The Stoic Virtues and Code of Honor

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

Donald J. Robertson
Aug 23, 2019 · 10 min read
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 seek wisdom

In addition to this fourfold scheme, some of the Stoics also refer to a threefold rule of life, which Epictetus describes as the distinction between the Discipline of Assent, the Discipline of Action, and the Discipline of Desire and Aversion. It’s easy to combine these threefold and fourfold models, though, as shown below. The Stoics regarded courage and moderation as two aspects of the discipline required to live consistently in accord with wisdom and justice, by mastering our fears and desires. We can see that in the famous slogan attributed to Epictetus: endure and renounce. Endure our fears (courage) and renounce our desires (moderation) — the Discipline of Desire and Aversion.

The four cardinal virtues, and examples of Stoic indifferents

Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, defined the supreme goal as a “smoothly flowing life”, or “living in agreement with Nature”. For the Stoics this came to mean living consistently and in harmony with our own nature, as rational beings, with the rest of mankind, and with Nature as a whole, particularly the external events that befall us in life. For example, Marcus Aurelius uses this threefold model to express the basic Stoic code of conduct throughout The Meditations.

Every nature is contented when things go well for it; and things go well for a rational nature when it [1:] never gives its assent to a false or doubtful impression, and [2:] directs its impulses only to actions that further the common good, and [3a:] limits its desires and aversions only to things that are within its power, and [3b:] welcomes all that is assigned to it by universal nature. (Meditations, 8.7)

Likewise,

It is sufficient that [1:] your present judgement should grasp its object, that [2:] your present action should be directed to the common good, that [3:] your present disposition should be well satisfied with all that happens to it from a cause outside itself. (Meditations, 9.6)

Marcus attributes these ideas to Epictetus:

No one can rob us of our free will, said Epictetus. He said too that [1:] we ‘must find an art of assent, and [2:] in the sphere of our impulses, take good care that they are exercised subject to the “reserve clause”, and that they take account of the common interest, and that they are proportionate to the worth of their object; and [3a:] we should abstain wholly from immoderate desire, and [3b:] not try to avoid anything that is not subject to our control’. (Meditations, 11.36–37)

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius

1. The Discipline of Assent — Stoic Mindfulness

The Virtue of Wisdom: Love the Truth

The very word philosophy literally means “love of wisdom”, which entails the love of truth. Socrates taught that genuine wisdom consists in grasping the truth about the most important things in life. For Stoics, wisdom therefore consists in our ability to grasp the nature of the supreme good, i.e., the goal of life. Put differently, it’s the knowledge of what is good, bad, and indifferent. You can therefore also describe wisdom as the ability to know what helps us flourish and achieve fulfillment (eudaimonia) in life, or what harms us in that regard. The Stoics use the word prosoche (attention) to describe the practice of continual mindfulness regarding our ruling faculty and its use of judgements in daily life, especially the way our value judgements shape our desires and emotions. Wisdom requires “Stoic mindfulness”, in other words.

However, the virtue of wisdom, and therefore Stoic honor, is also associated with the ability to be scrupulously honest both with oneself and others. Wisdom can’t exist alongside self-deception and justice can’t exist as long as we’re deceiving others. Wisdom is the ability to grasp the truth about the most important things in life, to perceive its implications for daily life, and to communicate as clearly as possible on that basis. Epictetus calls this the Discipline of Assent. We should avoid giving our assent to impressions that are false. Rather we must firmly grasp hold of certain basic truths such as those concerning the nature of the supreme good in life, i.e., that it consists of wisdom and virtue.

In the 19th century, Gautier summarized the Ten Commandments of medieval European chivalry. We can compare his code of honor with the four Stoic virtues and three disciplines. However, chivalry was wedded to Christianity so instead of loving philosophical truth and wisdom, Gautier’s equivalent would be the more doctrinaire: “Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches and thou shalt observe all its directions.” Yet Christian knights are expected to embrace truth and honesty just like the Stoic code: “Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.” A Stoic code of honor would therefore require being ruthlessly honest with yourself and not deceiving yourself or others — Stoics also avoid jumping to conclusions rashly in areas where the truth is uncertain. The virtue of wisdom is traditionally symbolized in the tetramorph by the image of a man.

2. The Discipline of Action — Stoic Philanthropy

Justice: Seek to Help Others, Fate Permitting

Wisdom applied to our actions leads to the virtue of justice, although in Stoicism this is a broad concept which could better be described in more general terms as social virtue. Marcus Aurelius constantly reminds himself that his actions should be dedicated to the fundamental goal of life, the attainment of wisdom and virtue. However, the virtue of justice must also aim at an external outcome and for Stoics that is the common welfare of mankind. Everything a Stoic does should contribute, in some small way, to benefiting humanity, or at least not do the opposite. We might describe this as “Stoic philanthropy” or brotherly love.

However, as other people are externals, beyond our direct control, Stoics have to pursue their welfare with the caveat “Fate permitting” — known as the Stoic “reserve clause” (hupexairesis). Cicero explained this through the famous metaphor of the archer. He can take aim at a target and fire his arrow skilfully but once it has flown from the bow, whether or not it hits the target is in the hands of fate. He takes aim to the best of his ability but accepts that the target could move, for instance, and accepts either success or failure with emotional equanimity.

Marcus says that the Discipline of Action is threefold. It requires acting for the common welfare of mankind, with the caveat “Fate permitting”, but also using reason to judge the relative value (axia) of different outcomes in order to determine the most appropriate course of action. The Stoic virtue of justice consists of two main qualities: kindness and fairness.

Kindness is simply the opposite of anger, according to the Stoics. Anger typically consists in the desire to harm others because of some perceived injury, the desire for vengeance. Kindness, by contrast, is the desire to help others. We help others, even our “enemies”, by educating them and bringing them closer to wisdom. However, the Stoics recognize that it’s natural to “prefer” certain external advantages in life, such as health, wealth, and reputation, so long as they’re only desired within reasonable bounds and not excessively. That means, though, that we must exercise judgment to rationally determine in each case the difference between having enough sleep, for instance, and having too much.

Gautier’s chivalric code requires medieval knights to defend their nation and the Christian community: “Thou shalt defend the Church”, “Thou shalt love the country in which thou wast born.” However, it also requires knights to pledge their lives to protecting the poor and the weak: “Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them”, “Thou shalt be generous, and give largesse to everyone”, “Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.” Stoics likewise dedicate their lives to acting wisely and with the social virtues of justice, fairness, and kindness, acting for the common welfare of mankind, Fate willing, i.e., while accepting that the outcome is not directly under their control. The virtue of justice is symbolized in the tetramorph by the image of an eagle.

Cato of Utica in Dante’s Purgatory, by Gustav Dore

3. The Discipline of Desire and Aversion — Stoic Acceptance

Seek not for events to happen as you wish but wish events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly. — Handbook

The last two virtues are closely-related and can be viewed as the twin virtues of self-mastery. Epictetus combines them in his slogan “endure and renounce” (or “bear and forbear”). Epictetus believed that novice Stoics should begin their training by focusing on these virtues. We can call this “Stoic acceptance” because it requires a kind of resignation to external events, beyond our direct control, that the majority of people struggle against, seeking to change or avoid. The Stoics famously used the metaphor of a dog tied to a cart to illustrate this. The fool is like a dog who tries to sit down or run in the opposite direction but is dragged along roughly by its leash anyway. The wise man is like the dog who keeps pace with the cart, for whom things go smoothly because he accepts and adapts to his fate.

a. Courage: Endurance in the Service of Wisdom and Justice

With courage and endurance we face our fears and patiently bear unpleasant feelings, such as hunger and fatigue, and even pain. The Stoics constantly remind themselves of the paradox that our fear does us more harm than the things of which we’re afraid. However, the majority of people tend to confuse recklessness with courage. Courage without wisdom, as Socrates pointed out, though, is not a virtue — it’s just reckless or foolhardy. Even criminals act fearlessly, or endure pain and discomfort, but they do so in the pursuit of base and vicious goals.

Gautier’s chivalric code requires knights to show courage: “Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.” Stoics likewise view pain with relative indifference and are willing to face things feared by the majority of people, in the service of wisdom and justice. The virtue of courage is symbolized in the tetramorph by the image of a lion.

b. Moderation: Sacrifice in the Service of Wisdom and Justice

Through the virtue of moderation or temperance, we limit our desires to what reason determines to be appropriate under the circumstances, renouncing excess and forbearing from over-indulgence. As the famous maxim of the Delphic Oracle said: “nothing in excess” — all things in moderation. However, the majority of people, again, tend to confuse the appearance of self-discipline with the real thing. Vain and greedy individuals often exercise self-discipline in one area of their lives in order to indulge themselves in others.

Guatier’s version of the chivalric code requires Christian knights to fulfil their duties in a conscientious and disciplined manner: “Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.” Stoics view pleasure with relative indifference and are therefore willing to forego things desired by the majority of people, living in a self-disciplined manner in the service of wisdom and justice. The virtue of temperance is symbolized in the tetramorph by the image of an ox or bull.

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

Donald J. Robertson

Written by

Writer and cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist. Author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019)

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

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