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What might a code of conduct based on Stoicism look like?
Something about the chivalric codes of the Middle Ages seems curiously akin to the ethical ideals of Stoicism. Ancient Stoic philosophy didn’t have an explicit code of honor, as far as we know. However, according to the doxographer Stobaeus, the Stoics maintained that the goal of their philosophy, “living in agreement with nature”, was synonymous with “living honorably”. Moreover, a basic code of honorable conduct is clearly implicit in the surviving writings of Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and our other sources for the philosophy.
Stoics liked to have lists that could be easily committed to memory. Most obviously, there is their list of four cardinal virtues, which goes back at least as far as the portrayal of Socrates in the dialogues of Plato: Wisdom (sophia), Righteousness (dikaiosune), Fortitude (andreia), and Temperance (sophrosune); or Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Moderation, in more modern language. These virtues came to be represented by four corresponding animals in the traditional symbol known as the tetramorph: the man of wisdom, eagle of justice, lion of fortitude, and ox or bull of temperance.
The doxographer Diogenes Laertius said that the Stoics described the supreme good as “honorable” because it consists of these four factors required for the perfection of human nature: the virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and, as he writes, orderliness (self-discipline or moderation). The “honorable”, he says, denotes those qualities which make their possessor genuinely praiseworthy, by allowing him to fulfil his natural potential as a human being. The Stoics concluded therefore that the wise man alone is honorable and “that only the honorable is good”. The good and the honorable are synonymous, in other words. However, the good is also that which is beneficial. The Stoics believed that doing what is honorable is in our own best interests because it allows us to flourish as human beings.
We might briefly summarize the Stoic code of honor described below as follows:
- Love the truth and seek wisdom
- Act with justice, fairness, and kindness toward others
- Master your fears and be courageous
- Master your desires and live with self-discipline
In addition to this fourfold scheme, some of the Stoics also refer to a threefold rule of life, which Epictetus describes as the distinction between the Discipline of Assent, the Discipline of Action, and the Discipline of Desire and Aversion. It’s easy to combine these threefold and fourfold models, though, as shown below. The Stoics regarded courage and moderation as two aspects of the discipline required to live consistently in accord with wisdom and justice, by mastering our fears and desires. We can see that in the famous slogan attributed to Epictetus: endure and renounce. Endure our fears (courage) and renounce our desires (moderation) — the Discipline of Desire and Aversion.
Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, defined the supreme goal as a “smoothly flowing life”, or “living in agreement with Nature”. For the Stoics this came to mean living consistently and in harmony with our own nature, as rational beings, with the rest of mankind, and with Nature as a whole, particularly the external events that befall us in life. For example, Marcus Aurelius uses this threefold model to express the basic Stoic code of conduct throughout The Meditations.
Every nature is contented when things go well for it; and things go well for a rational nature when it [1:] never gives its assent to a false or doubtful impression, and [2:] directs its impulses only to actions that further the common good, and [3a:] limits its desires and aversions only to things that are within its power, and [3b:] welcomes all that is assigned to it by universal nature. (Meditations, 8.7)
Likewise, It is sufficient that [1:] your present judgement should grasp its object, that [2:] your present action should be directed to the common good, that [3:] your present disposition should be well satisfied with all that happens to it from a cause outside itself. (Meditations, 9.6)
Marcus attributes these ideas to Epictetus:
No one can rob us of our free will, said Epictetus. He said too that [1:] we ‘must find an art of assent, and [2:] in the sphere of our impulses, take good care that they are exercised subject to the “reserve clause”, and that they take account of the common interest, and that they are proportionate to the worth of their object; and [3a:] we should abstain wholly from immoderate desire, and [3b:] not try to avoid anything that is not subject to our control’. (Meditations, 11.36–37)
1. The Discipline of Assent — Stoic Mindfulness
The Virtue of Wisdom: Love the Truth
The very word philosophy literally means “love of wisdom”, which entails the love of truth. Socrates taught that genuine wisdom consists in grasping the truth about the most important things in life. For Stoics, wisdom therefore consists in our ability to grasp the nature of the supreme good, i.e., the goal of life. Put differently, it’s the knowledge of what is good, bad, and indifferent. You can therefore also describe wisdom as the ability to know what helps us flourish and achieve fulfillment (eudaimonia) in life, or what harms us in that regard. The Stoics use the word prosoche (attention) to describe the practice of continual mindfulness regarding our ruling faculty and its use of judgements in daily life, especially the way our value judgements shape our desires and emotions. Wisdom requires “Stoic mindfulness”, in other words.
However, the virtue of wisdom, and therefore Stoic honor, is also associated with the ability to be scrupulously honest both with oneself and others. Wisdom can’t exist alongside self-deception and justice can’t exist as long as we’re deceiving others. Wisdom is the ability to grasp the truth about the most important things in life, to perceive its implications for daily life, and to communicate as clearly as possible on that basis. Epictetus calls this the Discipline of Assent. We should avoid giving our assent to impressions that are false. Rather we must firmly grasp hold of certain basic truths such as those concerning the nature of the supreme good in life, i.e., that it consists of wisdom and virtue.
In the 19th century, Gautier summarized the Ten Commandments of medieval European chivalry. We can compare his code of honor with the four Stoic virtues and three disciplines. However, chivalry was wedded to Christianity so instead of loving philosophical truth and wisdom, Gautier’s equivalent would be the more doctrinaire: “Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches and thou shalt observe all its directions.” Yet Christian knights are expected to embrace truth and honesty just like the Stoic code: “Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.” A Stoic code
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