Introduction to Stoic Ethics

A public talk by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last revision January 5, 1999


Almost anyone who has any ideas about the Stoics has heard that the Stoics advocate two things:

These general ideas about the Stoics are partially correct: The Stoics place things like wealth and health, along with their opposites, poverty, illness, low status, etc., in the category of indifferent things. And they consider what they call the emotions (pathê) all bad. Happiness for them is apatheia, which we can translate as "freedom from the emotions."

It's not difficult to imagine plausible late 20th-century objections to these notions.

OBJECTION 1. Stoics say we should be indifferent about life and health. How, we are tempted to ask, can a good person, who is, say, a parent, be indifferent about the life or health of her child? And isn't it a bit extreme, we want to say, not to care about one's own life or health?

OBJECTION 2. Stoics say we should eliminate the emotions. But psychological counselors today tell us to get in touch with our feelings. Dr. Bill DeFoore, for example, is author of a recent popular psychology paperback entitled Anger: Deal with It, Heal with it, Stop It from Killing You. He tells his readers to say to themselves "All of my feelings are OK with me" (77). DeFoore holds that at the core of each of us is an "inner child," which is either identical to, or "associated with [,] the more vulnerable emotions of fear, pain, and the need for love." We are supposed to affirm this inner child and to protect it (DeFoore, 67)

OBJECTION 3. Without passion, nothing creative or progressive ever gets done. People are sometimes described as apathetic by other people who would have liked to see them more concerned about racism, peace, the environment, or other social problems. If that's what Stoic apatheia recommends for everyone, well, we don't need it, we've got enough.

The Stoics can reply to these objections, but first we have to understand their perspective better. A good place to start is the Stoic conception of moral development.

Moral Development

The young child naturally wants to preserve itself; it should learn how, and it normally does.

As we become older, we become aware that we operate in various roles: son or daughter, brother or sister, friend, student, apprentice, etc. And this goes on into adulthood: we learn what it means to be a citizen, a mayor, a client, a professional, a teacher, a craftsperson, a husband, a wife, a parent, etc. Corresponding to each of these roles is a set of appropriate actions (roughly duties), and there's no particular mystery concerning what they are.

Generally speaking, what should be going on at these two stages is the promotion of the "primary things according to nature"--things like life, health, technical knowledge, possessions, beauty, etc. A child's choices for self-preservation and a person's selection of actions appropriate to his or her roles are all called appropriate actions (AA's). The child's AA is to try to stay alive, the doctor's AA is to assist that process if the child is injured or gets ill; the apprentice's AA is to learn technical knowledge, his master's job is to teach it well. And so on.

The final stage, which is fully reached only rarely, is the goal which Stoics seek to reach. The person who has reached it, they say, is living consistently according to nature. This person, the sophos or wise person, lives virtuously as well as happily. Such a person is able to observe in practice, not merely in words, the distinctions on the "Stoic Values" chart. She can distinguish between goods, evils and indifferents, but within the indifferents, she distinguishes between the preferred and rejected indifferents.

From this perspective, only the virtues, actions that express the virtues, and feelings inseparable from virtue are good. By contrast, and that phrase cannot be overstressed--by contrast, by comparison, things like life, health, possessions, good reputation, etc. are not good but indifferent. The term "indifferent" does not imply that we should not care about these things; only that we should not care about them when they conflict with right living and lead us into temptation or towards evil.

Now, the opposites of these indifferent things, bodily and external conditions like death, disease, poverty, and disgrace are in a similar position; compared with wickedness or evil, things like acting unjustly, in a cowardly manner, etc., these bodily and external conditions too are indifferent.

Preferred and Rejected Indifferents

Stoics do not altogether ignore the usual distinctions between life and death, health and disease, possessions and poverty. They call things like life and wealth "preferred," things like death and disease "rejected." The preferred things are preferred over the rejected ones. But their value is virtually zero whenever they have to be compared with good things, such as virtuous action.

A person who becomes wise and virtuous will undergo a shift of perspective. Much of what was once called good or bad will be reinterpreted. Wealth, for example, is now understood as a "preferred" thing, no longer a good on the same scale with virtue; in comparison with goodness or virtue, wealth is essentially neutral.

Can we be more specific about virtue? It includes character traits like courage, fidelity, fairness, and honesty, plus the mental ability to make wise moral choices. For the Stoics, virtue is an art that governs selection among the preferred and rejected indifferents. It is an art of living.

AN EXAMPLE. Consider a parent's relationship with her child. Naturally, the parent would like the child's good will, but virtue demands that the parent discipline the child when the child does something very wrong. Now, the "good will" of another person is not really a good, but a preferred thing; losing the good will of another person, by contrast, is a rejected thing. If the parent selects the preferred thing on this occasion, retaining the child's good will in the short run, she will neglect virtue and act in an inferior way. In this case, acting virtuously means overriding the attraction of the preferred thing. The wise person chooses virtue over what is merely preferred and will not be torn over the issue.

The key to virtue for the Stoics is its consistency--courage, wisdom, justice, proper loyalty, proper generosity, proper friendliness--are all consistent with one another. And what is just in one circumstance is consistent with what is just in another circumstance. By contrast, pursuit of preferred things is not always consistent: one person's pursuit of power or fame or money or erotic pleasure may clash with someone else's.

The Emotions

One's position on the so-called indifferent things is inseparable from her position on the emotions.

Emotions, say the Stoics, are excessive attachments to preferred things. When we lust for the pleasures associated with fame, high social status, possessions, money, etc., we are regarding these things as good. Yet they are ultimately indifferent.

If we fear losing or not getting these things, we are regarding their opposites--low social status, poverty, etc.--as bad or evil. Yet these too are ultimately indifferent.

Thus fear and lust are wrong because they involve a false belief. And likewise with distress (including grief) and delight.

We feel distress when we get what we fear (a rejected thing falsely believed evil).

We feel delight when we get what we lust for (a preferred thing falsely believed good).

These terms "fear," "lust," "distress" and "delight" should not be understood in the ordinary way, but need to be understood in relation to the other Stoic ideas to which you have been introduced. Just as "energy" in ordinary life means one thing, and in modern physical theory something a bit different, so "lust" in ordinary English is not quite the same thing as "lust" in Stoicism. You can lust after longevity, possessions, the praise of others, and even health as well as after another human being.

The Stoics say that emotions are excessive impulses disobedient to reason, that emotions are movements in the soul contrary to nature. ("Disobedient to reason" and "contrary to nature" mean about the same thing; the term "nature" sometimes means the ideal--"contrary to nature" here means contrary to reason.)

The Stoics say that emotions are upsets or disorders in the soul. They are physical events, but they are also mental events. As a mental event, each emotion involves a compound belief, one part of which is "fresh."

Here's an example: Suppose someone whom I know passes me on the street and seems to ignore me. I might feel hurt or angry over this. In this case, there is a background belief (BB):

(BB) So-and so ignored me.

BB is presupposed by this emotion but not part of it.

The emotion itself is composed of two beliefs:

(1) So-and so's ignoring me was a bad thing.

(2) I ought to be distressed over So-and so's ignoring me.
(2) is the "fresh" part. Typically events in our more remote past no longer sting, even if we still regard them as bad. I might still think (1) ten years after the event but no longer think (2). In that case I would no longer be angry.

Note that for the Stoics (1) and (2) are both false. (1), however, is the main problem since (2) is largely based on (1).

According to the Stoics every belief can be analyzed into two components ((a) and (b)):

(a) The thought itself, without endorsement.
(b) Assent, endorsement, of the thought.
Stoics call the first component (a) an "appearance." For example, the appearance in (1) is:
(1a) "So-and-so's ignoring me appears to be a bad thing."

One might say to herself:
(1b) "Yes, it is."
Unless we assent to false appearances such as this one, we do not experience an emotion. It is our power to assent or withhold assent that makes it possible to avoid emotions. Unfortunately, most of us have not developed the skill to use this power correctly, so we tend to endorse the false appearances that lead to emotion.

Answers to Objections

Now let us return to the objections mentioned at the start.

WILL A STOIC PARENT BE INDIFFERENT REGARDING THE LIFE OR HEALTH OF HER CHILD? Strictly speaking, and in comparison with virtue, the life or health of every person is indifferent. But a Stoic parent chooses her acts because they are the right thing to do, and the right thing for a person to do normally coincides with the role-related appropriate action.

The main difference is the spirit in which the action is done--the non-Stoic does it so as to promote his own or somebody else's preferred values; the Stoic does it because it is right to do it. And doing the right thing is not indifferent at all.

The right thing lies in the striving, not in the external success. You can only do what is in your power. If, having strived rightly, you fail to save life or health, you have no reason for grief, which is a kind of distress.


To some extent, the Stoic term "apatheia" is misleading, even in the ancient Stoics' own cultural context. In fact, the Stoic view is that the wise and virtuous person will have some feelings.

The wise person experiences not delight but joy(at living a wise life); not fear but caution (which prevents her from agreeing with false appearances); not lust for preferred things but wish (that one choose well and not badly). So, Stoic happiness is not altogether devoid of feeling.

Another important point is that the Stoics recognize what they call pre-emotions; these are physical twinges that are sometimes but not always followed by an emotion. Even a virtuous person may feel a pre-emotion (say, a twinge of desire) when he sees an attractive individual of the appropriate gender. But this is not the emotion of lust; lust is not present unless the first person endorses the false appearance that having intimate relations with that attractive person would be a good, instead of the preferred thing that it might be.

Earlier I mentioned an apparent conflict between the Stoic view that the emotions are bad and modern therapy. But when we examine more closely the views of modern therapists, we do not find such a big conflict. When the therapist whose book I cited (Dr. Bill DeFoore) says that anger can be a good thing, it turns out that he is really talking about emotional energy behind anger, which he reasonably claims can be diverted into nondestructive uses.

When psychologists today tell us to affirm our feelings, they do not mean that our emotional selves are just fine the way they are--people don't usually end up in psychologists' offices if they believe that, and psychologists are not going to put themselves out of business. What they mean is that we should not hide our emotional selves from ourselves; that it is better to be aware of our present feelings than not to be aware. But this awareness is also a starting point for change. None of this is in conflict with what the Stoics say.

Even the goals of contemporary psychological therapy are largely compatible with Stoic practice. Bill DeFoore says that the emotional energy which fuels rage can be redirected--towards acquiring skills that enable one to take responsibility for oneself.

Now the Stoics do not have our modern notion of emotional energy, which after all is loosely borrowed from the notion of modern energy that physicists use. But they had an idea they called impulse, the inner power behind action, and talked about directing this impulse, when it takes the form of desire (orexis), away from preferred things and towards the good. The results would be similar to what DeFoore has in mind.

If one carries out the mental exercises that DeFoore recommends, he says, an inner peace will emerge. Vulnerability and anger will be gradually reduced.

The Stoics say that if a person can be successful in eliminating the emotions (all of which are irrational and violent movements in the soul), that person too will enjoy tranquillity. This is another way of understanding apatheia, the elimination of all the excessive movements of the soul. Thus, the Stoic ideal is psychological invulnerability. In fact, with this in mind, the Roman Stoic Seneca will compare the wise person to a god.

By contrast, Dr. DeFoore says that the vulnerable "inner child" never disappears entirely--the vulnerability never entirely goes away.

Yet of those who professed Stoicism and tried to live it, to the best of their ability, few claimed that they had reached the goal themselves, and many frankly admitted that they had not. The difference between the Stoics and psychologists like DeFoore seems to be one of emphasis.

The Stoic view, in my opinion, has at least one advantage. Because the Stoics don't strictly rule out reaching a stable goal, they spend more time thinking about what it would be like to live that way. And it does not seem to be a bad idea to have a clear target where one's own happiness is concerned.

For further reading

Epictetus, Handbook of Epictetus (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishers)
Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishers).
Seneca, Letters from a Stoic (Penguin).

(Be prepared for an occasional remark in these ancient male writers that would qualify as sexist by today's standards.)

Martha C. Nussbaum's The Therapy of Desire (Princeton University Press, 1994), chapters 9-12. An excellent scholarly (but not dry) study, sensitive to the practical aspects of ethics.

Terence Irwin, Classical Thought (Oxford University Press). Situates Stoicism in the broader context of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.

See also An Imaginary Convesation on Ethics Between a Stoic and an Aristotelian, available on this website.

J. E. Garrett
January 5, 1999

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