that these indifferents are still open to assessment on a different scale.

The Stoics say that among indifferents, some are ‘promoted’, and some are ‘demoted’—food and health are instances of the promoted indifferents, starvation and disease instances of the demoted indifferents. The fact that an indifferent is promoted gives the Sage some reason to pursue it. But the Sage's motivation to pursue it is not the belief that it is good, and so their motivation is not an instance of desire. The Sage does not desire food, but the Sage does select food—selection and disselection are the Sage's replacement for desire and fear.

One way that the replacement makes a difference is in their reactions to the outcome of the action. When a non‐Sage desires (p.39) money, and succeeds in getting it, he feels pleasure; when he fails to get it, or gets something he had feared, he feels dejection. No matter what Sages get as an outcome of their selections and disselections, they feel the same thing—a sense of the indifference of this particular thing, be it health or illness, to their happiness, and a sense of general contentment that things should have turned out as in fact they did.

Why, then, do Sages pursue the food and the health, if having it does them no more good than not having it? If their happiness is complete in their possession of virtue, then what is there to be gained by going for food? If starvation provides the same resulting sense of contentment, why take the trouble to hunt up dinner?

Here we see part of what it means to follow nature. The Sage has observed the natural course of events over a long period of time, has seen which actions are characteristic of which animals, and on the basis of their observations has concluded that it is natural that humans should try to feed themselves, try to avoid injury, even try to marry and raise families (none of the famous Greek Stoics were married, but none of them were Sages, either; Sages will typically marry and have children).

Indeed, from their observation of the natural course of events, they have concluded that it would be unnatural to select starvation when food is present, or to maim oneself when one could preserve one's limbs whole. So they select food because it is a promoted indifferent, and because this very act of selection, in as much as it is an action that follows nature, is also an action that accords with their virtue. By selecting food, and thus following nature, they are performing a virtuous action, and thus sustaining their virtue, and thus preserving their happiness. So attention to nature has led them to attend to the indifferents around them, noting which are natural and promoted, which contrary to nature and demoted, and selecting and disselecting the things in life on that basis. And they do it all without ever treating any of the indifferents, of either sort, as though it was really good or bad—thus they do it without any of the passions that cloud the reason of the non‐Sage. And thus they are able to carry on living.

(p.40) Except, of course, when they don't. For it is a familiar fact about Sages—and here the popular image conforms to the truth—that they sometimes choose to end their lives, that is, to commit suicide. But that is only a more dramatic instance of a general fact, that Sages will sometimes choose the demoted indifferent, even when the promoted one is available—they will sometimes select illness over health, poverty over wealth, fasting over eating, and so on.

Here we see another part of what it means to follow nature. For a lifetime of observation has led the Sage to notice that there are many anomalies in the course of events—indeed, the orderly and stable behavior of the world and its inhabitants is always being set off by interruptions and exceptions, whether it be the death of a mouse before its natural term, or the eruption of a volcano that devastates an entire city. Along with the nature of human beings there is also the nature of the cosmos at large—the nature that organizes and coordinates all things, living and nonliving. This, the Stoics claim, is the same as Zeus, and Fate, and Reason, too. Nature in this guise sometimes overrides the nature of individuals, whether mice or human beings. And a wise and virtuous Sage observes this. It is natural for people to be healthy—indeed, a healthy body is simply one that is functioning according to nature—but it is also part of the natural plan, manifestly, that people are ill on occasion.

Chrysippus said that as long as it was unclear to him what the future would bring, he would select health—indeed, Zeus himself had fashioned him to select it. But, he continued, if he knew that it was fated that he should be ill, then he would select illness instead. Both of these selections are ways of following nature; both of them are ways of acting virtuously (or would be if they were done by a Sage, rather than Chrysippus, who is a non‐Sage). Both of them involve attending to the value of indifferents, whether promoted ones like health or demoted ones like disease, and selecting them as a way of following nature.

The same applies to suicide. In general, it is natural for human beings to preserve their lives, and the Sage will follow nature by doing so. But on occasion, the Sage may have reason to believe that in this instance following nature will consist in terminating their life.

(p.41) It may be tempting to think that the special occasions will involve some special moral crisis or dilemma. It may be tempting to think that nothing could give the Sage reason to commit suicide except the desire to perform a virtuous action, or avoid a vicious one. Virtue, after all, is the only thing truly good; someone who knows this will happily choose virtue over life, which is a mere indifferent. It is not death that is bad; it is vice that is bad, so the Sage will easily choose death to avoid vice.

But this tempting picture is not the Stoic view. The decision to commit suicide is made solely from considerations of indifferents and their relative preponderance. It is the presence or absence of food and health and the like that causes the Sage to remain alive or commit suicide.

Critics of the Stoa found this absurd; when a Sage has complete happiness in hand (because they have virtue), and suffers only from hunger, or perhaps an incurable illness, or something else which they profess to treat as indifferent, why should they kill themselves? Doesn't this show that they are treating mere hunger or illness as though they are really bad—bad enough to kill oneself over—and treating virtue as though it is a matter of relative indifference, not sufficiently good to make life worth living?

The Stoics reply that they are not treating hunger as though it is a really bad thing, only treating death as though it is really indifferent. After all, suicide is only a matter of killing yourself—it is only death, not something that is really good or bad, not something that affects one's virtue. So there is nothing inconsistent in saying that the decision should be made on the grounds of indifferents and their availability.

Furthermore, the same grounds for suicide will apply in the case of non‐Sages, who cannot preserve their virtue by committing suicide (since they have none), and cannot avoid vice by dying (since any action they commit, whether remaining in life or leaving it, will be a vicious one). That said, non‐Sages too will sometimes have reason to commit suicide, and the same reason that Sages do, namely the current and prospective distribution and availability of such indifferents as food, health, disease, and so on.

(p.42) This is also why the Stoics are not bound to say that every non‐Sage should commit suicide straightaway, in order to trade the real evil of vice for the mere indifferent of death. They do not think this is the case, even though they are serious about saying that virtue is the only good there is and the only source of happiness, and that vice is the only bad there is and a source of complete misery. There will be the same reasons for non‐Sages to commit suicide as for Sages—the same rare and exceptional events will justify the selection of death in place of life, for either one—because the agent's own virtue does not form part of the grounds of making a decision of this sort.

And here again, the case of suicide only shows us in more dramatic terms what applies to all action. Whatever actions Sages take—whether committing suicide or eating breakfast or feeding the starving or brushing their teeth—whenever Sages do something, they do it from a consideration of where the promoted and demoted indifferents lie, and how their actions will affect the distribution of them. It is by selecting and disselecting in this way that the Sage performs the virtuous actions that make up their day—their virtuous waking and virtuous eating and virtuous walking and virtuous talking.

And here we find another reason why virtue cannot form a basis for suicide. It is tempting to think that we, and the Sage, can recognize what virtuous and vicious actions look like ahead of time, independent of the person performing the action. So, it is tempting to think that defending your country is a virtuous action, and so an action that it might well be worth committing suicide in order to accomplish. It is tempting to think that telling a lie is a vicious action, and so an action that it might well be worth committing suicide in order to avoid.

But this is to forget that all of the Sage's actions are virtuous, and equally virtuous, and that all of the non‐Sages actions are vicious, and equally vicious. In considering whether to rush into battle and defend his country or avoid the battle and have an ample dinner, it will not help the Sage to ask which of these actions would be virtuous. For whichever action the Sage performs will be a virtuous action. Nor can the non‐Sage make any headway by asking this (p.43) question, since their defense of their country will be just as vicious as their having dinner.

Instead, the Sage must simply follow nature—their own human nature, and the nature of the cosmos at large—and by doing so the performance of a virtuous action is guaranteed. The conscientious non‐Sage or progressor, who is guaranteed to commit a vicious action, can at least ask the following question: which of the vicious actions that I can perform right now is the one that the Sage would perform right now in my position? (Or is most similar to the one the Sage would perform, while differing by not being virtuous)?

Here we have introduced the notion of the befitting (kathêkon, sometimes translated ‘duty’ or ‘proper function’). An action is befitting if, once it has been done, it can receive a well‐reasoned justification or defense. This definition does not say that the action always will receive such a defense, nor who might be able to construct such a defense—in particular, it does not say that a befitting action can only be performed by someone who has the personal resources to offer a well‐reasoned justification. The action simply must be justifiable, in principle.

Nor does the definition say anything about the motives or intentions with which the action was done. Perhaps the agent who performed it had no idea that it was in fact justifiable, and performed it on grounds that would tend, if anything, to make it seem an unjustifiable action. The agent's motives do not affect whether it was a befitting action or not.

All of the Sage's actions are befitting. Some of the non‐Sages actions are befitting as well: those which—whether the non‐Sage reflected on this fact or not—are exactly the ones that a Sage would have performed in the same circumstances. Of course, the non‐Sage cannot perform the action from the same virtuous character that the Sage has, and the non‐Sage may not understand what makes it a justifiable action. But as we have seen, none of that impugns the action's right to be called ‘befitting’.

As an instance, let us take a case of eating breakfast. It is surely natural that human beings should break their fast some time after (p.44) rising from sleep, and on most occasions there will be no overriding dictate from Nature or Fate to trump the naturalness of breakfast. On some one of those occasions, a Sage will eat breakfast, virtuously. At the same time, let us imagine, and in closely similar circumstances, a non‐Sage will eat breakfast, too. Both of them are performing befitting actions.

There are still many differences between their actions. Of course there is the fact that the Sage is performing a virtuous action, whereas the non‐Sage, going through what to all outward appearances is the same sequence of motions and procedures, is performing a vicious action. But we can put that difference in other terms, by saying that the Sage is performing a perfect action; the perfect actions, or perfect befitting actions, are a subspecies within the befitting actions. There is also the fact that the non‐Sage may well think that eating breakfast is a good thing, or that the food is a good thing; they may well experience desire at the thought of the food, and pleasure in its possession. This is all as bad as can be—the Sage will have none of it—but it does not change the fact that the non‐Sage's having breakfast just then was a befitting action.

If the non‐Sage does something other than what a Sage would do in a given circumstance, then their action is said to be unbefitting or contrary to the befitting. One of the ways in which Progressors make progress is that they do more and more befitting things, fewer and fewer unbefitting ones. They also stop thinking of indifferent things as though they were good and bad and start seeing them as merely indifferent. Instead of desiring the food or the pleasure it brings or the health it brings as though any of those was a good thing, the Progressor may come to view the food as a mere promoted indifferent, something it is on the whole more natural to take than not to take, at least provided that no special circumstances intervene.

Thus there is a close connection between the natural, and the promoted, and the befitting. As a general rule—subject, though, to exceptions—one should select promoted things, viewing them as natural, and disselect demoted things, viewing them as unnatural, and through both of these avenues one will perform befitting actions. (p.45) If in addition, one is a Sage, one will be performing a perfect action as well. Just as it is common both to Sage and non‐Sage to be able to select things as promoted, so too it is common both to Sage and non‐Sage to perform befitting actions. And in doing this, the Sage is following nature, and thus living virtuously and happily.

In the next chapters, we will work through this same material again, in greater detail. Some of the points that looked mysterious in a swift overview will become plainer; some of the plain and easy points will look increasingly mysterious. To begin our deeper investigation of ethics, however, there is no better way than by stepping backwards to psychology. That way we can understand how the Stoics classify and categorize different kinds of motives, attitudes, and character‐traits. To understand the psychology, however, we will need to take an additional step backwards to the epistemology, to see how the Stoics categorize beliefs of various sorts. That is where the next chapter starts.


(p.46) Further Reading for Part I

The Epilogue of Long (2002) contains good material on later and more popular images of Stoics, including the views of such writers as Pascal, Walt Whitman, and Tom Wolfe.

Oldfather (1925) in his introduction describes the immense popularity of Epictetus with, among others, Frederick the Great of Prussia!

Stockdale (1993) gives a good sense of the Invictus reading of Stoicism; I disagree with the scholarship, but the story of Stockdale's experiences as a POW cannot fail to arouse the reader's interest and admiration.

An up‐to‐date and authoritative discussion of the history of the school and its leading figures can be found in the two chapters by Sedley (2003) and Gill (2003).

Arnold (1911) is not up to current standards for philosophical scholarship, but still gives a charming overview of many personalities, as well as an easy entrée into the role of Stoicism among the Roman aristocracy.

For a vivid sense of the personalities of individual Stoics, I recommend with the greatest enthusiasm Zanker (1995). His book combines art history with intellectual history, and provides not only pictures of the surviving portrait busts, but wonderful commentaries in which he attempts to discern the souls depicted in the marble.

A careful assessment of the evidence for chronology is found in Dorandi (1999) esp. section IV ‘The Stoa’. See also Dorandi's extremely useful tables of chronology at Algra et al. (1999), 48–54 and 798–804.

(p.47) Further discussion of the sources, and of how the sources for this era are to be treated, can be found in Mansfeld (1999a).

One brief overview of Ancient Ethics may be found in Rowe (1995).

Craig (1999) contains useful material in the articles ‘Eudamonia’ by C. C. W. Taylor, ‘Virtue Ethics’ by Roger Crisp, ‘Socrates’ by John M. Cooper, ‘Plato’ by Malcolm Schofield.

On the role and image of Socrates in Stoic ethics see Long (1988) and Long (2002) esp. chapter 3, ‘The Socratic Paradigm’ also Striker (1996b) on the Stoics’ relation to Socrates and Plato.

On the Cynics and their ethics see Long (1999b), esp. section III ‘Antisthenes and Diogenes—Cynic Ethics’.

Good brief overviews of Stoic ethics may be found in the following sources:

Sharples (1996) chapter 5 pp. 100–113 and chapter 6 pp. 123–127. A very compact but reliable account.

Sedley (1999a) is an encyclopedia article that provides excellent coverage of the Stoics as a whole; sections 14–17 give a quick survey of the ethical theory.

Inwood and Donini (1999). A longer overview than this chapter, but clear and helpful.

Schofield (2003) is rather less useful for the beginner, though it does contain important criticisms of other recent discussions.

Striker (1991) is nearly as long as a short book, though printed in a journal. It is one of the best things written on Stoic ethics. (p.48)


(1.) On Zeus' governance of the cosmos, see Chapter 13.

(2.) On the Stoic admiration for Socrates and the Cynics, see Chapter 2.

(3.) In Greek he is called the Wretch (phaulos), or the Witless (aphrôn), but using these terms in English might suggest that the Stoics were referring only to an extreme sub‐class of vicious types, instead of referring to all of us, no matter how upstanding and respectable.