Poor but Happy? Aristotle and the Stoics on External Goods by Gabriele Galluzzo

Can we be happy without money, political power, good looks, or friends? Can we in other words be happy without external goods, that is, the external things that we may come to acquire and that seem to contribute to our prosperity? No one will deny that these are important, perhaps vital, questions for us today, and for the times we live in. But the issue of the role played by external goods in human happiness was much debated in ancient philosophy as well, and the rather diversified answers offered by ancient philosophers can certainly make a contribution to modern discussions, besides being interesting in themselves.

Today I wish to consider two ancient answers to the problem of external goods, Aristotle’s and the Stoics’. In brief, Aristotle believes that we cannot be happy without at least some external goods, while the Stoics insist that we can. Although Aristotle and the Stoics offer incompatible answers to the problem of the external goods, it would be misleading to ignore their common starting-points and background. Both Aristotle and the Stoics are to some extent heirs to a (Socratic) tradition that identifies the possession and exercise of the virtues (courage, self-mastery, justice, good judgement etc.) with the full expression of our nature as human beings, that is, with the full expression of our rationality.

Thus, for both Aristotle and the Stoics, happiness is inseparable from the possession and exercise of the virtues. Differences remain, though. While for the Stoics virtue is the only component of happiness, and the external goods play no role in it, for Aristotle happiness consists of an internal component, the virtues, and an external component, the external goods. Which position is preferable? And which is more consistent? To answer these questions we need to examine more closely the arguments advanced by Aristotle and the Stoics in favour of their respective positions. Let us begin with Aristotle.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provides a rather complex understanding of what is good for human beings. He claims that there are three kinds of goods: the goods of the soul, i.e. mainly the virtues; the goods of the body, e.g. good health; the external goods. And he clearly implies that all three kinds of goods are necessary for happiness. Of particular interest is what he has to say about the external goods, which are our main concern today:

It seems clear that happiness needs the addition of external goods, as we have said; for it is difficult if not impossible to do fine deeds without any resources. Many can be done as it were by instruments – by the help of friends, or wealth, or political influence (Aristotle, NE, I.8).

Does Aristotle have an argument in favour of the inclusion of external goods among the components of human happiness? Yes, he certainly does. As the text quoted suggests, Aristotle’s main argument is an argument from realism. Human life is constrained and conditioned by external circumstances. Therefore, human happiness, as opposed for instance to divine happiness, should take into account the external circumstances by which we are constrained and conditioned. In this light, it may become difficult or even impossible to see how we could pursue our ethical ideals without having at least some resources. How can we be generous, for instance, if we’ve got no money? How can we change the world for the better without any political influence or a network of good friends to help us in our endeavours? And it seems reasonable to think, at any rate, that the complete absence of resources may become an objective obstacle to doing the many good things we want to do.

One might object to Aristotle’s line of argument that virtue, if it is real virtue, should be self-sufficient. If we are good people, what more do we need to be happy? Without entirely denying that the highest good for human beings should be self-sufficient, Aristotle still insists that ‘self-sufficient’ here should be taken in a realistic and, as it were, ‘human’ sense:

We do not mean by ‘self-sufficient’ what suffices for someone by himself, living a solitary life, but what is sufficient also with respect to parents, offspring, a wife, and, in general, one’s friends and fellow citizens, since by nature a human being is sociable (Aristotle, NE, I.7).

We do not live in a vacuum, but in a complex natural and social environment, which inevitably puts constrains on what we can or cannot do. Our relationship to other people make a difference to our happiness, Aristotle believes, and so do, too, the material resources we may come to possess. Perhaps, Aristotle’s general stance may look even stronger if we think that the lack of external goods may sometimes be an objective obstacle not only to the exercise of the virtues, but also to their acquisition. Conditions of extreme poverty, continuous engagement in a struggle for life and survival, as well as the absence of appropriate models, may prevent people from acquiring the right state of character in which virtue properly consists. It is difficult, one might urge, to think about improving ourselves if our circumstances are harsh or discouraging. And, even if we should manage to acquire the virtues, it seems difficult to see how we could fully exercise them without resources.

Whether we find it attractive or not, Aristotle’s position should not be misunderstood or hastily misjudged. For one thing, Aristotle does not believe for one second that happiness consists in the possession of external goods, or that the internal and the external components of happiness carry equal weight, as it were. It is not money, or power, or good looks, or friends that make us happy, but virtue. It is the possession and exercise of the virtues that fully express our nature as human beings. It remains true, however, that for Aristotle the complete absence of external goods might prevent us from fully acquiring and exercising the virtues.

Thus, while it is clear that none of the external goods as such makes us happy, it is difficult for Aristotle to see how we could be happy without them. In the same vein, Aristotle is not advocating indiscriminate money-making; nor is he recommending us to surround ourselves with friends, whatever their character might be. Quite the contrary, Aristotle holds that it is only a certain level, the right level, of material comfort that we should pursue. Actually, an invitation to moderation in the acquisition and use of external goods, as well as the recommendation that they be used ethically, as it were, remain constant features of Aristotle’s ethical teaching. Thus, for Aristotle, the possession of external goods is intended to remove potential obstacles to our happiness rather than making a positive contribution to it.

Similarly, he insists that the only true kind of friendship is the one in which all friends are virtuous people (NE, VIII.3). Friendships based on mere pleasure, or on utility, are not durable and so make a very limited contribution to our wellbeing and flourishing. Thus, Aristotle’s attitude toward friendship is selective: his pages on true friendship in Books VIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics are rightly famous, as is, too, his charming depiction of a real friend as ‘another self’ (NE, IX.9). Still, one might feel slightly uncomfortable with the thought that happiness is denied to those who, for one reason or another, do not find themselves in the condition to form friendships.

As compared to Aristotle’s, the Stoic position appears to be far more radical and less inclined to compromise with common sense. This impression is certainly true to a large extent, though it requires qualification, as we shall shortly see. For the Stoics we can be happy and flourish without the concourse of external goods. Virtue is the only component of happiness, and external goods play no role in it, strictly speaking. Since external goods make no contribution to our happiness, they are rightly classified among the ‘indifferents’, the things in other words whose presence or absence makes no difference to happiness.

Before we consider some controversial aspects of the Stoic view, it may be helpful to look at a couple of important motivations for taking this position that are intuitively rather appealing. To claim, as Aristotle does, that external goods play a role (though a secondary one) in our happiness implies that our happiness is not entirely up to us or in our power. If we need money, reputation, success, political influence etc. to be happy, then our happiness is inevitably conditional, at least to some extent, on favourable external circumstances and perhaps on just a little bit of luck. For, try as we may, we may not be able to secure for ourselves some of the external goods that make life comfortable; and even if we do secure them, we may just lose them through no apparent fault of our own, due to unfavourable external circumstances. This may seem a rather shaky and weak conception of happiness. As moral agents, we would intuitively be more comfortable with the idea that our happiness depends on us, that it is our efforts to become good that matter and that nothing external could take that away from us. This is certainly the way the Stoics see things when they claim that the external goods make no contributions to our happiness, since they are not (at least not entirely) ‘up to us’, while virtue in principle is. It is up to us to embark on the journey to virtue that will eventually make us happy – and it is not obviously clear what could take virtue away from us once our journey is complete. It is particularly Epictetus (1st/2nd century AD) who insists on external goods not being up to us, but his ideas are broadly in line with traditional Stoicism:

Some things are up to us, while others are not up to us. Up to us are conception, choice, desire, aversion and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not up to us are our body, our property, reputation, office and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing. Furthermore, the things up to us are by nature free, unhindered and unimpeded; while the things not up to us are weak, servile, subject to hindrance and not our own (Epictetus, Ench., 1.1-2).

Another, related motivation for favouring the Stoic view is that Stoic happiness appears to be inherently much more democratic than its Aristotelian counterpart. If happiness is entirely up to us and does not depend on favourable external circumstances, then literally everyone can be happy, regardless of their social, economic and life circumstances. If virtue is all that matters to happiness, and virtue cannot be impeded by external circumstances, then no one is cut off from happiness, at least in principle, as long as they have the right moral character. But this is certainly not the case with the Aristotelian view, on which external circumstances play an important role in our happiness. It seems that Aristotelian happiness is not open to everybody, but only to those who can have access to the relevant level of comfort – i.e., presumably, those with the appropriate kind of upbringing, education, social status etc. Although we might think that this is a realistic price to pay for happiness, given what human life happens to be, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that Aristotelian happiness is sufficiently exclusive and many people are inevitably cut off from it.

Other aspects of the Stoic teaching on external goods may appear intuitively less appealing. It is obvious for instance that for Aristotle there is a hierarchy of goods, with the good of the soul (mainly the virtues) occupying the top of the ranking and external goods being somehow towards the bottom (the goods of the body, such as health and health conditions in general, could arguable be seen as intermediate between the other two classes of goods). This may seem a reasonable position to take, as it gives virtue pride of place but still describes other things as intrinsically or at least significantly good. Reasonable as this position may seem, it certainly not the Stoic view. For the Stoics, since virtue is the only component of happiness, it is also the only good, while all other things, including of course the external goods, are not good, as they make no contribution to happiness. Things other than virtue are not bad, either; they are neither good nor bad, i.e. indifferent.

One obvious objection to the Stoic view is that some of the indifferents clearly seem to be better than others. The Aristotelian external goods, for instance, seem to be better than their opposites: wealth seems to be better than poverty, good reputation better than bad reputation, beauty better than ugliness etc. And so it might seem that there is little point in denying that some of the external things are in fact good. The Stoics, however, are well aware of this objection. Early on in the development of the school, they introduced a distinction between ‘preferred’ and ‘dispreferred’ indifferents and insisted that preferred indifferents do have some value for us and we are naturally inclined to pursue them (Cicero, Acad., I.36-37). Aristotle’s external goods clearly fall within the class of preferred indifferents – and so the Stoics do not deny that external goods have value and so are normally preferable to their opposites. The following testimony by Diogenes Laertius (3rd century AD) illustrates particularly well the Stoic position.

The Stoics say that some things are good, others are bad, and others are neither of these. The virtues – prudence, justice, courage, moderation and the rest are good. The opposites of these – foolishness, injustice and the rest – are bad. Everything which neither does benefit nor harm is neither of these: for instance, life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, reputation, noble birth…are not good but indifferents of the ‘preferred’ species (Diogenes Laertius, 7.101-103).

We have a natural preference for material comforts and so the Stoics do not deny that they are normally preferable to their opposites. While granting that much to the Aristotelian position, they Stoics still insist that Aristotle’s ‘external goods’ are not actually good, though they have value. But now we can start seeing that, when the Stoics say that only virtue is good, or that all other things (including material comforts) are not good, they are using ‘good’ with a stronger meaning than we are used to – a meaning that is perhaps captured by such expressions as ‘unqualifiedly good’, ‘unconditionally good’ or ‘good in all circumstances’. Thus, their view is that only virtue is unconditionally good, or good in all circumstances, while all other things, including Aristotle’s external goods, are not unqualifiedly good, or good in all circumstances, and so not good, strictly speaking.

But if this is the Stoic position – and there are reasons to think that it is – it is not hard to find arguments in its support. The Stoics argue for instance that external goods are open to misuse in a way that virtue clearly is not (Diogenes Laertius, 7.103). It is all too easy, for instance, to think of cases in which we make bad use of money, reputation, political influence or social status, while it is not obvious how we could possibly make bad use of our good character and of our virtue. Thus, although the Stoics grant that external goods have value and certainly recommend making good use of them, they still insist that it is wrong to call them unconditionally good.

Perhaps an Aristotelian might reply to this argument that, while ordinary people may make bad use of external goods, the virtuous person will always make good use of them in all circumstances. Thus, external goods are open to misuse only for people who are not wise. This reply is not entirely unfair to the Stoic doctrine: for the Stoics, one ancient source informs us, the manner of using the indifferents, and the external goods in particular, is constitutive of happiness, though it is possible for us to be happy without them (Diogenes Laertius, 7.104). So, it is certainly true for the Stoics that the virtuous person will make consistently good use of external things.

But in another respect, the Aristotelian objection is partly off the mark, the Stoics would think. For the point is not only that one could make bad use of external goods, but also, and perhaps more importantly, that there could always be a conflict between the pursuit of external goods and the preservation of our virtue. Suppose, for instance, that we are virtuous and we are prepared to make good use of the political influence we have been gaining over the years. Still, it might be the case that, at some point, the only way for us to maintain a certain level of political influence is to compromise with an inhuman dictator or tyrant – which obviously we should not do as this is incompatible with our virtuous character. It is not difficult to think of similar examples of conflict involving money-making, good reputation etc. All this shows, the Stoics would insist, that, sometimes at least, the pursuit of external goods may hinder our moral ideals rather than fostering them, as the Aristotelians seem to think. And this is enough to show that Aristotle’s external goods cannot aptly be described as unconditionally good or beneficial, and so as strictly speaking good.

Should we go for the Aristotelian or the Stoic view on the external goods? This is a question that I am happy to leave for the reader to answer. What is important is not to misconstrue either position. While Aristotle assigns a role in our happiness to external goods, he certainly takes this role to be instrumental, and still believes that happiness has mainly to do with the possession and exercise of the virtues. Conversely, while the Stoics maintain that Aristotle’s external goods are not good, strictly speaking, they do not deny that external goods have value and do not discourage us from pursuing them as long as they are compatible with the possession and exercise of the virtues. The two positions, however, remain distinct and both have costs and benefits. At the end of the day, one may find Aristotle’s realistic understanding of happiness more convincing. But the price to pay for this is a rather exclusive and undemocratic conception of happiness. On the other hand, the Stoic idea of happiness is democratic and in principle open to everybody. But one may still wonder, of course, whether it is in fact attainable.

[1] This post is the transcript of Gabriele Galluzzo’s worshop at the STOICON 2016 conference.

Gabriele Galluzzo is a Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter. His main areas of research are Aristotle’s metaphysics and its medieval reception, but he is equally interested in how ancient philosophy has come to shape contemporary thought and ideas. His books include: The Medieval Reception of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book Zeta and Universals in Ancient Philosophy. Read more about Gabriele’s work here.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

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2 thoughts on “Poor but Happy? Aristotle and the Stoics on External Goods by Gabriele Galluzzo”

  1. There can be no pure Stoicist, human beings determined to live within his lowest rank of his own natures (there are 7 dimensions of natures within each human being, if you agree) – his physical body. Body cannot be separated from dirtiness in its physical and non-physical properties. The drive for sex for example is one of non-physical dirtiness which cannot be separated as long as human being lives

    But Stoicists can step by step minimize the power of his dirtiness, darkness toward enlightments of his soul, and live in more higher dimension of his nature, the more enlightments he succeeds the more higher nature he lives within, and the ultimate nature of human beings is “The One”

  2. I would make the case that a certain amount of “external goods” are necessary for happiness, but it’s much more limited than the position of Aristotle stated in this article. It seems to me that in order to be able to achieve the “virtues”, it is necessary to have a brain that functions properly and that requires some amount of external goods. You have to be able to obtain proper nutrition, and you need to have a reasonably healthy environment in which to develop. I think of a child growing up in war torn Syria that is half starved, living in extreme stress and fear, and probably exposed to harmful chemicals all during the time in it’s life in which the brain should be going through the most development. Depending on how extreme those circumstances are, it may be impossible for them to achieve happiness, even in the future because of poor brain development, due to circumstances beyond their control.