What is Virtue?
Derived from the Greek word arête (ah-RAYT), virtue is a concept that stands at the core of Stoicism. Roughly translated as “excellence,” it was used by Socrates and the Hellenistic schools of philosophy to explain the most important values by which human beings should aspire to live. Yet, virtue’s pedigree goes further still; it was later incorporated into the Christian tradition by Thomas Aquinas, placing it at the bedrock of the Western intellectual canon.
From a Stoic perspective, virtue is the striving toward excellence in the ethical realm, where we seek to resolve questions of human morality. Virtue represents the absolute highest good attainable in life, and therefore it is impossible to have in excess. Only by practicing a life of virtue can we unlock personal flourishing, or eudaimonia (you-dye-mo-NEE-ah).
Because “virtue is the only good” for human beings, external events outside our direct control are neither inherently good nor bad. Rather, the attainment of virtue through one’s actions is the only true standard by which we can judge ourselves in life.
The Four Virtues
Wisdom enables a Stoic to make rational decisions and appropriate judgments based on experiential knowledge. As Marcus Aurelius writes, it is not events that disturb people; it is their judgments concerning them. A Stoic must acquire wisdom to negate the anguish that is derived from irrational beliefs which are based on past experiences. Wisdom allows us to challenge those beliefs and move towards building a new self.
There is no logical place where our desires end. Most of our desires are not extinguished when we fulfill them. Instead, they lead to greater and greater desires. This is why Stoics practice the virtue of temperance, the ability to do things in just measure—not too much and not too little. Epictetus reminds us “if one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please.” Temperance enables us to stop ourselves from overeating, overthinking, overindulging. With temperance, we can choose long-term well-being over short-term pleasure.
There are times in our lives when it is difficult to do the “right thing” because we can become overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. To stay strong and not give in to our anxieties, Stoics rely on the cardinal virtue of courage. A courageous person understands the risks associated with a particular decision and chooses to overcome his or her fear and act according to their values. A courageous decision is well-considered, wise, and brave. Courage without justice and wisdom stops being a virtue; instead, it becomes a vice. A Stoic cannot be courageous without also being “good and straightforward, lovers of truth and foes to deception.”