The Stoics believed that when we act virtuously, we are walking the path toward a good life. What does it mean to be good, though? What are the Stoic virtues?
There are four cardinal virtues (wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice) that the Stoics believed to constitute a unity. This means that if you truly have one of these virtues, you have them all. This isn’t some kind of buffet where you get to be wise but not courageous or moderate but not just.
At the same time, they espoused that a person who is truly wise is extremely rare.
Regardless, this is the ideal we should all be working toward. To the Stoics, pursuing the noble goal of achieving perfect consistency in the effort to be virtuous was a life-long task that was both essential and possible.
Before we take a deep dive into the four Stoic virtues, let’s talk a little bit about what virtues are.
This is one of those words that we’ve all likely been familiar with our entire lives. However, a full understanding of what it exactly means often escapes us.
The definition of virtue is “moral excellence.”
In short, a virtue is a quality or a trait that is valued as a foundational principle because it is considered to be morally good.
A person that is virtuous avoids doing what is wrong and strives to do what is right.
Vice is the opposite of virtue, which is a behavior, practice, or habit that is generally considered to be immoral, taboo, degrading, depraved, or sinful. According to Aristotle, each virtue can have several different opposites that are distinct from one another.
For example, the opposite of courage can be considered to be both rashness and cowardice.
The concept of virtues existing that humans should uphold stretches back for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians had a goddess named Maat who symbolized balance, truth, morality, law, order, and justice, and she had an ideological counterpart named Isfet who represented injustice, lies, and chaos.
The Stoics broke down vice into several subcategories, which are:
These directly oppose their four cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.
Plato was the one who outlined the four classic cardinal virtues that were held in high esteem by the Stoics, and Aristotle defined virtue as a point on the spectrum of a trait between deficiency and excess. He (Aristotle) believed that the point of the greatest virtue lay at a golden mean that would sometimes be closer to one extreme than the other, rather than precisely in the middle.
Seneca the Younger, a Roman Stoic, said that a prudent person would act in a way that is indistinguishable from a virtuous person. This is because a prudent person considers all consequences. Plato echoed this belief, as he said that people make bad choices instead of prudent ones due to a lack of wisdom. For this reason, wisdom is often considered the central part of virtue.
The ancient Stoic philosophers believed that all of the cardinal virtues constitute a unity. This means that you can’t have one without the others. If a person is virtuous, he is wise, courageous, moderate, and just.
If you’re looking for a compass to use as you walk through life, you might consider following in the footsteps of the ancient Stoics. The following four virtues were used by the Stoics to help guide their actions.
They believed that living a virtuous life is both necessary and sufficient to live a happy life.
If you’ve been struggling with depression, anxiety, or a deep dissatisfaction with life, it’s possible that incorporating these virtues into your day-to-day existence could radically change the direction you’re headed in.
The virtue of wisdom refers to your ability to distinguish between what is good, what is bad, and what is indifferent. In a sense, therefore, all of the cardinal virtues can be viewed as the application of wisdom to our actions.
To the Stoics, virtue is, by definition, good. Vice is, by definition, bad.
When you act virtuously, you are walking the path to a happy life. When you engage in vices, you are pulled further from a happy life.
It’s easy to start to float away into the clouds when talking about philosophy, so let’s give some general examples to bring it back down to earth.
To the Stoics, the good was defined as “what is complete according to nature for a rational being qua rational being.” One of the beliefs that Stoics held– that was controversial in the light of ancient ethical thought– was the idea that virtue is the only thing that always contributes to happiness.
When we look at the opposite of good, we peer into the realm of the “bad” or “evil.” The Stoics believed that the only thing that always contributes to misery is the corruption of reason.
The third category, the indifferents, were things that don’t add to or take away from a happy life in themselves. These are things that could be used well or poorly.
The Stoics did further break down the concept of indifferents into “preferred” and “dispreferred.” There’s also a third category of indifferents, known as absolute indifferents.
Preferred indifferents are those things that are “according to nature,” while dispreferred indifferents are those things that are “contrary to nature.”
The idea here is that preferred indifferents typically help to promote a person’s natural condition. Examples of preferred indifferents include:
Dispreferred indifferents include:
Having any of these indifferents doesn’t determine the virtue or vice of a person. Instead, how they use or choose these circumstances is what makes one virtuous or vicious. When a person uses the indifferents virtuously, their life is made happy. When they use them to engage in vices, their life is made unhappy.
In the Stoic taxonomy of virtue, each virtue is further divided into subcategories. The breakdown for wisdom is as follows:
To be courageous doesn’t mean being a stone that never feels fear. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have anxieties or desires.
Instead, courage is the act of doing the right thing despite the fact that you are afraid, anxious, or otherwise filled with feelings that lead you to consider doing the wrong thing.
The reality is that you can’t be courageous if there isn’t fear or a desire for you to master.
We tend to want to avoid our fears, sidestep obstacles, and steer clear of the things that make us anxious. However, it is exactly through facing our fears that we grow and develop as individuals.
If you are willing to embrace and confront the challenges that are put in front of you in life (or even choose to take some on purposefully) you will experience what Marcus Aurelius described when he said:
"The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way."
When you are courageous, you are willing to do what’s right even when it’s scary. You maintain your morals and your character even when you feel threatened or stressed.
Courage is further subdivided into:
What we think of when we hear the word justice in the modern day is a bit different than what the Stoics were referring to. To the Stoics, justice wasn’t only something that is carried out through the legal system, but, in a broader sense, our duty to our society.
Justice is about how we act in relation to our fellow man, to the people in our community, and to our community as a whole.
This stems from the Stoic understanding that we are intimately connected with the people that surround us. Our actions impact the people around us, and their actions impact us. The things we do, however small, contribute or detract from the larger society.
“What is not good for the beehive, cannot be good for the bees.” – Marcus Aurelius
Basically, “justice” meant to the Stoics what would be considered moral in our dealings with other people.
The attitude a mother has toward her child would fit within the realm of justice, for example, in addition to our piety towards the gods.
Because there is a bit of a discrepancy between our modern concept of justice and the way that the Stoics saw it, some people have translated the Greek term to mean “righteousness,” while other modern authors choose to call it “morality” or “social virtue.”
Justice is broken down into subcategories by the Stoics, which are:
Also referred to as moderation, temperance has to do with our ability to practice self-control and good discipline. When we choose to act with moderation, we aren’t falling for the short-lived promises of vices, but instead acting with the intention of achieving long-term well-being.
When we practice temperance, we aren’t over-indulging in things like:
The opposites of moderation are:
The virtue of moderation was further divided by the Stoics into these categories:
It is believed that the four Stoic virtues outlined above date back to the days of Plato, if not Socrates.
In his The Republic, Plato identified the four cardinal virtues. When he is describing the type of character a good city would have, he states:
“Clearly, then, it will be wise, brave, temperate (literally: healthy-minded), and just.”
In this text, Plato assigns each virtue to a different class in society, organizing the virtues as follows:
In some instances, Plato includes holiness as one of the cardinal virtues.
A few hundred years later, the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero went on to outline the four virtues as wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.
Our favorite Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, talks about the four virtues and that they are the “goods” that should be identified by individuals in their own minds. He proposes that people should pursue these goods as opposed to “wealth or things which conduce to luxury or prestige.”
Though these four cardinal virtues don’t show up in the Hebrew Bible, they do in the Wisdom of Solomon, which is a deuterocanonical book.
(Deuterocanonical is a Greek word, meaning “belonging to the second canon.” These are passages and books that are considered to be canonical books by the Catholic Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Assyrian Church of the East, but which are seen as apocrypha by Protestant denominations. Apocrypha are books that are of doubtful origin or unknown authorship)
In the Wisdom of Solomon, it reads:
"She [Wisdom] teaches temperance, and prudence, and justice, and fortitude, which are such things as men can have nothing more profitable in life."
It can be a lot of fun to learn about the cardinal virtues, but it’s important to not leave them solely in the realm of the mind.
Stoicism is a practical philosophy that is intended to be incorporated into one’s everyday life.
If you’re interested in benefitting from the concepts of the Stoic school, you will want to work to make decisions using these virtues as your compass.
Because the Stoics saw the four virtues as a unity, it’s important to note that you will want to work to develop each of these virtues somewhat simultaneously.
As we discussed earlier, wisdom is the ability to distinguish the good, the bad, and the indifferent from one another.
The Stoics believed that you could achieve wisdom along two converging paths. The first path was studying philosophy. The second was applying that philosophy to your life.
In order to walk this first path, you’ll want to read, think, write, and wrestle with old and new ideas alike. Take a mental inventory of your beliefs and start paying attention to your reactions to occurrences. When you have a strong opinion about something, step back and question this belief.
When you’re reading (and otherwise consuming content,) be willing to read outside of your comfort zone. Read a book that you have a strong aversion to and have an open mind.
The point of practicing wisdom is to apply it to your actual life. Take notes on everything you're reading and keep a journal reflecting on how you applied the virtue wisdom during the day.
Working on practicing these aspects of the virtue is pretty straightforward, but often harder to actually apply than it is to imagine.
To practice courage, you can start by doing something that scares you. Whether that means calling a girl you like, riding down that Black Diamond mountain biking trail, or telling your father how you really feel, there are probably plenty of things you’re afraid of that you can start conquering today.
Another way to practice courage is to simply smile and stay cheerful in the face of adversity. The next time you’re feeling irritated, unhappy, frustrated, or afraid, take a big breath and smile. See if you can maintain an upbeat (though not fake) attitude and avoid the temptation to self-victimize. That, quite frankly, takes courage.
Lastly, practicing justice can entail looking at the people in your life and considering what you could do to treat them justly. When you’re around other people, work to be present and compassionate. Think of how your decisions, no matter how small, impact other people.
It’s tempting to want to think big when it comes to practicing justice. You see videos online of things happening that you believe to be unjust, and you want to change the world in a big way.
Individual people have certainly changed the world before, so don’t let us hold you back.
That being said, it’s a good idea to start with your immediate world, the environment that is local to you.
It’s also all too easy these days to try and use being just as a way to gain social credit– we’ve all seen videos of people giving money or sandwiches to people living on the street, for example.
When you want to practice the virtue of justice and incorporate it into your life, resist the urge to tell others of your good deeds. Do them because they are good, not because they make other people think you are good.
When you try to apply justice to your life, start small. Be compassionate toward your spouse when they interrupt you and pick up litter when you see it on your street.
We all have plenty of opportunities to practice temperance, most likely. Whether your vice is doom-scrolling through social media four hours at a time, exercising to the point of addiction, or a pint of ice cream at midnight, practicing moderation is about striking a balance.
If you want to become more moderate in your actions, one of the best ways to do so is to create a buffer time.
The next time you’re drawn toward something with a strong desire, give it ten minutes. Set a timer if you need to. In many instances, the desire will pass away after several minutes if you don’t give in.
Another tip is to try and stay self-aware of how you’re using your time. There are so many different devices and experiences we can dissolve our minds into these days. If you notice that your entire evening disappears every night as soon as you turn on your video game console, consider setting a timer for 30 minutes and committing to moving onto a different (preferably non-screen) activity once the alarm sounds.
Sometimes, it's best to go straight to the source when trying to learn about Stoic concepts. Let's look at some of the best quotes by our favorite Stoic philosophers about each of the four cardinal virtues.
Wisdom is the virtue that allows you to know how best to apply the other three virtues. It doesn't mean being the smartest guy in the room from an IQ standpoint or having a gazillion advanced degrees. As you'll see from the words of the great Stoics, wisdom is about the ability to correctly identify the good, the bad, and the indifferent, and acting accordingly.
“The wise man sees in the misfortune of others what he should avoid.” – Marcus Aurelius
“I seek the truth...it is only persistence in self-delusion and ignorance that does harm.” – Marcus Aurelius
“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” – Epictetus
“It is the nature of the wise to resist pleasures, but the foolish to be a slave to them.” – Epictetus
“He who exercises wisdom exercises the knowledge which is about God.” – Epictetus
“These are the signs of a wise man: to reprove nobody, to praise nobody, to blame nobody, nor even to speak of himself or his own merits.” – Epictetus
“Ignorant men differ from beasts only in their figure.” – Cleanthes
The Stoic concept of justice is truly a beautiful thing. In a society that seems increasingly cynical, meditating on the virtue of justice can be eye-opening and heart-warming.
“He who does wrong does wrong against himself. He who acts unjustly acts unjustly to himself, because he makes himself bad.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Live out your life in truth and justice, tolerant of those who are neither true nor just.” – Marcus Aurelius
“There is but one thing of real value - to cultivate truth and justice, and to live without anger in the midst of lying and unjust men.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, and unassuming; the friend of justice and godliness; kindly, affectionate, and resolute in your devotion to duty.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Every place is safe to him who lives with justice.” – Epictetus
“Truth is a thing immortal and perpetual, and it gives to us a beauty that fades not away in time, nor does it take away the freedom of speech which proceeds from justice; but it gives to us the knowledge of what is just and lawful, separating from them the unjust and refuting them.” – Epictetus
“Injustice never rules forever.” – Seneca the Younger
“He, who decides a case without hearing the other side, though he decides justly, cannot be considered just.” – Seneca the Younger
“It is a denial of justice not to stretch out a helping hand to the fallen that is the common right of humanity.” – Seneca the Younger
“Expediency often silences justice.” – Seneca the Younger
You can call American culture a lot of things, but moderate probably isn't one of them. The thing that is so difficult about temperance is that achieving it is striking a balance between extremes. As Seneca says, "abstinence is easier than temperance."
If you have vices you've been over-indulging in, whatever they may be, consider using some of these quotes on temperance as the next prompt for your journal.
“Every soul, the philosopher says, is involuntarily deprived of truth; consequently in the same way it is deprived of justice and temperance and benevolence and everything of the kind. It is most necessary to keep this in mind, for thus thou wilt be more gentle towards all.” – Marcus Aurelius
“No man is free who is a slave to the flesh.” – Seneca the Younger
“The whole duty of man is embraced in the two principles of abstinence and patience: temperance in prosperity, and patient courage in adversity.” – Seneca the Younger
“Abstinence is easier than temperance.” – Seneca the Younger
“The heart is great which shows moderation in the midst of prosperity.” – Seneca the Younger
“Everything that exceeds the bounds of moderation has an unstable foundation.” – Seneca the Younger
“A well-governed appetite is a great part of liberty.” – Seneca the Younger
“Upon occasion we should go as far as intoxication.... Drink washes cares away, stirs the mind from its lowest depths.... But in liberty moderation is wholesome, and so it is in wine.... We ought not indulge too often, for fear the mind contract a bad habit, yet it is right to draw it toward elation and release and to banish dull sobriety for a little.” – Seneca the Younger
“Stop allowing your mind to be a slave, to be jerked about by selfish impulses, to kick against fate and the present, and to mistrust the future.” – Marcus Aurelius
“How to Act: Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without forethought, with misgivings.” – Marcus Aurelius
“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.” – Seneca the Younger
The Stoics believed that you have all of the resources you need inside yourself to thrive. You just have to go in there and find them.
“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look.” – Marcus Aurelius
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.” – Seneca the Younger
“There is nothing in the world so much admired as a man who knows how to bear unhappiness with courage.” – Seneca the Younger
“Life without the courage for death is slavery.” – Seneca the Younger
“Courage leads to heaven; fear leads to death.” – Seneca the Younger
“Fortune can take away riches, but not courage.” – Seneca the Younger
“Fire tests gold, suffering tests brave men.” – Seneca the Younger
“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” – Seneca the Younger
The term "virtuous life" might conjure images of a monk living in a cave with only a knife and a candle to his name. However, the Stoics didn't believe that you have to leave society in order to be virtuous. Instead, the four cardinal virtues can help guide your decisions as you go through your life, no matter what obstacles or opportunities you face.
When you're working to become more virtuous, it's important to remember that the ideal is exactly just that-- an ideal. The "wise man" was incredibly rare in the eyes of the Stoics, and they were well aware of the fact that life is a journey, not one set moment in time.
If you realize that you have acted in a way that isn't virtuous, it's simply an opportunity to learn and grow. It's also important to make sure that you don't adopt living a virtuous life as an identity in a way that's simply meant to impress others. You are doing what you think is right because it's right, not because you think it makes you appear admirable to others.
Are you searching for more advice and inspiration as you walk the path to a good and happy life? Be sure to check out all of our Stoic quotes articles.