The Dichotomy of Stoic Virtue

“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?” Epictetus

“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, 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 in effect have a unique talent, 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, I realized that working to live these daily has helped me tame my emotions and develop my rational capabilities. The virtues of temperance and courage work to 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 which can lead me astray. I realize that Stoicism is not a rejection of my emotional nature, but rather an acknowledgement that this exist 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 help me to develop 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. Justice is not the blind adherence to laws or regulations, but rather a view of the world which recognizes both its true nature of 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”.

Fate and Fortune


“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. “ Ecclesiastes 9:11

A recent study from Cornell confirmed what I had long suspected about the role of luck vs talent in success. The bottom line is that having the greatest talent is not the prime determinant of success but rather it is a combination of luck (being at the right place at the right time), and having sufficient talent to recognize and exploit the opportunity.

From a Stoic perspective, this reinforces the fundamental principal of what little we control. I can only control what I think and how I act. I can attempt to find the right places and be there at the right times, however whether I am successful is up to fate, and I should not berate myself when the opportunities do not show up.

This also relates to the Buddhist concept of desire as the root cause of suffering. As long as I hitch my emotional wagon to the idea that something external must happen in order for me to be “happy”, I never will be.

Yes, I can get lucky and the wanted event can occur, but this just feeds the monkey in terms of wanting further reinforcement for what are ultimately random events.

My lesson, do the best I can, try and recognize opportunities when they arise, but in the end realize it is up to fate what occurs and what my path will be. Even the fortune I was seeking could in the end have had undesirable consequences (winning the lottery but then being hit by the bus on the way to collect the prize). I must always remind myself that I cannot foresee the future, I an only make predictions based on what I know, and as predictions my chances of being correct are only probabilities.

Focusing on improving myself through living my virtues is my only guaranteed path to success. The message of modern society, that my successes or failures are all attributable to my efforts, with all the attendant psychosis when I don’t achieve my goals, is shown for the lie that it is.

Push and Pull

In examining my actions and those of others, the motivations behind them seem to fall into two broad categories, that which I fear and wish to push away, and that which I want and seek to draw to me.

In the category of fear are all things that threaten me, both physically and emotionally, and my default instinctive/emotional response in these instances is either to run from the threat or attack it.

In the category of wants, the most fundamental are all the things I need to survive, including basic survival needs (food, shelter), sex (or the desire to reproduce), and socialization (the desire to be around others).

Knowing what motivates my actions is the first step to rationally controlling them, as opposed to being a meat puppet and being controlled by them. Without this awareness, I fall victim to rationalization rather than rational thought.

My body will react to its needs and threats and I will be aware of these needs through my senses and my emotions. The actions I take without thinking in response to these I will rationalize after the fact in order to justify my actions, fooling myself into thinking that I was the director when in reality I was only the actor reading the script written by my emotions.

If these processes are the default “what” of my life (and most lives it seems), the ability to interrupt the processing of emotion into action and apply rational thought beforehand instead of rationalization after, is the “how” to the start of living a virtuous life.

Recognizing but not instinctively reacting to my fears, senses and emotions allows me to apply the virtues of justice, temperance, prudence and fortitude to my decisions, instead of taking the default path of “what’s best for me in this moment”.