This article is part of a series of modified excerpts from the introduction to our book "On Virtue." 

Article 5 - Stoic Virtue

As you continue to know yourself better, think about your personal experiences with nature. When you consider an acorn, do you see some force of nature driving the acorn to become a weaker acorn or a strong oak tree? Would you rather have more energy or less energy? Stoics consider it obvious that nature seems to call living things to more strength, and it usually rewards stronger organisms more than weaker ones. This truth within us is why we do not find ourselves desiring to be ill; nature communicates an aversion to illness and an attraction to good health.

This is an important reality to the Stoic School: Strength is good.

Our ancestors noticed something wonderful about physical strength. They wondered that animals were naturally stronger than humans. They saw dolphins swim faster than man; they saw dogs run faster; they saw oxen pull more weight. They studied how nature gave small birds the mystical power of flight, while denying that power to man. However, man could still dominate every animal. The question was, “How can something weaker dominate something stronger?” There had to be a strength greater than the brute violence or the swift escape of which animals are capable.

The answer Zeno began teaching at the Stoic School was that the Cosmos shares with mankind a supernatural creative power that it withholds from every other organism. Zeno taught that nature requires men to do two things before it will unlock this mysterious power. Individuals must first develop their power of reason, then their power of free will. Zeno called the power of free will prohairesis. Another word for prohairesis is choice.

The four choices that individuals must make to experience human excellence are Wisdom, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice. The School calls these choices the Cardinal Virtues.

The term “Cardinal Virtues,” is descriptive in two ways. First, the word for “cardinal” comes from a Latin word that means “hinge,” such as you can see on a door. The whole door pivots on its hinges. Similarly, the best life a person can live hinges on the four Virtues. When someone seems out of control, observers might say, “He is ‘unhinged.’” It is a descriptive way of referring to a person who seems unable to function properly, just as a door with broken hinges is unable to swing properly open or closed.

Second, the word “virtue” comes from a Latin word for “strength.” This is because you become stronger and you make things around you stronger when you choose virtue. For example, making up your mind to act with Wisdom gives you the power to learn from your mistakes or the mistakes of others and the power to avoid repeating them. This allows you to accomplish more in life than you would by repeating the same patterns and expecting different results.

Choosing Temperance in dealing with friends and family prevents you from losing your temper and helps you avoid fits of rage. It makes your friendships stronger.

The power of Fortitude is that, during the most painful times in life, sometimes the only thing you can do is maintain your integrity. When it feels like the world is ending, choose to not give up. Remember that it was not always this painful and remember that “not giving up” does not actually require you to do anything.

Choosing Justice involves treating others fairly and living a law-abiding life. This gives you the strength to face your friends and community without shame. These civic virtues allow humanity to build civilization, to exercise benevolent dominion over other creatures and themselves, and to fly where no bird can.

These are the Virtues that are stronger than violence.

The next article discusses why some individuals choose virtue, while others choose vice.