The Four Stoic Virtues – an explanation of the ancient stoic philosophy

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Gemma Clarke

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Stoic Virtues

Most people understand that to be stoic means to be “a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.”

But, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Stoic perspective of life. Stoic virtues are very similar to the four cardinal virtues and the chivalric codes of the Middle Ages. They are a set of moral codes designed to encourage each member of society to live by the laws of nature and to live honorably by themselves and with one another.

Fast forward a few thousand years and these codes can be applied to our own modern day lives to continue to make a difference in the wisdom and harmony of our society.

What are Stoic Virtues?

Stoicism originated in Ancient Greece and is a form of philosophy to encourage stoic ethics in society. The ethical ideals were designed as a compass to direct the people through tough times of hardships and confusion, to get them through daily life. Back then, in ancient worlds, there were a lot of tough times, and the rulers of the people had to develop a motivational and harmonious set of values that could be used in society. Many great thinkers, philosophers and people high in society would gather together to discuss moral topics and ethical ways of creating a powerful but peaceful society.

From this ancient philosophy that was shared by the emperors and kings, practical wisdom fell upon every fellow man, creating a wave of stoic logic in the people. This logic was designed for people to experience a happy life as a human being. The stoic view created a virtuous way of life.

There are four stoic virtues, and these are wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage. These four aspects can be applied to everyday life for one to live in true virtue to their own life path. Let’s take a deeper look at these values and why the stoics believed they were important.


To be a wise man, one must be able to differentiate between what is inherently right or wrong. This should come naturally to people, but it is also a trait that can be developed over time. To use wisdom, is to use your intuition to guide your moral compass in the right direction rather than to give in to the bigger yet false views that peer pressure often creates.

For example, one who is wise, knows that striving for health and well being is good, while lying, or torturing others is bad. As this common knowledge developed, so too did our society progress into finer thinking.

To be perfectly wise, you must be able to keep up with the status quo, and to progress with human moral duties as the collective consciousness upgrades, time and time again.

A wise person also knows that true virtue leads to happiness and fulfillment, and ultimately more tranquillity in the mind. Therefore wisdom becomes a social virtue that is sought after. It is by using wisdom, that society can live in harmony and can progress to new levels of self-awareness.

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Temperance is the art of moderation. To live the stoic practice of temperance, one must cultivate self control, self discipline and focus on the long term benefits of their action.

The ancient stoics knew that consistent action and virtue, instilled in the people of society could build great things such as trust, progression and a more meaningful life. But to live this virtue, one must choose to put effort in for the long run rather than choosing instant gratification. This sometimes means overcoming addictive behavior, putting yourself through physical pain when the outcome will be more strength, and practicing self restraint and moderation in certain aspects of your day.

Stoic wisdom taught that temperance was one of the ways to lead a virtuous life through trusting that the long term plan was worth achieving. But to do this, temperance taught that we must be putting the time, effort and energy into present moment and actively working toward our goals.

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Justice is more than just proving what is right and wrong. It is a stoic idea that asks us to stand up for the good people in our society. It is about acting true to our morals and our inner compass of wisdom, to create good discipline in all of society.

To arrive at the virtue of justice, one can not want absolute power and on the opposite side of the scale, one can not simply avoid responsibility. The virtue of justice is about finding mutual interdependence within a society and remembering that after all, we are just human beings. Do what is right for you, but make sure it is also right for the greater good of those around you.

There can be no self-interest in justice, as to practice virtue in the name of justice is to find a balance in what is right for all people.

Marcus Aurelius once wrote:

“What is not good for the beehive, cannot be good for the bees.”

This is the understanding that justice includes fair treatment for all, including you, your people and your home.

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Courage is knowing your fears, feeling your anxieties, but understanding what is right and doing it anyway. It is not the act of eliminating fear, but rather conquering your fears.

To be a roman emperor, one had to be courageous because although many people supported your actions, there were also thousands of people who were against you. Of course there would be fear going into battle, but there would also be great courage as a driving force to ask you to step into the fire and support your people with all your might. As an emperor and in crowning glory, there was a legal sense of looking after the people and instilling stoic virtue in everyone for the benefit of everyone.

Courage is to retain your strength of character and a stoic attitude in the face of fear. In life, you will not get very far, if you have no courage to after what you truly desire. So next time you feel fear rising, choose to take the stoic sense of courage instead!

What is the history behind the four stoic virtues?

Stoic wisdom and the four virtues were developed through Greek philosophy. There were a number of Greek philosophers whose surviving writings give us a hint to why and how the stoics maintained their four virtues.

Stoic writings tell us that Plato was the first person to outline these four cardinal virtues when he was discussing what a ‘good’ city needed to have.

Plato said, when talking about building a good city, that: “Clearly, then, it will be wise, brave, temperate, and just.” 

From this, wisdom, courage, temperance and justice were declared as the four virtues. During and after this decision, there were lots of ethical discussions among many philosophers of the ancient world. These discussions asked about which other virtues should form the basis of society, but the four virtues remained the strongest and were even later absorbed into Christian theology as the Cardinal Virtues.

Stoic virtue has an ideal of the perfect stoic person, and they call this the ‘Stoic Sage’. This is a person who feels completely free from the world around them, and lives a life according to their own stoic terms. This includes living in harmony with nature, avoiding excess and indulgent activities, discerning good from bad and being able to handle life without despair.

Ryan Holiday, a writer in stoic topics, says that the stoic people provide ‘honest and practical advice’, a kind of wisdom that is rare these days.

Marcus Aurelius was a roman emperor and a committed stoic. As one of the early stoics, he wrote a book called ‘Meditations‘ to advise practical ways to overcome suffering and to live life in alignment with true virtue and purpose. As a wise man and now in the modern world thought to be a great stoic teacher, Marcus Aurelius shared his intimate thoughts throughout his reigning period. His thoughts encompassed the original stoic physics, learned by Epictetus. These ideas were:

“…the cosmos is a unity governed by an intelligence, and the human soul is a part of that divine intelligence and can therefore stand, if naked and alone, at least pure and undefiled, amid chaos and futility.”

The roman statesman, Marcus Aurelius, used these ideas to bring virtue to his own nature and life. He understood the deeper values of living by the notion of a greater intelligence.

If you want to live by these values too, you can channel your inner Marcus Aurelius!

How can I start applying stoic philosophy to my life?

There is a lot of information about bringing Stoic ideas into the modern world and becoming a Daily Stoic. If you have resonated with what you read here today, you may like to try some of the following ideas to bring some of the stoic virtues into your own life.

Decide what you can and can’t control

Life is an act of surrednering to the virtue that awaits you. There is a part of this that involves living in agreement with nature. There are some areas of nature that hold a greater force than you can control, and to this you must let go of clutching onto a desired outcome and accept what comes your way.

Accepting the difference between what you can and can’t change also gives you freedom to enjoy reality as it is.

“We are often more frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” — Seneca

Journal to capture your thoughts

There is an act of self discipline in a daily journal practice. You can think of it as a kind of stoic therapy, to record your thoughts and wisdom on the page.

Journalling is a tool that can guide you to discover your deepest and most unconscious thoughts. To do this, simply set aside the first and last 10 to 15 minutes of your day to reflect and write down your thoughts about how you recently did or did not follow the virtues of wisdom, temperence, courage and justice!

Practice Misfortune

Once a month, or once a week even, do something that feels misfortunate. Reflect on what didn’t go to plan. Think of what you fear the most and what would happen if that fear came true?

One way to do this, in a modern era, is to ask yourself: What could I lose that would make me unhappy? The answer may be your morning coffee, your mobile phone, or something else that feeds your addictive behaviour. When you are aware of what you are clinging tightly too, see if you can let it go – for a few hours or even one day per week.

Meditate on the mortality of human beings

There is wisdom in knowing that one day we all return to the same dust. It is often forgotten that kings and slaves receive the same fate. Death takes us all by the hand eventually, and trying to resist this fact is curiously akin to not being able to breathe. To be afraid of dying, means that you also become afraid of living.

Therefore, one should try to meditate on mortality every so often, so that you can remember the virtue of life is to live fully. To do this, simply sit quietly and consider what mortality means to you.

Amor fati – love fate as a stoic virtue

The art of Amor fati is to love what happens to you, and to trust that it is happening for the greatest good of your soul’s journey. This becomes difficult in challenging situations, but it is a time where you can practice the principles of yoga, and learn how to use your stoicism to find peace in these moments.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What are the four stoic virtues?

The four stoic virtues are a part of philosophy practiced in Ancient Greece, designed to maintain a healthy and functioning society. The virtues are wisdom, temperance, justice and courage.

How can I apply the four stoic virtues to my life?

The four virtues are to be used when one needs to practice more courage, balance or forward thinking. You can do this by implementing some of the ideas above, including learning what you can and can’t control, journaling as a practice to understand your thought process, regularly practicing misfortune and poverty, meditating on human mortality and loving fate by using the principles of Amor Fati.

What is the similarity between the four cardinal virtues and the stoic virtues?

The four cardinal virtues are the chirstian adaptation of the four stoic virtues from the Greek background. They share a lot of similar ideas of how to live with happiness and fulfillment.

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About Gemma Clarke

Gemma Clarke is a certified and experienced yoga & meditation instructor. She has been practicing meditation since 2014 and teaching since 2018. Gemma specializes in yoga and mindfulness for emotional wellbeing, and she has taught in Thailand, Cambodia, and the UK. Gemma is passionate about sharing her expertise and experience with meditation to inspire others to live more mindfully, becoming happier, healthier, and calmer. Follow me: Instagram | LinkedIn

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