One could reasonably argue that a crucial aspect of Stoicism is an emphasis on endurance. Which is why so many people think that Stoicism is “only” good to deal with hardship. Setting aside that there is a lot more to Stoicism than how to cope with hardship, we would do well to remember that every human life will, sooner or later, be marked by hardship. Even if you are the most successful, wealthy, and healthy person in the world, you will still have to face your own death. And before that, the death of some of your loved ones. So hardship is a human universal, it cannot be avoided.
That said, the management of hardship most certainly is a recurring Stoic theme, and is discussed by Seneca in his 67th letter to his friend Lucilius. Early on, Seneca makes clear that Stoics do not seek hardship, we are not crazy:
“I should prefer to be free from torture; but if the time comes when it must be endured, I shall desire that I may conduct myself therein with bravery, honor, and courage. … Nor am I so mad as to crave illness; but if I must suffer illness, I shall desire that I may do nothing which shows lack of restraint, and nothing that is unvirtuous. The conclusion is, not that hardships are desirable, but that virtue is desirable, which enables us patiently to endure hardships.” (LXVII.3,4)
Most of us are unlikely to ever face torture, but we will all have to deal with illness, if we haven’t already. This is particularly obvious at the time of this writing, when the covid-19 pandemic is still raging strong, despite worldwide efforts to stem it and the availability of multiple vaccines. As Seneca says, nobody in her right mind actually seeks illness, but what happens if you have to deal with? How will you respond? Epictetus would remind us that avoiding illness is not under our control, because it may happen regardless of our best efforts. What very much is under our control is to decide how to behave once we have fallen ill.
A few years ago a friend of mine who worked in a home for the terminally ill told me that it was a very stressful job. I thought he was referring to the distress of seeing so many fellow human beings dying on a regular basis. He said that yes, that was part of it. But there was also the fact that a remarkably high number of those patients were abusive of the staff that was taking care of them. Apparently, they thought that dying gave them permission to be nasty toward other people, even those who were actually there to help. A Stoic would refrain from such behavior, as understandable as perhaps it is. Indeed, the situation I just described is an excellent test of character: if you are serious about practicing virtue, it is hard to imagine a better occasion than being kind to others while you are facing your own mortality.
Notice also, in the above passage, that Seneca very clearly states that it isn’t that hardship is desirable — again, we are not masochists! — but rather than virtue is desirable, and virtue is only evident when circumstances test us. Which is why we read:
“If you have nothing to stir you up and rouse you to action, nothing which will test your resolution by its threats and hostilities; if you recline in unshaken comfort, it is not tranquillity; it is merely a flat calm.” (LXVII.14)
We can talk the good talk all we want, but we will not know if we are up to the challenge until the challenge comes. In a sense, a Stoic looks forward to a challenge, again not because she wants to experience hard times, but because that is what she has prepared for. Marcus Aurelius likens life to a wrestling match, and Epictetus says that our “trainer,” that is, the universe, constantly sends us challenges to make sure we don’t slack off, keeping us ready to deal with life’s ever changing circumstances.
So virtue is the key, but what exactly is virtue? Elsewhere Seneca tells us that it is nothing but “right reason,” meaning the reason of a social animal like Homo sapiens, which tells us that a good life is one in which we are helpful to our fellow human beings. In this letter he addresses a related Stoic notion, that of the unity of virtues. He says:
“There is the whole inseparable company of virtues; every honorable act is the work of one single virtue, but it is in accordance with the judgment of the whole council.” (LXVII.10)
You might have heard that the Stoics recognized four principal, or cardinal, virtues: practical wisdom (i.e., knowledge of good and evil), courage, justice, and temperance. Aristotle, ever the taxonomist, went so far as listing 12 virtues. (If you really want the full catalogue, here it is: courage; temperance; liberality — i.e., spending generously; magnificence — i.e., charisma, style; magnanimity; ambition; patience; friendliness; truthfulness; wit, modesty; and justice.) Regardless of how many virtues one may recognize, the Stoics thought that they are all aspects of a single underlying property of character: wisdom.
That is why the virtues cannot contradict each other, in Stoic ethics. One cannot meaningfully be, say, courageous and yet unjust. That’s because courage isn’t just the ability to face danger, but rather the moral courage of doing the right thing. Courage and justice, therefore, are inextricably intertwined. And so it is for the other virtues. In any particular instance, Seneca says, we may glimpse the doings of one or two of the virtues. But our actions are the result, as he puts it, of “the whole council.” And a major goal of Stoic practice is to refine the sharpness of that council, so that we may act virtuously no matter what the specific circumstances.