Moral Development According to the Classical Stoics

Notes © by Dr. Jan Garrett

Most recent revision: July 13, 2008

This is from the speech by "Cato," the Stoic character in Cicero, On Final Ends (De Finibus) III vi-vii (Loeb Classical Library), translated by H. Rackham.

The passage tries to answer the question "How can we come to really understand the Stoic claim that virtue (here "moral worth") is the preeminent and even the sole true good?" The answer is that human beings can pass through a series of stages, the later of which build upon the earlier and at the end of which one will fully appreciate this claim. Relatively few get to the end (which is equivalent to becoming a sage), although (the Stoics suggest) a significant minority (Stoic philosophers among them) have intellectually grasped the chief ideas corresponding to it.

Cicero was not himself a Stoic, but Stoic philosophers were long-time house guests of Cicero. He often conveys their views quite sympathetically and, in certain passages, reliably.

[I add some notes by way of clarification, e.g., G1, G2. I welcome feedback suggesting improvements offered in a helpful spirit.--J.G.]


[20] VI. "To proceed then," he continued, "for we have been digressing from the primary impulses of nature; and with these the later stages must be in harmony. The next step is the following fundamental classification: That which is in itself in accordance with nature, or which produces something else that is so, and which therefore is deserving of choice as possessing a certain amount of positive value-axia as the Stoics call it-this they pronounce to be 'valuable' (for so I suppose we may translate it); and on the other hand that which is the contrary of the former they term 'valueless.' [G1] The initial principle being thus established that things in accordance with nature are 'things to be taken' for their own sake, and their opposites similarly 'things to be [237/239] rejected,' the first 'appropriate act' (for so I render the Greek kathekon) is to preserve oneself in one's natural constitution [G2]; the next is to retain those things which are in accordance with nature and to repel those that are the contrary [G3]; then when this principle of choice and also of rejection has been discovered, there follows next [G4] in order choice conditioned by appropriate action; then, such choice become a fixed habit [G5]; and finally, choice fully rationalized and in harmony with nature [G6]. It is at this final stage that the Good properly so called first emerges and comes to be understood in its true [21] nature. Man's first attraction is towards the things in accordance with nature; but as soon as he has understanding, or rather become capable of 'conception'-in Stoic phraseology ennoia--and has discerned the order and so to speak harmony that governs conduct, he thereupon esteems this harmony far more highly than all the things for which he originally felt an affection [G7], and by exercise of intelligence and reason infers the conclusion that herein resides the Chief Good of man, the thing that is praiseworthy and desirable for its own sake [G8]; and that inasmuch as this consists in what the Stoics term homologia and we with your approval may call conformity [Rackham's note]-inasmuch I say as in this resides that Good which is the End to which all else is a means, moral conduct and Moral Worth itself, which alone is counted as a good, although of subsequent development, is nevertheless the sole thing that is for its [239/241] own efficacy and value desirable, whereas none of the primary objects of nature [G9] is desirable for its own sake. [22] But since those actions which I have termed 'appropriate acts' are based on the primary natural objects, it follows that the former are means to the latter. Hence it may correctly be said that all 'appropriate acts' are means to the end of attaining the primary needs of nature. Yet it must not be inferred that their attainment is the ultimate Good, inasmuch as moral action is not one of the primary natural attractions, but is an outgrowth of these, a later development, as I have said. At the same time moral action is in accordance with nature, and stimulates our desire far more strongly than all the objects that attracted us earlier. But at this point a caution is necessary at the outset. It will be an error to infer that this view implies two Ultimate Goods. For though if a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight; the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, and yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ultimate End,' so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase 'to be chosen' but not 'to be desired.' [G10]

[23] VII. "Again, as all 'appropriate acts' are based on the primary impulses or nature, it follows that Wisdom itself is based on them also. But as it often happens that a man who is introduced to another values this new friend more highly than he does the person who gave him the introduction, so in like [241/243] manner it is by no means surprising that though we are first commended to wisdom by the primary natural instincts, afterwards wisdom itself becomes dearer to us than are the instincts from which we came to her…

[p. 245] [26] "…inasmuch then as the final aim is to live in agreement and harmony with nature, it necessarily follows that all wise men at all times enjoy a happy perfect and fortunate life free from all hindrance, interference or want. The essential principle not merely of the system of philosophy I am discussing but also of our life and destinies is, that we should believe Moral Worth [honestum] to be the only good."

Note by the Translator

'To live conformably,' homologoumenos zen, was Zeno's formula for the End; it was interpreted as meaning 'to live on one harmonious plan.' Cleanthes added, tei phusei, 'to live in conformity with nature.'

Garrett's Notes

[G1] "Valuable" and "valueless" correspond to what is usually rendered "preferred" and "rejected." In contrast to virtue and virtuous actions, these are technically indifferent.

[G2] He seems to be talking about biological survival and health, here.

[G3] This phase corresponds to most of the role-related duties recognized by the Stoics. Admittedly, this account telescopes a lot of things into a few words.

[G4] Perhaps the text anticipates an inductive insight as to the general distinction between what is in accord with nature and what is contrary to nature to occur at this point.

[G5] Like Aristotle, the Stoics thought that moral development involved the formation of habits related to choice.

[G6] At this stage, the person making progress "discerns the order and harmony of [appropriate actions]."

[G7] Immediately, or at least rapidly following on the previous stage, the person values the harmony of all appropriate actions over the appropriate actions themselves, taken as specific types.

[G8] At this stage, through use of an act of reflective intelligence, the person equates the chief good with devotion to the harmony of all appropriate actions. I take this is a sort of intellectual perception or discernment, not a deductive inference from clearly grasped previously recognized premises.

[G9] The "primary objects of nature" are what are often called "preferred things" like life, health, a respected place in the community, money. Earlier Cato called these "valuable."

[G10] "To be chosen" is Rackham's translation of "seligendum"; more in keeping with the technical vocabulary of the Stoics in standard translations would be "to be selected." "To be desired" is his translation of "expetendum"; more in keeping with Stoic technical vocabulary would be "to be aspired to." Expetere is not the verb for desire in the sense of "lusting after," which denotes a pathos (passion) for the Stoics. The pathe are evil. Thus this passage is distinguishing what the archer selects as his target, hitting which is not in his power, and what the sage successfully aspires to, namely, acting from a fully developed rationality and perfected moral dispositions. The real "aim" is not something external, as the archer analogy suggests.