When I first started dabbling in the philosophy known as Stoicism it was a quick relief for my anxiety, regret, and anger. I was moving from philosophy to philosophy as I was doing since at least high school. I had heard of Stoicism since first getting into philosophy in high school but I had never understood how virtue would lead to happiness. I had never researched Stoicism because I hadn’t even heard of Epictetus or Seneca. I heard of Marcus Aurelius but I had never made the connection that he was a Stoic, I just figured he was well read in a variety of schools but I never knew he was a Stoic. When I figured out that Stoicism was a super coherent web of beliefs that had a fair amount of textual and philosophical basis, I fell in love with it even more when I realized how therapeutic it was.
I feel like that’s where people end when they read texts from Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca. They don’t seem to go much further than the the therapy part. But after I felt quite joyful learning about the Stoic techniques of memento mori, premeditatio malorum, view from above, endure and renounce, dichotomy of control, and amor fati, I learned about something more powerful than just techniques to help me cope with the world around me. I learned that virtue is the absolute center of Stoicism. In fact, Stoics believe that virtue is the sole good. There is literally nothing good other than virtue, excellence, a noble soul, a wise person, the Sage.
Virtue is the only good and it’s hard to understand it initially if you haven’t practiced the four virtues or spent time understanding how the wise person can appropriately judge all externals as indifferents (which means externals have no moral value good/bad). Virtue is the very starting point of Stoicism and it helps make sense of the dichotomy of control. Your character (judgment/will) is the only thing that you can truly control and so it is the only thing that can be either good (virtuous) or bad (vicious). A good character should lead to a better life or a eudaimonic life (which is a kind of joyful life that is internal and caused by an ethical purpose). It’s important to note that you can’t be virtuous if you don’t focus on all the four virtues: justice, fortitude, wisdom, and temperance. I won’t go into detail about fortitude, wisdom, and temperance for now but I will focus on justice.
Justice is why Stoics have a duty to others. Justice means you have to be kind and fair to others. The Stoics did not mean that justice was tough love or retributive. They meant for it to be kind and fair. You can’t have fair without the kind and you can’t have kind without the fair. Stoicism doesn’t separate mercy and justice because justice is a kind of mercy. The merciful are just. It’s important that when we judge people as vicious, we realize that they’re suffering from pathos. Pathos is literally suffering and it manifests in anger, hate, jealousy, fear, and any kind of emotion that results from judging any external as either good or bad. The bad person suffers and when they harm others it’s like their suffering is spilling over onto others. So since justice is kindness and fairness, it means that we have a duty to others. We have to know people as well as we can and help them as best as we can. Sometimes doing what’s right for someone is to leave them alone. Sometimes being just is helping someone when they genuinely ask for help.
The important part of being a Stoic is that justice doesn’t conflict with one’s eudaimonic happiness. It doesn’t conflict with a joyful soul. Joy should be the result of doing what is rationally and ethically correct for the situation. The Stoics didn’t distinguish selfishness and altruism. Selfishness and altruism were intricately tied together. So the best thing that you can do for yourself is to help others. But you shouldn’t help people just to feel good because that’s not going to work. You should help people because it’s the right thing to do and that will make you a better person and thus you will have a more joyful attitude.