Several weeks ago, I promised to post about how the Stoic virtues and passions can contribute to the effective and ethical practice of law. In the meantime, Michel Daw at Living the Stoic Life posted an article discussing the Stoic concept of passion (pathê) with far better clarity than I was approaching in my drafts. I recommend it to your attention.
After a few attempts, I’ve reached the realization that I can’t meaningfully distill all of this into a single post. I will begin by discussing virtues. These are qualities which will aid in developing that excellence and coordination with the dictates of reason and nature that are the goals of a Stoic life. In coming weeks, I’ll address how these relate more specifically to practicing law.
Zeno identified four qualities Stoics should cultivate:
- Wisdom – knowledge of what is Good, Bad, or Indifferent
- Courage – wisdom concerned with endurance
- Temperance – wisdom concerned with acquisition
- Justice – wisdom concerned with distribution
The core of these virtues is a focus on three categories into which every item or experience can be placed. A thing can be:
(a) Good – an absolute category containing only those things which should be sought after by all people; that which is ethically beneficial;
(b) Bad – an equally absolute category containing only those things which should be avoided by all people; that which is ethically harmful; or
(c) Indifferent – the largest category containing all those things which can be either helpful or harmful depending on their use and the circumstances.
The major importance of these categories is the understanding that most things fall into the last one. Those things (wealth/poverty, power/weakness, liberty/slavery) may be reasonably preferable or not preferable, but they are not Good or Bad because they cannot by themselves dictate ethical development and do not signal ethical development. They are a rejection of the idea that the character of a person can be determined by or judged upon anything but their own choice and reason.
I have arranged the list of virtues in the order I imagine they must need to be learned in most instances. The first one is obvious, since three virtues are characterized by the exercise of wisdom, wisdom must be learned first. A person does this by abandoning the idea that wealth, liberty, power, sex, family, satiety, etc. will make him happy or that poverty, bondage, weakness, abstinence, loneliness, hunger, etc. will make him wretched. Instead he must recognize that only virtue will make him happy and that much of virtue lies in accepting that his only real power is to make the choice of how he will act or respond to stimuli, over the presentation of which he has no power.
After wisdom, I have classed the other qualities in an order that appears most natural. A person with nothing but wisdom must learn courage. He or she must learn what things can be endured, what things cannot be endured, and to be reconciled to the result either way. The Stoic must learn the secret of courage, which is that there are two possibilities; either one is capable of enduring the current circumstances or one is not. If capable, the person will eventually come through those circumstances and so should not act unreasonably in response to current duress. If incapable, the person will eventually be released from the circumstances by death and so should not act unreasonably in response to current duress. The intervening stress or pain is not Bad, the possibility of death is not Bad; they are both merely not preferable. The only truly Bad thing that could occur would be if a person were to act out of accordance with reason and nature, which would not happen if the person develops wisdom concerning endurance.
After enduring the period spent with nothing but wisdom and courage, a person will tend to have the ability to acquire things. These will be friends, family members, possessions, skills, social standing, and so forth. Temperance is the quality that a Stoic needs to develop to manage that acquisition. The chief danger at this point is that a person might lose track of the lessons learned earlier in the process and begin to seek to acquire things out of line with reason and nature. Chiefly, that might happen if a person were to begin to see those things as Good or the lack of them as Bad.
Once a person has accumulated wealth, family, friends, a position, etc., he or she is then faced with two problems of distribution. The first is that he or she must then consider how to wisely use those things he or she has accumulated. The person will need to avoid using the power that can be gained through distribution for wasteful purposes. For example, it would be tempting to abandon the lessons learned about the relative value of things and spend all of one’s gains on creature comforts and other luxuries. That could lead to chasing after luxury as if it were Good instead of merely preferable.
The second problem of distribution is that a person runs the risk of mistakenly valuing that which he or she has acquired to the point that one can no longer bear its loss. Although it is inevitable that a person will be separated from the things he or she acquires, a person may tend to grow so accustomed to those things that he or she begins to consider them necessary or Good. At that point, the person will require the aid of Justice to understand the redistribution of the things he or she has gained. By focusing on the understanding that those things are not Good and by understanding that the nature of the Universe dictates that possession of any thing in temporary, a person can avoid or mitigate the effects of that inevitable distribution, whether by theft, death, breakage, or other transfer.