An Imaginary Conversation on Ethics

Between a Stoic and an Aristotelian

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Posted here: July 23, 1996; minor revision September 1, 2013

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Procopo. A student of ethics.
Graecus. His Greek friend, who resides in Rome and is introducing him to philosophy.
Aristotelicus. An Aristotelian philosopher.
Stoicus. A Stoic philosopher.

Time and Place: ca. 80 B.C., the streets of Rome.

Graecus. Come along. I'd like you to meet two friends of mine. They have just come back after a period of study with different philosophical schools in Greece. Before I introduce you--and before you find out about how they differ, I must tell you that they actually agree on quite a few points. Their agreements as significant as well as their disagreements.

Agreements between the Two Views

They both hold that (1) the goal of ethical philosophy is practical: the improvement of human lives, the promotion of eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is another term for what you Romans call vita beata (the blessed or supremely good life, happiness).

They agree, moreover, about several things pertaining to eudaimonia:

(2) that eudaimonia is also the ultimate end (goal) of human life.

(3) that eudaimonia is the most complete end;

(4) that eudaimonia is self-sufficient.

To say that it is the most complete end is just to say that other things are done for its sake, but it is desired for its own sake and for nothing further. Other valuable things are means to or parts of it, but it is not a means to or part of any other end.

Procopo. Please explain this talk about means and parts of ends.

Graecus. I think a couple examples will help. Exercise is a means to being strong; a bad-tasting medicine may be a means to a cure. On the other hand, paying your debts when you should pay them is part of acting in accord with justice; that is, it is a part of it without being all of it. But eudaimonia is neither a means to some other end nor a part of some other end.

Procopo. You said that eudaimonia is self-sufficient. What does that mean?

Graecus. If something is self-sufficient, then if you have it, you lack nothing and cannot reasonably wish anything to be added. It would be nonsense to say: I am really happy (eudaimôn) but I really need this or that other thing.

To go on now: Both my friends agree that

(5) eudaimonia provides a stable target capable of being sought for its own sake.

(6) actually realizing eudaimonia is at least to a significant degree dependent upon our efforts.

Like most philosophers, but unlike many people who are not philosophers, they insist that

(7) virtue is a central ingredient in eudaimonia
and so they have a lot to say about virtue.

And about this topic too they agree in several ways, for example:

They both agree (8) that nobody is born virtuous, but persons become so by repeatedly acting in certain ways and not in others; for virtues are more or less stable tendencies to act appropriately and not badly.

They both think (9) that virtue is, or is associated with, something we might call an "art of life." This "art" is a capacity to use correctly, or to relate correctly to, bodily and external things. By bodily things, I means things like beauty and ugliness, sickness and health, life and death; by external things I mean things like friends and enemies, peace and war, wealth and lack of wealth.

They both think (10) that being virtuous has a lot to do with how we stand in relation to the emotions or passions (pathê).

Reason is an important human capacity for both of them. They agree that

(11) reason is closely related to virtue and must be effective if we are to bring about eudaimonia.

And they insist that (12) feelings and thoughts are not two entirely separate aspects of the human soul: One will fear something just when one thinks that that thing represents an imminent evil. If one has stopped fearing something, then one has ceased to think that that thing represents an imminent evil.

Above all, both of them agree that (13) eudaimonia is a life with great inherent dignity or nobility.

Here they are now. Aristotelicus studied with a member of the Peripatos, the school whose founder was Aristotle. Stoicus is a member of the Stoic school, which was founded by Zeno of Citium and whose illustrious leaders have included Cleanthes and Chrysippus. Gentlemen, would you explain to Procopo here the differences between your philosophies of life.

Differences Between the Views

Primary Audiences

Aristotelicus. Our ethical philosophy was designed first for political leaders whose job is to guide the state and promote the happiness of the citizens. They need a clear idea what true happiness is if they are going to do that. In this sense, our ethics is not directly aimed at producing happiness for its immediate audience but at helping them do their tasks more effectively.

However, our philosophy can also help any morally decent and thoughtful person keep to the path of virtue. (In recent years this has been of more importance than it was in Aristotle's time.) Philosophy achieves this task by developing clear and reasonable general definitions of happiness as well as virtue and vice, and by clear and reasonable discussions of specific virtues and vices, for example, courage and cowardice, generosity and stinginess. These discussions cover how these virtues and vices are related to the emotions, to deliberation and choice, and to practical intelligence. Helping people have clear ideas about these important things keeps them on track, provided that they have a good start in life, a good upbringing.

Stoicus: For us the aim has always been to help individuals, to provide guidance to individuals concerning the aim for which they at least unconsciously act and for which they should act consciously. We try to help them in their moral decision-making. More than our Aristotelian friends, who rely too much (in our opinion) upon a good prior upbringing, we seek to persuade individuals to upgrade their goals in accord with reason and change their values in order to promote their own well-being.

External and Bodily Values

Aristotelicus. For us lack or loss of external goods such as friends and wealth and bodily goods such as health can prevent the full blooming of eudaimonia. External goods also include other family members, one's good reputation in the mind of others, and a good political environment. Bodily goods also include strength, physical beauty and biological life itself.

Stoicus. Our disagreement here is sharp. We refuse to call good what the Aristotelians call bodily goods and external goods. With the exception of good persons who are friends, we say that these outside and bodily things are preferred or advantageous rather than good. The positive reason for calling them preferred is that nature herself leads us to select them. But that does not mean they are really good. Lack or loss of preferred values cannot destroy or even seriously hamper true eudaimonia. If individuals are truly virtuous, they are also wise and happy; and they cannot be happy without also being wise and virtuous. Our view is that virtue is sufficient for happiness. Virtue is a complete and self-sufficient good.

Graecus. You'll see, Procopo, that many of the differences between Aristotelicus and Stoicus hinge on this issue. Incidentally, Stoicus did not tell you that he also describes preferred things as indifferent.

Stoicus. Unlike some of my fellow Stoics, who delight in sounding paradoxical, I like to be cautious when I introduce the term "indifferent." The fact that we say that preferred things are "indifferent" does not mean that they are not valuable. We just refuse to put them into the same class with virtue, which Aristotelicus does when he calls external and bodily values goods. We say they are "indifferent" because even without them one can be happy (in Greek eudaimôn)--one can live well, so long as one has virtue.

External and Bodily Disvalues

Graecus. While we are on this topic, note that the external and bodily values have opposites, which one might can call disvalues. The external and bodily disvalues include children who turn out bad, bad reputation in the mind of others, poverty, bad reputation in the mind of others, illness, physical ugliness, and shortness of life.

Aristotelicus. We call your external and bodily "disvalues" evils, bad things.

Stoicus. But we Stoics call them "rejected" things. We want to distinguish them from the vices and the emotions, which are really evil or bad. We say that rejected things, like the preferred ones, are also "indifferent." That does not mean it is not preferrable to avoid the rejected things, only that if you cannot avoid rejected things but remain wholly free from vice, your eudaimonia is untouched. Poverty and ugliness are compatible with happiness, wickedness is not.

Aristotelicus. As for us, although we call things such as health and possessions goods, we insist that they are not the highest goods. And we never say that since they are good we are always better off with more of them. There is, for example, a natural limit to the wealth one ought to have. Beyond a sufficiency for oneself, one's household and friends, one needs little more. I admit that political leaders need more than, say, philosophers who lead a more private life. The right amount must be related to one's situation and this is not the same for everyone.

The Value of Life

Graecus. One really sharp difference is that concerning the value of life itself.

Stoicus. Yes, for us, life is a preferred "indifferent" value, not a good. It's important to realize that this is clear only to the person who is already virtuous or very close to it. We are quite aware that anyone far below this moral level will find our claim absurd. A virtuous person, which is the same thing as a wise person (sophos), does not tightly cling to life because he does not regard it as a good. Granted, continued life is "preferable" to death and "to be selected" if one can have it without evils, i.e., without living badly or viciously.

Aristotelicus. Our view is closer to common sense. We think that a good life has a certain natural span and a "normal shape"--a period of maturation, a period of flourishing, a period of decline, and a natural death after, say, 60-70 years. If a person is cut off in or before his prime, that represents a genuine loss of something good. Our view helps to explain why an early death, especially of a good person, is a tragedy.

Stoicus. The drawback to your view is that it makes it "reasonable" for a virtuous person to fear death. We Stoics deny that that a virtuous person will fear death. A person's life is complete and self-sufficient just when he or she is living virtuously; it does not require any more time after that point.

(Turning to Graecus and Procopo) If Aristotelicus is virtuous in his own sense of the term, he actually has a reason to hesitate to do the right thing when the choice is between doing the right thing and risking death. I might hesitate too, but that's because I am not yet fully virtuous; if I were fully virtuous (in the Stoic sense), then I wouldn't hesitate. Which kind of "virtuous" person do you think is really courageous?

The Emotions

Graecus. You gentlemen also disagree about the emotions, I understand.

Aristotelicus. Yes, the position one takes on the external and bodily things is closely linked to the position one takes on the emotions. Differences on the first lead to differences on the second. For us Aristotelians, the emotions or passions (pathê) are neither good nor bad in themselves. For example, anger is bad only when it is expressed inappropriately, towards the wrong person, or at the wrong time, or to the wrong degree (excessively or deficiently).

Stoicus. For Stoics, the emotions are always bad. That is why we sometimes describe eudaimonia as apatheia (freedom from the emotions): happiness is, or precisely coincides with, freedom from the emotions.

Graecus. I have to warn Procopo that you Stoics use the term "emotion" in a somewhat strange way. For one thing, you admit that some feelings are not emotions.

Stoicus. Yes, we understand emotions as violent movements of the soul, and not all feelings fit this description. Now, the wise person will wish to do the right thing for the right reason, and wish (a good feeling) is not an emotion, though lust is. The wise person will exercise caution; the wise person will take care not to judge that preferred things are good); caution (another good feeling) is not an emotion, though fear is. And the wise person will experience joy, at living virtuously. Joy (also a good feeling) is not a emotion, though delight is.

Emotions And Judgments

Aristotelicus. You use the words "fear" and "delight" in a strange way, too.

Stoicus. Ethics is a science and in a science specially defined terms are sometimes unavoidable.

Perhaps you think it strange that we equate all these emotions with false judgments. For us,

[1] lust, which is aimed at preferred things, is a judgment that some preferred thing at which we aim is good. The judgment is false because a preferred thing is not a good one.

[2] Fear, which is related to rejected things, is a judgment that some rejected thing which we try to avoid is evil. The judgment is false because rejected things are not true evils.

[3] Delight, which is related to preferred things, is the judgment that a present preferred thing is good. The judgment is false once again because preferred things are not really good.

And [4] distress, which is related to rejected things, is a judgment that some present rejected thing is bad, but this is false since rejected things are not really bad.

Graecus (to Procopo). Stoicus has just described for you the four main classes of emotions in the Stoic system.

Aristotelicus. My view is less systematic, perhaps, but more plausible and closer to what most people say. Some delights and sorrows, appetites and fears, are appropriate and found in the lives of virtuous people. A virtuous person desires to see justice done and is delighted or pleased when it is done. Such people are disappointed when it is not done. They fear death, not least because they are aware of their own goodness, and realize that eradication of good persons is an evil; however, they will risk death and accept it if doing so is the price of doing the right thing: for they fear doing the shameful thing more than they fear death. But the emotions are not always right any more than they are always wrong. Excessive fear of death is wrong. Excessive desire for wealth is wrong. Cowardly soldiers feel too much delight when their commander orders a retreat and are too disappointed when their commander orders an advance towards the enemy.

Stoicus. For you, there's also a proper amount of anger that one should feel when one is insulted. This is a striking example of the differences between Stoics and Aristotelians. We deny that any anger is legitimate. First of all, anger in this case is the false judgment that a present insult is a bad thing. But while such an insult is "not nice" and can be properly called a "rejected" thing, it is not bad--what is bad is the erroneous judgment, made by Aristotelians and others, that the insult is bad. Secondly, anger makes us lose self-control; it is like very fast running--you cannot stop exactly where you want if you are in such rapid motion. That's why anger so often leads to inappropriate violence. And where it does not lead to violence against others, it tears up the insides of the person who is angry.

Aristotelicus. In any case, for us moral virtue is a disposition to express emotions or passions (such as anger, fear, confidence, desire for food, etc.) appropriately, i.e., in the right degree, neither excessively nor deficiently, at the right time, towards the right object, etc. For us, moral virtue and experiencing the emotions are compatible.

Stoicus. In our view, the emotions are all bad. They are false and ignorant judgments regarding values, and such ignorance is a vice.


Procopo. Where does pain fit in? I heard that Stoics regard pain as a false judgment. I don't understand how anyone can say that pains are simply judgments, as if I could make the pain of a spear wound go away just by thinking "Hey, it's only a bodily injury that may kill me."

Stoicus. There has been some confusion arising from the fact that the Greek term which I translate "distress" is sometimes translated as "pain." It is better to distinguish between pain, a very real thing beyond our total control, and distress, which is an emotion. For us, then, pain is a rejected indifferent.

We distinguish here between

(1) the felt physical pain,

(2) the appearance or the thought that this thing (which happens to belong to the class of rejected things) is something bad,

and (3) the emotion of distress.

The first thing to occur is normally the felt physical pain. Next there is the appearance, an idea about that pain resulting from habit or social suggestion, for example, e.g., "something bad has happened to me."

But to have such an appearance or thought in one's soul is not yet to feel an emotion of distress. For an emotion to emerge, a third element is required: judgment or assent. Without assent to the appearance, without judgment, there is no true emotion, no distress in the genuine sense. Human beings can refuse to assent to appearances, and we should refuse when they are false. Of course, such refusal cannot occur without practice; indeed, it rarely occurs without both philosophy and practice; but it can be done. The problem is that it is not usually done, and when we assent to such appearances, we choose to enslave ourselves to emotions.

At the very least, the Stoics hold that a person who truly understands Stoic philosophy, who has fully assimilated it and tried to live by it, can be eudaimon even in the face of pain. A wise person cannot always avoid the experience of pain, but can and will be entirely free from distress.

Once Again: External and Bodily Things

Graecus. Let us get back to the issue of external or bodily goods, such as wealth or soundness of body.

Stoicus. You mean preferred indifferents.

Graecus. Sorry.

Aristotelicus. Well, they are goods, and they are often indispensable for happiness. Lack of them can hinder one's virtuous activity, and happiness, at least as we Aristotelians define it, is a complete life of activity in accordance with virtue. Now, generosity is a virtue, but a person who has barely enough on which to survive cannot exercise this virtue. Courage is a virtue, but a person who is not of sound body, who is, say, crippled from disease, cannot fight to defend his city and so cannot exercise courage where it could be most appropriately exercised.

The Importance of Intentions

Stoicus. We Stoics insist, on the contrary, that virtue can be active internally, in striving, even if nobody other than the virtuous person knows about it. On the rare occasions that we are totally lacking in the preferred things that enable us to express our virtue in overt action, striving is enough. A Stoic can be virtuous in a prison cell and in chains, even if all her muscles are paralyzed. Note, however, for striving to be virtuous, it must be whole-hearted. If your aims are mixed, some good, some bad, the fact that some of them were good will not override the bad ones. And having entirely good intentions is not something that comes easy to us.

Moral Reasons and Ethical Conservatism

Graecus. When you develop your ethical ideas, where do you get your starting points?

Aristotelicus. Ethical philosophy starts from the common beliefs of the many and/or the wise. That is, it collects received opinions and tries to find some coherent perspective embedded within them. Of course, it must remove contradictions and it does not have to pay much attention to the opinions that vicious people express concerning happiness and virtue (when they are not looking over their shoulder to see who else is listening). Our method gives greater weight to nobler and wiser opinions. But we must try to "save the phenomena," that is, we must never get too far from the spirit of the culture.

Stoicus. Stoics do not reject the appeal to received opinions, but we believe that philosophy must be willing to reject some doctrines held very tenaciously by most people and even by many of the so-called wise and apparently virtuous civic leaders. Received opinions may be incoherent at a fairly deep level. This is especially clear in at least one difference between Aristotle and us Stoics: Aristotle tried to show that there were natural slaves, that the institution of slavery was natural and thus sometimes justified. We Stoics insist on the common humanity of slaves and freemen, citizens and noncitizens, Greek, Roman and barbarian.

Graecus. Finally, would you each comment on the role dignity plays in your conception of eudaimonia.

Aristotelicus. For us, the life in accord with virtue is a dignified life in itself, but it is more dignified when accompanied by sufficient material and external goods, good health, good friends, freedom, citizenship, etc. Slavery is contrary to a truly dignified life, but a person who is not a slave by nature and who is forced to be a slave by circumstances beyond individual control may live with greater dignity than other slaves if he or she is virtuous.

Stoicus. Once again, for us external and bodily things are of essentially no significance when it comes to true dignity. For us no human is a slave by nature.* Acting slavishly or not, which is to say, wickedly or not, is up to us. A poor person or a slave can live (or, if need be, die) virtuously and with true dignity. In that respect, there is no difference between rich and poor, slave and free.

Agreement between the two views
Differences between the views:
Primary Audiences
External and Bodily Values
External and Bodily Disvalues
The Value of Life
The Emotions
Emotions and Judgments
The Importance of Intentions
Ethical Conservatism

Note added 9/1/2013. The Stoics tend to "spiritualize" freedom and slavery, which is to say they use the terms in a special metaphorical sense (without necessarily granting they are using metaphor) to refer to the excellence of the wise and virtuous person, on the one hand, and the baseness of the morally inferior person, on the other. Neither of these are good or bad by nature since they depend upon our judgments. On the other hand, prominent Stoics clearly believe that human institutions, including legal slavery and freedom, are part of a divine and natural scheme (oikonomia), and do not call or campaign for abolishing slavery. On this point see my article, Did the Stoics regard slavery as natural? written ten years later than this dialogue.