Is Stoic Virtue as Off-Putting as it Seems?
by Julia Annas
Stoic ethics can be more or less off-putting depending on which aspect of it you encounter, or encounter first. Many people responded to Admiral Stockdale’s reliance on Epictetus to survive captivity and torture, and similar accounts can draw people into Stoic ethics in a way that gets them to see what is inspiring about it. Stoicism is sometimes encountered by people who are suffering, or in terrible circumstances, and they come to see how Stoicism can help them come through without being irreparably broken.
But many of us are not in terrible circumstances, and we hope to enter Stoic ethics through the gate of their account of virtue. We want to be better people and to live better lives, and we ask how the Stoics see this project. And we run into a problem. Stoic accounts of virtue are notoriously abrasive and off-putting to someone who is not already committed to finding it worthwhile to explore Stoicism. The Stoics have a number of theses about virtue which are basic to their ethics, and they are notoriously repellent to the non-Stoic. This is not just our problem as citizens of the 21st century; this is a feature of Stoicism that was found off-putting in the ancient world.
Firstly, for Stoics virtue is not only necessary but also sufficient for happiness. To understand this, of course, we have to become aware that what the Stoics mean by virtue and by happiness are not what immediately springs to mind for us. Happiness is not a feeling or a mood, as so many recent books on happiness assume. It is eudaimonia, the flourishing of a whole life. Happiness, in this sense of eudaimonia, is our final end, the ultimate expression of our attempt to live a good life and to appreciate good values. So, if virtue is necessary and sufficient for that, it’s clearly the most important thing for us to be thinking about and trying to achieve in our lives. We come to Stoicism wanting to find out the right way to achieve happiness, eudaimonia , because this – how best to live – is the entry point to ethical reflection in the ancient world. We are told that what is necessary and sufficient for that is for us to become virtuous. So we turn eagerly to find what virtue is, since it is all-important for us to become virtuous.
What do we find? The Stoics tell us that there are no degrees of virtue; everyone is either virtuous or vicious, and given their demands on virtue, we are all vicious. Only the sage – the completely virtuous person – is virtuous, and, given that the sage is as rare as the mythical phoenix, we are all stuck with being vicious. If we’re not already Stoics we don’t really know even how to process these ideas. Why do the Stoics apparently make it so difficult for us to understand; why are the main things they say about virtue so much at variance with common-sense and ordinary beliefs?
The Stoics aren’t elitist about virtue; they think it is open to anyone in any walk of life. But this makes it even odder that their views about virtue are so off-putting, especially to ordinary people without philosophical training. We might start to wonder whether they really care about non-Stoics becoming Stoics. There is a contrast here with the Epicureans, who thought that becoming an Epicurean was urgent for non-Epicureans. A 2nd century CE Epicurean called Diogenes in the city of Oenoanda (in Asia Minor, modern Turkey) was distressed that his fellow-citizens’ lives were going so badly and unhappily, and so from ‘love of humanity’ he set up, at vast expense, a massive stone inscription, like a large permanent billboard, so that people using the market to shop and meet would have to encounter the truths of Epicureanism, which he was convinced would cure them. (Diogenes of Oenoanda fr. 3)
By comparison the Stoics seem to wait for us to come to them, and then to be willing to accept off-putting theses if we are seriously trying to become virtuous through Stoicism. We lack helpful Stoic discussion that helps us much if at all by way of easy introduction to Stoic ideas about virtue. And this is disconcerting. Thoughts about virtue and happiness are the starting point for ethical theories in general in the ancient world, and increasingly today many people find that they want to know what an ethical theory has to tell them about happiness and virtue.
So it is alarming to find, when you are aiming to become a Stoic, and to understand what is required of you, that:
- There are no degrees of virtue
- There are no degrees of vice
- There is no state between virtue and vice; if you are not virtuous you are vicious.
- Only the sage is virtuous. But
- The sage is as rare as the mythical phoenix;
- So, we are all vicious.
To start with, there are no degrees of virtue. Either you are virtuous, or not; there is no such thing as being more virtuous or less virtuous. So, despite having rethought your life so as to give more money, more time and more energy to good causes, you are no more generous than you were. Despite your rethinking your priorities and your best efforts to live up to this, you are no more honest, brave or tactful than you were. Only when you become completely generous, honest, brave, tactful and have all the rest of the virtues in the right way will you become virtuous, that is, generous, honest, brave and tactful.
Nothing, it appears, could be more off-putting to a beginner; it doesn’t matter how hard, and how intelligently, you try, you will still be no braver, more tactful or whatever other virtues you aim for. (The beginner can be told that there are other reasons, elsewhere in the system of Stoic philosophy, for accepting this. For example, virtue requires knowledge, and knowledge does not, for the Stoics, come in degrees. But this hardly helps the beginner focus on becoming virtuous.) Since your best efforts don’t make you any more virtuous, why bother?
The flip side of this is no more encouraging. We ordinarily believe that most of us may be mediocre or even moderately bad, but not as bad as Hitler or Stalin, but the Stoics insist that there are no degrees of vice. They express this idea by appealing to cases where difference is not a matter of degree. A stick is either straight or it is crooked. (Diogenes Laertius, 7, 127) Blind puppies are just as blind the day before they see as they were at birth. (Plutarch, comm. not. 1063 A-B) If you are underwater in the sea, you drown whether you are an arm’s length from the surface or 500 fathoms down. (Plutarch, op.cit.) When you are not yet at your destination, you are not there, however far or near you are to it. (Diogenes Laertius 7, 120) With vice the claim that there are no degrees may seem even more offensive than with virtue. We may put up with being told that neither we nor anyone else is virtuous, but the levelling claim about vice leaves us wondering what the difference is between us and people that are extremely bad. Again, we find ourselves wondering what the point is of trying to improve, if however hard we try we are still no less vicious than the worst people.
Both of these off-putting theses can, however, be explained in ways that do make good sense. The idea that there are no degrees of virtue does not mean that there cannot be degrees of progress towards virtue. And the Stoics do believe this, since they talk about the person who is making progress in living better, the prokopton or ‘progressor’. When you reorder your priorties and try to live up to your new commitments, you are progressing towards virtue, and there can certainly be degrees of that. You may have progressed a little, or a lot. Given this, the Stoics can after all make distinctions among people who are progressing. We do this all the time, of course. Generally this takes the form of comparing our own progress with that of others, usually in a way which is unfavourable to ourselves: we find others to be better than we are in a variety of ways.
We look up to people who are braver, or more generous, or just nicer to others, than we are, and we are inspired to be like them in those ways. (We also compare ourselves favourably with others, since we can usually find people around us who are stingier or more cowardly than we are; but this obviously does nothing for our own ethical progress – it is likely to be counter-productive for that.) The Stoics are quite aware of the way we improve ethically by aspiring to become more virtuous than we are. Their theory allows for this – we just have to be careful how we conceptualize what we do. We are not becoming more virtuous, or increasing in degrees of virtue; we are progressing by degrees towards virtue, which is itself not a matter of degree.
Similarly we can draw distinctions between people even if there are no degrees of virtue. Strictly speaking, Plato was no more virtuous than the horrible tyrant Dionysius. But Plato at least was improving, whereas Dionysius was in a hopeless condition in which he could not improve. (Cicero, De Finibus 4, 56) Someone near the surface of the sea is more easily rescued than someone at the bottom. Someone near their destination has less distance to traverse than someone setting out. Distinctions that we make by talking about some people being more or less virtuous than others can be made in other ways. So the Stoics are not just flouting common sense; they can explain how their position is compatible with views we have about virtue and vice. But we still haven’t seen the point of the claim that there are no degrees of virtue.
The Stoics are insisting that virtue is an ideal that we work towards, not an endeavour that we have already made strides in. An ideal can inspire us to aspiration even if it is not something we can ever achieve, and it’s important for the Stoics that we think of it that way. Talking of virtue and vice having no degrees, and no state between them, emphasises the point that virtue is a state we are always trying to reach; there is no point when we can say, ‘Well, that was hard work, but I’m finally there; now I’m brave (generous, tactful or whatever).’
Becoming virtuous is life-long learning. This is an idea that we may find disconcerting; we almost certainly don’t want to think that we have to go on becoming virtuous right up to the day we day. The Stoics are aware of this, and want to counter it: by denying that virtue has degrees they keep right in front of our eyes the point that Stoicism is a continuing way of life. It’s not a Teach Yourself programme, where you teach yourself a subject which you then know, like learning a language, and then move on to do something else, fortified by what you have learnt. It’s a way of life which is a way of continually being and improving yourself. The initially off-putting views about virtue keep us aware of this.
It’s still hard to make sense of probably the most off-putting claim of all: only the sage is virtuous. (‘Sage’ has a lot of unfortunate suggestions, but at least it is gender-neutral, so is an improvement on the former use of ‘the wise man’ or ‘the virtuous man’.) When we put this together with the point that the sage is rarer than the mythical phoenix, we see that we are all vicious, the noblest among us as much as the thugs. The sage is the person who is completely virtuous, and this is a stage that none of us will reach. The early Stoics make things worse for us here by dwelling, frequently and prominently, on the thought that it is only the sage who is really what other people only think they are. The sage is the only king, the only doctor, the only general, the only money-maker and so on. Only the sage knows how to rule like a king, cure like a doctor, command like a general, and so on. Our sources for early Stoicism repeat and emphasise this point, sometimes at length.
This claim was widely ridiculed in the ancient world. Ancient authors point out that it is peculiar, to put it mildly, that the sage is the only king when he has no political authority, the only rich person when he is in rags, and so on. Plutarch, a 2nd century CE philosopher, tells us about a Spartan king, Eudamidas, who took a plain blunt approach. When a Stoic claimed that only the sage was a general, the king remarked that he couldn’t believe that, coming from someone who had never been in battle. (Sayings of Spartans 220e). Moreover, if the sage is the only king, the only doctor, the only lawgiver, cook, carpenter, rich man and so on, he will have to be absurdly omnicompetent. To function in all these ways, he or she will have to have the practical knowledge of how to cure people, cook food, manage money, make laws and so on. Lucian, a 2nd century CE satirist, claims, in his dialogue Philosophies for Sale, that the Stoic sage knows everything . So he will know how to cook, how to build, how to cure and so on – So Stoicism is a real bargain! (Philosophies for Sale 20).
The sage is the ideal virtuous person, as already noted – so aren’t the Stoics just taking over the idea of the virtuous person whom we should emulate? Sometimes we find this idea in ancient writers. We find it, for example, in Cicero, when he is setting out Stoic ethics in the person of Cato, in the third book of his work On Moral Ends. The Stoic sage, says Cato, is dignified and noble, and has a character which is constant. He is more truly a king than King Tarquin, the last king of Rome, driven out for his pride and cruelty. He is more truly rich than Marcus Crassus, a billionaire contemporary with Cicero who was notorious for his indifference to ethics in making money. (On Moral Ends III 75-76.) It looks as though the sage is brought in to make the point that we should aspire to be virtuous in what we do, rather than proud and dishonest. But this doesn’t get the sage right. The sage is, after all, the only king, and by comparison even the best king of Rome would not really be a king. He is the only rich person, and by comparison even the most honest and scrupulous billionaire would not really be rich. We are left with the full off-putting force of the Stoic theses about virtue.
Some passages about the sage suggest that the idea is that as we improve in virtue we get to be more reflective about our activities, and so we acquire expertise about things that we previously did just as a matter of routine. Money-making, for example, and household management are regularly treated by Plato and Aristotle as something beneath the intellectual level, and notice, of the sage. The Stoics, however, throw out an intellectual bridge, claiming that running a household is not just a sub-theoretical knack, but ‘a state both theoretical and practical concerning what is advantageous for the household’, and that money-making is ‘experience of acquiring money from the right sources…..in collecting, preserving and spending money with a view to being well off’. So ‘only the virtuous person is skilled at money-making, recognizing what the sources are from which one should make money, and when and how and up to what point.’ (Arius 11d) Here a practical skill is intellectualized as a way of showing how its correct performance might indeed be one which requires the achievement of virtue. There are other passages to the same effect. It turns out, for example, that running a symposium and managing a love affair can both be described as virtues in terms of their intellectual basis. (Arius 5b9; see 5b12 for prophecy and being a priest)
This idea of intellectualizing roles applies fairly well to roles like king, general or carpenter, where there is a skill which can be performed well or badly, and the virtuous person will perform it better, because she has greater understanding of what is important, and the values involved in the situation. There are other cases, though, where this move is not available, for example the claim that only the sage is free. The sage is free, we are told, in the true sense of freedom, for only he has achieved true internal freedom, which is freedom from the passions and from the pull of conventional motivations. Here there is no attempt to provide a bridge from the everyday notion. The same is even more obviously true of the claims that only the sage is beautiful, tall and strong, even if by ordinary standards he is ugly, small and weak. He is rich, even if in rags, a king, even if without power, and so on. (Diogenes Laertius VII 122, Philo, Quod Omnis Probus, esp. 16-25, Arius 11g,k,m)
What is going on when we are told that only the sage is free, rich and so on? The Stoic idea of ethical improvement focuses, more than some other ethical theories do, on improvement as a whole. Virtue requires more than being good in one area of your life while letting things slide in another. You have to have the right kind of understanding of value over your whole life to be virtuous. (This is one reason why it is so difficult.) The virtuous person has an understanding of what in life is valuable, with the crucial insight that the value of virtue is different from the value of everything else, and that it should always take priority.
In one sense this understanding will be the same in everyone – it is the understanding which enables the virtuous person to discern what is right in each situation and to act accordingly. But in another sense the understanding will be different for everyone, because we live in a variety of societies and cultures. Some of us have different roles from others – we are teachers, firefighters, plumbers, professors and so on. And each of us has our own individual aspects of personality. So each of us will embody and express the understanding that the virtuous person has in our own situation and context, in our own roles and in a way influenced by our own personality traits. The Stoics say that the virtuous person will do everything well, as an expert musician plays all pieces well. (Diogenes Laertius VII 125, Arius 5b10). Virtue is the same in everyone in the way that the musician’s skill is the same skill in all her performances. But each performance is of a different piece of music.
When we take this into account, we can see that for the Stoics the sage is an ideal, but can’t be thought of as a single figure to imitate or emulate. The sage is the only king, but this is no use to me if I’m not a king; I’m a doctor. But the sage is the only doctor too, so I should emulate the sage – that is try to become virtuous, as a doctor. Kings and doctors have to aim to become virtuous – to take virtue as their ideal to pursue – in their own ways of life. But they are both taking the sage as an ideal – that is, trying to be virtuous, aiming continually to improve and to live better.
So the sage doesn’t have to be the person who knows this and that and the other thing, who knows what a doctor knows and what a plumber knows and what a general knows. The sage is the ideal of having a single kind of knowledge – the understanding which the virtuous person has. But this will be embodied differently, and so take different forms, in different people, depending on their role, situation and personality. So the Stoics keep insisting that the sage is the only king, doctor and so on – it’s a way of pointing out that whether you’re a king or a doctor your ideal is to be a virtuous king, a virtuous doctor and so on.
The sage is an ideal, but a more demanding and austere ideal than other ethical theories have. Virtue is all or nothing, not something we can have degrees of. We have to achieve it as a whole, and hence over our whole life. It’s a total transformation, one which makes all virtuous people share the same understanding in their different contexts. This is another way in which the Stoics underline the demandingness of their ideal, and the distance we are from it. We tend to think that we are pretty good people because in some areas of life we are good – generous, say, while conveniently forgetting that in other areas we aren’t – we’re disloyal, say. No, say the Stoics, you are virtuous (or not) as a whole.
So: is Stoic virtue as off-putting as it seems? I’ve tried to show that it is not elitism, or perversity, or not caring about attracting people to Stoicism, which makes the Stoics talk about virtue the way they do. They want to alert us from the start to the fact that Stoicism is demanding. It’s a way of life, and for it to do you any good it has to be the way you live, the way you live all of your life, not something you can treat like a self-improvement course. We might think that they should have had better PR to attract people to Stoicism. But they thought that you should clearly see, right from the start, that you’re being asked to transform your whole way of life. Why pretend that it’s easy?
 I’m not here going to follow up the thesis that all the vices and all the virtues are equal. Discussing this would require going into more technical Stoic discussion than would be helpful here. Also, I take it that this thesis doesn’t introduce a distinct way of being off-putting from the ones I do look at.
This post is the transcript of Professor Annas’ presentation at the STOICON 2016 conference. The video of the conference can be viewed here (Dr. Annas’ presentation begins at 28:25)
Julia Annas is Regents Professor in Philosophy at the University of Arizona. She previously taught at the University of Oxford and Columbia University. She was the founding editor of Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has published several books and many articles on ancient philosophy, especially ancient ethics, and in recent years has also published on contemporary virtue ethics.