The ancient Stoics typically adopted the traditional four cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, courage and self-discipline. The main goal of the Stoic is to live in accordance with nature, or live in accordance with virtue. In my work on the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training Course I’ve been asked to think of examples, of people who inspire me in how they conduct themselves, in the way that they walk their talk. I’m also reminded of those people who I simply do not want to be, ruled by their shadow selves, causing destruction wherever they go.
Wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation, are the cardinal virtues in Stoicism, and their opposites are vices. Epictetus sums up the key Stoic indifferents as “health, wealth, and reputation”. Your status in society, your bank account, your reputation, all these are matters that are not entirely under your control. If they are not under your control, then they are indifferent. Indifferents also don’t necessarily contribute or detract from your happiness and well-being, from your peace of mind. Some may be preferential over others, such as being healthy, but ultimately even if we are ill, we are still able to live as well as we can, with the Stoic virtues of wisdom, justice, courage and self-discipline. If we are ruled by our reactions to that which is indifferent, then we will never progress, instead living reactionary lives, ruled by our shadows, making bad decisions, treating others unfairly, becoming fearful and lashing out with bad behaviour.
From the online site Stoic Ethics, we have it summed up here:
“The Stoics elaborated a detailed taxonomy of virtue, dividing virtue into four main types: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Wisdom is subdivided into good sense, good calculation, quick-wittedness, discretion, and resourcefulness. Justice is subdivided into piety, honesty, equity, and fair dealing. Courage is subdivided into endurance, confidence, high-mindedness, cheerfulness, and industriousness. Moderation is subdivided into good discipline, seemliness, modesty, and self-control. Similarly, the Stoics divide vice into foolishness, injustice, cowardice, intemperance, and the rest. The Stoics further maintained that the virtues are inter-entailing and constitute a unity: to have one is to have them all. They held that the same virtuous mind is wise, just, courageous, and moderate. Thus, the virtuous person is disposed in a certain way with respect to each of the individual virtues. To support their doctrine of the unity of virtue, the Stoics offered an analogy: just as someone is both a poet and an orator and a general but is still one individual, so too the virtues are unified but apply to different spheres of action.”
This sits very well with my many years of studying Zen Buddhism. The notion of compassion is central to Zen Buddhism, and combined with the Western Stoic notion of virtue can make even more sense to the practitioner. I’m sure the Buddha would have loved to have had a chat with Marcus Aurelius, or Epictetus!
At some points in our lives, we will all be faced by difficult challenges. How we rise to these challenges is what defines us, morally, spiritually, ethically. Our actions may not always bring about peace. We may be required to call people to account for their actions, or to stand up for another. We may have to do things we would prefer not to, to be uncomfortable, to make unpopular choices. But in staying true to nature, to the virtues, and working with compassion we ennoble our hearts and our souls in the journey of a life well-lived.
In my studies, after now having defined what the above virtues mean, and applied them to my own life, I’m moving on to suspending value judgements and towards what the Buddhist would call Right View, albeit in a Stoic context. It will be interesting to see how these two philosophies overlap, and where they differ. It should also be interesting at this point in my life as well, where I am called to challenge bad behaviour and try to cease further suffering by making a stand in certain areas. After having spent the last couple of weeks defining my goals in Week Two, I’m now moving once again into a deep study of my thought processes, reactions and behaviour in Week Three. Self-monitoring is always a fun, and very useful, exercise. 🙂