How to Develop Virtue in a Stoic Way by Chris Gill and Tim LeBon

Tim: Hi Chris, I’d really value the opportunity to pick your brains about the Stoic line on virtue, and particularly on the question how to develop virtue if I want to do so in a Stoic way.

Before we do that it is important to set the scene by saying a bit about two other approaches. I’ll start with what I will call the Positive Psychology view of virtue.  Positive Psychology is a branch of contemporary psychology begun in 1998 by Martin Seligman and it devotes a lot of attention to virtues and their development. Seligman, Peterson, and colleagues undertook multi-disciplinary research on character strengths, resulting in the VIA Character Strengths Classification.

The VIA identifies 6 virtues and 24 character strengths. Each virtue is said to comprise of a number of more specific strengths, for example the virtue of wisdom consists of the strengths of curiosity, perspective, love of learning and creativity and judgement.  In order to flourish, people are encouraged to identify their top strengths and use them in new ways. For example, someone with a love of learning might watch a Ted Talk every day and approach every problem by thinking ‘how can my love of learning help me here?’. 

Positive Psychology also encourages people to develop the virtues in general (as well as their top strengths) and psychologists have researched how to do this. A notable example is Walter Mischel’s The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, a book which gives a psychological framework for understanding self-control and provides some evidence-based ways to develop it. Whilst some psychologists, such as Barry Schwartz and Ken Sharpe, argue for the interdependence of the virtues and the importance of wisdom, it would be fair to say that this is not a majority view in positive psychology.

A second well-known view of the virtues is that of Aristotle and his followers.  Unlike most contemporary psychologists, Aristotle argued for the unity of the virtues, meaning that if you truly have one virtue you have them all. Aristotle divided virtues into the ethical virtues, that is, virtues of ‘character’ (ēthos), including the well-known virtues of courage, temperance and justice and other virtues such as magnanimity (having the right attitude about honour), and intellectual virtues, broadly divided into theoretical wisdom (sophia) and practical wisdom (phronēsis).

Aristotle famously argued for a theory of the mean regarding the ethical virtues, the mean being determined by phronēsis. For example, the courageous act is not necessarily half-way between the rash and the cowardly act; it is what the person of practical wisdom sees as the appropriate act in the specific situation. According to Aristotle, virtue is developed by habituation. You become courageous, for example, by performing courageous acts. He did not however, specify in much detail exactly how you could develop the virtues, devoting more attention to their classification.

In short Positive Psychologists see the virtues as separate and independent and focus on developing them through evidenced-based methods and do not place more importance on wisdom than the other virtues.  Aristotle saw the virtues as closely interconnected, being united by practical wisdom (phronēsis), which is thus for Aristotle a very important quality to develop.  To my mind, at least, Aristotle provides frustratingly little detail about how to develop phronēsis and the other virtues. Where would the Stoics stand here compared to positive psychologists and Aristotle?

Chris: The Stoics are much closer to Aristotle than Positive Psychology in their overall theory of virtue. They stress the unity or interdependence of the virtues more than Aristotle does. Some Stoics see all the virtues as subdivisions of wisdom, others see the virtues as interdependent (you cannot have one without having the others), so wisdom is necessary on either view. But the Stoics do not subdivide virtues into ethical ones (virtues of character) and virtues of intellect. The virtues involve the personality as a whole, including both rational and emotional dimensions. All the virtues are seen as forms of knowledge or expertise (skill in living life well), but they also shape our emotions and desires.

The Stoics also stress much more than Aristotle the idea that virtues fall into four main groups, that is, the four cardinal virtues (wisdom – both practical and theoretical – courage, justice and temperance or moderation). These virtues map the four main areas of human experience: gaining knowledge and reasoning well, facing dangers and difficulties, relating to other people, and dealing with emotions and desires. These four cardinal virtues have many subdivisions; these subdivisions are rather like the ‘strengths’ of the Positive Psychologists, except that they are also virtues and not different in kind from them. Here’s a rough outline of the Stoic theory of virtue – see what you think about that and then we can go on to discuss Stoic views on how we develop these virtues.

Tim:  I think I’m clear about the difference between the Stoic and contemporary Positive Psychology positions, less so on that between Aristotle and the Stoics. An example may help here. Suppose I am in a meeting and have a view that may be unpopular but is also important to consider. It would be cowardly to say nothing but perhaps rash to rudely and bluntly tell everyone they are wrong. I would need practical wisdom to determine the timing and  wording  of my intervention. So the courageous person doesn’t just overcome fear, he or she does so in a wise (and morally good) way.  How if at all would the Stoic view differ?

Chris: The differences between the Aristotelian and Stoic views of virtue are not substantial in a case like this (though there are differences). For both approaches, acting virtuously involves wisdom in some sense: for the Stoics wisdom is seen as built into all the virtues, whereas for Aristotle practical wisdom is a separate skill (though it is needed for the exercise of character virtue). So for both thinkers virtue involves a kind of expertise that we need to learn. Aristotle sees a virtuous act as ‘hitting the mean’ between two extremes (in your example, between cowardice and rashness) whereas the Stoics do not think in these terms. For them, virtue is just ‘getting it right’, and vice ‘getting it wrong’.

The main difference is that the Aristotelian courageous person – in this case or more extreme ones – has to overcome a fear she feels. The Stoic virtuous person does not have the ‘passion’ (bad emotion) of fear, because she does not regard danger or death as, in themselves, ‘bad’ things. This is the whole point of the distinction the Stoics draw between virtue and indifferents, which is also linked with their understanding of emotions. But as you will recall from our dialogue about indifferents, the Stoics do draw a distinction between ‘preferable’ and ‘dispreferable’ indifferents. So they too would regard a dangerous situation as one which we find naturally ‘dispreferable’ – they do not risk their lives thoughtlessly. But in a situation where the wise person is sure she needs to take the risk, she will do so without fear.

Coming back to your example, the Stoic and Aristotelian virtuous person would act in the same way, but would think about the situation rather differently. And if the Stoic person felt it was right to tell people they are wrong, she would not need to overcome fear to do so.

Tim: So in the example of courage we are discussing, the Aristotelian ‘feels the fear and does it anyway’ whereas the Stoic does not feel fear. I wonder if this difference applies to temperance, justice and wisdom as well? With temperance, Aristotle is in line with the Stoics in saying that the truly virtuous person will not have to overcome temptation. However Aristotle has another category, the self-controlled person, who is not fully virtuous but is better than the vicious person. To take the case of someone who has decided on moral grounds to become a vegetarian. An Aristotelian fully virtuous temperate person would not even feel tempted to eat meat, whereas the self-controlled person might well feel urges to have a tasty burger but would overcome these urges.  What would the Stoics say about these two cases?

Chris: The Stoics would agree with Aristotle about temperance: the Stoic temperate person (like the Aristotelian) simply does not want to eat meat if she is convinced this is wrong. But there are some related differences. The Stoics see all the virtues as similar to temperance in this respect, even courage. The Stoic virtuous person does not experience any of the feelings (‘passions’, such as fear) that run counter to her principles. Also, according to the Stoics, Aristotle’s self-controlled person is not virtuous at a lower level, as she is for Aristotle, but lacking in virtue. However, she may be regarded as wanting to make ‘progress’ towards virtue (having virtue as her aim); this idea of progress is a very important one for the Stoics and for virtually all of us, ethical life operates at this level.

Tim:  OK, how about justice?  You said earlier that for the Stoic this is about relating well to other people? Would there be differences in the Aristotelian and Stoic view on justice?

Chris: I think for both theories, justice (as a virtue of people) centres on giving people their due, and that, for both theories, the just person is someone who wants to do that (not someone who makes himself act justly against his inclinations). However, justice, in Stoicism is one of the four generic or cardinal virtues and it includes (as a subdivision) the virtue of generosity that Aristotle sees as an independent virtue, as well as other qualities concerning human relationships.

Tim: Finally let’s come back to wisdom. We’ve already talked about how the Stoics see wisdom as shaping our emotions and desires rather than just being an intellectual quality. Is this the main difference between the Stoics and Aristotle regarding wisdom?

Chris: It’s a bit more complicated than that. Different Stoics have slightly different views on wisdom: some thinkers see all virtues as subdivisions of wisdom (so on this view, ‘wisdom’ is equivalent to ‘virtue’); others regard all four cardinal virtues as interdependent, but still see wisdom as the leading virtue. However, for virtually all Stoic thinkers, wisdom is both practical and theoretical (not divided into two as in Aristotle). So the wise person, the Stoic ideal figure, does everything well, whether it’s going to a party, ruling a state, or working out a logical argument. Wisdom consists in knowing how to live well, in every possible human situation. If you are wise you will also have the other virtues, including courage and temperance, and so you will have feelings and desires in line with correct principles. So wisdom is a unitary kind of virtue – not subdivided between ‘character’ virtue and ‘intellectual’, or between ‘practical’ and ‘theoretical’, as in Aristotle. Of course, again, wisdom is an ideal; we are all working towards wisdom, aiming to make progress towards reaching it.

Tim: Thank you Chris. So the Stoic sees virtue as combining ideal thinking, feeling and behaviour. Seneca said that a fully virtuous person (the Stoic sage) ‘springs into existence, like the phoenix, only once in five hundred years.’ (Letter 42.1). So it’s reassuring to hear you say that the Stoics place value on making progress towards virtue. Assuming that someone reading this article is fully on board with Stoic ideas but recognises they are not yet fully virtuous, how do they go about making progress towards virtue?

Chris: Well, as with the earlier question about virtue, it’s useful to put the Stoic view in a larger context, by contrast with Aristotle, or a modern thinker like Alasdair MacIntyre who adopts an Aristotelian approach. Aristotle and MacIntyre would say you develop the virtues by living in a good society and that you build up the virtues, in the first instance at least, by absorbing the values built into the life and discourse of your family and community. If you are not fortunate enough to live in a good society there is a real question whether you can in fact develop the virtues.

The Stoics also think that we are influenced by our social context, in good and bad ways. But, unlike Aristotle (and MacIntyre) they believe that ‘all human beings have the starting-points of virtue’, as they put it. The capacity to develop the virtues is built into our make-up, regardless of the social context we live in (though this is obviously going to be more difficult in some societies than others). We have an in-built capacity to form ideas such as good or just. And we have the ability to interpret our social context selectively, so that we can identify what is and not virtuous. So this is a start in answering your question.

Tim: That all sounds very promising. But in that case, why isn’t everyone fully virtuous, according to the Stoics, and why is the wise person such a rare phenomenon?

Chris: To understand their view, we have to take account of two important features of their thinking: their ideas about development as ‘appropriation’ and about the sources of corruption. According to their theory of development, human beings are instinctively inclined to want things that enable them to lead a full human life, things such as health, property, social stability and status. However, if they develop ethically (again, seen by Stoics as a natural process), they come to realize that their happiness in life depends not just on acquiring such things but on doing so in an excellent or expert way.

In other words, they realize that happiness consists not just in gaining these things but doing so virtuously, exercising the four cardinal virtues and their subdivisions. They also recognise that things such as health and property are ‘preferable indifferents’; they are things we naturally want to have but they do not make the difference between happiness and unhappiness, whereas the virtues do (this is what we have discussed in the dialogues on ‘indifferents’).

Well, if this is the ‘natural’ way for human beings to develop, why don’t we all achieve virtue or wisdom and happiness automatically? The Stoics identify two major sources of corruption, which stop this process happening in most cases.

The most important one is that we are not just instinctively attracted to things such as health and property, but inclined (naturally, again) to want them too much and in the wrong way. We make the mistake of thinking that these things are good in themselves and form the basis of happiness or the good life, and failing to make the further move of recognising that they are indifferent or neutral in this respect and that real happiness depends on gaining these things virtuously (and in no other way).

The second source of corruption is that we tend to be influenced by those around us, including parents, teachers, and friends, who have already formed mistaken views about these things. Taken together, these factors counteract what the Stoics see as the natural way for human beings to develop and block our forming the virtues.

Tim: Well, this seems pretty bad news for people wanting to make progress towards Stoic virtue. Is there anything we can do about this situation and do the Stoic thinkers offer any guidance to help us become better people?

Chris: Emphatically – ‘yes’ to both questions. The Stoics believe that the capacity to make progress is in-built in all human beings, and throughout their lives. Nobody is seen as irredeemably corrupt or as incapable of improvement. And much of the surviving Stoic writing on ethics is directed at offering guidance to enable progress. This is another point of contrast with Aristotle.

You commented earlier that Aristotle has, frustratingly, little specific guidance on developing the virtues. This is partly because he thinks that, to develop virtue, you need to have been brought up in the right kind of social context and so you will already have a pre-theoretical grasp of what counts as virtuous, and philosophy just enables you to analyse what you have already grasped. The Stoics think that we all have the ability to learn how to live virtuously (and so happily) and that virtually all of us need to go on learning – making progress in understanding virtue – throughout our lives. Stoic writings on ethics, especially the more practically oriented writings, are designed to help us to make this progress.

Tim: What writings do you have in mind, then, and how do they promote self-improvement?

Chris: Cicero’s On Duties is a good example, written in three sections (we call them ‘books’). In Book 1 Cicero discusses the four cardinal virtues in general terms – as Aristotle does in his writings on ethics. But he also provides much more specific guidance than Aristotle on the kind of actions which express the different virtues, drawing on Stoic writings, historical examples and his own experience. This is a typical Stoic method, described by Seneca as a combination of doctrines and guidance (Letters 94 and 95). We find this combination of doctrines and specific guidance, in different forms, in practical ethical writings by Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, for instance.

Tim: OK – I can see that providing detailed guidance is more helpful than just giving generalised accounts of the virtues. But I don’t quite see how this guidance is linked with specifically Stoic ideas about ethical development.

Chris: As we discussed earlier, Stoics think we are naturally disposed to go for things such as health and property (which enable us to live full human lives); but we are also naturally inclined to value them too much and in the wrong way. This prevents us from developing the virtues – that is, learning how to acquire health, property, and social position in the right way (that is, in line with wisdom, courage, justice and temperance), and thus to live the best possible human (and happy) life. So Stoic ethical writings, in different ways, aim to counteract this mistake, and try to enable us to give things such as health and property their proper value (as preferred indifferents) and not regard them as good in themselves (which the virtues are).

Cicero’s On Duties Book 1 offers a kind of sketch of what it means to lead a full human life in the right way (in line with the four cardinal virtues). And Book 2 provides a picture of how to acquire ‘preferred indifferents’ (the main focus is on social status) in a way that is consistent with practising the virtues. In Book 3, Cicero deals with the problem of how to deal with situations where these two types of value (acting virtuously and acquiring things such as property and social status) come into conflict, and we have to choose between them. He explores a series of practical situations of this kind; the overall message is that, in all such cases, we should always act according to the virtues (as we understand these), even if this means that we have to give up things (such as money or social status) that we might otherwise be inclined to go for. If we are properly motivated, Cicero stresses, there is no real choice between these two things – but, given the weakness of human nature, and the fact that we are still ‘making progress’, there can seem to be scope for a moral dilemma. So On Duties as a whole is a kind of guidebook for Stoic practical ethics.

Tim: That’s really interesting – I must take a closer look at On Duties. But I know Epictetus much better than Cicero, who wasn’t actually a Stoic, I gather, though he sometimes presents Stoic ideas – how does Epictetus contribute to this project?

Chris: Actually, Epictetus is rather unusual among Stoic ethical thinkers in that he does not have much to say about virtue, happiness or ‘indifferents’ – at least not explicitly. However, he may be aiming to support the same Stoic framework of ideas from a new angle. For instance, one of his most common themes is the importance of drawing a sharp distinction between what is and is not ‘up to us’ or ‘within our power’, and of focusing our attention on what is up to us.

This may be intended as a new way of presenting the standard Stoic idea that we are all capable of ethical development (of making progress) and that this is what matters most in life, whereas happiness does not depend on gaining things such as property and health (which he sometimes calls ‘externals’). However, in Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, thinkers who also lived, like Epictetus, in the first and second centuries AD, we find many references to the same framework of ideas we find in Cicero’s On Duties and the same view of what is involved in ethical development.

Tim: And where would the approach taken in Stoic Week and SMRT fit into this? In Stoic Week, participants are invited to do ‘Stoic Meditations’ such as the morning pre-meditation of adversity, the View from Above, the Circles of Hierocles and the evening Stoic review of the day. Many of these are supported by audio recordings.  Are these to be viewed as ‘reminders’ of virtue? Or are they more than this?

For example, one might think that the evening review of the day helps partly because it embeds the theoretical knowledge of what is good (for example, helping one’s friends) with a practical situation (for example how to handle a meeting with a friend tomorrow). In short, I am wondering whether there is a third route to developing Stoic virtue, as well as reading about theory and detailed guidance, namely daily reflection of the kind suggested in Stoic Week?

Chris: The practices we suggest in Stoic Week and SMRT are, certainly, based on methods suggested by Stoic thinkers such as Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. However, I don’t think that the Stoics would see them as reminders of virtue or ways of applying knowledge you already have to a specific situation. Remember that the Stoics don’t think we actually have virtue – we are working towards this, trying to make progress in this direction. So the daily reflection and meditations used in Stoic Week are meant to be ways of helping us get to a better understanding of what the virtues involve for us in specific real-life situations and relationships. Stoic guidance is not designed to give us precise rules and instructions about what to do or think but to encourage us to develop our in-built capacity to become a better person and manage our own lives.  

Tim: Finally, I’d like to come back to Positive Psychology and its potential value and limitations from a Stoic perspective. We said earlier that like Aristotle, the Stoics place a much higher value on wisdom than the other virtues, indeed some Stoics see all virtues as being a subdivision of wisdom. Where then does that leave the empirically-based tips suggested by Mischel about willpower and self-control (and other contemporary psychologists about how to develop the other virtues)

Three key ideas coming from contemporary psychological research about self-control are: (1) to ‘nudge’ the environment in the direction that is best for you (rather as Ulysses did to deal with the Sirens); (2) to distract ourselves from the temptation (as many of the self-controlled children did in Mischel’s famous ‘Marshmallow Test’); and (3) to remind ourselves of our long-term goals, preferably in a vivid manner so that our ‘hot’ emotional part of the brain comes on line.  

For example, suppose my cholesterol level is somewhat high and I make a New Year’s Resolution to stop eating doughnuts, which I am very partial to. If I was to consult Mischel, I might combine changing my route to work so I do not pass the cake shop (tweaking the environment) with reminding myself of my long-term goals in a vivid way, perhaps by imagining my doctor giving me a diagnosis of type-2 diabetes and then me having to tell this to my family. What would the Stoics say about such advice?  Would it be seen as making progress towards virtue? Or does it miss the point, because even if my actions would look more like that of the virtuous person – not eating doughnuts –  I have not fully integrated wisdom into my desires and emotions and so am just as bad as someone, like say Homer Simpson, makes no effort?

Chris: I think your last suggestion pinpoints the worry that a Stoic might have about these methods. They seem, in general, designed to try to change behaviour without changing beliefs, attitudes, emotions or desires – at least, if they aim to change these it is in a very indirect way. I think the Stoics believe that you can bring about change in a more up-front and direct way by thinking about what we really believe and value and by working on putting this into practice. This doesn’t mean the methods are purely rational and avoid any emotional dimension. Stoics might recommend forming a vivid picture of what it means to lead a healthy and active life (in your example) and forming an equally vivid picture of the consequences for health, physical appearance, activity and relationships of not doing so.

Seneca has a lot of advice about forming these kinds of negative pictures of the passion of anger in On Anger, and some of the pictures he paints are pretty lurid. The Stoic approach to training oneself is much more explicit and conscious than the one you describe – but I think it can be highly effective. If you really want to be vegetarian (one of your earlier examples), a Stoic would remind herself of the reasons for doing this (for the environment, for instance) – and lots of people are actually doing this now and changing their behaviour accordingly.

Tim: I’m really interested in what you say here. People might well get the impression otherwise that the Stoics recommend an overly intellectual and rationalistic approach. A caricature of the Stoic approach might be: ‘All you need to do is read the Stoics and you will be virtuous’. Now our evidence from Stoic week does not support this view. People who say that they know a lot about Stoicism are not particularly happy or flourishing (as measured by our scales). However, people who actually are progressing well towards being Stoic (as measured by SABS) are happier. So the question becomes – how do you move from knowing a lot about Stoicism to be able to put Stoic ideas into practice with some consistency? 

From our discussion it sounds as though there might be three key elements. First, we should think in some depth about the virtues and what they involve for the way we live our lives, and reading and reflecting on Cicero’s On Duties can help here.

Secondly, we can use the kind of exercises suggested in Stoic Week to help us to get a better understanding of what the virtues mean in specific real-life situations. For instance, we can use the morning meditation to imagine adversities and think how we can overcome them virtuously, and we can use the evening meditation to review our day and reflect on what we did well (i.e. virtuously) and what we can do better.

Would I be right in saying that a third method is to fully engage emotionally with what being virtuous means and also to have a strongly negative attitude to vice or passion? Seneca’s asking us to be aware of what we look like when angry would be an example of this – and so, I think would be my example from Mischel and Positive Psychology of imagining me having to tell my family that my doughnut-eating had led to a serious health problem?

Chris: Yes, I think that is right. The first two are clearly part of Stoic ideas about becoming a better person. And I think would agree with the third point too (this is one aspect of the Positive Psychology approach that is close to Stoic ideas). The Stoics stress very much the role of motivation in ethics and of engaging fully with the ideal of virtue and working whole-heartedly towards it. Stoic ethical writings are full of pictures of the ideal wise person or of near-wise exemplars; and there are also powerful negative images too, especially in the writings on passions. If we are to become virtuous we have to want this more than anything else; of course, wanting is not enough, but without this there is no real chance of making progress. What Stoicism commends is not a cold rationalistic attitude but a unified and coherent one, in which well-judged beliefs and understanding bring with them a consistent and unwavering emotional strength and integrity. And developing the virtues is a matter of making progress towards this goal.

Tim: I wonder if this discussion allows you to comment on the list that we produced from the recent Stoic Week report on what people intended to do to maintain their Stoic practice after Stoic week.  These are some of participants’ recommendations

  • Daily Stoic Meditation (specifically the morning and evening Meditations)
  • Read the main original Stoic texts
  • Do Stoic Week again on my own initiative
  • Speak to partner and friends about Stoicism
  • Watch You tube videos or podcasts about Stoicism regularly
  • Daily reflection and/or journaling of my progress in Stoicism
  • Focus on specific aspects of Stoicism such as the virtues and the dichotomy of control
  • Use the self-monitoring sheet from Stoic Week
  • Download the audios from Stoic Week and listen to them
  • Read modern books on Stoicism
  • Practice the ‘sage on my shoulder’ technique regularly
  • Do the View from Above meditation and reflect on our place in the universe
  • Set reminders (e.g. on phone) to do my Stoic Practice and of key Stoic teachings (daily or weekly)
  • Set aside time for regular practice, prioritise it

Are all of these good ideas? Should people give priority to some of them more than others in order to become virtuous in a Stoic way?

Chris: Well, actually, these all seem like pretty good ideas to me. It’s really a matter of whether people feel they want to get a better grip on Stoic ideas and theories or whether they feel the need of more practical means of putting this into practice. I would think a combination of building up a set of regular Stoic practices and reading original Stoic writings or modern books on them would be a good pattern for most people.

Tim: I feel we have covered a lot of ground. Not only the initial question, which a lot of people ask once they know a bit about Stoicism and the central role of virtue, about how to be more develop virtue, but also the similarities and differences between the Aristotelian and some contemporary psychological views. Thank you very much, I hope it is as useful to readers as I am sure it will be to me.

Chris: I feel I have learnt a lot too from trying to answer your questions – some quite challenging ones – and hope readers find our exchange useful in trying to put Stoic ideas into practice.

Some relevant reading:

Ancient writings:

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (many translations), especially book 2, chapter 1, book 10, chapter 9.

Cicero, On Duties, translations by M. T. Griffin and E. M. Atkins (Cambridge University Press), and P. G. Walsh, (On Obligations – the same work, Oxford World’s Classics).

A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge University Press), sections 57-61, 66.

Modern scholarship:

J. Sellars, Stoicism (University of California Press), ch. 5.

J. Annas, The Morality of Happiness (Oxford University Press), ch. 2.

Greg Sadler has recorded a series of You Tube videos on Cicero that serve as a good introduction, for example at Stoic Week 2015 – Day 3: Cicero’s On Duties (De Officiis)

A. MacIntyre,  After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press)

W. Mischel, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control  (Corgi)

T. LeBon, Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology (Hodder)

C. Peterson &  M. E. P. Seligman (2004). Character strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

B. Schwartz and K. Sharpe, ‘Practical Wisdom: Aristotle meets Positive Psychology’, Journal of Happiness Studies (2006) 7:377–395

C. Gill & T. LeBon,‘Stoic Values Clarification’ (part 2) (2018)

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

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential With Positive Psychology.  He can be contacted via email at  His website is

3 thoughts on How to Develop Virtue in a Stoic Way by Chris Gill and Tim LeBon

  1. David Morgan says:

    Thanks for this excellent discussion. I, for one, would certainly welcome more on this topic.
    As for Stoic practices, I find Epictetus’s emphasis on the correct use of impressions to be the vital link between morning and evening meditations. It allows one to practice virtue continuously, assuming that the impressions Epictetus describes are the representations churned up by the external and internal manifestations that are ever present in our stream of consciousness.
    A.A. Long offers some very useful observations in his book, “Stoic Studies”. See chapters 10 (Soul and body in Stoicism) and 12 (Representations and the self in Stoicism).
    I’d welcome any further insights. But what seems to work is this: hold the thought, feeling or idea firmly in mind and try to determine whether it’s accurate and warranted, and if so, look for the best approach. If not accurate, ask what could be closer to the truth. If not warranted, probe to see how the impression came to be in the first place.
    An additional approach cited by Long is to re-frame impressions that are based on unhelpful preconceptions into impressions that are more amenable: not a jostling crowd but a carnival or holiday, not solitude but peace, etc.

  2. Thomas Schmid says:

    I also found this to be an excellent discussion. I wonder if the authors might at some point say more about two things.
    The first is the relationship between theory and practice. Discussions of the development of virtue naturally center on the ethical practice of virtue, but this would seem to need to be complemented with a Stoic appreciation of the natural order in which human beings live and die. In what ways should the Stoic integrate, for example, theoretical with practical efforts to become more courageous, temperate, just, and wise? Such efforts would seem relevant to the conversion from the ‘natural attitude’ toward the good, into the Stoic way of being that affirms virtue is the good.
    The other point is the relationship between Stoicism as an individual and as a communal effort. Very often, Stoicism is understood as an essentially individualistic effort, but this understanding may ignore the ways in which individuality is transformed in the Stoic life, and a distinctive form of personal relationship which was not uncommon in the ancient world, but seems more rare in our society (with a notable exception in AA), which may be important to that effort. On this model, the members of the transformation community divide into guardian mentors and guides, and students or apprentices—Chris and Tim, as exemplars of Stoicism as a community of endeavor, falling into to former category. What is the role of such a relationship for both guide and aspirant in the Stoic life, and in making the transition to living such a life?

  3. Excellent work. This clarified several questions I had about distinguishing the Aristotelian from the Stoic view of virtue. Thank you!

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