What is Stoicism? You might have heard people refer to the idea of being “stoic” as having a “stiff upper lip” or being able to endure pain and hardship without complaining. In reality, the idea of Stoicism is far more than that — this term refers to a form of ancient Greek philosophy, which according to its advocates, offers some sage advice on how to live a more meaningful life.
The Stoics believed that everything we face in life, however difficult it may be, is an opportunity to respond with virtue. According to members of this school of philosophy, acting with virtue is the foundation of all happiness, success, meaning, honour, and love. But how did they define this ethical principle?
In this article, we’ll explain what the four Stoic virtues are and take you through each one in turn. We’ll also examine how implementing these values in our daily lives can bring us greater happiness, connection, and peace of mind.
What Are The Virtues of Stoicism?
The ancient philosophy of Stoicism was guided by four core virtues: wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage. These virtues helped Stoics navigate life and make decisions in a more measured, patient, non-judgemental, and unreactive way.
These Stoic ethics were structured around the idea of living in agreement with nature, and acting with reason and rationality in every aspect of life. These ideas were the building blocks of Stoicism, which promoted the idea of Sympatheia, meaning “mutual interdependence and oneness among everything in the universe.” By practising wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage, it was believed that a healthier, more natural connection between everything in the world could be reached.
Stoics also taught that living with virtue was crucial for experiencing eudaimonia, an ancient Greek term that referred to a special type of internal well-being, happiness, and health. Our article on the concept of eudaimonia explores what this term means in more detail, but for now, we’ve got other things to focus on. Soon, we’ll explain each of the four Stoic virtues in more depth. But first, let’s look at where this ethical formula came from.
How Did The Stoic Virtues Originate?
The Stoic attitude towards virtue is an ancient approach to life that has influenced many generations of people. It’s likely that the four Stoic Virtues date back to the days of Plato or even Socrates, although it’s impossible to pin down an exact date for when the Stoic perspective on virtue first emerged.
It’s important to note that the four terms we’re using to describe these attitudes aren’t direct translations, although they’re pretty much as close as you can get in modern English. There’s no need to get hung up on taking things literally; after all, modern views about Stoicism and virtue have strayed a little from the roots of the practice.
According to renowned author and founder of The Daily Stoic podcast Ryan Holiday, “The essential idea of Stoicism in my interpretation is, you don’t control the world around you, you control how you respond.” The idea of accepting experiences for what they are and instead focusing on how you respond to them is a foundation of mindfulness, explored in our article, ‘Respond, Don’t React’. Ryan Holiday isn’t the only one to make this observation; acceptance is a fundamental part of both the modern and ancient understanding of Stoicism.
Defining the Virtues
Now that you’ve got a better idea of what Stoicism is, where it came from, and why it values virtue so highly, it’s time to spend some time looking into exactly what is meant by the virtues of wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage. Let’s get into it.
Wisdom is the foundation of all forms of philosophy. Diogenes Laërtius, a biographer of Greek philosophers, wrote that wisdom is “knowledge of what we ought to choose, what we ought to beware of, and what is indifferent.”
This separation of good, bad, and indifferent is what underpins the Stoic definition of wisdom. Good actions are informed by virtue, while bad actions, like lying to avoid responsibility, taking advantage of others, or acting with greed, tend to be informed by vice.
The Stoics saw things like money, possessions, and fame as indifferent, meaning they were neither good nor bad, they simply were. That being said, they recognised that some indifferent states were preferred; for instance, wealth is preferable to poverty, and health is preferable to illness.
Wisdom allows us to make informed decisions and actions. It’s not just about gaining knowledge — it’s also about implementing this knowledge and embodying the four cardinal virtues during our interactions and daily activities. This form of practical wisdom is essential for a virtuous life, according to Stoicism.
According to Marcus Aurelius’ philosophy of life, justice is the most important of the four virtues. He believed justice to be the source of all other virtues; after all, if courage is motivated by self-interest, or wisdom is not shared with others, what use are these values?
Cicero, a Roman senator who presented the four Stoic virtues in his text De Officiis (On Moral Duties), offered a lengthy explanation of what justice means, focusing primarily on the importance of acting with fairness, kindness, peace, and truth towards others.
Acting with justice means being kind, respectful, understanding, and generous to the people around us. It’s ensuring that we provide support to people when they need it. It’s about contributing to our community, rather than just taking things for ourselves. And it’s also about being just and fair towards ourselves — too often, we get caught up in the perfectionist trap and become overly critical of ourselves.
The virtue of temperance encourages the use of moderation, self-discipline, and self-control in all areas of life. This virtue represents the opposite of greed, gluttony, instant gratification, and addictive behaviour.
In his highly influential text Meditations,” Roman Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote “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?’” This is the essence of temperance, or moderation.
Stoic philosophy argued that virtue is found between excess and deficiency (we explored the idea of this happy middle ground in our article ‘Does Money Buy Happiness?’). Excesses and desires are not conducive to a truly happy life, according to the Stoics. By trying not to depend on things like alcohol, drugs, social media, video games, or fancy clothes for our well-being, we can achieve real happiness.
The Stoic idea of temperance is not just about refraining from hoarding material goods; it’s also about exercising self-control in every experience you have, whether it’s pain, pleasure, failure, or triumph. By showing equanimity and staying in the middle, you can guard against the extremes of life and experience more harmony with nature and connection with the people around you.
Courage means facing up to life’s challenges and conflicts with bravery and resilience. It also means resisting the status quo and failing to succumb to pressures around you. The Stoic ethics of Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, for example, allowed him to rule benevolently and resist the urge for absolute power and tyranny (this earned him the title of the last of The Five Good Emperors). Stoics believe in facing misfortune, pain, loss, and even death with a sense of fortitude, the virtue of courage at the forefront of their minds.
It’s important to note that courage isn’t about acting as if we don’t have fears, anxieties, or desires. Instead, it means acting in the right way despite those fears, anxieties, and desires. Stoics argue that the early stages of difficult emotions and fears are unavoidable — it’s how we react to them that’s important.
The Stoic view of courage is what led Marcus Aurelius to develop his theory, ‘The obstacle is the path’. This idea tells us that only by embracing the challenges we face and tackling them head-on, instead of avoiding them, can we truly achieve progress. Our article on the obstacle is the path explains this transformative concept in more depth.
How to Put Stoic Wisdom into Practice
Virtue depends partly on training, and partly on practice. It’s necessary to first gain knowledge about how to live in agreement with nature, but that’s worth nothing if you don’t consistently practise the four Stoic virtues within your everyday life.
This is captured in the Aristotle quote: “As it is not one swallow or a fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.” Basically, achieving goodness or virtue can’t be achieved overnight — it’s something that you must cultivate every day through your actions.
One of the best ways to ensure you’re integrating Stoic wisdom into your daily life is to check yourself each time you’re faced with a decision, asking “does this align with the four virtues?” If the answer is no, think about how you could adjust your behaviour in accordance with the Stoic goal of life. Making these daily adjustments can help you become a more kind, patient, and ultimately wise person.
One way you can make the process of living with virtue easier is to use visual aids or tokens like posters on the wall, photos in your wallet, coins, or challenge cards to remind you of key Stoic values and encourage you to act with wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage at all times.
Modern Stoics also use small acts of self-restraint to increase their sense of gratitude for life or help them prepare for adversity. This could be sleeping on the floor for a night with only a blanket for coverage, starting your day with an early morning workout, or eating minimally for a week (if you do try out any fasting techniques, you should check out our article on mindful eating first).
These acts of self-restraint can help you appreciate the privileges and pleasures you enjoy in life, and increase your sense of understanding for others who are less fortunate than you. Stoics and modern meditators agree on the importance of this — mindfulness practices like Loving-kindness meditation seek to boost our sense of compassion and empathy for others using their own unique methods.
Making a concerted effort to respond to the world around you with wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage can have a real positive impact on your life.
If you want to find out more about the transformative ideas promoted by Stoic philosophy, check out our article on the Stoic power of amor fati, a fascinating concept that teaches that accepting things as they are is the key to happiness.
Frequently Asked Questions:
What is the greatest virtue according to Stoicism?
As we touched on earlier, most Stoics agree that justice is the most important of the four virtues. This is because only by being fair and respectful towards others can we give ourselves the platform to implement all other forms of virtue. That being said, each pillar of Stoic virtue is important.
Why should you live by the Stoic principles?
As Marcus Aurelius once said, “What injures the hive, injures the bee.” In other words, it’s in our interest to be kind, fair, and respectful to others, because everyone needs support, and being isolated from other people will only harm us. Practising the four Stoic virtues is a great way to do this. By living with virtue, compassion, and empathy, we can drastically improve our own lives.
What are the 4 virtues of Confucianism?
Confucianism is an ancient Chinese belief system that focuses on the importance of personal ethics and morality. The four virtues of Confucianism are righteousness, ritual property, wisdom, and humanity. You can find out a little more about Confucianism in our article on Effortless Meditation.
MindOwl Founder – My own struggles in life have led me to this path of understanding the human condition. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.