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 responses to “Why Virtue is Sufficient for a Life Worth Living”

  1. s.wallerstein

    If Cato the Younger thought that virtue was sufficient for a life worth living, to quote the title, why did he commit suicide?

    The fact that he committed suicide seems to indicate that Cato felt that his life was no longer worth living, in spite of his virtue.

    Now Cato may have believed (probably correctly) that Caesar was going to torture him and humiliate him in public, but if virtue is sufficient for a life worth living and if Caesar could not destroy Cato’s virtue, even with the worst tortures, why not going on living virtuously?

    Actually, the example of Cato seems to prove that Aristotle is right: that some lives are not worth living.

    Now we may draw the line differently than Aristotle did. We may say that anyone who is free (not a slave or a prisoner), rich or poor, healthy or sick, can live a life worthy living, but it seems weird to claim that virtue alone is sufficient for a life worth living.

  2. Parallax

    >> 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.

    I would say that is precisely what Dan was protesting against in his essay (he can correct me if I am wrong). It is obscene to suggest that the death of a loved one is a way to test and improve one’s character. This is a form of denial, of not coming to terms with your pain.

    >> 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.

    That is not entirely true: “Still, years later, people would want to know what kept the captured pilots going. How did they survive for so long? Stockdale’s answer was not Epictetus and the Stoics. His answer was always, ‘The man next door.’” The quote is from the essay “The Inadequacies of the Invincible: On the Failure of Stoic Ethics.”*

    * https://medium.com/the-mission/the-inadequacies-of-the-invincible-919e768f3106

  3. Ought eudaemonism be causally linked to virtue at all?

    Relating eudaemonia to being a virtuous person may have arisen as the result of equivocation. It seems to be so for Aristotle where being good and doing good are linked as perhaps they should be. However he warps the connection by suggesting that the more good you can do the better person you will be. Ethics are propaduetic to Politics in his mind because in Politics the possibility to do great public good is enhanced. Doing more good means that you are more virtuous. The good life i.e. being successful is an indication that you are virtuous. Rhetorically it is because your Ethos is ample that you are trusted in the Polis. In Athens the concept of being a private citizen was tangential to your role as member of the polis with recurring public duties. In our time the family is the basic unit of society and we can regard the person who is of no public importance as having the same value ethically speaking as the politician. The struggling, debt ridden individual may be a good father or mother or friend and so forth.

    For me there’s a whiff of success gospel about eudaemonism that repels.

  4. Massimo:

    Great article! Good point saying that the different schools of virtue ethics understand what it means to lead a flourishing, exemplary, or ideal life differently.


    Massimo can explain himself, but I’d like to offer two answers to both of your points.


    >> 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.

    That is not entirely true: “Still, years later, people would want to know what kept the captured pilots going. How did they survive for so long? Stockdale’s answer was not Epictetus and the Stoics. His answer was always, ‘The man next door.’” The quote is from the essay “The Inadequacies of the Invincible: On the Failure of Stoic Ethics.”*

    If you re read Massimo’s quote, which you quoted and I have included, you will notice that Massimo said that Stockdale succeeded ‘in part’ not ‘entirely because’ of Stoicism. So, yes, what Massimo said is entirely ‘true’ on this point.


    It is obscene to suggest that the death of a loved one is a way to test and improve one’s character. This is a form of denial, of not coming to terms with your pain.

    I’d like to clarify something I don’t think you have properly understood about Stoicism. The Stoics think there is nothing is wrong with feeling pain. They have no issue with involuntary emotional responses in general. They are not ‘in denial’ about their emotions.

    It is a fact that everyone we love will die. This will likely cause most people pain. The Stoics do not oppose this pain, or any involuntary emotional response. Really, if there’s any emotion the Stoics are categorically suspicious though tolerant of, it’s anger, not grief.

    Stoics are interested in how you choose to look at acting, and actually do act, when you have the capacity to choose your responses rather than be driven by circumstance.

    If you think it is obscene to look upon the oncoming death of your loved one’s as something that you must grow through, I respect your choice to call this attitude obscene.

    But I do not think you can say this is obscene because Stoics are trying to deny pain. That is simply not true of Stoicism, whether or not you find Stoicism obscene for suggesting that perhaps we might try to anticipate, learn from, and grow through the inevitable and unpredictable deaths of everyone, especially our loved ones.

  5. I want to thank Massimo for doing this. I think everyone is better for having this kind of point/counterpoint, rather than just my critique on its own.

  6. Parallax


    I am short on time so I will only respond to your first point for now. The following is from the essay I linked to (“The Inadequacies of the Invincible: On the Failure of Stoic Ethics.”)

    >>“Did I preach these things in prison? Certainly not.”
    >>The truth was, despite the consolation it gave him, Stockdale never thought Stoicism would help his tortured cellmates. He never tapped Epictetus’s maxims in code through the prison walls to his friends. “You soon realized that when you dared to spout high-minded philosophical suggestions through the wall, you always got a very reluctant response. No, I never tapped or mentioned Stoicism once.”

  7. @Parallax

    Perhaps I have entirely misunderstood you.

    I thought you wrote and mean’t that Massimo was arguing that Stoicism is entirely responsible for Stockdale’s survival. Which as we both agree, is false. As you wisely pointed out with a helpful citation, Stockdale himself thought the formal doctrines of Stoicism only went so far in helping himself or others.

    But this point on which we both agree, that Stoicism was only one part of Stockdale’s ‘success,’ does not contradict Massimo, who also says as that Stoicism is ‘part of’ why Stockdale survived.

    Perhaps I have misunderstood your criticism, but it seems to me that you actually agree, rather than disagree, with Massimo on this point.

  8. I wonder what the ancients would make of modern psychology, with its delineation of the impact of fear on our mental peace. As “eudaimonia” means “good spirit,” does resiliency factor into the considerations of the Stoics and Aristotelians?

    Indeed, those untried by adversity never develop the psychological mechanisms of self-regulation – they are brittle, as Dan observed in a recent essay on the Millennials.

  9. ‘Eudaimonia’ translated literally means “human flourishing.”

  10. Parallax


    1. We do not agree. If you read the article I linked to (I admit it is not short) it is quite clear that Stockdale survived because of the bonds he developed with his fellow men, in other words, he survived because of one of those “preferred indifferents”.

    2. I read the passage you are referring to, (“despite the consolation it gave him”) in the sense that anyone will get some consolation from their belief system or a religion in difficult times. That is why we come up with them in the first place, the world is random, life is short, nature is cruel and we are scared and we look for something to console us. The story of what happens subsequently confirm that. What saved him? In Stockdale’s own words: “The man next door.”

    2.5. Let’s for the sake of argument assume that stoicism was the sole reason Stockdale survived. Why are we advocating a belief system that helps one survive torture, detention in concentration camps, and other similarly horrible circumstances to middle class and upper middle class people who are living comfortable lives in developed countries today?

    3. Finally on your second point. I find stoicism as a way of life quite cowardly. Of course nobody would object to involuntary emotional responses such as pain, that would be non-sensical. But stoics do deny the pain in the following way: they identify everything that can cause pain and suffering in your life which includes all your human connections: friends, family, loved ones, etc. and immediately degrade these connections by calling them “preferred indifferents”. The logic is simple: less emotional investment means less pain when the connection is severed, if you never fall in love nobody will break your heart, and that is cowardly and I would say it impedes true flourishing. The dictionary says flourishing means “Developing rapidly and successfully; thriving.” Rapid development doesn’t mean every step is full of joy and happiness, in fact I would say someone who has never experienced the pain that comes as a result of human connections (death, betrayal, heart break, etc.) has not flourished.

  11. Parallax: Seems to me that the “cowardly” part is unnecessary. It adds nothing to what otherwise is a fair critique.

  12. Parallax

    But isn’t it accurate?! What would you call your friend if he said he wasn’t going on any dates because he wants to avoid a heart break? I am happy to substitute your answer for cowardly!

  13. I think it is unnecessarily insulting. And it attributes motives to people who embrace Stoicism that may very well be untrue. One can criticize the underlying characteristics to which one objects without going after the person.

  14. Parallax

    We disagree. Also I am not sure what do you expect of me, do you want me to rewrite my post?

  15. Not at all. Just a thought for the future.

  16. Parallax

    Do you agree there is something excessively risk averse in stoicism to the point that it actually threatens healthy human life (thinking of “my daughter is a preferred indifferent”)? If so how would you describe that quality in words without sounding insulting? This is a genuine question.

  17. You just said it very nicely. Why do you need anything else?

  18. Parallax

    Good point! But here is some explanation/defense of my use of the word:

    1. It was the first thing that came to my mind when I initially wrote it a while back when I was commenting on your diavlog with Massimo on Sophia.

    2. There is a trade off between saying things nicely and getting your point across cleanly. I am not advocating being abrasive for the sake of it but sometimes you need to be so you can cut through some misconceptions.

    3. Finally there is another trade off between saying things nicely and economy of language. “Cowardly” is a single word that does the job, what I wrote above is a whole sentence and feels artificial.

  19. What you wrote above is more accurate than ‘cowardly’, which may be entirely untrue of the person you’re talking about.

  20. @Parallax

    I can see where you are coming from, I think.

    It would be fair to call Stoicism cowardly if the idea behind ‘preferred indifferent’s’ was that you should avoid them because they could cause suffering eg, your friend stops going on dates to avoid pain.

    Still, I think you may have confused ‘preferred indifferents’ and ‘disprefered indifferents,’ and what they mean for a Stoic.

    If a Stoic started avoiding social relationships as you imply the would, that would mean he saw people and social relationships as a ‘dis-preferred indifferent.’

    Now, a Stoic could come to this conclusion, but I’d call them pretty fucking out there, and at least so far as I know, no Stoics did this. That kind of response to people is closer to the Cynics.

    Anyway, usually, things like sickness and disease are ‘dispreferred indifferents’ for Stoics. Not people or social relationships. Friendship and social relationships, are in fact, perhaps the most ‘preferred of indifferents’ for a Stoic.

    The Stoic is not calling people ‘preferred indifferents’ to love them less or to avoid feeling pain when they die, rather the Stoic calls them that because he cannot control when they die(fortuna), and is trying to remind themselves of this fact.

    A greater appreciation of how unstable things are is often the first step towards becoming more grateful and taking active measures to live. One is impelled to be more grateful, kind, and loving towards others when one realize how you simply can’t take for granted that others will be around.

    Seneca concludes we need to make more social relationships and friendships precisely because people are subject to fortuna:

    “I realize now that my sorrowing in the way I did was mainly due to the fact that I had never considered the possibility of his [Annaeus Serenus] dying before me. That he was younger than I was, a good deal younger too, was all that ever occured to me – as if fate paid any regard to seniority. So let us bear it constantly in mind that those we are fond of are just as liable to death as we are ourselves.”

    Think how often people take for granted things in their own neighborhood or city, (eg museums etc) because they think it will be around. That they will have the time some other day. Or how often we put off being direct and honest with those we love because we think we will always have tomorrow. The Stoic will have no truck with this, precisely because they are so aware of how many things are out of their control.

    If the test of a way of life, is whether or not it creates cowards or brave individuals, Stoicism is under no threat of creating cowards. It is because the Stoic sees other’s as ‘preferred indifferents’ that I think they are more, not less, likely to be brave. You can disagree of course,

  21. Parallax

    I wrote “stoicism as a way of life quite cowardly” I did not call anyone in particular cowardly (the other time I use it is in the context of an example). Blame stoicism, not the stoic!

  22. Ah, my comment may have sent in before I finished editing it… But oh well. The quotes from Seneca are from Letter LXIII. I don’t know if this one wen’t through, I mean’t to have it in there, but here it is.

    “[Generally] Thinking of departed friends is to me something sweet and mellow. For when I had them with me it was with the feeling that I was going to lose them, and now that I have lost them I keep feeling that I have them with me still. […] “Let us therefore go all out to make the most of friends, since no one can tell how long we shall have the opportunity.”

    Sorry if the previous comment is helter skelter or otherwise noxious, was still working out the kinks before I sent it in. Anyway, thanks for the conversation so far Paralax.

  23. The Wikipedia etymology breaks it down as “eu” (good) and “daimon” (spirit)

  24. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/

    The concept of eudaimonia, a key term in ancient Greek moral philosophy, is standardly translated as “happiness” or “flourishing” and occasionally as “well-being.”

  25. You cannot adequately define words solely by way of their etymology. Definitions reflect customary use.

  26. I think part of the problem might be the use of the cold term ‘indifferent’. I might be indifferent as to whether my socks matched (as long as they are the same gauge) I am not indifferent as to burnt toast. Perhaps the term ‘outcome’ as in ‘preferred/dispreferred outcomes’ might capture the stoic sense better. Has this to do with a false friend translation of the Latin ‘indifferens’ i.e. things we cannot distinguish between which is different from things which we can distinguish between but where that distinction is not an important one. In any case virtue, in my understanding of the Stoic, arises out of the act itself and not from any result that arises from it. A result is just another result. This is akin to the Kantian action as an end in itself rather than a means to an end.

    Of course the Stoic takes in the natural consideration of outcomes if only to detach himself by an exercise of rational discrimination from getting over concerned with them.

  27. Anonymous Poster

    It’s nice to see your reply here Massimo.

    There’s a lot to chew on here. Brevity requires focusing on just one issue:

    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.

    I don’t find this a persuasive argument. One reason: draw your own conclusions from the following question — “If you were a German living in Berlin in 1935, what is useful to you in organizing your life, setting your priorities, and dealing with whatever life throws at you?”

    Another reason: the pragmatist move is unconvincing. So you think Stoicism is the right answer; Rorty thought it was liberal hope and solidarity; Anscombe highlighted, at the conclusion of “Modern Moral Philosophy”, how cheap disagreement can be on the topic of flourishing. The problem isn’t whether one finds this or that useful. If that is your standard, then all manner of evils become possible so long as they are taken as useful.

    The problem here is whether we’re positioned to speak of good and bad (or at least better and worse) ways that a life can be said to *go well*. It isn’t clear then that this gets us there.

    Another problem: The pragmatist move uses some sleight-of-hand to shove the “truth” question right off stage, but it doesn’t quite dispense with it. Why? Well, you’re telling us that truth is not, but utility is, salient. But that claim is either true or false. Now, you’re tempted here to pull the Rorty move and say “but I’m not talking about truth at all”. Okay. So there aren’t any explicit ontological or evaluative claims at work here. Now, let’s avoid the facile undergraduate subjectivism. The truth-conditions aren’t the problem here. The difficulty is that you’ve got no way to discriminate between good and bad, and probably not even between better and worse, when the Christian theocrat and the Nazi and the Trump voter comes knocking and they all say “me too! — and by the way, thanks for giving us a free pass with that usefulness talk!”

    You don’t want to say that, obviously. What you want is for the *Stoic* view to be right. But if that is right, then it is *true*. And if it is true, then you’ve got a real problem in dealing with a non-benign form of relativism. The conceptual connection between flourishing and usefulness commits you to upholding that claim as a fact about how ethical questions should be answered, even if it is not a first-order stipulation of moral principles or the goodness of a life.

    And if that is right, then this is also an ethical claim about the goodness of a life. What is good in a life *just is* whatever one finds useful in making sense of one’s life. True enough, this takes one step back from the ordinary “normative” questions of right action or well-being. But it is (an admittedly thin) standard of what is good (valuable, worthwhile, excellent, etc.): whatever is useful to the user. But that’s an evaluative claim dressed up as a neutral, non-normative propsition.

  28. s.wallerstein

    Some people are more sensitive than others, and I’ve known people who after a few disastrous relationships which produced great mental suffering, swore off love relationships with the opposite sex (or their own sex if such is their orientation). I don’t see what’s wrong with that or why that should be labeled “cowardly”. Why moralize (call someone “cowardly”) over a decision that people make to preserve their own mental health? I assume that people know their own psychological limits better than others who moralize about them from a distance, and thus, knowing their own psychological limits, tend to make the best decisions about
    what will assure their own mental health.

  29. Certainly. I was only thinking that as every Greek philosopher would have recognized the roots of the word, they might have seen that reflected in the wisdom revealed by modern psychology.

  30. TheDudeDiogenes

    I guess I don’t see why Aristotelians and Stoics couldn’t just agree that a flourishing life and a life worth living are conceptually distinct (and leave the word eudaimonia out of the discussion completely). A flourishing life (one which includes “preferred indifferents” such as health, wealth, education, etc) is a subset of a life worth living, but doesn’t encompass it.

    Massimo (and Dan), why can’t we just leave it at that? Why isn’t that enough? (Indeed, I can’t really see that we do anything other than that, psychologically speaking; since we can’t know how our life will end – and so judge whether it meets the criteria of flourishing – we live our lives so that we feel that they are lives worth living.)

  31. DudeDiogenes: I can only speak for myself. I cannot see how the two can be separated. The life that is worth leading is the life in which one has flourished.

    I think there is a very important, fundamental difference of worldview between the Stoic and the Aristotelian — and between Massimo and me. And it has to do with what one conceives a human being and life as *being*.

    Flourishing implies actual success in one’s endeavors. It is my view that human beings are essentially — not accidentally — embodied and encultured and that therefore, human *life* essentially — not accidentally — involves activity in the physical world, among and with other human beings. Consequently, the flourishing of such a being with such a life must involve actual success in the physical/social/cultural framework.

    I would maintain that to hold a view like Massimo’s you must define human beings and human life as essentially only involving internal characteristics and modes, and this is something I think is just wrong, when applied to human beings.

  32. TheDudeDiogenes

    Perhaps I’m simply “locked in” to my own personal evaluative framework, but I thought Massimo’s example of Cato was an excellent illustration of the difference between a flourishing life and a life worth living. Cato had integrity, and lived up to his ideals, ideals which many of us share; I don’t think it would make sense to say that Cato’s life wasn’t worth living, but he failed at many of his endeavors so it also would seem odd to say that he flourished (if flourishing includes some measure of success at one’s endeavors – I guess maybe what counts as success could be a point of contention).

    Another example that comes to mind is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a person of deep conviction, convictions tested in fires hotter than most people ever face, and even though he failed to kill Hitler, his attempt remains admirable. Isn’t his fortitude, when so many of his fellows gave in to the Reich, also admirable, something to aspire to? (A bit of a tangent, but I even sense something Camusian [to use a horrifically ugly word] about Bonhoeffer – he was a pacifist, but he tried to assassinate Hitler. He was, however, willing to die for his beliefs and actions [indeed, he did], and if The Rebel taught me anything, it’s that to take a life, one must be willing to lose one’s own.)

    On the other hand, admirable individuals who flourished (and are flourishing) might include such individuals as Mary Shelley, Bertrand Russell, Albert Camus, Bernard Williams, Martha Nussbaum, and Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie (all of whom succeeded at various endeavors, including writing and publishing many books).

    Although I’m not really someone who “buys into” virtue ethics, I think the virtue ethical idea of pondering who we consider role models illuminates, or so it seems to me, the difference between a life worth living and a flourishing life.

  33. TheDudeDiogenes

    Or maybe I’m a closet Socratic, and I really do think that the only life worth living (and, so, the only way to flourish) is to live an examined life.

    (I wonder what Nietzsche would say about that. Heh.)

  34. I was uncharacteristically somewhat critical of Dan’s initial essay for some of the reasons Massimo covered.

    Dan’s comment to the TheDudeDiogenes however points out an area where I side with him. I don’t think there exists any pure internal faculty that stands above or outside or removes us from the fact we are embedded in the physical and sociocultural world, and this embeddedness is always pulling on us constraining our freedom in various manners and degrees. Our embeddedness pulls on our passions, and it pulls on our reasoning capacity, but if it constrains our freedom it also serves as the foundation of our freedom.

    I think this all begs the question as to what is the nature of our autonomy in relation to our embeddedness. I will sound like a broken record, but for me Crispin Sartwell covers this really well in his recent book ‘Entaglements’. In the lead in to his ethics section he provides his take on freedom, constraint, and the relationships between passions and reason, impulse and intention. I think it well worth a read as it is a pretty unique take. One literary figure/philosopher he covers in the section is Freidrich Schiller. Schiller identified freedom, play, beauty as all taking place in the gaps or the wriggle room between nature and reason, neither being clung to yet both being present. This is a similar conception I think to Zhuangzi’s pivot of the tao. In the end Sartwell seems to endorse the concept of cultivating our wills such that they align with the way the world really is, and he identifies this as both a stoic and taoist conception, but he also indicates this is not possible for humans.

    One thing I am not grasping in Dan’s argument is what success means or how it is defined in the physical/social/cultural framework. Does this mean success only according to cultural standards? How would success be conceived when an individual has different standards than the cultural norms. I don’t think we can ignore or stand outside or above culture, but we also have some wiggle room for autonomy. If success is based on an integration of our autonomy and our embeddedness than I think I would buy the argument.

  35. Seth: I must admit to not really getting what is so difficult to grasp about my view. I would think that success is a common, relatively clear idea. But I don’t know that it has to be spelled out that specifically. The point just is that to flourish for an embodied, encultured, social being is, in part, to actually succeed in one’s endeavors, rather than simply try to succeed. It’s this that I think is what’s most wrong with Stoicism, and I don’t really see anything in Massimo’s post that satisfactorily addresses this point.

  36. s.wallerstein

    I’m not really sure what success is. What are the criteria for success?

    For a while, I was a news correspondent. I wrote for various media and worked for one radio station. They bought my work, but on the other hand, I sure didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize or get jobs offers from CNN or the New York Times. Was I successful?

    I’ve taught English as a second language for many years. Some students learn, others don’t. Many are bored, but a few are
    fascinated and inspired by my teaching. Am I successful?

  37. s. wallerstein: Yeah, seth said the same thing. Frankly, I’m mystified by the confusion.

  38. s.wallerstein

    Compared to a regular op ed columnist for the New York Times or to Norman Mailer, I’m a loser as a journalist, but compared to someone who never has sold a story, I’m a winner. Am I successful?

  39. That depends on your aims.

  40. It’s really simple. According to Massimo, in archery, success consists of trying one’s best to hit the target. I would maintain that success in archery consists in actually hitting the target.

  41. s.wallerstein

    If I can bother you with one more question…

    I never considered myself to be Norman Mailer or Joan Didion, so my aims were merely to sell some news stories, see my name in print and inform. So my aims were not ambitious and I believe that I fulfilled my conscious aims. However, isn’t that what you criticize Stoicism for, consoling people with minimal goals?

  42. s.wallerstein

    One more thing:

    The classical Greeks were unabashedly competitive and had no compassion for “trying hard, but coming in second or third in the race”. Achilles is stronger than anyone else and you’re out of luck if you run into him on the battle field. Even the Greek tragedies were presented in the context of a competition between playwrights. I think that Aristotle reflects that classical Greek conception of excellence, being a winner, coming in first.

    Today we tend to value “doing your best”. In addition, we’re taught our limits from childhood on: one learns in school that one writes well, but isn’t world class. So I do my best and sell some stories to some progressive media (which reflect my political posture, to be sure), but secretly, we all probably want to be Achilles in some sense, to be number one, to write like Norman Mailer or George Orwell (another great journalist) or Joan Didion, although we tell ourselves that we’re doing our best and we should be happy about that. In fact, most of the time we convince ourselves that that’s all we’re aiming for, but consciously or unconsciously, don’t we all want to be Achilles, to be number one?

    So probably Aristotle is more honest about the human condition than we are today. The Greeks tend to lie to themselves less than most of us do today.

  43. Sorry Dan,

    I’m really not trying to be willfully dense or unnecessarily argumentative.

    If from a stoics own point of view he/she had endeavored to regularly act within a stoic conception of virtuous behavior, and succeeded in achieving a good capacity for acting with that virtue, generally treating others justly, acting with practical wisdom, appropriate temperance, etc…..Yet, maybe due to living in unjust times and being unattractive with below average health, remained poor and single and did not attain a high social status. The person did have some achievements but they were not of the type to wealth or larger scale social standing. A small number of people who new this person well held him/her in fairly high regard, maybe a few were even inspired by this persons behavior, but most just considered him/her to be unsuccessful due to cultural norms. The person felt generally good about the life they were living, but if pressed would not describe their life as one of flourishing. Would this be a life well lived? Would it have been better lived if they focused more on achieving conventional success even if this meant sometimes behaving with what the person considered compromised virtue. It doesn’t feel to me like what constitutes success in the course of a life is so straightforward. I’m thinking of two members in my own family who would each be graded drastically differently on a success measure depending on the values of the grader.

    In any event I really appreciate all your public work (Massimos also ), and your engagement with those of us whose formal philosophical exposure is piecemeal.

  44. labnut

    The problem is that each person defines success differently, in a way that might have little to do with either virtue or hitting the target.
    In the archery club success might be:
    1) enjoying the convivial social atmosphere provided by a club.
    2) enjoying being competitive and rivalling one’s friends.
    3) enjoying winning.
    4) enjoying the progressive improvement in technique and results.
    5) enjoying the sense of mastery and power.
    6) enjoying the administrative roles in a club.
    7) enjoying a controlled outdoor activity.
    8) enjoying the sense of identity that the activity provides.
    9) enjoying the craft of manufacturing and maintaining the equipment.
    10) enjoying training and mentoring promising newcomers.

    From club activities I know that all these things apply to different people according to their needs and aptitudes. So Dan-K, while I am sympathetic to your thesis I feel your argument is problematic. Sorry about that.

  45. Enjoying is a mental state. To succeed in something is to actually accomplish something in the world.

  46. No. My problem with Stoicism is that it treats actual tangible accomplishment as a “preferred indifferent.” If you set out to publish stories and do so, them you’ve actually succeeded.

  47. Yes, that’s why I like Aristotle so much. He is brutally honest.

  48. What are you apologizing for? This is a great discussion thread!

    The point is not that conceptions of success can’t or shouldn’t differ. They can and they should. The point is that success has to involve actually succeeding rather than simply trying to. The Stoic confused tenacity and effort with accomplishment. Flourishing involves actual accomplishment and not just trying.

  49. labnut

    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.

  50. Parallax

    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).

  51. 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.

  52. 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 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..

  55. 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.

  56. 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.

  57. 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.

  58. TheDudeDiogenes

    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.

  59. labnut

    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.

  60. labnut

    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.

  61. s.wallerstein

    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.