Intro to the Four Stoic Virtues
Here at Maritime Supply Co, we have derived a great deal of inspiration and meaning from Stoic philosophy. Because of that, we’d like to do a deep dive on some of the most popular teachings from that school of thought. Before we get started though, let’s provide a brief overview of Stoicism and the four cardinal virtues.
Stoicism is one of the four major schools of philosophy formed during the Hellenistic period of Ancient Greece (ranging from 323 BC to 31 BC). The Roman empire eventually absorbed the Greek empire, but Stoicism flourished until the third century AD. Some famous Stoic philosophers you may recognize are Plato (as a progenitor), Seneca, Epictetus, and even the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Historians believe that the four cardinal virtues of Stoic philosophy came from the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato even though many other orators and thinkers spoke about these qualities as well. The virtues are wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance
Wisdom (noun): the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.
- The soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
~The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Neibuhr
The virtue of wisdom can also be described as the ability to discern what you can control in life and let that knowledge inform your actions. A wise man is someone who does not rush into situations without careful consideration. When we think of wisdom we often think of restraint and measured reactions, but those qualities are not inherently inclusive. Sometimes the correct answer can be a passionate response as a direct reflection of how important the situation may be. Figuring out the key issue at play is part of that discernment.
Knowing when to practice good discipline and show restraint is a highly valuable aspect of wisdom. As Reinhold Neibuhr pointed out, it is not worth getting worked up over things that you cannot change. When you have no control over a situation, acceptance and calmness are the proper responses. Think of wisdom as the first point in a flowchart of potential actions, with 3 branches to each of the remaining Stoic virtues. Wisdom allows you to consider which of the other virtues is the appropriate response for any given situation.
Courage (noun): the ability to do something that frightens one.
- Strength in the face of pain or grief.
“A hero is no braver than any ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Courage is about facing and overcoming scary challenges with dignity, persistence, and fortitude. One of the most difficult aspects of remaining courageous under duress is to hold to your principles and not let fear or anger sway you. We may not be facing the same hardships that the Stoic teachers endured, but we can still uphold the ideal of working through the problems of everyday life with a strong mindset.
Courage is boldness informed by wisdom, strengthened with the knowledge that while the task at hand may be arduous and scary, it is still worthwhile. Just as Emerson describes, having courage does not invalidate the frightening aspects of a challenge, but it does allow you to move through that fear and succeed all the same. Using wisdom, you can determine when you have the ability to control your circumstances and then exercise courage to implement change for good.
Read more about facing adversity with persistence and courage here:
Justice (noun): the quality of being just, impartial, or fair; the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action
- Conformity to truth, fact, or reason.
“Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. … There as well: ‘To do what needs doing.’” ~Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Justice can be a grand-sounding word that gets thrown around thoughtlessly. In some situations it invokes the process of equality. In other scenarios, justice is used synonymously with equity. The way the Stoics speak about this quality is one of the best definitions, in our opinion. Stoic wisdom says that the virtue of justice is the duty to our fellow beings to do no harm, to do good to one another, and to remain steadfast and trustworthy.
In our flowchart of virtues, there is a line from “courage” into “justice.” Envision justice as the practice of wielding courage in defense of others, with respect to the bond of human society. Most importantly, adherence to truth is essential for carrying out justice. Enacting fairness can be a demanding undertaking and requires both bravery and discernment in its execution.
Justice is nothing but empty words without following through. Learn how to take action.
Temperance (noun): the quality of moderation or self-restraint
- Habitual moderation in the indulgence of the appetites or passions
“Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.” ~Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“Temperance” is a word that has fallen out of modern-day usage, but a familiar synonym is “moderation.” Sometimes an apt alternative to “temperance” is “abstinence,” though the two terms are not exact parallels. Whichever word you like the best, they all speak to the ability to execute self-control in all things. Some folks may need to exercise more self-control around their consumption. Others may need to practice restraint regarding passionate emotions. Others still may need to keep a close eye on the thoughts their mind cycles through.
Just as the saying goes, “everything in moderation.” Refraining from extremes is a wise practice for our own well-being and for the sake of justice. Justice leads to temperance in the virtue flowchart since self-control is one way we can do the right thing for ourselves and others. Operating in the extreme of abstinence and denying yourself all enjoyable things is an unreasonable and unsustainable exercise. On the other hand, extreme indulgence can be very unfair to those around us. Temperance is about balance and walking the path between these extremes.
Not sure how to create balance in your life? Read more here to get started.
A Virtuous Life
Living out the Stoics’ wisdom through these qualities is a lifelong challenge. Wisdom is often learned from mistakes and the experience that only comes with time. Courage takes a great deal of persistence and fortitude. Justice can look like standing up against overwhelming odds in order to do the right thing. Temperance requires discipline and constant awareness of ourselves.
Doing your best to embody these virtues may not always ensure ease and comfort, but it will ultimately lead to a happy life. Look to these four cardinal virtues to guide your actions, and you will gain skills that will serve you well through every journey.