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

Article 6 – Virtue or Vice?

The previous article mentioned that prohairesis is an important Stoic word that means “choice.” The most important choice an individual can ever make is whether they will choose a direction in life toward virtue or toward vice. At some moment in their lives, all virtuous people wonder why individuals choose a life of vice.

The main reasons modern individuals choose vice are ignorance, confusion, hubris, and wickedness. The first three are understandable; the fourth is incomprehensible to the virtuous.

Ignorance is insufficient knowledge, or information. It can cause you to do what is wrong even when you feel you are doing the right thing. The lack of information can be of two kinds. You can lack knowledge from your personal experiences (data), and you can lack knowledge of the experiences of others (wise counsel, or external data). In either case, making important decisions with insufficient knowledge makes unintended accidents happen. For example, almost all traffic accidents are caused by some driver not knowing completely where he was making his vehicle go in relation to other objects.

At this point in your learning about Stoicism, it is appropriate to clarify that the Roman statesman Cicero was not a Stoic and neither was the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Both wrote about Stoic ideas, but neither claimed to be Stoic themselves, and both wrote about their disagreements with the Stoic way of life. 

Confusion occurs when you have conflicting experiences or conflicting counsel and your mind is not yet strong enough to distinguish error from excellence. Confusion differs from ignorance in that ignorance occurs with insufficient information, while confusion occurs with too much information. 

The confusion that many individuals have about Cicero and Marcus being Stoics is a good example of why some make unwise choices in their life. In an automobile, confusion occurs in a driver when the road sign he needs to see is not easily distinguished from all the things he does not need to see.

Hubris grows in individuals immersed in today’s technological society who confuse the modern abundance of information for an abundance of wisdom. Modern hubris is particularly damaging to individuals and societies because it corrodes generational wisdom. To the Stoic mind, it is obvious that generational wisdom is vital to human thriving. The Stoic School refers to this socially accumulating wisdom by the special term, “mos maiorum.” In Latin, mos maiorum meant something like, “the way of our ancestor,” or more precisely, “the way of those wiser than ourselves,” or more recognizably, "the way of our Founding Fathers." When individuals disregard mos maiorum, they corrode their own character by deciding that their personal experience has taught them more about human life than the entire accumulated experiences of all those who lived before them.

Mos Maiorum is the fundamental ingredient of culture, and it is the essence of generational wisdom. Without mos maiorum, each generation would have to begin anew to discover what makes the best society. But nature makes one generation too short for that. Therefore, mos maiorum is a blessing to those in their 20s and 30s bestowed upon them by the hard work of their ancestors. It is fine to learn from your own mistakes, but wisdom saves you blood, sweat, years, and tears, because it allows you to learn from the mistakes of others and to aspire to a greater life than any other person has achieved.

Wickedness occurs when a person enjoys vice. Criminology and forensic sciences verify that some individuals relish the feelings they experience when they act wickedly and when they make others suffer. Fear, not kindness, restrains the wicked.

The next article will discuss the four ways of life chosen by the Western peoples.