What are the Stoic Virtues? A Guide to the 4 Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism
“The soul that companies with virtue is like an ever-flowing source. It is a pure, clear, and wholesome draught, sweet, rich and generous of its store, that injures not, neither destroys.”
The term ‘Virtue’ itself has many definitions and interpretations, all of which allude to a quality of great moral importance. ‘Moral excellence’ perhaps sums up Virtue the best or more simply, any quality that if embodied and practised, will lead to a meaningful life. Virtue is closely tied to Eudaimonia — the Greek word for human flourishing or life-satisfaction.
The Stoics believed Virtue to be the Highest Good or ‘Summum Bonum’, a term coined by Cicero. It is what all of our actions and thoughts should be directed towards if we are to live appropriately, meaningfully and peacefully in this life.
Although this all-encompassing term ‘Virtue’ was seen as different from the Four Stoic Virtues that we will discuss here, it is worthwhile knowing that these virtues were and continue to be the cornerstone of Stoic philosophy and are still tied in extremely closely with the highest good ‘Virtue’.
To have one of the four Stoic virtues is to have them all as they are so closely interlinked and interdependent. In this sense, the Four Cardinal Virtues can be thought of quite literally as four pillars, with no single pillar being more important than the rest.
Wisdom, in general Stoic terms, is the ability to decipher what is good, bad and indifferent. This is something that Diogenes points out in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Although it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ from the very limited perspective of ‘me’, the Stoics pointed to the fact that most if not all of life’s events are actually indifferent. They occur according to their natural laws, and then the label ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is placed on after the fact. It is one of those obvious truths that is hidden in plain sight.
The Stoics also emphasised action and experience across the whole of their philosophy and there is no exception here with regards to Wisdom. While we might usually think of the wisest people as the ones who only have very deep things to say, the wisest only come to their wise words through experience, making mistakes, taking action and learning from them.
It is also important to distinguish knowledge from wisdom. Knowledge is largely memory-based and so is entirely based on the past. It is the collection of information which is always a good start however, as Heraclitus once said; “Much learning does not teach understanding.” Anyone who has passed a test from learning the answers rather than truly understanding the content can relate to this. Just because you can recite something flawlessly doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand it.
On the other hand, wisdom is knowing what to do in the moment. It is the wise who act seamlessly and without hesitation in the present moment when a situation and all of its unique circumstances calls. They naturally know what needs to be done and they do it, rather than being stuck in their head. This level of wisdom only comes from being in the situation or something similar again and again, not just reading about it.
Practical wisdom is always the target. To know what to do either from experience or intuitively in any given circumstance is the hallmark of Stoic wisdom.
Courage has always been a trait that makes someone stand out from the crowd and the Stoics (and Plato before them) realised just how important it was and made it a virtue.
The common misconception about courage or courageous people is that they feel no fear and that is what makes them great (and so unlike us). However, courageous people act despite the fact they felt terrified or extremely anxious. The difference is that Courage involves putting all of that to the side, whereas lack of courage is being consumed by it.
Because challenging situations provide the opportunity for Courage to shine through, they should be welcomed whenever they present themselves, rather than ran away from. As Marcus Aurelius said: “So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.”
It is a great virtue to have but it is also very dependent on the other virtues to be considered something positive. Courage on its own can be rash and even self-destructive, if one throws themselves into chaos relentlessly or in the wrong places. Courage combines well with all three of Justice, Temperance and Wisdom. It is the ‘push’ that should be applied as and when it is needed, no more and no less.
Although we tend to think of ‘Justice’ as something to do with the law and bringing criminals the punishment they deserve, the Justice that the Stoics spoke of as part of the Stoic Virtues had nothing to do with law or legal connotations.
Justice for the Stoics was speaking and acting for what was right and fair. Perhaps more specifically, it was about our duty to other human beings and how we can work as selflessly as possible for the common good. It was the most important virtue for Marcus Aurelius.
The Stoics also acknowledged that knowing what was right and fair in any given circumstance could be difficult. There are many situations in our lives where no matter how much we look at a situation, what is the right and fair action just doesn’t jump out at us. As Cicero explained, it is perhaps easier to know what is to act unjustly and avoid that. As he put it, an unjust act is anything that inflicts injury or harms another being.
It requires a certain degree of Wisdom to apply Justice effectively and also Courage to act accordingly, especially when our action goes against the crowd. This is just another example of how intertwined the Stoic Virtues are and how embodying one well can lead to flourishment with the others.
Temperance simply refers to self-control, balance and moderation.
It is what Aristotle referred to as “the golden mean”. Virtue is found right in the middle of excess and deficiency. Having enough and being content with enough.
It is to rest easily in the middle of the pendulum so to speak. Not diving into the extremes in any measure or walk of life. Not obsessively planning our lives but not wandering around aimlessly either. Not overindulging on bad foods but not completely restricting ourselves from a treat now and then either. Not becoming reliant on others for our happiness but not retreating away from society completely either.
As Seneca put it perfectly: “You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.” The endless pursuit for that little bit more is what causes unhappiness without us even realising it.
Many people who have practiced Stoicism for a while or who are no stranger to self-reflection think that they are aware of this, but this ‘lacking’ and feeling that what you have isn’t enough always has ways of sneakily rearing its ugly head.
It may not be explicit but when we look, we may discover that we are believing that with just a little more success, a little more muscle definition, a little more knowledge about something, or a little more of something else, we will be where we want to be. No matter how ‘good’ the thing is that is desired, it is still just another desire, and it puts us on the same treadmill that we thought we jumped off a long time ago. Perhaps fittingly, it takes tremendous amounts of Courage to look at this honestly.
The Stoic answer to this was Temperance. Being content with what you do have, staying in balance and letting anything else come and go as it may. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Temperance links very closely with Wisdom as well as the other virtues.
Looking to embody and keep the Cardinal Virtues at the forefront of your mind throughout the day? Check out our Four Cardinal Virtues Stoic Medallion