‘Living a virtuous life’ — How do the Stoics help us understand this?

Tina Saxena
5 min readNov 16, 2023
  • How many times have you tried to define what the purpose of your life is?
  • How many times have you changed and tweaked that definition as you went through different life experiences, happy and painful, joyful and tragic and all the colours in between?
  • What did you conclude so far?

One of the really good influences on mine has been the philosophy of the Stoics!

What does it mean to live from the Stoic perspective?

The ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism, founded in the 3rd century BC, provides valuable insights into living well. The Stoics believed that virtue is the only good and that a life lived according to reason is inherently virtuous; living virtuously meant aligning one’s actions and perceptions with reason, nature, and cosmic order.

They viewed virtue as residing completely within one’s will and control and emphasized cultivating wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance or moderation — the four cardinal virtues.

External circumstances are indifferent, what truly matters is one’s attitude and response. Epictetus stated, “It is not things themselves that disturb people, but their judgements about those things.” and, “It is not the things themselves that trouble us, but the opinions that we have about these things.”

  • Think about this carefully. Where are you passing judgements which are causing you distress? Could you simply step back and observe and let things be without being attached to how they should be?

Living virtuously thus requires proper judgment and moral purpose. Marcus Aurelius another favourite of mine wrote in his famous Meditations, “A person’s life is what his mind makes it.”

Practising virtue entails overcoming destructive emotions and desires through reason and self-discipline.

Seneca the wise one, advised, “Associate with those who will make a better person of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for people learn as they teach.”

It is a well-known fact that we are the sum of the influences we are subjected to. Therefore, surrounding oneself with a circle of influence of wise friends and mentors enhances one’s wisdom and character.

  • Who are you surrounded with? Is it beneficial to your growth as a person or are your current circles of influence keeping you limited?

The Stoics also emphasized fulfilling one’s social duty with justice and benevolence.

Marcus Aurelius stated, “What brings no benefit to the hive brings none to the bee.”

How beautifully put! Each person is part of a greater whole and should contribute to society for a win-win overall.

  • Are your thoughts, words and actions geared towards this?

Another core practice the Stoics favoured was reflecting on mortality to give a proper perspective. This is not to keep Death as a celebratory doorkeeper of impending doom but to live with an awareness that we will leave as empty-handed as we came and pursuing hollow and empty goals or blindly accumulating wealth and power may not be the best policy!

Seneca wrote, “No one has promised you tomorrow. Make good use of today.”

  • Where do you stand in the pursuit of your goals? Are they inherently value-driven? Do they feel meaningful to you?

Living virtuously requires minimizing needless desires and seeing events objectively. I could go on and on about learning how to discern between needs and wants and leaning into your intuition to see what you truly need and desire in your life!

Life is not under our control, despite our best efforts and carefully laid out plans. Detachment from the whims of fortune brings peace of mind.

Marcus Aurelius advised, “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” This is also a call to have faith in one’s abilities to face whatever life throws at us.

The Stoics recognized that emotions like fear and anger arise from false judgments. Overcoming them requires recognizing that external things do not determine our well-being.

Seneca in his great wisdom wrote, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” Think about it carefully, things themselves are not good or bad, it is our perception that makes them so. Things and situations are neutral until we add the filters of our personal perceptions!

  • How much have you suffered in your imagination? How much longer are you willing to throw away your present moments by dwelling upon suffering?

Another one of my favourites is the constant presence of Gratitude and appreciation as a daily practice. Practising gratitude and self-reflection definitely enables more virtuous living. Starting the day appreciating life cultivates the proper mindset.

Marcus wrote, “When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love…”

They also advocated introspection and evaluation. Regularly examining one’s actions and thoughts helps sustain moral progress.

Photo by Patrik Storm (Alstra Pictures) on Unsplash

The Stoics believed that cultivating virtue was the supreme goal in life.

They saw the development of one’s moral character as the path to eudaimonia — a state of human flourishing.

As Epictetus declared: “If you want to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters — don’t wish to seem knowledgeable. And if you want to be reasonable, then you must first accept being thought unreasonable.”

The Stoics practice equanimity in the face of external events by distinguishing control over their own faculty of judgment.

Musonius Rufus advised: “Regard yourself as a wandering traveller in this life. You will pass many countries, seas, rulers, and customs before you return to your ancestral home and rest.” There is great wisdom in this!

For the Stoics, emotions like fear, anger, and desire stem from incorrect judgments. By continually refining one’s faculty of judgment through reason and virtue, the Stoics aimed to achieve apatheia — a state free from unhealthy passions.

The Stoic path required constant practice and vigilance. Seneca urged living each day as if it were one’s last opportunity to perfect virtue: “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day.”

The Stoics saw the cultivation of wisdom, courage, justice and temperance as the highest purpose in life as mentioned above. By perfecting one’s inner character through virtuous principles, they believed that human beings could transcend suffering and circumstances.

The Stoics provide a practical philosophy focused on living wisely and developing integrity, virtue and strength of character forged from experience. Their insights and timeless wisdom provide guidance applicable to modern life.

  • Where can you apply their insights into improving yourself and your life?

As a mindfulness practitioner and life-design coach, I help clients focus on well-being and personal growth and make life choices that prioritize their mental and emotional health. This leads to personal freedom and independence allowing the person to blossom and manifest the life they deserve. Connect with me if you are seeking to go forward on your journey.

--

--

Tina Saxena

On the joyful, slow and leisurely track, exploring life in its myriads of facets and nuances, dipping into the latest human psychology and ancient scriptures!