This article was moved from thebadstoic.com, which may no longer be active.
Traditionally, the words for the four primary virtues of Stoicism are:
If you’re about to do a thing, you ask yourself:
- Am I being Wise?
- Am I being Just?
- Am I being Courageous?
- Am I being Temperate?
But, none of these words have ever really meant much for me. They don’t reach out to me and explain themselves very well. They’re very academic sounding, lofty, and words that don’t guide me towards my next action. Sometimes they leave me asking, what do I even do?
So, I’ve come up with my own words for these virtues:
Wisdom → Truth
What does Wisdom really mean? — I think it means looking at the world clearly and truthfully. It’s all about the correct knowledge of what’s in front of you:
- What is really happening right now?
- Am I truly in danger of being fired? Is this just my mind racing away from me?
- What is this person’s story, why are they really acting this way?
- Why is this bothering me? Is it really that bothersome? Is it actually bothering me, or is it just my attitude towards this thing?
Too often we look at a given situation and judge it almost immediately for face value. Marcus (and Epictetus) tell us to not to trust first appearances, especially within our own mind. I think this is at the heart of Wisdom. It’s the ability to dissect and analyze any given perception or thing for its truth, absent (mostly) of our own judgements and opinions — seeing things for what they truly are.
Marcus asks us, all the time in the Meditations, to wipe our opinions clean and change them right on the spot! But, it would be wrong to think that Marcus is asking us to just have some change of heart out of no-where. To change our opinions, we need knowledge and that knowledge needs to be based on truth and examination.
- Why am I so upset about the dog digging a hole in the yard, is it really that hard to fix? Is the dog trying to hurt my feelings? I’m acting as if he is!
- Is the universe really out to get me? I just got a flat tire because of a nail, and it looks like it fell off a truck on the highway, the guy must have been in a rush for some reason — maybe to get to his next job he dearly needs.
It’s the pause you take to look at something for what it really is, not what you think it is. Or, the gall to admit you don’t know enough. With experience this becomes easier, obviously, but nothing stops us from pausing and acting when we feel we have the truth of the matter, or admitting that we don’t have all the information to act.
Justice → Service
Justice, if you’re like me, comes off very noble (rightfully so) and legislative, and more concerned about weighing what is right and wrong instead of what actually is right and wrong. In the books of the Stoics, Justice comes off more personal and neighborly to me. I use a version of the Golden Rule as a reminder:
Serve others the way you would serve yourself
It’s a reflective virtue. It comes with a built-in manual: if you want something for yourself, ensure others get it as well!
- You want “me-time?” Give others “me-time”!
- If you want to be understood, try and understand others.
- If you hate doing the dishes, don’t expect others to enjoy doing the dishes.
- If you want to be wealthy, help others be wealthy!
The word serve is important, because it’s not enough to just to “treat others the way you would want to be treated” (which implies that you only do this when you come into contact with them), but serving someone with justice is a duty and asks of you to go out and help others gain the very things you want out of life.
Courage → Fearlessness
Recently I did an entire reading of the entire Meditations, and noted each time a particular theme came up. Fearlessness came up often, like a lot! It came up in a lot of different ways:
- Not caring what other people think of you
- Not caring if people blame you for things
- Tackling challenging tasks (not fearing them)
- Not fearing the future
- Not even caring whether you are going to die!
At one point I think Epictetus asks us, basically, to “fear nothing,” since all un-folding of life is intended and natural! Since life is going to unfold how it unfolds (either by God or just being the way it is), it’s best to not go out whining and complaining, but fearlessly!
I have a mental exercise that helps me ascertain how to fearlessly approach a situation:
Temperance → Detachment
Temperance, when you first hear it — it comes off as being cool-headed and patient. These are all good virtues, but how you do that is very hard to discern. In all my studying, I’ve found that the only way to be temperate is to detach from things.
Here’s an example (from Epictetus) that I love to exemplify this virtue (paraphrased):
Life is a banquet. When a platter of delicious food is handed to you, sample it. If you’re waiting for the platter to come to you, do not seek it out, wait for it to come to you. If it never comes, pay no matter to it.
I feel like the central theme here is detachment. “Sample it” he says, which seems to imply actually enjoying things (which is awesome right), but done so in moderated way (e.g. sample). Further reading will show that it’s really the concern of attachment to pleasant things that is being disciplined. The gist of most of the Stoics is that if you continually enjoy nice things, you will develop habits and familiarity with them, which could attach you to said external thing — say if it goes away.
Furthermore, he goes on to instruct that if the platter floats about the room, to not want after it or seek it out. And, even more so, if it never makes its way over to you, or you were accidentally skipped, to pay no matter to it.
Detach from things: expectations, outcomes, wealth, behaviors, etc. It doesn’t mean don’t expect anything, or not enjoy a wealth. But sample them, moderately and appropriately, and pay no matter if they don’t even come to you.
Don’t be attached to it, whatever it is.
Find truth, serve others, be fearless, and detach!