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Stoicism

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1
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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/stoicism/v-1

16. Goodness

Kathēkonta are ‘intermediate’ patterns of behaviour – that is, available to everybody, wise and non-wise alike. Yet in advertizing them the Stoics regularly referred to the conduct of the ‘sage’, the idealized wise person whom they always held up as a model, despite admitting that the criteria for this status were so tough that few people, if any, ever attained them. What was possible for everybody, they insisted, was progress (prokopē) towards this state of wisdom, and that is why they stressed the continuity between the proper conduct of the non-wise and the ideally good conduct of the wise. When you actually become wise and virtuous, what are outwardly the very same kind of kathēkonta which you were already habitually performing are suddenly transformed by your new state of understanding, earning themselves the name katorthōmata or ‘right actions’.

Alongside this continuity in moral progress, there is also the sharpest possible discontinuity. One of the most notorious Stoic paradoxes was that all sins are equal. If you are not virtuous and wise, you are totally bad and foolish. The wise are totally happy, the foolish totally unhappy. Whatever strides you may have made towards virtue, you are no happier till you get there. They compared what it is like to be drowning: whether you are yards from the surface or only inches from it, you are still just as effectively drowning.

The motivation of this depressing thesis is not entirely clear. Stoic concern with the paradox of the Sorites (see §11) may have contributed to it, but the main driving force seems to be the conviction that actual goodness, if achieved, differs not in degree, but in kind, from the scale of natural values. At a certain point of moral development, you notice an emerging agreement or harmony between your individual choices and acts. It is, thereafter, not the choices and acts or their objects that matter any longer, but harmony for its own sake. Only from that point on do you have a conception of what goodness is: it is located in a perfect ‘agreement’ both within the individual and between that individual and cosmic nature.

What does this agreement consist in? Despite the Stoics’ extensive cataloguing and classification of the kathēkonta which the sage will perform, ultimately the wise are characterized, not by the actual success of their actions – which may not always be in their control – but by the morally perfect frame of mind with which they act – in other words, by virtue (see Aretē). Socrates had propounded that paradox that virtue is knowledge: all there is to being good is to know the right things. The Stoics develop this Socratic idea to the full. The word for knowledge – epistēmē – can also more specifically mean ‘science’, and they regard each virtue as a genuine science, complete with its own constituent theorems. The skill of living in harmony is a skill analogous to, although vastly more difficult than, any branch of mathematics or medicine.

Plato had given four virtues canonical status: justice, wisdom, temperance or self-control (sōphrosynē), and courage. The Stoics adopt this list, and treat all other virtues as subordinate species, or perhaps branches, of the four. Are these, then, four entirely distinct sciences? No. Among Socrates’ most enduringly influential doctrines was that of the Unity of the Virtues. On one widely accepted version, adopted by some early Stoics (see Ariston of Chios §3; Cleanthes), Socrates’ thesis meant that the four virtues are all simply one and the same state of mind, albeit going under different names in different external circumstances. Others took the view that the unity of the virtues consists rather in their inseparability. For example, you could hardly count as just if you were not brave and temperate too, or else you might be deflected from just behaviour through intimidation or bribery. It is perhaps this thought that led Chrysippus to the following view: the four virtues are four separate sciences, each with its own defining set of theorems; but each virtue incorporates and uses the theorems of the other three as subsidiary theorems. The thesis that the virtues are distinct sciences was put by Chrysippus, in the technical language of Stoic metaphysics (see §6), by saying that they belong to the second category, ‘quality’, and not the fourth category, ‘relative disposition’. That is, they differ from each other as distinct qualities or states of mind, not simply as one state of mind differentiated by the varying external situations with which it is confronted.

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Citing this article:
Sedley, David. Goodness. Stoicism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/stoicism/v-1/sections/goodness.
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