virtue is the highest good
It has been six years since I started my journey of philosophy and Stoicism when I began reading The Daily Stoic. Needless to say, the book has made a profound impact on me and my thinking. It paved the way for me to learn from Stoic giants, both ancient and contemporary, and incorporate their teachings into my day-to-day life, helping me embrace and embody my highest self. The journey has just got started, and there’s still a lot to learn and implement, but I am grateful that I was able to embark on this spiritual adventure and make good progress in it.
For the unversed, Stoicism is a school of philosophy that was founded nearly 2,500 years ago, in ancient Greece, by a man named Zeno, who, after losing his fortune in shipwreck, moved to Athens and became a philosopher.
A significant portion of Stoic teachings have come down to us through three historical figures: Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor who kept a private journal that was later published as Meditations; Seneca the Younger, a statesman and playwright known for his classic work, Moral Letters; and Epictetus, a formerly enslaved philosopher teacher whose lectures were captured by a student in a book called the Enchiridion.
For me personally, October 18th has become a special date, a day dedicated to honoring and celebrating Stoicism. And so, today I’ll dive into one of the key aspects of Stoicism and discuss it with you.
All Stoics aspired to live a virtuous life. They considered virtue as the highest purpose one can commit to. And so, they called it “the highest good.” The Stoics believed that every situation or circumstance we encounter in life is an opportunity to respond with virtue.
But what exactly is virtuous living about? The Stoics identified four aspects of virtue: courage, justice, wisdom, and temperance.
Courage gives us the mental strength to act well and do what is right under all circumstances. Justice means working for the common good and refraining from harming others, rather treating them fairly and kindly. Wisdom involves overcoming obstacles and setbacks and being and doing good no matter what. Temperance allows us to exercise moderation and self-control in all aspects of life.
These facets of virtue have appeared consistently throughout philosophical and religious history. The esteemed Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas’ system of “heavenly virtues” retained the four Stoic ones and added faith, hope, and charity. Moreover, Eastern traditions, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Hinduism also instill the four in their disciples, adding humanity, i.e. love and kindness, and transcendence, which involves concepts such as spirituality.
Aspiring to virtuousness is beneficial because it helps us cut through all of life’s challenges and confusion and gain clarity in the present moment. For instance, if you keep your primary goal in life to make loads of money, you sign yourself up for misery and despair. Firstly, you’ll never be content with the amount of cash you have, and secondly, you might easily take shortcuts and compromise your character, committing heinous acts in pursuit of selfish gains. Without a moral compass, you easily become blinded by ambition and fail to differentiate right from wrong. You become a victim of your own desires, sabotaging yourself and your life.
Virtue is different; it makes you think before you act. If you commit to living by it, if you truly strive to act courageously, justly, wisely, and moderately, you protect the good within you. You live a noble life without compromising your morals and dignity on the altar of greed. Can you still become rich as you follow this path? Absolutely. But the key difference would be that you won’t put money on a pedestal. You won’t consider wealth, power, and status the be-all and end-all of your life. Whatever income you earn, it’ll be through honest and legitimate means.
A great example in this regard, as we previously talked about, is Marcus Aurelius. Along with having massive political, legal, and military responsibilities throughout his realm, he went through numerous personal setbacks. To say he would have been overwhelmed at times would be an understatement. Yet, he chose to act virtuously. Not because there was someone ordering him to do so, but out of his sheer will. He committed fully to the Stoic virtues and always aspired to be good, think good, and do good, regardless of the circumstances.
As Marcus Aurelius puts it in Meditations:
“If, at some point in your life, you should come across anything better than justice, prudence, self-control, courage—than a mind satisfied that it has succeeded in enabling you to act rationally, and satisfied to accept what’s beyond its control—if you find anything better than that, embrace it without reservations—it must be an extraordinary thing indeed—and enjoy it to the full.
But if nothing presents itself that’s superior to the spirit that lives within—the one that has subordinated individual desires to itself, that discriminates among impressions, that has broken free of physical temptations, and subordinated itself to the gods, and looks out for human beings’ welfare—if you find that there’s nothing more important or valuable than that, then don’t make room for anything but it.”
Life is fickle and unpredictable. Virtue not only helps us in overcoming obstacles, challenges, and crises, but also keeps us grounded and calm. It helps us live happy, peaceful, and free lives, both in good times and bad.
Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator remarked, “The man who has virtue is in need of nothing whatever for the purpose of living well.”
When we let virtue guide us, we show up as the best version of ourselves. We focus on what is in the realm of our control, make informed choices, and let the rest take care of itself.
In a nutshell, living a Stoic life is choosing virtue over everything else. There are so many things that are beyond our control. And so, no matter what life throws at them, a Stoic always chooses to respond with courage, justice, wisdom, and temperance.
PS: If you enjoyed reading this essay and are inclined to learn the essential tools and strategies of Stoicism, I encourage you to read my eBook Daily Stoicism which is the third book in The Daily Learner series. Through this book, you can be in tune with the Stoic philosophy on a daily basis as you face the challenges of everyday life with practical wisdom and inner fortitude. The wisdom of great philosophers such as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius as well as modern authors such as Ryan Holiday and Donald Robertson has been distilled in a form that is easy to digest and consume (even if you’re not a reader!). The condensed timeless knowledge in these meditations will guide you in navigating through the complexities that come with modern living and help you in your quest to live a virtuous and meaningful life.