Marcus Aurelius and Stoic virtue
by Christopher Gill
Editor’s Note: This is a workshop that Chris Gill ran at Stoicon 2015. The Stoicism Today team is endeavouring to have as much material as possible from Stoicon as possible posted on here, and this is the first piece.
Aim of workshop: Explain Stoic idea of virtue and virtue-happiness relationship, illustrate it by reference to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations; consider how Stoic idea relates to modern thinking about morality and how it may be of value to us today.
I begin by explaining what ‘virtue’ means in Stoicism and then by outlining four distinctive features of Stoic thinking about virtue, taken in the context of ancient thinking on virtue. The first distinctive feature is the idea that the virtues form a matched set of qualities (unified or interdependent) central to leading a full human life.
What is ‘virtue’ in Stoicism? Virtue is a form or expertise or skill, knowledge how to live well in every way, a form of knowledge that shapes the whole personality and life. Virtue is analysed in terms of four generic or cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, self-control or moderation, and justice, seen as either four aspects of a single form of knowledge or as interdependent. Why these four qualities? They are seen as ways of mapping the main areas of human experience and expertise – so taken together they make up the qualities essential to leading a full human life. The four are: (wisdom) understanding how to act and feel correctly; (courage) knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful (above all, death and other ‘disasters’); (self-control) knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, lust; (justice) knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level, knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection. These generic virtues include many subdivisions. They are aspects of a single expertise or interdependent because the correct exercise of any one virtue depends on possessing and exercising the others too. Each of the virtues bears on our relations to ourselves and to others; although some virtues (e.g. justice) are more obviously self-related than others, their exercise affects what we are in ourselves and how we treat others. This is a fundamental characteristic of Stoic (and indeed most ancient) thinking on virtue, and is particularly important in thinking about the relationship with modern moral thinking, as brought out later.
Describing virtue as a form of ‘knowledge’ may make it sound purely rational or cognitive in a narrow sense. But it is crucial for Stoicism that these forms of knowledge shape the personality as a whole, including emotions and desires. This reflects Stoic thinking about human psychology according to which we function as unified holistic agents; our beliefs and reasoning shape directly how we feel and desire. This is the second distinctive feature of Stoic thinking about virtue that I want to stress here. Stoicism holds that the development of virtue brings with it a radical change in our emotional life, so that we cease to feel what they regard as misguided or ‘bad’ emotions (‘passions’) and come to feel only the ‘good’ emotions. Misguided emotions, such as anger, fear, craving or appetite, are based on what they regard as false ethical judgements, and bring with them intense and disturbing psychophysical effects. Good emotions are based on sound ethical judgements (on the virtues), and are typically calmer as psychophysical experiences. Examples of these emotions are wishing (rather than intense craving), caution (rather than fear) and joy; also, towards other people, good will and affection. So the virtues, as forms of knowledge, carry with them a reshaping of the whole personality at the emotional level too.
The third distinctive feature of Stoic thinking on virtue is the belief that all human beings as such are capable of developing virtue. Developing virtue does not depend on possessing special inborn capacities or a specific social background or intellectual education (as most other ancient philosophies supposed). All human beings as such have ‘the starting-points of virtue’. What supports this claim? Partly, the Stoics think that all human beings have the in-built capacity to form ethical notions such as good and to give these notions content and to do so whatever social context they find themselves in. But also, and most importantly, Stoics stress the key role of development in ethical understanding. No one comes to acquire the virtues just like that; it is the outcome of a process of development – in most cases a life-long process of development, and one that may never be wholly complete. Development is conceived by them as having two interconnected strands: progress in understanding (in coming to understand what it means to have the virtues and how to exercise them) and progress in interpersonal and social relationships (leading us, among other things, to recognise all human beings as our brothers and sisters as fellow ethical agents. So what we all have as human beings is the capacity to set out and make progress on this life-long journey – which is also a journey towards virtue.
The fourth distinctive feature of Stoic thinking about virtue is the idea that having and exercising the virtues constitutes, by itself, the best form of human life; in other words, it confers ‘happiness’ or eudaimonia. Happiness is conceived by them in objective terms (as a certain kind of life – the natural life for human beings to lead). However it is also seen as conferring certain positive subjective experiences (which is how we tend to conceive ‘happiness’ today); these include the ‘good emotions’ such as joy mentioned earlier. The Stoic view is sometimes put in the form that ‘virtue is the only good’ or (in philosophical language), that virtue is necessary and sufficient for happiness, i.e. all you need to be happy. The main contrasting view (held by some followers of Plato and Aristotle in the period when Stoicism was widely current, i.e. 3rd cent BC to 2nd cent AD) was that happiness depended on a combination of virtue and ‘external goods’ – these taken to include such things as bodily health, material prosperity and the wellbeing of one’s family. The Stoics also regarded ‘external goods’ as having a value which human beings naturally recognised. But they maintained that virtue had a substantively different kind or level of value; and that it was, by itself, sufficient to confer complete human happiness.
The Stoic view on this topic has often been seen as extreme or unrealistic: is it not obviously true that a life containing virtue and ‘external goods’ is better – happier in every sense – than a life containing virtue alone? What can support the Stoic view? A key support for their view is the belief that virtue (alone) provides a reliable and consistent basis for leading the best human life (that is, for happiness), whereas none of the external goods, taken on their own, do so. So virtue, alone, is tied to happiness in a causal way whereas this is not true of any of the external goods. In that sense, virtue has a value of a different kind from the external goods; and that is why the Stoics reject the idea that virtue plus the external goods confers a better human life (a more happy life) than virtue. We need to recall other distinctive features of Stoic thinking about virtue: that it is a form of knowledge or expertise, that this form of expertise shapes the whole personality (conferring the good emotions). We also need to be aware that virtue or the virtues represent the target or limit of human aspiration, not a standardly available quality. The idea that ‘the wise person’ (the ideal person in Stoicism) is happy on the rack of torture thus constitutes an ideal aspiration not an everyday occurrence. (However, I think some striking modern examples as well as ancient ones indicate it is not so far from normal human experience as is sometimes suggested.) So, overall, I think the Stoic view that virtue is the only (reliable and consistent) basis for happiness is a highly defensible one and that it is in fact much more difficult to maintain the opposing (Platonic-Aristotelian) claim than is often recognised.
I now look at some sections of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, a private philosophical diary prepared for his own use by a second-century Roman emperor who was also a committed student of Stoicism. The passages chosen are designed both to illustrate the themes I’ve discussed; also to show how Stoic ideas were used in antiquity to provide an ethical framework for life, and so indicate how they can also be used by us today.
If you find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self-control, courage … turn to it with all your heart and enjoy the supreme good that you have found … but if you find all other things to be trivial and valueless in comparison with virtue give no room to anything else, since once you turn towards that and divert from your proper path, you will no longer be able without inner conflict to give the highest honour to that which is properly good. It is not right to set up as a rival to the rational and social good [virtue] anything alien its nature, such as the praise of the many or positions of power, wealth or enjoyment of pleasures. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 3.6, trans. Gill)
Nothing is so effective in creating greatness of mind as being able to examine methodically and truthfully everything that presents itself in life, and always viewing things in such a way as to consider what kind of function this particular thing contributes to what kind of universe and what value it has for the whole universe and for the human beings who are citizens of the highest city, of which other cities are, as it were, mere households; (3) and what this object is that presently makes an impression on me, and what it is composed of and how long in the nature of things it will persist, and what virtue is needed to respond to it, such as gentleness, courage, truthfulness, good faith, simplicity, self-sufficiency, and so on. (3.11, trans. Gill)
At every hour, give your full concentration, as a Roman and a man, to carrying out the task in hand with a scrupulous and unaffected dignity and affectionate concern for others and freedom and justice, and give yourself space from all other concerns. (2) You will give yourself this if you carry out each act as if it were the last of your life, freed from all randomness and passionate deviation from the rule of reason and from pretence and self-love and dissatisfaction with what has been allotted to you. (3) You see how few things you need to master to be able to live a smoothly flowing and god-fearing life; the gods will ask no more from someone who maintains these principles. (2.5, trans. Gill)
The first passage conveys very clearly the idea that the virtues (justice, truthfulness and so on) are the only real good, the only proper object of human aspiration; also that, in comparison with virtue, the ‘external goods’ (such as praise of the many, positions of power, wealth and so on) are – relatively – trivial and valueless. The second passage (3.11) shows how this idea (that virtue is on the only good) can form the basis of a strategy for decision-making in specific situations. In any given context, Marcus advises himself to reflect on his situation and consider what virtue is needed to respond effectively to this situation, ‘such as gentleness, courage, truthfulness and so on’. The earlier part of the passage refers to the Stoic idea that the goal of ethical development, on the social side, consists, in part, in coming to view all human beings as fellow-citizens in the universe or fellow-members of the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity. So this is another way of saying that practising the social dimension of ethical development, of forming the virtues, as this is possible in each situation, should form part of the framework that should shape our decision-making in each situation. The third passage indicates in another way the significance of the link between virtue and happiness. Marcus urges himself to carry out his specific role in life (as a Roman and a man – and an emperor as he reminds himself elsewhere) in a way that uses this role as a way of expressing the virtues, including their other-related dimension (‘affectionate concern for others and freedom and justice’). To act in this way is to give a single-minded focus to virtuous action (‘to carry out each act as if it were the last of your life … freed from randomness’ and so on. To act in this way is also to achieve happiness, in the sense of leading the best kind of human life (‘the gods will ask no more from someone who maintains these principles – Marcus uses the conventional language of Greco-Roman religion but he has in mind leading the best possible human life – the life according to nature, as Stoics describe it. At the same, this also produces a ‘smoothly flowing life’ (which echoes one of the Stoic definitions of happiness’.
Here are three more short passages which illustrate the virtue-happiness relationship in a different way. These are a few of the many passages in which Marcus encourages himself to anticipate his own death with an attitude of calmness, confidence and acceptance. What justifies this response is partly that death is a natural organic process, and one that should be accepted as such (like birth). But also Marcus can face death in this way because he has at least tried to use his life as a way of expressing the virtues; and the knowledge of oncoming death should not prevent him doing so until he dies – nor should he be frustrated that death will interrupt this process.
… accepting what happens and what is allocated to one as coming from the source from which one came oneself: and above all, waiting for death with a confident mind, since it is nothing but the dissolution of the elements of which every living creature is composed. (2.17.4, trans. Gill)
.. strive to live the life that is your own, that is, your present life, and then you will be able to pass at least the time that is left to you in calm and kindness, and as one who is at peace with the guardian-spirit that dwells within him. (12.3.4, trans. Hard, slightly modified).
“ ‘But my life is not worth living if this action is left undone’. – ‘Then depart with generous feelings in your heart, dying in the same spirit as one who achieves his purpose, and reconciled to what has stood in his way’”. (8.47.5, trans. Hard)
These passages also illustrate that ethical development, seeking to practice the virtues, carries with it a change in emotional register – in this instance, from the misguided emotion of fear or death to the good emotion of acceptance or even a kind of joy at the prospect of death, treated as a natural end to one’s life. So virtue, on this view, yields happiness in a subjective sense, in terms of the feelings and emotions generated, as well as in constituting what is objectively the best human life.
Stoicism was helpful to Marcus, clearly; but how can it help us? Well in principle, in exactly the same way as it was helpful to Marcus, in providing an ethical framework for living our lives and in setting out goals for aspiration that can help to shape our lives as a whole. That is partly why in the on-line ‘Stoic Week’ course this year we have made extensive use of Marcus’ Meditations as a source of passages and as a model of how to use Stoic ideas for life-guidance. It will be interesting to see from the feedback how effective people feel this framework has been for them.
I want to end my presentation by trying to respond to one of the potential problems that modern audiences may have with this kind of material. Although in modern life – and in some academic moral philosophy – we also use the virtue-happiness framework that is standard in ancient ethics, we also have other kinds of moral frameworks that are in some ways more prevalent and familiar.
In modern moral thinking we tend to operate with a contrast between selfish or egoistic and other-benefiting or altruistic motivation. Other-benefiting motivation tends to be defined in terms of doing your duty or performing right actions, or, alternatively, in terms of benefiting other people (sometimes of maximal benefit, ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’). The challenge in modern moral thinking is usually seen as being to counteract selfishness or egoism and to promote altruism or the desire to benefit others. Stoic ideas about virtue (more generally, ancient Greek and Roman ideas) cut across the egoism-altruism distinction; the virtues relate to what we are in ourselves and in relation to others alike. The challenge in Stoicism is rather that of achieving expertise: developing and exercising consistently the kinds of knowledge that make up the virtues. Put differently, the challenge is to form correctly an understanding of what the virtues constitute and trying to live up to that understanding.
How do these two frameworks relate and what advantages does the ancient (or virtue-happiness) framework have for us moderns? First, we need to realise that the ancient (or specifically Stoic) framework does not simply ignore the kind of considerations given more prominence in modern moral thinking. Stoicism also recognises the importance of performing right actions or in doing your duty in a given situation. Stoicism also recognises – indeed gives a special importance to the other-benefiting dimension of ethical life (this is one side of ethical development as they conceive it). Their ideal of treating all human beings as our fellow-citizens or brothers and sisters in humanity stands up well in comparison with modern ideals of benefiting others (in principle as many others as possible), and going beyond the circle of those immediately linked with our lives. However, Stoicism does not present these ideals in terms familiar to us in modern moral terminology, but in terms of virtue, the virtue-happiness relationship and progress towards virtue and happiness.
Does their way of presenting ethics have positive advantages for us – as well as translating ideas we already think are important into other terms? There are several advantages, I think. The virtue-happiness framework makes the question of motivation central to ethics. There is little point in urging people to perform right actions or maximise benefit to others unless they also feel motivated to act according to these principles. The Stoic framework brings out how acting in this way can form part at least of the kind of life that constitutes happiness. The Stoic framework also stresses, more than most modern approaches, the central role of ethical development, and the idea that development is a life-long process not just part of growing up towards adulthood. Also, whereas modern moral thinking tends to focus solely on the other-benefiting dimension of human action, Stoic (and other ancient) frameworks see virtues as covering both self-related and other-related sides of human experience. Put differently, the Stoic framework seeks to ground ethical life in what we are, fundamentally, and not just in what we do in relation to others (though that is seen as a very important dimension of human life). Finally, Stoic (and other ancient) forms of ethics stress the idea that acting well depends on knowledge or expertise, on developing a profound ethical understanding (and one that affects our personality as a whole); and this too is a dimension of ethical life whose importance is not always recognised in modern accounts. So, overall, I think there are a series of ways in which ancient and especially Stoic ethics can be seen as making a positive contribution to modern thinking about ethics as well as providing an alternative framework for life-guidance.
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.