The Stoic Virtues and Code of Honor

What might a code of conduct based on Stoicism look like?


Marcus Aurelius in military cuirass

Something about the chivalric codes of the Middle Ages seems curiously akin to the ethical ideals of Stoicism. Ancient Stoic philosophy didn’t have an explicit code of honor, as far as we know. However, according to the doxographer Stobaeus, the Stoics maintained that the goal of their philosophy, “living in agreement with nature”, was synonymous with “living honorably”. Moreover, a basic code of honorable conduct is clearly implicit in the surviving writings of Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and our other sources for the philosophy.

Stoics liked to have lists that could be easily committed to memory. Most obviously, there is their list of four cardinal virtues, which goes back at least as far as the portrayal of Socrates in the dialogues of Plato: Wisdom (sophia), Righteousness (dikaiosune), Fortitude (andreia), and Temperance (sophrosune); or Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Moderation, in more modern language. These virtues came to be represented by four corresponding animals in the traditional symbol known as the tetramorph: the man of wisdom, eagle of justice, lion of fortitude, and ox or bull of temperance.

The Christian tetramorph: man, eagle, lion, bull

The doxographer Diogenes Laertius said that the Stoics described the supreme good as “honorable” because it consists of these four factors required for the perfection of human nature: the virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and, as he writes, orderliness (self-discipline or moderation). The “honorable”, he says, denotes those qualities which make their possessor genuinely praiseworthy, by allowing him to fulfil his natural potential as a human being. The Stoics concluded therefore that the wise man alone is honorable and “that only the honorable is good”. The good and the honorable are synonymous, in other words. However, the good is also that which is beneficial. The Stoics believed that doing what is honorable is in our own best interests because it allows us to flourish as human beings.

We might briefly summarize the Stoic code of honor described below as follows:

  1. Love the truth and



Donald J. Robertson
Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Cognitive psychotherapist, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. Sign up for my new Substack newsletter: