Why Virtue is Sufficient for a Life Worth Living

By Massimo Pigliucci

My friend Dan Kaufman, over at the Electric Agora, has written a nice compact piece arguing that the Aristotelian view of eudaimonia — the life worth living — is significantly more defensible than the Stoic one. (Except, as even Dan acknowledges, when things aren’t going well and people live in times of turmoil. Which, one could argue, is most of human history.)

Dan and I, together with our colleague Skye Cleary, are assembling a collection of essays by multiple contributors offering a panorama of possible philosophies of life, that is, of different philosophical frameworks one may adopt as a compass to guide them to a better, more meaningful life. So this exchange between Dan and I can be seen as a preview of what the book is about, as well as of how to compare and contrast two of the most ancient philosophies of life.

The Aristotelians and the Stoics battled for the soul of their practitioners, so to speak, already 23 centuries ago, after Stoicism was established in Athens by Zeno of Citium, so this exchange belongs to a long tradition of which, I’m sure Dan would agree, the two of us are among the latest, and least worthy, interpreters.

The debate was about the sufficiency, or not, of virtue for a eudaimonia life. The Stoics (together with their close cousins, the Cynics) argued that virtue is both necessary and sufficient. In particular, the four cardinal virtues of phronesis (practical wisdom), courage, justice, and temperance. The Stoics (unlike the Cynics), also recognized that people want a number of other things, including health, wealth, education, love, friendship, and so forth. They referred to those as “preferred indifferents” (and to their negative counterparts, such as sickness, poverty, ignorance, etc., as dispreferred indifferents). They are preferred because it is reasonable for people to pursue them, so long as they do so without compromising their virtue (i.e., their moral character), but they are indifferent because, in themselves, they do not make one more or less virtuous. And since virtue is the only thing that matters for eudaimonia, they do not contribute to that either. It is a perfectly coherent system. But is it “true”? (I will come back later to why I put scare quotes around that word.)

The Aristotelians thought not. As Dan says, their philosophy also belongs to the eudaimonic tradition, and they too thought that virtue is necessary for a life worth living. But they did not think it was sufficient. Those things that the Stoics refer to as “preferred” are also needed. If your life does not — even through no fault of your own — include at least some health, wealth, education, and even good looks, you are screwed. No eudaimonia for you.

The distinction sketched above makes Aristotelianism an elitist philosophy, as it applies only to a subset of humanity. How large of a subset depends on the time and place, and also on just how much externals are really needed (Aristotle was pretty vague on this point). By contrast, Stoicism is for everyone: rich or poor, healthy or sick, educated or ignorant, you can still be eudaimon. Unlike the case of Aristotelianism, where luck is needed, for Stoics your eudaimonia is entirely up to you, Fortuna simply doesn’t enter into the equation.

As Dan clearly perceives, much — if not all, really — here depends on exactly what eudaimonia is taken to mean. I completely agree with my friend that translating the Greek word, as is often done, as “happiness” misses the mark. Happiness, in modern parlance, chiefly (though not exclusively) refers to a state of perceived wellbeing in the moment. It’s a feeling of elation, as in “I’m happy when I play the piano” (or when I have sex, or when I read a book, or whatever). This, very clearly, is not what either Aristotle or the Stoics had in mind.

But Dan makes a mistake, I think, when he seems to assume that the Aristotelians and the Stoics meant the same thing by eudaimonia. They didn’t, nor did several of the other Hellenistic schools. Indeed, a major way to classify and understand the differences among those schools is precisely to look at how they construed eudaimonia and the path to its achievement. Aristotelians and Stoics certainly disagreed between them, bu they both thought that the Epicureans, with their emphasis on ataraxia (tranquillity of mind), and their recipe of virtue plus physical and mental pleasure minus physical and mental pain, were far more misguided.

Dan, not surprisingly, adopts the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia, that of the flourishing life. Flourishing means that a eudaimon being is capable of pursuing a number of personal projects because she has sufficient material and psychological resources, including of course a measure of the above mentioned externals. She is sufficiently educated, say, to become a university professor. She is attractive enough to marry a good and interesting person and have children. She has meaningful relationships with her family and friends. And so forth. If we conceive of eudaimonia that way, it then becomes obvious that externals are not just preferred indifferents, they are necessary.

But the Stoics explicitly referred to their school as “Socratic” (which the Aristotelians definitely didn’t), in part because they inherited their definition of eudaimonia from the Athenian sage: it consists in a life worth living. This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it isn’t. Certainly an Aristotelian life of (virtuous, let’s not forget) flourishing is worth living, but that’s not the only kind falling into the broader category favorite by the Stoics.

Take, for instance, the example of Cato the Younger, a Roman Senator during the last years of the Republic that is one of the Stoics’ preferred role models, particularly by Seneca. Although Cato had access to some of the externals that Aristotelians think are necessary, he gladly did without them. While wealthy, he often walked around the streets of Rome in tattered clothing. He ate simple meals, though he could afford extravagant ones. And when he served as commander in the army he walked side by side with his soldiers, instead of comfortably travel on horseback.

More importantly, Cato’s life was marked by repeated failures. He lost two crucial elections, as praetor and as consul, that would have allowed him to more efficaciously oppose his political archenemy, Julius Caesar; he was unjustly accused of hoarding wealth for himself during his governorship of Cyprus, even though he was actually one of the few Roman officials immune from corruption; and, most of all, lost the civil war against Caesar, something that meant everything to him not juts as a politician and commander, but as a Roman citizen.

And yet, how did Cato react to such misfortunes? When he heard of the election results he went off to play with his friends. When he was accused of financial improprieties he showed his fellow citizens what sort of men he really was by way of his conduct, so much so that Romans adopted a saying for when excusing their own moral failures, “not everyone is a Cato.” And when he lost everything, he had the courage to commit suicide by literally ripping his guts out of his self-inflicted dagger wound, in order to retain his integrity and not be used by Caesar for political gain.

Was Cato’s life a flourishing one? Hardly. Was it worth living? The very fact that we are still talking of the man in admiring terms more than two millennia after his death is a testament to that, one that even Aristotle (who thought that eudaimonia could be assessed only after one’s demise) ought to have bowed to.

And it is not difficult to find modern examples like Cato’s either. James Stockdale was shot down in Vietnam and survived seven years of torture and isolation, which left him crippled for life, in part because he studied and adopted the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus. Nelson Mandela was not a Stoic, but his pivotal change from angry and bitter victim of the apartheid government to peaceful and forgiving leader of the resistance was helped by a smuggled copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. He still had to suffer 28 years in prison, though, hardly a life of flourishing in the Aristotelian sense, but certainly one worth living in the Stoic one.

The Stoics, as Dan acknowledges, do want to succeed at their endeavors. Cato wanted to beat Caesar; Stockdale not to be captured in Vietnam; Mandela not to spend decades in prison. But while the Aristotelians give up and declare one’s life a failure when things don’t go well enough, the Stoics find inner resources in their  conviction that the true measure of a person is in her character, not in the vagaries of fortune.

The Stoic attitude is not at all the cheap consolation prize that Dan describes when he says that it is akin to telling a kid who lost the race that he “did his best.” The point isn’t to feel better, the point is to look square in the eye at what cards life deals us and play them to our best, because that is all we can do. Dan is therefore profoundly mistaken when he characterizes the Stoic approach as a way to be happy with one’s life even if it isn’t a eudaimonic one. Happiness doesn’t enter into the Stoic equation. Knowing that one has done one’s best, and especially that one has tried to be the most moral person one can be, that is the standard by which a life worth living is being measured.

Dan argues that the Hellenistic philosophies are “philosophies under siege.” They, like Christianity thereafter (and like Buddhism in India, or Confucianism in China) are good for when people feel they have no control over their lives, especially in terms of the big picture. Aristotelianism, by contrast, is conceived by Dan as a “bourgeois” philosophy well tailored for “a time and place where there is unprecedented material prosperity, longevity, and overwhelming safety, as there is in the modern, industrialized world.”

Well, even if that were the case, I would remind my friend that most of the world, much of the time, has been, and still is, in a decidedly non bourgeois state of affairs. Even in the 21st century very large numbers of people live in poverty, war zones, slavery (literal or in terms of labor conditions), famine caused by environmental catastrophe or by the actions of fellow humans, and so forth. But in fact even we lucky (in the Aristotelian sense), or privileged (as the current parlance goes) Western white males face major uncertainties at both the macro- and the micro-scale.

At the macro-level, one only has to open a newspaper to find news of unfolding global environmental disaster, the possibility of a nuclear war triggered by an incompetent narcissist currently seating in the White House, and the resurgence (yet again) of a greedy Wall Street that is gearing itself to possibly cause another global financial catastrophe as if 2008 has never happened. And you think the death of Alexander the Great was destabilizing? Ah!

At the micro-level, we are all guaranteed to suffer major setbacks in our lives. If for nothing else because we are destined to die. And so are our loved ones and friends. We get sick, we lose love, and we may lose our job. Every such turn of events is a nail in the coffin of your eudaimonia, according to the Aristotelian way of looking at life. But for the Stoics every single one of those unhappy instances is an opportunity to test our character and to demonstrate to ourselves that we can get through it. As Marcus Aurelius put it: “Our actions may be impeded … but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Meditations V.20)

This attention to the everyday life of every human being is what makes Stoicism appealing, and what condemns Aristotelianism to elitism. Dan says that plenty of things that are elitist and unfair are nonetheless true. But “true,” when applied to a philosophy, is a category mistake, as I’ve argued at book length. Philosophies in general, and philosophies of life in particular, are neither true nor false. They are, instead, more or less useful ways of thinking. They provide users, that is, practitioners, with a framework by which to organize their lives, to set their priorities, and through which to attempt to cope with whatever life — which truly is neither fair nor just — throws at them.

Stoicism is one such powerful tool, and so are kindred philosophies like Buddhism and Taoism. They are not meant to “console” people, which would be patronizing. They are, rather, meant to empower them, to show them that no matter what happens, they can still find meaning in what they do. As Marcus, again, says: “In the morning, when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am rising to the work of a human being.” (Meditations V.1) And what does the work of a human being look like? Something along these lines:

Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. (Meditations II.1)

That is, life is always hard and full of challenges, even for a privileged member of the bourgeois. But we can all look at how things are, eschewing wishful thinking, and decide — regardless of the vagaries of Fortuna — to act in the right way toward ourselves and our fellow human beings. That, really, is all there is to it.

63 Comments »

  1. Enjoying is a mental state.

    Yes, one which is derived from accomplishing something in the world. In that sense I agree with you. Where I differ is that success is a highly variable thing which is unique to the individual and can be derived from the process of doing something. To recap a comment to an earlier post, I think the Japanese concept of Ikigai best captures the idea of flourishing, living a life worth living and well being. It is the intersection of four things:-

    1) the things you value
    2) the things you enjoy doing
    3) the things you are good at doing
    4) the things valued by your immediate society or community.

    Whatever it is that lies at the intersection of these four things, produces a uniquely satisfying sense of well being and a life well lived, if it is pursued and made the centrepiece of your life.

    Resilience contributes to this since one must often show a hardy perseverance in the pursuit of this goal. Virtue contributes in your estimation of the things that are valued by yourself and by your community. It also contributes since these activities are nearly always in a social context.

    Virtue and resilience are necessary for flourishing but Massimo has signally failed to show they are sufficient. This is a very large gap in his argument. I give the example of Ikigai to show that other things are necessary and that therefore, contrary to the title of the piece, virtue is not sufficient for flourishing.

    He also fails to show why virtue is necessary. I agree that it is but he needs to show this. It is only when we understand why it is necessary that we can gauge it’s sufficiency. As it is, he simply assumes it’s necessity as being self-evident, which fatally weakens his argument.

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  2. The discussion about what flourishing is, illustrates one of the problems: it is as if present day stoics are defining human flourishing to insure one can’t not flourish due to circumstances that one can’t control. In that sense it reminds me of karma or some related religious concepts that try to eliminate the possibility of being a morally good person and really bad things happening to you. This is a very dated and intellectually unambitious: even Christianity aims for more than (see Book of Job).

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  3. I worked this out when I was in high school. I wagged classes to go and see Taxi Driver and it was a bit of a sad day because, although I loved the movie, I realised that I couldn’t do that. I saw the film I was making, the studies I had done, the scripts I had written for what they were – talentless crap. Making movies was the only thing I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be rich or famous, I just wanted to make great films.

    If I couldn’t make films at that standard, then I didn’t even want to try. I also realised that it didn’t matter much which job I did because II would only ever work for a living.

    In this I don’t think I am the exception, I think I am the rule. But there would be no point in using success in my endeavours as a basis for the life worth living because I would never be able to do the one thing that I wanted to do. If it turned out I had talents in some other direction and could succeed in some other field, it would not be the success in the one thing I wanted to do.

    So is life worth living for me? Well I have never had any interest in suicide, so I guess it must be.

    As for virtue, I don’t find much in myself. I don’t have courage and don’t really care to try to get any. I don’t have much practical wisdom and as for temperance, well in younger days I had bouts of joyful drunkenness and reckless promiscuity that evoke nothing but fond memories, so I can’t really say that I exemplify that virtue, even though it is now pretty much unavoidable.

    So what do I get out of that? Maybe life doesn’t have to be meaningful. Maybe it is, in the words of Homer, just a bunch of stuff that happened.

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  4. But the point is, for all my mediocrity and vice, I am perfectly happy. I have managed to achieve much that is useful and interesting and I get by using the moral rule of thumb of trying not to be a dick as much as possible.

    I won’t achieve serenity or fulfilment but that doesn’t cause me grief. And I am very happy for those who can achieve these things and take great pleasure in seeing those who can succeed in ways I could not.

    Maybe the Ancient Greeks had a word for this, I don’t know, but they seemed to have covered off all of these positions at some time or other.

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  5. I still agree with Dan that there is much to learn from Aristotle and the pre-Stoic Greek understanding of the ‘good life. But I think this an excellent defense of a virtue ethic that seeks a ‘living with’ rather than a ‘living for’ attitude toward the vicissitudes of life.

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  6. Hi, a comment concerning Aristotle. The view that was related here to Aristotle, does not sound to me, for better and worse, at all like Aristotle’s view. The eudaimonia, the good life, according to Aristotle, does not consist in material and social success, but in a proper use of reason, the higher human faculty. Aristotle did argue that achieving _some_ external goods is a necessary requirement of the good life, and this is one point on which he differed from the Stoics. But this is a separate, external consideration for him. The good life is primarily measured internally, by a proper use of reason, and proper amount and depth of emotions, and not by external successes, for Aristotle. He held external goods be somewhat necessary, because some external goods are needed for exercising virtue. Not the other way around..

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  7. Obviously, I disagree entirely. Even Massimo did not disagree with my characterization of Aristotle, only with my contention that Aristotle’s conception of flourishing is superior to that of the Stoics.

    The central role that Aristotle gives to luck and fortune, not to mention the fact that he is quite clear that one’s flourishing can be undermined by one’s descendants and thus, cannot be determined until well after someone is dead, indicates that for him flourishing is not just a matter of possessing some internally admirable quality, such as reasonableness.

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  8. Well I already conceded that the good life is not _just_ an internal affair for Aristotle. But I disagree about luck and fortune playing “a central role” for Aristotle. In terms of text, luck and fortune occupy just a few scattered paragraphs in the Nicomachean Ethics. All the rest is about internal matters. Moreover, the really best good life, according to Aristotle, on top of the practical virtues, in a life of _theoria_: pure, impractical contemplation. This is another point where he differs from the Stoics. All of this is provable from the text.

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  9. It is not “provable” from the text. There is enormous scholarly disagreement over the relative positions of the account of Eudaimonia offered in Books 1-9 and that offered in Book 10. It is by no way a settled issue.

    Indeed, no questions of this type can be demonstrably settled or are “provable” from these sorts of texts. Which is why I remain in firm disagreement about your account of Aristotelian Eudaimonia.

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  10. Damn, I think WordPress ate my fairly lengthy comment. (If that’s not the case, please delete this.)

    Basically, I think disputes over interpretations ot Aristotle are rather beside the point.

    I’m happy to see perhaps mild agreement from ej (living with vs living for). To paraphrase Jesus, flourishing was made for humans, not humans for flourishing.

    I see that as somewhat parallel to my previous comments about eudaimonia vs a life worth living. Integrity, honesty, kindness – these are far more important, I think, than success at any (economic or political) endeavors (unless raising children and having strong friendships are endeavors). Indeed, (economic and political) success seems correlated with one’s degree of being an asshole (e.g. Trump, Weinstein, any number of famous actors or rock stars).

    I know many impoverished individuals who are kind, loving, raising children, providing mental and physical therapy, working hours (or even jobs themselves) that they don’t enjoy. Are they flourishing? Hardly. Are their lives worth living? Undoubtedly.

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  11. The Dude,
    Integrity, honesty, kindness – these are far more important, I think, than success at any (economic or political) endeavors

    We need to distinguish between an internal state and an external outcome. The moment we have external outcomes we can make some kind of judgement vis-a-vis their success.

    The virtues you list (Integrity, honesty, kindness) all have external outcomes and we can thus readily judge their success in a social context. Since we are irretrievably and irremediably social that is the only context that matters.

    The debate comes down to the question – which is more important? The internal state or the external outcome? The internal state precedes the external outcome so it is important and necessary for the external outcome. But has the internal state successfully produced a useful or desirable outcome?

    It is only when we divorce internal state from external outcome that we can avoid discussing success. But what is the point of an internal state without an external outcome?

    I know many impoverished individuals who are kind, loving, raising children, providing mental and physical therapy

    Their interior states have produced successful outcomes and in this way they are contributing to a flourishing society. Some contributions are large and some are small. We may flourish at a macro level or we may flourish at a micro level. We may flourish at an individual level or our actions may contribute to a larger flourishing society. But in all cases we are looking at outcomes and judging the success of these outcomes.

    But what do we regard as success? We might say that success is the realisation of intent but we usually mean success is the useful realisation of intent.

    When discussing the question of flourishing we simply cannot avoid the question of success.

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  12. Philosophies of life will teach many things but they invariably have a core focus that gives them their defining flavour. When we contrast philosophies of life we then contrast their core focus. The core focus of Stoicism is, without doubt, on the process of enduring the hardships and vicissitudes of an uncertain and challenging life.

    I think we can all agree on the necessity of coping with the vicissitudes of life. But how do we do this? Do we fight and rage against fate or do we just endure? The Roman emphasis(before the Empire) was on passionate resistance while the Stoic emphasis was on stony endurance.

    Which is the more useful approach? I suggest we are, by nature, passionate fighters, who never stop striving to subdue and overcome the obstacles of life. We are not born to simply endure. The passionate fighter never loses sight of his goals while the Stoic has relinquished his goals, desiring only to survive. The passionate fighter may lose but the manner of his losing will inspire a thousand others to win the fight.

    It is this unquenchable spirit, the desire to succeed and overcome in order to remake the future, and not just endure, thus perpetuating the past, which is the hallmark of our species.

    But that is not all. There is much more. We are a species born to love. We are born to love our fellows, to love goodness, to love beauty and to love truth. We are often imperfect and selective in the way we realise this urge and capacity for love but it remains at the core of our being. And this is where we see the great failure of Stoicism. It gives a brief acknowledgement, in passing to love, a passing wave, as it were. The Stoic will tell you that love is one of their virtues and, if you ask where it is, they will reply it is buried somewhere under the heading of justice. Who would have thought!

    That is because the overwhelming emphasis of Stoicism is on the self to the near exclusion of concerns about others. Concern about the self is always a dominant feature of one’s consciousness but other philosophies of life balance this with a strong emphasis on the other. Thus it is that great Christian figures, such as Jesus, St Francis and St Teresa of Avila can make ringing declarations of love and service that have echoed down through the centuries and still inspire us today. Where are the Stoic equivalents? There are none and thus you will not find Stoic hospices, Stoic shelters, Stoic soup kitchens, Stoic aid centres, etc, etc. Stoicism, with its limited emphasis on love(of others, of truth, of beauty and of goodness), has little power to motivate or mobilise.

    Given its emphasis on the self, its emphasis on endurance and its lack of emphasis on love, and given the resulting poor powers of motivation and mobilisation, it seems a non sequitur to discuss the contributions of Stoicism to a flourishing life.

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  13. None of the Greek or Roman philosophers saw love as a virtue, neither Plato nor Aristotle nor the Stoics nor the Cynics nor the Epicureans. There are no Stoic soup kitchens probably because there are no Stoic institutions or even organizations just as there are no existentialist soup kitchens.

    That Christians saw love as a virtue is a huge cultural shift. I think it’s a bit utopian to expect people to love humanity in general and it would be great if we could advance towards a society of mutual respect and fair treatment of one another. If there are people who love strangers and people in general, great for them, but it’s a lot to expect from most people, especially in a contemporary capitalist and individualist society where it’s every man (and woman) for themself. So mutual respect and fair treatment would be a big step forward for contemporary society.

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