The Four Stoic Virtues - Wisdom

Posted by Molly Frazier on

(If you haven’t read our blog post that gives an overview of the cardinal virtues of Stoicism, we recommend reading through that first.)

Introduction & Definition

The mentality behind the four Stoic virtues drives a lot of our ethos and creativity here at Maritime Supply Co. We appreciate the wisdom that the philosophers of old compiled for us, and we’d like to take a closer look at each virtue in turn. We plan to focus on real-world applications for these virtues to bring this ancient philosophy into your modern life. To begin, we’ll be focusing on the virtue of wisdom.

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 discernment, as Neibuhr summarizes above. We tend to think of a wise man as someone who does not rush into situations or jump to conclusions. Instead, a wise person often pauses before responding in any way. The most important aspect of wisdom is letting your experience and knowledge inform your next actions. Taking the time to consider potential consequences, extenuating circumstances, and any ripple effects all contribute to the soundness of your decision.

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

We often joke that wisdom comes with age and that is true thanks to sheer volume of experience gained. The more data you have to pull from, the better your odds of making the right call in certain circumstances. However, science also backs up the old adage since human brains don’t finish fully growing and developing until age twenty-five! This certainly explains the impulsive decisions of teenagers and folks in their early twenties, since the skills to consider consequences and additional factors haven’t had time to grow into habit yet.

Experience is expensive - you pay for it with your life. ~ unknown

Sometimes young folks go charging into action instead of taking time to assess the situation. Wisdom allows us to take the time to discern whether or not we can even exert any control over the situation, much less what the appropriate response may be. While youth lends a sense of invincibility, people with experience on their side have learned that they can’t control the world around them and that sometimes the best response is discipline and self control instead. Constantly trying to change something that you don’t control can lead to a sense of frustration and burn-out. At that point, you may not have any energy left to step in and implement necessary changes that are possible.

The Four Stoic Virtues Brass Bar

Choosing Your Response

Knowing when to practice self restraint is another tenant of Stoic philosophy. However, that does not always mean that we should become uninvolved or seemingly apathetic. Sometimes the appropriate response is a passionate one, depending on the importance of the situation and the level of effect you can have. As members of society, we have a duty to our fellow humans to improve our world where we can and those efforts call for zealous action. But which action should you take?

Stoic teachers tell us that wisdom informs the other three cardinal virtues: courage, justice, and temperance. Does a situation look scary or difficult at first, but the end goal is a worthwhile investment of time and energy? Courage may be the right response. Does a conflict require fair judgment or does a wronged party need help or defense? It seems justice is the correct answer. Could a scenario result in over-indulgence or is abstinence resulting in a need going unmet? This would be a time to practice temperance.

Wisdom Response Flow Chart

Gaining the Experience

We’ll walk this through a real-life scenario… Let’s say that your child goes down the slide at a playground but falls off the end, scrapes their knee, and begins crying. There are a couple ways you could address this. You could choose to demonstrate courage to your kid. That could look like addressing the hurt by brushing off the child’s knees, showing them that the scrape is minor, and helping them overcome fear by going down the slide again. Or maybe you choose to implement justice after learning that your other child pushed the first kid down the slide, making them fall. Responding with justice might look like disciplining the aggressor, or making sure the kids take turns on the slide. Teaching temperance may be the best response if the child was being unsafe by running down the slide. This lesson might be learned by explaining how your child’s lack of self-control resulted in their mishap, and how to prevent future injuries. All responses are valid! And your wisdom around the situation and knowledge of your child will help you determine which response (or combination of them) is the appropriate one.

Sterling Silver Wax Seal, Life Is Short

We can apply this decision-making process to our own adult lives as well. Though be aware, wisdom can be hard-won… We may respond with justice to a situation where temperance was needed and have to pay the price with an apology. Or maybe we exercise temperance and lose out on the reward of strengthening our courage. No one is at fault for these mistakes - after all, we’re all human and always learning. The more time we take to let wisdom guide our path, the smoother our journey will be.

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