Stoicism is the trendy philosophy of today, but it isn't new and has foundations in ancient Greece. Stoicism was one of the major philosophical approaches to virtue ethics, an approach to ethics where virtue is central. The stoics believed in the importance of four fundamental virtues, wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. These virtues are the four "cardinal virtues" and were seen as necessary to attain life's goal, eudaimonia or happiness.
Although stoicism has always preached happiness as life's ultimate goal, the philosophy has undergone many changes throughout history. Historians usually divide stoicism into three periods, the Early Stoa, the Middle Stoa, and the Late Stoa, including the famed Marcus Aurelius. No works from the first two periods of stoicism are available today.
Throughout the changes in stoicism, the idea of the four cardinal virtues has remained consistent. The motivation for pursuing these virtues was the end goal of happiness. The stoics claim that happiness is the end that everything else is done for. This is an idea shared with Epicureans, Peripatetics, and other philosophical schools.
The stoics also believed in an idea known as Summum Bonum. This is an expression that came from Cicero, a public speaker in Rome. The expression is Latin and means the "highest good". To pursue the highest good, people had to live in virtue. They described following virtue as not an easy path but a necessary one. The four cardinal virtues, wisdom, courage, temperance and justice were all distinctly defined by the stoics.
Also known as phronesis in Greek or prudentia in Latin, wisdom is the ability to distinguish between good and bad. The stoics believed that being able to differentiate between what is good and bad would lead to better decision making. The person who is wise is using sound judgment and logic over passion or impulse. The stoics saw the path to wisdom as a two step process. First, by reading philosophy and second by implementing that philosophy into your life.
Courage is the stereotypical virtue people associate with stoicism. Courage is often thought of as a single action in a specific moment of time. For example, a firefighter rescuing people from a burning building. However, the stoics speak about a more ordinary courage. For example, the courage to persist in improving your life. This concept of persistence and resistance was important in the Ancient Greek view of stoicism. The Ancient Greek stoics emphasized that by acting with courage you are not acting without fear. Rather than eliminating fear you are acting in spite of fear. This requires the wisdom to reflect on what is good or bad and the courage to act in accordance with what is good.
Acting with courage also requires acting with temperance, also known as self control. When the stoics talked about temperance they meant resisting desire and staying in control of your emotions. In exercising temperance an individual is striving for balance as opposed to fleeting extremes. For example, people are not relying on pleasure or pain to rule their mindset. The stoics applied this concept to many areas of life. For example, not wallowing and not overindulging. This challenge of someone achieving balance in their life, requires endless evaluation and regulation of what is excessive in our lives.
Justice is the final cardinal virtue and often the most misunderstood. While people might interpert justice strictly as criminal justice, the stoic sense of justice also relates to people's character. People who practice justice in the stoic sense have a strong inner moral code and act for the greater good of the community. The ancient Greeks divided justice into the sub categories piety, honesty, equity, and fair dealing. The stoics also believed in a concept of justice they called distribution. This meant giving people exactly what they deserve. This idea is prevalent in most criminal justice systems today.
While the four cardinal virtues all have distinct, defining characteristics, they were all seen as inseparable from the rest. The stoics believed that if you have one virtue you simultaneously have all the virtues. They believed, every situation is an opportunity to act with virtue. If you act with virtue everything else will follow, such as happiness, success, and love.
This philosophy can seem easier said than done. There are days when people feel exhausted, hungry and want a break. This might make the philosophy seem too impractical. However, the stoics would respond by saying being a good person and practicing virtue is difficult. No one is born practicing virtue perfectly and we have to work to improve our virtue all the time. In our daily life we have countless opportunities to practive stoic virtue. We can consider these virtues and make decisions that align with them to improve our own lives and the lives of others.