Rather than give you an account of what took place in Toronto – though we will both offer our reflections on it at the end of this article- we thought it would be more true to the spirit of the Toronto Stoic Values Clarification workshop to make this more interactive. You can, however, hear the original workshop at http://tinyurl.com/TorontoValuesClarification
“What’s most important for you in life?”
That’s quite a big question, so it might help to spend a few moments on each of these Values Clarification Exercises.
1. Consider different areas of life such as family, career, recreation, spirituality and relationships.
What are the most important areas for you, and what is important in these areas?
For example, someone might answer: family- “being a good parent” and career – “being successful”
2. What would you like said at your 80th party about how you have lived?
3. If you had 6 months to live, how would you want to spend that time? What would you do more of? What would you stop doing?
Now reflect further on your answers and see if you are in a good position to answer the big question, in one sentence if you can:
The most important things in life for me are:
We wonder what sort of answer you have given? Have you talked about feeling happy, being successful, and having good relationships – fairly conventional answers. Or have you decided that it is important to develop wisdom, self-control, justice and courage – more Stoic answers?
Either way, we’d like you to consider this dialogue between a Stoic sage (played by Chris in our workshop) and “everyman”, played by Tim. As you read it, think about how much you are persuaded by Chris’s arguments, and what further questions you would want to ask.
Chris (the Stoic): So, Tim, what do you think are the most important factors in leading a good life?
Tim: (representing someone with a conventional view of the good life): Well, for me, I would say being happy and not getting too stressed out.
Chris: The Stoics would agree with you about this – happiness is for them too the good life and if we become happy we will also be less stressed or emotionally disturbed. But – more surprisingly perhaps – they think that happiness depends entirely on being virtuous. It does not depend on having other things normally seen as good, such as health, or wealth, or even the wellbeing of those we love. Stoics regard those things as having real value; they are things it is natural for us to want to have. But having them does not make you happy (in their sense) nor will it by itself bring peace of mind. For this reason they call these things ‘preferable indifferents’. They are genuinely preferable to have but they make no difference as far as happiness is concerned.
Tim: Hmm, I’ll have to think about that. … OK so let me give you an example of a recent occasion of what I mean by happiness. I was having a nice meal with old friends, we ate well, had a glass or two of wine and talked philosophy. I would have expected you philosophers to approve – but are you saying that evenings like that are just “preferable indifferents”? I’m not convinced.
Chris: Actually there is nothing ‘just’ about ‘preferable indifferents’ – they have real value and they can be part of a happy life. But the Stoics’ point is that being happy does not depend on experiences like this. You might be happy and not have this kind of experience and you might have this kind of experience and not be happy overall. Whereas happiness does depend on having and using the virtues – and without the virtues you will not be happy. This is because they see virtue as a skill or expertise in living or a knowledge of how to live properly. If you have this expertise, you will make proper use of all such experiences and of all ‘indifferents’ (preferable or not) but if you don’t have it you will not be able to use any of them properly. You will ‘foul up’ and make a mess of your life – including what seem to be the nice bits, like your evening with the friends.
Tim: OK, that’s interesting. So you are saying that evenings like that are indeed part of the good life but that I will not reliably have evenings like this unless I have the right skills – the virtues as Stoics would say. Is that right?
Chris: That’s right. Without the right skills (the virtues) you will mess up your nice evenings – also you will not be able to deal with difficult and demanding days at work. The Stoics see virtue as the knowledge of how to use all things and all situations well. That’s why the Stoics think virtue is the only thing that is really good, and why other things often regarded as good (like your nice evening) are preferred indifferents.
Tim:– OK can you spell that out a bit more? I’m not sure I had to be that virtuous to enjoy that night – other than making sure I didn’t drink too much or say the wrong thing …
Chris: But actually saying the right things and not drinking too much are ways of expressing the virtues. They express two of the four generic or cardinal virtues – namely moderation or self-control which covers knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing desire and justice, which covers dealing with other people properly. The other two cardinal virtues are wisdom, forming correct judgements, and courage, facing danger in the right spirit. The Stoics see these virtues as a matched set, covering the four main areas of human experience (there are many subdivisions of these virtues). They also see them as interdependent so that you cannot have one virtue without having them all. So on that evening if you lived well you expressed moderation and justice, but also good judgement and maybe courage as well (in the background). By the way, the Stoics have lots of images of the ideal ‘wise person’, and these include images of him or her at a symposium – doing just the sort of things you did – but doing them well not badly.
Tim: So according to the Stoics someone who has these four cardinal virtues will also have more of these “preferable indifferents” like health, wealth and friends than someone who doesn’t?
Chris6: Well no, or not necessarily. The expertise is not skill in getting as many of the preferable indifferents as possible and getting them for yourself- even though these preferable indifferents have real value, which the virtuous person needs to recognise. The skill of virtue lies in correct selection between indifferents – which may mean choosing to have fewer preferred indifferents or giving more to other people than yourself. In fact, the Stoics think that the virtuous person is someone who can be happy without any specific type of indifferent – or indeed any indifferents – if circumstances require. So we have the powerful image of ‘the wise person happy on the rack of torture’ (being happy while being tortured) – as well as the image of the wise person being an adroit and agreeable participant in a symposium which I mentioned earlier. The point is that happiness does not depend on having the preferred indifferents but on the right use of them or right selection of them by the exercise of virtue.
Tim: So what would you say about the existence of people we could all think of who seem to be happy in a conventional sense – they have wealth, lots of pleasure – but don’t seem to exercise much virtue?
Chris: But if their happiness depends on those things (wealth, pleasure) it is unreliable – what if they lose them and have no personal strength (no virtues, in other words) to deal with this loss? Whereas developing the virtues is under our control and so Stoic happiness is not fragile.
Tim: OK, I can agree that without the virtues happiness is more fragile. But what about the opposite? People who do exercise virtue well but suffer great misfortune? Why should I want to be virtuous and on the rack rather than having a nice evening out with my friend?
Chris: Nobody chooses to be on the rack of torture (though you might choose to act with integrity rather than cowardice and so end up on the rack). People don’t usually choose to be refugees or starving or politically oppressed – but most of the population of the world find themselves in this situation and even those of us in affluent, democratic, countries experience bereavement, illness, and other forms of loss. The hard question is: can we achieve happiness under these circumstances and what does it depend on? And the Stoic answer is it depends (solely) on whether you do or do not have virtue.
Tim: OK, so in what sense is a Stoic happy when they are rack? Presumably they are not feeling tingles of pleasure instead of pain?
Chris: No, of course they feel pain like everyone else. The difference is they do not regard the pain as being bad (of course they would rather not have the pain, it is a ‘dispreferred indifferent’) – whereas they regard the cowardice that would have enabled them to escape the torture as genuinely bad.
For the Stoics what count as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things depends on their ideal of what makes a life worthwhile as a whole, what they would regard as a properly human or ‘natural’ life, and this determines their attitude and response on any one occasion. So the wise person on the rack can set the pain aside because she is aware of acting according to her best principles, her beliefs about what makes a life worthwhile. If she can live up to her ideals, this will bring her happiness, not just looking for localised good times here and there.
Tim: So living virtuously often goes hand in hand with what we conventionally count as happiness, and even if it doesn’t the Stoic will be happy in a sense because they are leading a good life?
Chris: Yes – exactly – one of the Stoic definitions of happiness is ‘a life according to virtue’. This doesn’t mean that Stoics try to be virtuously only instrumentally, to try to gain happiness. They aim to be virtuous for its own sake; and leading a life according to virtue is also a happy one – the two ideas are inseparable.
Also, the Stoics do not think that virtue is something forced on people by social pressure or conditioning. The virtues are the fullest expression of our nature as human beings. So they also call happiness ‘the life according to nature’ (meaning, partly at least, human nature). They also think that living a virtuous life brings with it enjoyment – real enjoyment or what the Stoics call ‘good emotions’ including joy. So in this respect the Stoic view of happiness is not so far from the modern one though it is different in other ways. However, Stoics do not aim to be virtuous just for the sake of getting these ‘good emotions’ or achieving peace of mind; these things are consequences of being virtuous, and follow when virtue is chosen for its own sake.
Tim: Can I just check that I understand this? Suppose my friend upsets me. A few days later they need my help. The Stoic would say I should help the friend, not because on balance it will bring me more pleasure in the future, but because that’s what friendship requires, and that’s the sort of person I would want to be?
Chris: “Yes Tim, I think you’ve got it! To go back to your original definition of the good life, yes of course enjoy a night out with friends, but the Stoic would say there’s more to being a good human being than that! Actually there’s a lot more I could add about Stoic values – such as wisdom meaning trying to change only those things under your control and a cosmopolitanism belief in a brother and sisterhood of man. But I do think we’ve made a start today Tim in helping you think about values in a more Stoic way. What do you think?
Tim: You’ve certainly given me a lot food for thought. According to you, I might need to make a paradigm shift from aiming for happiness in the conventional sense to aiming to be virtuous. In doing so I am actually quite likely to be happy in the conventional sense, but that’s not the point. The point is I will be living as a human being should. So maybe I ought to devote more energy earning about Stoicism and how to develop the virtues and less on how to enjoy myself. But what does everyone else think?
Are you convinced by Chris’s arguments? Do you think there are any difficult questions Tim could have asked that he didn’t? What comments or questions have you got about this dialogue? Please use the comments section below to ask us whatever you like relating to the dialogue.
It might help for you to reread the dialogue and then to have a look at this Outline of the Dialogue which summarises the main arguments.
Tim: Tim states a conventional view of the good life -“being happy and not getting too stressed out”
Chris: Chris introduces the Stoic view that although the conventional goods are of value they are not really good, they are ‘preferred indifferents’. Virtue is of a different magnitude of value and “trumps” conventional goods.
Chris : The Stoic view on happiness and virtue is elaborated. Virtues are skills in living properly. Virtues are necessary and sufficient for happiness.
Tim – Chris – Tim: Further discussion of the idea that the virtue consists in skill in living and in the right use of our experiences and that this is what our happiness depends on. Tim wonders whether virtues are really relevant to his example of an evening out with friends
Chris introduces the 4 “cardinal virtues” each with their own domain – wisdom (making judgements), courage (danger), self-control (desire) and justice (other people). Stoics believe the virtues are interdependent – you need all of them to act properly in line with any of them.
Chris corrects a possible misunderstanding. The role of virtue is not to get as much of the conventional goods (indifferents) as possible. The virtues are good for their own sake
Tim introduces a possible problem for the Stoic – a happy but unvirtuous person. Chris counters that the happiness of such a person is fragile.
Tim suggests another potential problem. You can be virtuous but suffer great misfortune. Chris replies that although a Stoic would prefer not to be tortured, there are more important things for them than how they feel – namely living up to their ideals & being virtuous.
Tim , who seems to understand the Stoic view better now, gives an example that seems to support the Stoic view, namely how we generally regard friendship.
Chris is happy that the Stoic position is now better understood and points out that there is of course more to Stoicism than these ideas, though these are a useful start.
Tim though not committing himself fully to the Stoic view agrees he has been given a lot of food for thought. He understands that Stoicism requires a big shift in the way we think about happiness and the good life, and if he is to follow Stoicism he still has a lot to learn.
Before going on to the next section, it’s important to spend a few moments reflecting on how much you agree with the Stoic arguments.
Now it’s time to reconsider your original answer to the question, “what’s important in your life?”
Think about how each of the Stoic virtues could be important for you, bearing in mind the answer you gave about what is important in life.
Do this for each in turn for each virtue:
Wisdom (right judgement) – (for example: if your original answer was “being a good parent”, wisdom is important because without right judgement, I am unlikely to be a good parent)
Courage (facing danger)
Justice (dealing well with other people)
Self-Control (dealing well with desires)
Reflecting on the argument in the dialogue, how much you think living accordingly to the virtues is important for its own sake, not just instrumentally to help you get conventional goods? Do you agree that being wise, self-controlled, courageous and just is more important than feeling good and being successful?
Having considered Stoicism, I now believe that the most important things in life for me are:
How much have you been influenced by the Values Clarification exercises and the Dialogue? What can you do to live your life closer to your vision of what is important in life?
We hope that this proves to be a fruitful exercise. We also invite you to use the comments section below to give us your feedback on the whole exercise.
Here are our reflections on the workshop in Toronto: We were both very happy with the way the workshop went, especially the very lively Q & A after we re-enacted the dialogue.
The questions asked included:
- Did Seneca show virtue in killing himself?
- Are love and compassion included in virtue? Are the Stoic virtues the same as modern ‘moral qualities’ or different?
- Why should I be virtuous rather than not virtuous?
- Can people be harmed as a result of having virtues?
- How should we define the virtues?
- Is virtue compatible with the pragmatic demands of practical and professional life?
- How are the virtues interconnected? Are they really interdependent, as the Stoics think?
- Suppose virtue is not really the same as happiness, will we be better people if we believe (falsely) this is the case?
- What is the connection between being a virtuous person and having emotions?
- Would this approach work if you were working with less willing pupils than “Tim” (including children)?
We tried to answer some of these questions in the dialogue, especially as regards what we think the virtues are and the close linkage between virtue and happiness. Again, you might like to provide your own answers to these questions in the comments section below.
We wonder if this format might be developed and used in future Stoicons and even perhaps on-line. The best questions – and their answers – could be woven into a longer dialogue, which could be a useful resource for those who wish to learn more about Stoicism.
Perhaps in any future sessions we could ask people to provide written feedback to help us assess how useful they found the session, and whether their ideas had been changed at all. Ultimately, however, the point of the exercise was not to convert people to Stoicism, but rather to help them reflect on whether Stoic ideas can fit with their worldview.
Time did not allow us to tackle the final stage of the Values Clarification exercise, namely making plans to put the values in action. This question did come up in conversation with participants afterwards, and of course the answer, if the values are Stoic, is to read Stoic writings, to download the Stoic Week Handbook and do the exercises. (Tim adds): As a positive psychologist I also take a great interest in current empirical work taking place on how to develop the virtues. I believe a synthesis of Stoic philosophy and empirical psychology could be very helpful.
An audio recording of the original Toronto Values Clarification Workshop can be found at http://tinyurl.com/TorontoValuesClarification
Please help us to continue the dialogue in the comments section below.
Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism.