“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions — reason.” (Epictetus, Discourses I.1.5)
“Virtue is nothing else than right reason.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, LXVI.32)
The two quotes above encapsulate a lot of the ancient Stoic system of thought, as well as why it is so applicable to life in the twenty-first century. Epictetus, the slave-turned-teacher, who influenced the emperor Marcus Aurelius, is posing a deceptively straightforward question to his students: how do you decide whether to acquire an external good, like money, or how to use it? The good itself isn’t going to tell you, because it is only an instrumental good, that is, you want it because you can do other things with it, not just so that you have it. According to the Stoics, following Socrates, the only intrinsic good, the only thing that is good in and of itself, is wisdom, which they equated with virtue.
The reason why virtue/wisdom is the only truly good thing is because, by definition, it cannot be used to do bad. A wise person is the one that takes the right course of action, not just instrumentally, but morally. A wise villain, by contrast, is an oxymoron.
But hold on a minute. Epictetus isn’t talking about wisdom or virtue, he is talking about reason! And surely reason is morally neutral, there can certainly be such a thing as a rational despot, or psychopath, meaning someone who uses reason entirely instrumentally, in order to achieve whatever nefarious goals they set for themselves.
That’s why Seneca defines virtue as right reason, meaning an ethically informed type of reason, reason employed to do the right thing, that is, the virtuous thing, which is what a wise person would, in fact, do.
Let’s apply the above to Epictetus’ question: what are you going to do with a given sum of money? Instrumental reason would simply counsel to spend it on whatever makes you feel good, such as — in my case — buying an orange Lamborghini. Though my stipend as a university professor isn’t to that level just yet, unfortunately.
But right reason intervenes, telling me in no uncertain terms that buying a luxury sports car, even a beautiful one (and an orange one, to boot!), is simply not the right way to spend that kind of money. (In case you are curious, I just checked: a 2019 Lamborghini Aventador starts at about $420,000.) There is, of course, not a single wise way to spend the money, but there certainly are many — again, ethically, not just instrumentally — unwise ones.
So, should I then follow utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer and his endorsement of Effective Altruism (EA), and give away all $420k to the most effective charities I can find according to some evidence-based algorithm? Not necessarily. A major strength of virtue ethics in general, and of Stoicism in particular, is that the answer to pretty much any ethical question is: it depends.
It depends on what? On both the details of the circumstances and the specific situation of the agent, particularly the stage of development of her character, that is, how close to wisdom she is. Epictetus is again helpful here, particularly within the context of what scholar Brian Johnson has called his “role ethics”.
In Discourses I.2, Epictetus tackles the case of two slaves who are faced with the task of having to hold their master’s chamber pot. One obliges, the other one refuses. The first one is playing the straightforward role of a slave, while the latter seems to choose instead to put his fundamental role as a human being, and the dignity that comes with it, ahead of the particular role of slave. As Epictetus colourfully puts it, he wears “the purple stripe in the white toga”, meaning that he stands out from the crowd.
The way the conflict between being a human and finding oneself in the decidedly awful situation of having a master who insists that you hold his chamber pot is resolved, hinges on each individual’s assessment of his own character, which in turns leads to the choice of whether to accept or refuse to hold the chamber pot.
For Epictetus, it’s a matter of what a person thinks it is reasonable for her to do. As Brian Johnson clearly and succinctly puts it in his book, The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life: “A lowly slave can not choose to do the work of an extraordinary individual [like the other slave] because he does not have the power to bear it any more than the extraordinary individual can bear to hold the chamber pot. … It is up to our own initiative for each of us to introspect and identify what our own self-worth is.” Or as Epictetus summarises the concept: “Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.” (Discourses I, 2.33)
Back to my $420k and the temptation to buy a Lamborghini. Perhaps if I were a Sage — the ultimate Stoic wise person — I would do better than even Singer, and just give away the entire sum to the most effective charities (after having had a nice discussion with Peter about how he measures effectiveness, whether different kinds of charitable work are really comparable, whether his algorithm doesn’t bias things toward what can easily be quantified, and assuming he can reasonably assure me that embracing EA doesn’t end up just reinforcing the structural situation one is presumably attempting to mitigate).
But I’m not a Sage. So maybe I’ll use some of that money for the admittedly selfish end of extinguishing my mortgage, then some more to liberate my daughter from the yoke of her insane student debt (we live in the US), and finally a good chunk to my favourite charities, focusing on what I (not Singer’s algorithm) judge to be important or meaningful.
There is another way in which both the Stoics and other Greco-Roman schools defined wisdom: as fitting expertise. Expertise for what? For the art of living. John Sellars explains that the project of his book dedicated to philosophy conceived as the art of living, is “to explore the possibility of a conception of philosophy in which philosophical ideas are primarily expressed in behavior, a conception in which understanding is developed not for its own sake but rather in order to transform one’s way of life, a conception of philosophy that would make biography not merely incidentally relevant but rather of central importance to philosophy.”
Why the focus on biography? Because as Seneca put it to his friend Lucilius: “Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” (Letters, XI.10)
The Stoics were big on role models, for the reason Seneca mentions: we need a ruler to measure ourselves against, or we may not notice just how crooked we are. In ancient times, biographies were used not for historical purposes, or as entertainment (as we do, largely, today), but as moral object lessons. Think of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, or Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, or Xenophon’s Memorabilia, the biography of Socrates that inspired Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, to get into philosophy in the first place (that, and the fact that he was a merchant who had just lost his whole cargo in a shipwreck, surviving which put him in a somewhat contemplative mood).
Indeed, Sellars tells us that the ancient curriculum for practical philosophy had three components: the study of the biographies of people to emulate (or whose examples we need to avoid); the study of theoretical treatises, such as Seneca’s On Anger; and the study of practical books, like Epictetus’ Enchiridion. If you want to master the art of living you need to cultivate wisdom. And you cultivate wisdom by a combination of learning from others, understanding theoretical philosophy, and practising exercises derived from that theory.
Now imagine you get excited about what I just wrote and head to the nearest philosophy department to seek guidance about the art of living. You would be sorely disappointed. Modern academic philosophy is — just like any other discipline in both the humanities and the sciences — a highly technical and specialised field of inquiry, where people spend lifetimes studying the minutiae of a secondary work by Nietzsche or Kant (since the primary works have been done to death). Or, if you happen to be in the sciences (as I was for the first part of my career), those lifetimes will be employed studying the sexual habits of rare species of moths in the middle of Panama, or something like that.
Of course, there is value — intellectual, and sometimes even practical — in specialistic disciplines. But it is unfortunate that we don’t teach what is arguably the most important thing of them all: the art of living. This state of affairs may account for the superficially paradoxical findings that moral philosophers, i.e., people who make a living thinking about ethics, are no more ethical in their own lives than philosophers in other sub-disciplines or, for that matter, of faculty in entirely unrelated departments. (See, for example, P. Schönegger, and J. Wagner’s “The moral behavior of ethics professors: A replication-extension in German-speaking countries” in Philosophical Psychology.)
This is more than a bit odd, no? I mean, you wouldn’t expect, say, statisticians to buy lottery tickets, given their understanding of probability theory. Though, of course, that’s an empirical question. (Has anyone looked?) Or lawyers to be less law abiding than other people. Okay, maybe that’s not the best example. But clearly there is something wrong in the fact that someone could study ethics at the professional level for decades, and yet not act an iota more ethically than a control group.
And yet, the paradox is readily solved if we see contemporary moral philosophers as experts not at the art of living, but at the logical minutiae of ethical theory. The culture in the field is such, in fact, that when a professional philosopher does consciously attempt to live by a particular philosophy, like Stoicism, his colleagues’ reactions range from puzzlement to open disdain. Believe me, I’ve been there. And I don’t care, because Epictetus taught me that:
“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Enchiridion 1.1)
My considerate decisions are up to me, the opinions that others have of my decisions is up to them. Back to wisdom, I mentioned above that the Stoics considered right reason, virtue, and wisdom to be essentially synonymous. But in fact they were a bit more precise than that. They recognised four cardinal virtues: practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. These have played a major role in Western history because they were absorbed into the Christian system by Thomas Aquinas (who added three more: hope, faith, and charity).
Practical wisdom is the knowledge of what is truly good or bad for you. Courage is the propensity to act on things even though it may cost you. Justice is about treating others fairly and respecting them as human beings. And temperance is the ability to do things in right measure, neither too much, nor too little. For instance, let’s say I am witnessing my boss harassing a co-worker. What should I do? Practical wisdom tells me that it is bad for my character to be present at an injustice, being able to do something about it, and yet not act. Courage is what moves me to action. Justice tells me that intervening is the right thing to do for my co-worker. And temperance instructs me neither to simply mutter some vague objection under my breadth, nor to go full Captain America and punch my boss on the nose.
You can think of the four cardinal virtues as providing you with a moral compass. Any time you are pondering an action, you should ask yourself: am I being practically wise? Courageous? Just? Temperate? If the answers are positive, go for it, if not, abstain.
Here is the twist, though: the Stoics believed in the doctrine of the unity of the virtues, meaning that they considered the various virtues as different facets of one underlying thing, namely, wisdom. You cannot be courageous, in the Stoic sense, and unjust, because Stoic courage isn’t simple bravery in the face of danger, it has a built-in moral component. The same for the other virtues. I’m not being temperate in the Stoic sense if I abstain from a second helping of dark chocolate and pistachio gelato (though Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ teacher, did say that one can exercise temperance in the broader sense at the dinner table).
What unifies the virtues is our attempt to live in the best way we can, ethically speaking. “The best way”, is usually rendered in Greek as arete (ἀρετή), which just happens to be the word that gets translated (rather sloppily) as “virtue”. So it turns out that to live excellently as a human being means to exercise wisdom, which is nothing but right reason applied to the art of living.