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Virtue is Strength

If you had to define virtue in one word it would be “strength.” In English we use the same root word when we say virility. Virility means a special kind of power. So does virtue.

The Stoic School teaches that strength is a good thing. This is basic to human nature and Nature in general. Nature rewards the strongest in a species with survival and progeny. Nature is a place of struggle. The earth is a place where all animals must exert constant activity to live and must exercise great strength to get ahead. Those who lose their energy fall behind and perish. 

Human society also rewards athletes of great strength or speed. You don’t find yourself wishing you were weaker, do you? 

But, the Stoic School teaches about a strength more powerful than muscles.

First, think about an army. History shows that the most athletic soldiers do not always win. A smaller army with better strategy and equipment often defeats a larger force. Why? Second, a runner or boxer who has beaten a certain opponent previously might lose to him during the Olympics because the opponent trained harder and kept a stricter diet. Third, a weaker army can rout a greater one when the stronger flees the battle field.  Fourth, The ancient play The Suppliants by Euripides illustrates a special kind of power. In the play, the women have no physical power to retrieve the bodies of their dead loved ones who were killed in a battle, because the victors wanted them to rot in the open and be eaten by animals, so what mysterious strength empowered the mothers, wives, and daughters to win?

Our cultural grandparents called the first kind of strength “Wisdom,” the second “Temperance,” the third “Courage,” and the fourth “Justice.”

1) Wisdom is “being smart,” “thinking things through,” “making good decisions.” 

2) Temperance is self-control, self-discipline, and the ability to choose the difficult path that is good rather than the easy paths that are bad.

3) Courage means fortitude, bravery in the face of danger and pain, and risking personal safety, wealth, and reputation in the interest of something more noble.

4) Justice is doing the right thing, recognizing a higher morality than even human laws, and successfully harmonizing with Nature rather than only reading and talking about it.

The Stoic School teaches that the purpose of human life is Virtue. 

Even in human society, Nature requires constant energy to live, to be healthy, to be wise, to control yourself, to be brave, and to be fair to all.

An evidence that Nature intends mankind to be virtuous is that Nature gave humanity the potential for all these strengths. We know of no other creatures with the potential to develop the four Cardinal Virtues as we mean them here. Nature has attributes that can only be understood by those who practice wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice. We live in Nature more and more only as we grow in Virtue more and more. 

Another indication that Virtue is our purpose in life is that virtues bind us in stronger friendship with our fellow citizens, our friends, and our family. We are political animals. Nature provides no other species with a social structure anything like human society. There are no other species with commerce, technology, musical instruments, clothing, conversations, etc. anything like human society. But, along with our need to socialize in our uniquely human way, we see that virtue is what binds us together in the bonds of good faith necessary to produce thriving human societies. Individuals who practice Virtue are bound with their friends in stronger bonds of friendship and are praiseworthy among their countrymen. Those who practice vice suffer in their public and private relationships.

We call Wisdom, Temperance, Courage, and Justice the Cardinal Virtues. They remind us of the cardinal directions North, South, East, and West. With only four directions you can get from wherever you are to wherever you need to be in two-dimensional space.  In life, you need a different dimension of directions – virtues.

With the Cardinal Virtues, you can get from any circumstance you are in to where you need to be. The four virtues form a coordinate system that surely navigates you through your entire life, with “magnetic north” being the Good. Whatever crisis or reversal befalls you, the way to maintain happiness and to get where you need to be is always a combination of these four virtues.

The mother of all the virtues is Gratitude. All virtues are a combination of Wisdom, Temperance, Courage, and Justice, and those Cardinal Virtues come from Gratitude. Wisdom, Temperance, Courage, and Justice are the natural response to gratitude for what Nature has done for us, what our friends have done for us, and what our country has done for us.

Questions from our social media

Q - How can a Stoic comfort someone who is very emotional?

A - There are two situations. Either the emotions are due to something the person can control or they are due to something they cannot control.

Epictetus specifically listed a person’s body in the category of what a person cannot control. In modern terms, Westerners tend to support this very point when we talk about “chemical imbalances.” When a chemical imbalance is the cause of the extreme emotions, a Stoic can comfort a friend or relative by helping them contact competent medical help. This is simply like encouraging kith or kin to see a doctor to set a bone or perform an operation.

The category of what we can control in life pretty much boils down to how we reason. If a person’s reason is the root cause of their unstable emotions, then Stoicism is the most effective, most efficient, and most ethical known solution. However, most people that are very emotional consider Stoic advice as simply another opinion from somebody they know. Nevertheless, the wise course for the Stoic is to continue responding with Stoic ideas to the emotional person, when appropriate. This means speaking the ideas. There is a tremendous power in the spoken word - the Logos. But, if the person you love does not take you and Stoicism seriously, they might be more responsive to recommendations to visit a psychologist that practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This therapy is the current Academic approach that is closest to Stoicism. Many people have first taken Stoic ideas from this psychology and have ended up pursuing true Stoicism.

Still, it is important to remember that comforting another is not something that you can control. We have a saying that the other person must be hungry, honest, and humble. We call it the three Hs. It is similar to the Stoic idea embedded in English as, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Hungry means the person must be ready to correct a problem in themselves they recognize. Honest means they must recognize truth when they encounter it, and they must be intellectually able to know themselves well enough to identify what blend of the two categories above is causing their extreme emotions. Humble means they must be willing to change their thinking and lifestyle. As you can see, this is the origin of the phrase, “Ready, able, and willing.”

Another thing a well-trained Stoic must practice is captured in English by the saying, “Mind your own business.” The Stoic School demonstrates how Nature defines what is your business and what isn’t. The School teaches that your business includes the things 1) that benefit you, or, 2) that you have a duty to do, or 3) that bring you enjoyment.

Therefore, 1) if comforting the other person does not benefit you in a great way, and 2) if you do not have a duty to comfort the person, and 3) you do not enjoy spending the energy necessary to do so, then it is best to realize that the matter is none of your business. You are witnessing Universal Reason pulling the person’s reason and body toward Right Reason; and that process neither needs nor will allow your help, just as gravity neither needs nor allows your help. This is how the Stoic School helps you identify and avoid toxic relationships (or, as Stoics in Eastern Europe put it, “psychic vampires”).

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