The Highest Good: An Introduction To The 4 Stoic Virtues

Summum Bonum was the expression from Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator. In Latin, it means “the highest good.” And what is the highest good? What is it that we are supposed to be aiming for in this life? To the Stoics, the answer is virtue. They said that everything we face in life was an opportunity to respond with virtue. Even bad situations. Even painful or scary ones. If we act virtuously, they believed, everything else important could follow: Happiness, success, meaning, reputation, honor, love. “The man who has virtue,” Cicero said, “is in need of nothing whatever for the purpose of living well.”

Ok, but what is virtue? The Stoics believed there were four virtues:

Wisdom

Courage

Temperance

Justice

Let’s look at each:

WISDOM

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own”Epictetus

It’s the meaning of philosophy: a love of wisdom. In Diogenes Laërtius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, he wrote of the Stoics, “wisdom they define as the knowledge of things good and evil and of what is neither good nor evil…knowledge of what we ought to choose, what we ought to beware of, and what is indifferent.”

Following having this knowledge, wisdom ultimately informs action. Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” In that space is wisdom’s opportunity. Recognizing that space is the first step. That space is where we either take the lessons from our reading and apply it or we throw it out the window and act impulsively and irrationally.

Wisdom is harnessing what the philosophy teaches then wielding it in the real world. As Seneca put it, “Works not words.”

Temperance

“‘If you seek tranquillity, do less.’ Or (more accurately) do what’s essential—what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better. Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.24

Aristotle calls it the “golden mean,” which explains that virtue is found firmly in the middle, between excess and deficiency. Excess and desires are synonymous with discontent and dissatisfaction. They’re a self-defeating impulse.

Epictetus said, “Curb your desire — don’t set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need.” And Seneca said, “You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.”

Temperance is the knowledge that abundance comes from having what is essential. The Stoics often used temperance interchangeably with “self-control.” Self-control, not just towards material goods, but self-control, harmony, and good discipline always—in pleasure or pain, admiration or contempt, failure or triumph. Temperance is guarded against extremes, not relying on the fleetingness of pleasure for happiness nor allowing the fleetingness of pain to destroy it.

Courage

“Don’t you know life is like a military campaign? One must serve on watch, another in reconnaissance, another on the front line. . . . So it is for us—each person’s life is a kind of battle, and a long and varied one too. You must keep watch like a soldier and do everything commanded. . . . You have been stationed in a key post, not some lowly place, and not for a short time but for life.” — Epictetus, Discourses, 3.24.31–36

Epictetus was once asked which words would help a person thrive. “Two words should be committed to memory and obeyed,” he said, “persist and resist.”

It is the timeless symbol of Stoicism—the lone knight fighting a war they cannot hope to win, but fighting bravely and honorably nonetheless. It’s Thrasea challenging Nero, even though the challenge will cost him his life and fail to stop the man. It’s Marcus Aurelius struggling not to be corrupted by absolute power, to be a good man even in the face of Rome’s decadence and decline. It’s the Percy family—the great Southern Stoics—generation after generation: LeRoy fighting the Klan in 1922. William Alexander giving up bachelorhood to adopt his three young cousins. Walker Percy resisting the rising tide of racism and hatred that consumed his generation, trying to be calm and philosophical through it all, to be a quiet beacon of goodness through his writing. It’s Publius Rutilius Rufus, as Mike Duncan details in our interview, facing false accusations and an unjust prosecution to ultimately be a force inspiring change against corruption. It’s Seneca’s last words to a deranged tyrant, “Nero can kill me, but he cannot harm me.” 

Each fight, even if somewhat futile, required enormous amounts of courage. Each required resisting the comfort of the status quo and coming to one’s own judgment.

Thrasea had to stick his neck out—literally—when he put a spotlight on Nero’s tyranny and lost it as a result. The Percys risked their place in their community and their own safety on several occasions to stand up for the rights of their fellow citizens. Marcus Aurelius could have lost himself in oblivion and power, but instead fought a lifelong battle against himself, within himself, to improve and help others.

That’s Stoic courage. Courage to face misfortune. Courage to face death. Courage to risk yourself for the sake of your fellow man. Courage to hold to your principles, even when others get away with or are rewarded for disregarding theirs. Courage to speak your mind and insist on truth.

Justice

“And a commitment to justice in your own acts. Which means: thought and action resulting in the common good. What you were born to do.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.31

Of the four stoic virtues, Marcus Aurelius said justice was the most important. To him, it was “the source of all the other virtues.” After all, how impressive is courage if it’s only about self-interest? What good is wisdom if not put to use for the whole world?

To understand the virtue of justice, we must look at Cicero—who agreed with Marcus that “Justice is the crowning glory of the virtues.” We opened with Cicero’s expression summum bonum. But more than just an expression, in his time and throughout history, Cicero has been respected for living those words. John Adams said, “All ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher combined” than Cicero. Thomas Jefferson said the Declaration of Independence was based on “the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”

While Cicero was a Roman Senator and did hold every important Roman office by the youngest legally allowable ages, he, and the other Stoics, weren’t considering justice in the legal sense as we often use it today. For them, it was in the much broader scope of our interactions with and duty to our fellow beings.

It was in De Officiis (On Moral Duties)—his comprehensive study and writing of the ethical system of the Stoics of his timewhere Cicero first presented the four Stoic virtues. Justice, he explains, is “the principle which constitutes the bond of human society and of a virtual community of life.” The lengthy continued description can be summed:

  • That no one do harm to another.
  • That one use common possessions as common; private as belonging to their owners.
  • We are not born for ourselves alone.
  • Men were brought into being for the sake of men, that they might do good to one another.
  • We ought to follow nature as a guide, to contribute our part to the common good.
  • Good faith, steadfastness, and truth.

It is useful, he says, to consider what it means to act unjustly. Simple: anything that inflicts injury or harms another being. “For the most part,” Cicero explains, “men are induced to injure others in order to obtain what they covet.”

It is perhaps the most radical idea in all of Stoicism: Sympatheia—the belief in mutual interdependence among everything in the universe, that we are all one. It is emphasized heavily in all Stoic texts. “What injures the hive injures the bee,” Marcus said. Marcus’ favorite philosopher, the Stoic teacher Epictetus, said, “Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings.” And Epictetus’ teacher, Musonius Rufus, said, “to honor equality, to want to do good, and for a person, being human, to not want to harm human beings—this is the most honorable lesson and it makes just people out of those who learn it.”

As the bestselling author, Robert Greene said in our interview with him about his new book The Laws Of Human Nature, “We are all the same. The Stoics talk about that. It’s logos. It’s what unites everything together.”

***

Virtue is how we live happy and free lives. It’s not grandiose nor vague. The Stoics shun complexity and worship simplicity.

If we were to describe Stoicism in one sentence, it’d be this: A Stoic believes they don’t control the world around them, only how they respond—and that they must always respond with courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice.

Life is unpredictable. There’s so much we have no control over. That can be overwhelming and crippling or it can be freeing. Virtue is how we ensure the later. No matter what happens, we always have the capacity to use reason and make choices. We should always try to do the right thing. To let virtue guide us. It’s all that we control. Let the rest take care of itself, as it will with or without your consent.

We’ll leave you with this entry from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations,

“If, at some point in your life, you should come across anything better than justice, prudence, self-control, courage—than a mind satisfied that it has succeeded in enabling you to act rationally, and satisfied to accept what’s beyond its control—if you find anything better than that, embrace it without reservations—it must be an extraordinary thing indeed—and enjoy it to the full.

But if nothing presents itself that’s superior to the spirit that lives within—the one that has subordinated individual desires to itself, that discriminates among impressions, that has broken free of physical temptations, and subordinated itself to the gods, and looks out for human beings’ welfare—if you find that there’s nothing more important or valuable than that, then don’t make room for anything but it.”


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