Virtue and Stoic Ethics

In this article, our attention will be directed to the nature of Stoic ethics. We will learn the ethics of virtue and what lies in its foundations.  

Stoic ethics was known as the ethics of virtue. Primarily, an ethics of virtue is focused on the subject of moral action and its goal is to help us improve our wellbeing through rational thinking and action. The highest goal of any virtue ethics is to reach eudaimonia, which is a state of blessedness and prosperity that brings everlasting happiness. 

The Stoics’ understanding of eudaimonia can be expressed in the proverb: “live in accordance with nature”. That means to live in accordance with your reason. Reason is, as stoics thought, the main characteristic we possess that separate us from other living things.

Theoretical and Practical Views on Virtue 

Throughout the history of Stoicism, the theoretical views on virtue and their practical outcomes were considered differently. For example, in the early Hellenistic period of the Stoic school of thought, philosophers such as Zeno and Cleanthes were interested in the theoretical meaning of virtue. 

The questions they asked included: what is virtue? How is it possible for one to become virtuous? Do physics and ethics have something in common? What is the connection between virtue and character? In a word, they emphasized the theoretical research of virtue. 

However, Stoic ethics underwent many changes in the late Roman period when a group of new thinkers emerged, including Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. While Stoicism was originally focused on theory, these Roman Stoics emphasized the practical importance of virtue. Instead of spending a lot of time contemplating what virtue is, Roman Stoics urged action. For example, Seneca, instead of seeking intellectual knowledge for the sake of knowledge, emphasized the practical side of philosophy as a means of acquiring virtue. 

Epictetus had a similar belief; however, he believed the theoretical philosophy of virtue (good and evil) is needed as a guide, because our notions of good and evil can be confused when dealing with individual situations. Epictetus’ view on this matter was strongly influenced by Socrates, who emphasized the re-examination of our notions and knowledge.  

All Roman Stoics thought that true virtue should be practiced in everyday life and that this knowledge should help us live happier. That being said, early and late Stoic thinkers did maintain many philosophical similarities, such as their list of cardinal virtues and their dichotomy of control, which are the core of Stoic philosophy.   

Individuality in Stoic Ethics

We should now understand the theoretical and practical basis for Stoic ethics; however, it is important to note that Stoic ethics is also individual. They were not interested in group mentatilities, nor in the Utilitarianism branch of ethics. Instead, Stoic philosophers considered the individual as the center of value. 

Stoic philosophers looked at the one principle that was the foundation of their ethics and they found that the only common thing among humans, without an exception, is the mind or reason. After careful consideration, Stoics decided the mind was the principle of all ethics. However, they also had to determine the existence of the mind in relation to nature. 

The second step was to connect nature and the mind into one; this birthed the idea of the macro-cosmos in the universe, which contains the mind as an active principle and matter as the passive principle. Our individual being, therefore, is analogous to the micro-cosmos.

This is the main bridge of thinking that connects Stoic ethics and physics throughout all periods of Stoic thought. The Stoics’ idea of the Gods was very different from our current idea. When you read about Zeus or Jupiter or any other God in Stoic literature, they are not referring to an all-mighty being as we usually imagine. Instead, they are talking about the force that is responsible for our existence, both physical and mental. 

To live a virtuous life, then, is to listen to nature and to the order of things. If our reason is functioning orderly, then it can be synchronized with the natural law. This was the main point and purpose of every Stoic practice.Therefore, Stoic ethics was an intellectual ethics, because its foundation primarily lies on knowledge and order, not on emotions and empathy. This does not mean empathy is not a worthwhile endeavour; it is quite the opposite. Empathy is the natural result of a well-conducted mind, because it is only reasonable to feel connected with your own kin.