It is a strange statement for modern people, that Virtue is the only good, but something seems true about it. I remember listening to Steve Karafit at ‘The Sunday Stoic’, wrestling with the concept that our own virtuous choices are the only good things. Our un-virtuous decisions, lacking Wisdom, Courage, Justice, or Temperance, are the only evils. Everything else is indifferent.
It is a harsh world view to say that one should be “indifferent” towards our loved ones, children, neighbors, and even our own bodies. But the solution is that one need not feel “indifferent”. Rather it is a statement that these things are indifferent towards attaining eudaimonia. Having these things are not necessary to live a flourishing life. Feeling love towards others, particularly those who are dependent on us, can be an act of Justice.
Virtue is the only good towards eudaimonia. “Good” is subjective, but you can observe what thoughts and behaviors (virtuous or otherwise) lead towards a flourishing life. If you act a certain way, does life get better or worse? It is something that can be tested rationally, although maybe not experimentally. We can’t exactly randomly assign a person to virtue or non-virtue.
It is a harsh world view to say that one should be “indifferent” towards our loved ones, children, neighbors, and even our own bodies. But one need not feel “indifferent”. Rather these things are indifferent towards attaining eudaimonia.
On my journey to understand Stoicism, I began reading a lot. I had often observed that I was a person who would finish two thirds of a book and then never actually finish the book. I started finishing 3 or more books a month, on Stoicism, other philosophies, self-help, finding meaning, and Jungian Psychology. When you have a purpose for learning it truly drives interest, engagement, and motivation.
Some of the most impactful books on Stoicism were ‘Stoicism and the Art of Happiness’ by Donald Robertson and ‘Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In’ by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos.
Both of these books led me to understand more about the early founders of Stoicism: Xeno, Chrysippus, Musonius Rufus, and others.
I read translations of Epictetus’s Enchiridion (including Sharron LeBell’s ‘Art of Living’) and The Discourses, Musonius Rufus’s ‘Lectures and Sayings’, and Seneca’s ‘On Anger’ and ‘Letters to Lucilius.’
Reading translations of the original lectures and writings of the early Stoics helped me to see Stoicism as a coherent world view and philosophy of life. I particularly remember listening to the episodes of ‘The Practical Stoic’ featuring Kai and Leonidas helping me to put all the pieces together and consider what may have been the mindset of the Stoic teachers over 200 years ago.
Modern interpretations of Stoicism often approach the philosophy as an ancient cognitive therapy. Life hacks for being effective as a leader or human being. Many people are introduced to Stoicism through ‘The Meditations’ of Marcus Aurelius. The Meditations are a very practical guide to how a powerful man used Stoicism to act with Wisdom and Justice.
Modern Stoics often dismiss the physics or metaphysics of the Traditional Stoics as outdated or irrelevant to the Ethics of Stoicism. Kai Whiting will certainly tell anyone willing to listen why the Ethics are philosophically and theoretically based on Stoic Physics. Logically the Ethics fall apart without a basis for why one should act with Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Temperance.
Logically the Ethics [of Stoicism] fall apart without a basis for why one should act with Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Temperance.
One modern approach to understanding ‘why act with virtue’ is pragmatic. Things work out better if people act with Stoic Virtues on almost every measure you might care about. It is a practical trial and error justification. By observation you can test if you are a more effective person when you learn and practice Stoicism.
But answering questions about finding meaning in life, requires (as I see it) looking at why life is meaningful. Metaphysics asks these “why” questions. There is no scientific way to “prove” why we are here. Evolutionary psychology and other sciences can attempt to show “what purpose did we evolve for?”
Looking at the Physics or Metaphysics of Traditional Stoicism raises interesting questions in regard to finding meaning. Do we have free will or is our fate pre-determined? What is the Nature of a human being? What is the nature of the cosmos? Is there a rational order or is everything random chaos?
Chris Fisher at TraditionalStoicism.com and the Stoicism On Fire podcast is a great resource for understanding the Traditional Stoicism perspective on the nature of the cosmos, the Stoic God, and ideas of developing as a philosopher (the path of the Prokopton). Belief in the Stoic concept of God is not necessary to practice Stoic philosophy in your daily life, but may be an additional source of meaning and challenge yourself to see different perspectives on meaning.
In Part III I will talk about how my journey to understand Stoicism led me to study other ancient Greek philosophers.