In order to have a good life and be happy, perhaps we should identify the moral virtues necessary on which all other virtues hinge.
What is “good”?
The term “good” and how it applies to our lives is obviously impacted by our own situation and cultures. Seneca says in this letter that we know what is “good” or what the virtues are, because we empirically observe human behavior to see what types of behaviors humans truly admire. We then compare and contrast these observations against behavior that seems to make people distinctly unhappy. Using our empirical observations along with applying reason to these observations, we come to the conclusion that the virtues are the ideal behaviors of humans.
The Stoics obtained their original concept of virtue mainly from Socrates, but then added some of their own thoughts and observations to the ideas of virtue, such as all the virtues being one and the same thing yet.
The four virtues
Guidance on these virtues comes from Stoic readings and provides a framework for our lives. We can read more about this from Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.6:
If you find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self-control, courage… turn to it with all your heart and enjoy the supreme good that you have found…but if you find all other things to be trivial and value less in comparison with virtue give no room to anything else, since once you turn towards that and divert from your proper path, you will no longer be able without inner conflict to give the highest honour to that which is properly good. It is not right to set up as a rival to the rational and social good [virtue] anything alien its nature, such as the praise of the many or positions of power, wealth or enjoyment of pleasures.
In this he is suggesting that philosophy, or the love of wisdom, primarily centers on the core virtues of wisdom, justice, moderation, and courage. We should value these virtues in our own behaviors and those of others.
We only need to focus on these aspects to have a good life, and experience genuine fulfillment. In short, to have a good life, be a good person.
You might ask yourself about the other things we use to measure how good and happy we are. What about health, family, personal wealth, and property? Surely the new phone, or a shiny car will improve my quality of life.
The stoics believe that the four virtues are a complimentary set that allow us to live well, deal with others, manage emotions and desires. These four virtues are:
These four virtues are an ideal and something we should strive for each day. If you have focus on these four in your interactions throughout the day, and your life, everything else will work itself out.
How to make this happen
We should start with the premise that we should live according to our ideal nature as rational and social animals. We then use the four virtues to guide our actions and responses throughout the day.
- Wisdom is the application of reason to life.
- Justice is the application of wisdom to social situations (understanding what is right).
- Courage, or fortitude, is the application of wisdom to adversity (understanding what is truly good, and that external adversity is not bad but merely unpleasant).
- Temperance is the application of wisdom to temptation (understanding what is truly good, and that external pleasures are not good but merely pleasant).
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