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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.

Why does God permit suffering?

- by Seneca the Younger

Most do not like the answer, and many reject it outright.

First, the Stoic School uses “God” almost synonymously with “Universal Reason,” “Logos,” and “Nature.” So you do not need to believe in a personal God to understand.

Second, answers to this question usually commit the error of using different meanings for “suffering.” A doctor who sets your broken bone makes you suffer. A terrorist who tortures one of your loved ones to death makes you suffer. But, “suffer” is clearly referring to two entirely different experiences in human life.

The answer of free will does not satisfy entirely. 1) Free will has nothing to do with a person dying from a slow excruciating disease. 2) Free will also does not answer the case of the terrorist, because the victim does not get to exercise free will to avoid torture. So, free will is not some sacred gift to mankind that God will not let be violated.

The answer of a fallen world does not answer everything either. 1) The New Testament details how Jesus was slowly tortured to death. The Bible says Jesus was without sin, yet he had the capacity to suffer. He was perfect and chose to suffer. Why? 2) While God is not part of a fallen world, the Bible even says God feels pain (Ps 78:41). This cannot mean physical suffering as if people were punching God. So, it seems emotional suffering is part of God’s perfect image that is in mankind. 3) Even physical pain must have been expected for the world before the fall of man. After all, human bodies are prepared to heal broken bones, deep cuts, burns, and to adjust to periods of starvation. Why would God prepare humans for suffering if there was no need to suffer?

So, what is the Stoic answer? Most do not like the answer, and many reject it. Nevertheless,

Suffering is the only way for our minds to activate certain abilities that they are fully capable of developing.

The Stoic School has been so successful for so long because there is so much involved in developing those rational abilities. Generally, we call them Virtues, which is Latin for, “strengths.” Some refer to it as “mind over matter.” Some, like James B. Stockdale who was tortured in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, refer to it as “the Stoic Warrior’s Triad.” The Bible refers to this concept in Hebrews 5:8 where it says Jesus, “learned obedience from what He suffered.” The Lord benefited from suffering?

Even mortals who have endured excruciating suffering, such as James B. Stockdale, Pulitzer Prize winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Elie Wiesel, often tell of experiencing this phenomenon whether they ever became Stoics themselves. 

Proof of the Stoic answer to why we suffer is all around us throughout history.

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