“To stop talking about what the good person is like, and just be one.” —Marcus Aurelius,,
If you’re just getting started with Stoicism, Matthew Van Natta’s The Beginner’s Guide to Stoicism: Tools for Emotional Resilience and Positivity is a great place to start. He starts out with some ancient history, but quickly goes on to outline how the Stoics chose to live and why it’s still so relevant today.
In a recent post, I wrote about the Stoic discipline of staying in the present, focusing only on what you can control right now. What you do in the moment is a matter of choice, and the Stoics described the choices we have as virtues.
The four Stoic virtues are:
- Wisdom is virtue applied to your thought process.
- Courage is virtue applied to your emotional life.
- Justice is virtue in relationship with other people.
- Moderation is virtue as applied to our choices.
The Stoics said you have infinites chances to practice virtue, but only in the moment. You can’t simply say you were a good person last week, so that should cover your crappy behavior this week. That’s not how living your best life goes. Of course you will have relapses – you’re human. But choosing to do the right thing every chance you get will eventually make you a better human.
Here’s a breakdown of the Stoic virtues and what they encompass.
Wisdom stands in opposition to thoughtlessness. You are wise when you take deliberate, reasoned actions that lead to a good life. Wisdom includes:
- good sense
- good calculation
All the qualities that make up being smart and practical. Practicing wisdom means paying attention to what you do and why you do it. Thinking things through and choosing the best option for you now and for your future.
Courage is mastery over your fears. The Stoics break Courage down into the following:
Were you surprised to find cheerfulness and industriousness in that list? I was, until I thought about it. When things are going bad, courageous people get busy. They put a brave face on to comfort others and keep themselves from panicking. They don’t ask: “What’s going to happen to us?” They ask: “What can I do to help?” That’s why courage, which over the centuries has been considered a male attribute (“I’ll fight off the bear”) is also a very feminine trait. Those who cooked for the armies and bandaged up the wounded also served.
Stoic thinking encourages you to imagine the worst-case scenario. Seneca once wrote, “Something already anticipated comes as less of a shock.” By imagining the worst that can happen, you can prepare to face it with more courage. You can brace your self for the blow, and imagine solutions for what you’ll do, Refusing to think about what might happen only makes it more shocking and disorienting when it eventually does.
Justice, for the Stoics, was more than simply obeying the law or punishing wrongs. The definition is more like morality – doing the right thing in every situation and treating ever person as valuable. Stoics included in justice:
That means presuming people are good until they act badly. It’s okay to want something and try as hard as you can to win it, but not okay to cheat. Be kind to everyone and view everyone with empathy.
Epictetus says a Stoic will be “patient, gentle, delicate, and forgiving, as he would toward someone in a state of ignorance, who missed the mark when it came to the most important things. He will not be harsh to anyone, for he will have perfectly understood Plato’s words: ‘Every soul is deprived of the truth against its will.’” Most unkind people (with some exceptions, of course) are acting out of ignorance and trauma. We aren’t born evil; we learn it over time through terrible experiences and bad choices.
Moderation is about controlling your desires. Van Natta says the Stoics believed that “if you desire only virtue, then you can be reasonable in what you want and generous with what you have been given.”
In our society where more is more and lots is better, this is a rare virtue. Acquiring things brings comfort to many of us, but only for a short while. Consumerism and conspicuous consumption create an emptiness inside many people that feels like the very opposite of virtue Whether it’s money, objects, or food, the ability to master yourself and appreciate having just enough is a virtue that modern society would benefit from getting back to.
I’m pretty sure the Stoics would have thought Instagram was a bad idea. It can take you from admiration to envy to self-loathing in a matter of minutes.
“No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” – Seneca