Virtue as the Only Good
Live Like a Stoic
You can form an idea of what things seem good to the mass of people in this way. If someone were to think of the things that were really good—for instance, wisdom, self-control, justice, courage—he would not be able, while holding these in his mind, to listen to the comic saying about the man “who is so well-provided with good things.” The saying would not fit. But if, on the other hand, he holds in his mind what the mass of people think are good, he will listen and readily accept what the comic poet says as an appropriate comment. . . . So go on and ask whether we should value and regard as good those things about which, when we have formed them in our minds, we should appropriately say of the owner that, because he is so well-provided with them, “he has no room left to shit.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.12
Why do the Stoics consider virtue our only real good? Part of the answer stems from their study of nature and what naturally benefits us as human beings. When we consider those things that are conventionally regarded as good for us—like wealth, status, fame, property, and even our health—it turns out that each of these things can also be bad for us under certain conditions, especially when used wrongly. Obtaining such goods provides no guarantee that we will live well. Likewise with those things that are conventionally regarded as harmful to us—like pain, disrepute, rejection, poverty, and even physical disability—such things need not severely affect our ability to live well, so long as we react to them rightly. Virtue makes all the difference in responding to conventional goods and harms: when we use our wealth moderately, for instance, we live better than when we use it immoderately; likewise when we bear certain pains courageously, we live better than when we avoid them fearfully. In every case, virtue for the Stoics provides a guarantee that we’ll live better lives than we would otherwise.
The passage above suggests another way in which virtue can be considered our only good. Marcus frames the idea humorously, but his point is a serious one: our pursuit of virtue can be endless. With conventional goods, nature sets a limit on how much we may reasonably possess. This is why people who seek more and more wealth and material success end up with “no room left to shit.” By contrast, there’s no limit on the amount of virtue we may possess. Indeed, the pursuit of virtue can be regarded in this sense as an ongoing process of growth and self-development. You can literally never be too virtuous according to the Stoics.
Now, the idea that there are no natural limits for us in pursuing virtue sounds far-fetched, because nature does set limits on how much we can do. As Marcus noted in yesterday’s morning reflection: “one must rest too.” Here, however, it’s important to observe that (unlike Aristotle perhaps) the Stoics do not think of virtue as expressed essentially in our actions. Virtue consists, rather, in the state of a person’s will and our power to make good choices. This is why the Stoics also identify virtue with wisdom:
Remember too that philosophy (philosophia; lit. the love of wisdom) wants only what your nature wants, whereas you wanted something else, not in line with nature. What could be more attractive than this? Does not pleasure trip us up by its attractiveness? But see if it is more attractive than generosity of spirit, freedom, simplicity, kindness, holiness. What is more attractive than wisdom itself—when you consider how secure and how smoothly flowing in all situations is understanding and knowledge?
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.9
The good of wisdom lies in its security: the fact that, in every situation, it allows us to respond well to external events and impressions. Moreover, this is the one thing entirely under our control for the Stoics. Nature thus reveals virtue as our only good in two ways: first, in the sense that it’s the only thing that’s unconditionally good for us; second, in the sense that it’s the only thing directly under our control and so the only thing that really belongs to us. For this reason, the Stoics held, the pursuit of virtue requires focusing on what’s under our control.
Apply the Stoics’ distinction between what is under your control and what is not under your control to your life today. Construct a table with two columns resembling the one below:
To get things going, look at the items below and see how you would classify some of them on your table, bearing in mind that the key issue here for the Stoics concerns what falls entirely under your control:
- Travel plans over the holidays
- The opinions of others
- The product of your work
- The effort you put into your work
- A loved one’s distress
- Material possessions
- Your looks
- Your health
Add more items to the two columns during your day today, attending especially to moments when you feel invested in a particular outcome. If you find that the list of things lying outside of your control is growing long, see whether you can come up with parallel items for the other column of things that are up to you. A further exercise you might do here is consult the desire maps you completed at the very start of the semester and see how you might classify some of the things in those maps on this table.
As you fill out this table, ask yourself which things in the two columns deserve greater attention. Which things do you find more valuable?