Four Stoic Virtues to Guide Our Lives
Updated: May 7, 2022
"Virtue is how we live happy and free lives. It’s not grandiose nor vague. A Stoic believes they don’t control the world around them, only how they respond—and that they must always respond with courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice."
—Ryan Holiday, contemporary Stoic
A good life. It's the underlying drive for all our actions. We just want to feel happy and free. But how is that going for you? Most of us are struggling. The never-ending desires and burdens make us feel more and more restricted and unhappy. Stoicism can help. And it's not just a bandage solution, it's curing the root illness.
As Ryan Holiday explained, living in accordance with the four virtues of Stoicism (an ancient and practical philosophy) is the solution. That means our mind, which is the only thing we control, should always align with these four virtues:
Justice: Serving the common good.
Courage: Persisting in what's right.
Temperance: Finding the right degree or amount and having self-discipline.
Wisdom: Pursuing proper and enlightening education.
Let's examine each in more detail.
In Stoicism, justice means helping the greater good. The great Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius said,
“A commitment to justice in your own acts. Which means: thought and action resulting in the common good. What you were born to do.”
In other words, only seeking self-benefit and not caring about others is injustice. True happiness comes from helping others, from justice. If we hurt others, we also hurt ourselves. Marcus Aurelius said, "What injures the hive injures the bee." But when we help others, we also help ourselves; it's win-win.
Justice can extend out to other nearby virtues such as
Integrity: doing the right thing, even when no one is watching, even when it is hard.
Honesty: speaking the truth but with kindness.
Reciprocity: treat others the way you want to be treated.
Broad Love: wanting the best for the all people
In Stoicism, justice is the most important virtue. Courage, wisdom, and temperance should all be used to serve the common good.
Courage is about having the bravery and persistence to do what's right, to fight for justice.
When Stoic teacher Epictetus was asked for advice on how a person can thrive, he said,
“Two words should be committed to memory and obeyed by alternately exerting and restraining ourselves…persist and resist.”
We need to be brave and persist in what's right, and we also need to restrain ourselves from doing what's wrong. Doing small evils or doing bad things because others are doing it is not courageous.
Temperance is about moderation and discipline. On temperance, Marcus Aurelius said,
“‘If you seek tranquility, do less.’ Or (more accurately) do what’s essential…Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better. Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’”
“Curb your desire — don’t set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need.”
Many of us feel so stressed, busy, and directionless in life, and one major reason is because we lack temperance. We are chasing too many things to an inappropriate degree. We want more money than we need. We give less love and time to loved ones than we should. We are not too lenient with ourselves and too strict with others. These are all temperance problems.
The great philosopher Aristotle calls temperance "the golden mean". He explains that any virtue must follow the golden mean, otherwise it becomes a vice. For example, is anger always bad? Is giving others money always good? Aristotle says,
"Anyone can get angry – that is easy – or spend money or give it away; but to do all this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right manner, is not a thing that everyone can do, and is not easy."
Knowing the right degree to do something and then actually doing it to that degree is temperance. That is not easy, and it requires wisdom.
Wisdom is about pursuing proper and enlightening education. We should seek to improve our wisdom every day, through every event, for the rest of our lives. Wisdom is the supporting foundation for the other three virtues. It's thanks to wisdom that
We know how to be just and what to be just about. (Justice)
We know what to be courageous about, what to persist in, and what to resist. (Courage)
What the right amount and degree of something should be. (Temperance)
"The first and greatest task of the philosopher is to test and separate appearances, and to act on nothing that is untested."
In other words, we need to learn wise ways of thinking, such as those of Stoicism, and then act on them in our own life. If we acted on them properly, then we will gain benefit. When we gain benefit, we understand the teachings deeper, and our wisdom grows. When our wisdom grows, we will have less confusion and stress in our lives, and we will have more happiness and freedom—which is what we all want!
In the past year or so, I've become a huge fan of philosophy, and I've dabbled in Stoicism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. It's quite interesting to find so many similarities between all the different philosophies.
In my own life, I've found that living according to virtues indeed brings true happiness and peace.
Before, when I always thought about all the things I wanted and how I could get them faster, I felt stressed and burdened. After I switched to serving the people and world around me, I felt life was very positive and meaningful.
The Daoist sage Lao Tzu said,
"View other people's gains as my gains. View other people's losses as my losses... Give without seeking anything in return."
(Source: The Treatise on Response and Retribution)
I also like the way Gandhi puts it:
"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."
Buddhism talks about the importance of balancing compassion (or justice in Stoicism) with wisdom. If our desire to help others exceeds our wisdom, then everyone suffers. It's like jumping into a lake to save a drowning person when you can't even swim yourself.
The Buddha said,
"Do not associate with the ignorant. Instead, befriend the wise. Respect the virtuous. This is the greatest blessing."
(Source: Maṅgala Sutta, Discourse of Good Fortune)
I used to spend my free time on frivolous entertainment, but now spend all my free time trying to learn more wisdom from past sages.
Confucius refers to temperance as "The Middle Way", saying,
"A cultivated person follows The Middle Way. An uncultivated person violates The Middle Way. Because a cultivated person follows The Middle Way, he always achieves the target right on. Because the uncultivated person violates The Middle Path, he is unbridled."
(Source: The Doctrine of the Mean)
"The Middle Path" doesn't always refer to the exact middle, but rather the optimal degree or amount. Temperance requires wisdom, and I try to practice it through things like
Eating to 70-80% full (the optimal degree)
Working at 85% intensity (an amount that can be sustained over the long-term)
Prioritizing health and relationships (focusing on the essentials)
Courage is about persisting in justice and resisting injustice. Confucius also emphasized courage, saying,
"If a bad principles prevail in the country, a virtuous person maintains his righteous path even to death. So firm is his strength!"
(Source: The Doctrine of the Mean)
I remember a couple months ago, I was pressured to do something slightly unethical. The story is a bit long and complicated, but basically, I got pressured into doing something that would result in unfair treatment for someone. The person wouldn't even know, and it is a very small thing, and if I didn't accept, it might cause a big inconvenience for a lot of people. Anyway, I complied.
An hour after I said "yes" on the phone, I regretted it. Then I called the person back to undo the decision, saying I was willing to deal with the consequences. But by then, it was already too late to undo the decision. I felt bad about not being more courageous and standing up for justice no matter how small the matter, so I vowed to myself to never make an ethical decision in haste again, and to not tolerate the slightest discomfort when it comes to ethics.
A good, happy, and free life is one that is guided by virtues. Reflect on the four virtues of Stoicism this week:
Justice: What do I do for the common good every day?
Courage: What do I need to persist in? What should I be more strict on myself about?
Temperance: What am I doing in excess or in deficiency? How can I get closer to the optimal amount?
Wisdom: How much time am I spending every day or week to educate myself and improve my wisdom?
Weekly Wisdom Newsletter #183
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