The Dichotomy of Stoic Virtues

“Conduct yourself in all matters, grand and public or small and domestic, in accordance with the laws of nature. Harmonizing your will with nature should be your utmost ideal. Where do you practice this ideal? In the particulars of your own daily life with its uniquely personal tasks and duties. “

“For what is Man? A rational animal, subject to death. At once we ask, from what does the rational element distinguish us? From wild beasts. And from what else? From sheep and the like. Look to it then that you do nothing like a wild beast, else you destroy the Man in you and fail to fulfill his promise. See that you do not act like a sheep, or else again the Man in you perishes.
You ask how we act like sheep?
When we consult the belly, or our passions, when our actions are random or dirty or inconsiderate, are we not falling away to the state of sheep? What do we destroy? The faculty of reason. When our actions are combative, mischievous, angry, and rude, do we not fall away and become wild beasts?”


“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them:”

Hamlet, Act III, Scene I, William Shakespeare

The adoption of the Stoic virtues of courage, wisdom, justice and temperance are at their core I believe a program for the followers of Stoicism to develop their true, rational, nature through the adoption of habits based on two complementary goals; “taming the beast” and “training the sage”.

To follow Stoic philosophy is, in my opinion, to adopt a program of continual self-improvement. The ultimate aim is to live a more rational life, and as a result to develop yourself so that you are less subject to suffering as a result of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. It is not to develop a Spock-like, unemotional, approach to the world.

The Stoics realized that while man may be the only animal that is capable of rational thought (or so they believed at the time), our behavior certainly does not demonstrate our rationality but rather the emotional (or what I call the monkey mind) and instinctual (or what I call the lizard mind) behavior of all animals. We have a relatively unique capability, but unless we recognize it and more importantly work to develop it, we will never reap its benefits and rise to the potential of our true nature.

When looking again at the core stoic virtues, working to live these daily has helped me tame my emotions and develop my rational capabilities. The virtues of temperance and courage help me calm the inner emotional beast, by overcoming fear in order to do what is right (as defined by the rational virtues), and by tempering my other emotions that can lead me astray. I realize that Stoicism is not a rejection of my emotional nature, but rather an acknowledgment that this exists within all of us and as such should be used and channeled for our benefit. We should not be slaves to our emotions but rather their masters.

The practice of the virtues of justice and prudence develops my rational nature, by teaching me to think before I act (and more important to think deeply, not just the first-order effects), and to consider my interactions with others and the world through the lens of fairness and balance. True justice is not the blind adherence to laws or regulations, but rather a view of the world that recognizes both its chaos and our ability to best navigate this storm when we approach it with our eyes open and without preconceived notions of what is “right”.

Food for thought…

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