The Nature of Virtue
Chapter 1 of Chris Gill's Learning to Live Naturally
This post continues my series on Christopher Gill’s recent scholarly book, Learning to Live Naturally.
We all know the central creed of Stoicism, that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for happiness. In my opinion, this is the primary principle that every Stoic must accept in order to be considered Stoic. Other principles associated with Stoicism (the relative unimportance of indifferents, the role of theology in ethics, etc.) may be open to interpretation, but not this one. If you don’t believe the path to happiness is through virtue, you’re not actually a Stoic.
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But do you know why virtue has this pride of place? Why will we be happiest if we leave aside our strenuous pursuit of externals in favor of wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control? When I first started studying Stoicism years ago, I kept reading about virtue, but I didn’t find a truly helpful description of the connection between virtue and happiness. In Learning to Live Naturally, Chris Gill fills this void by explaining the virtue-happiness relationship in a systematic and highly illuminating way.
In Chapter 1, “Virtue and Happiness,” Gill lays out three separate lines of thinking, each of which offers its own rationale for Stoic claims about the primacy of virtue:
Naturalistic/anthropological: The famous dictum to “live in agreement with nature” or “live naturally” goes hand in hand with the Stoics’ description of human nature as rational and social. Also reflects humanity’s part in cosmic nature (with its paradigmatic structure, order, wholeness, and consistency).
Ideas related to value: Only virtue and virtue-based happiness provide unconditional benefit to humans and the world at large. Anything not related to virtue or vice is indifferent.
Psychological: The ancient Stoics improved on the psychology offered by earlier thinkers like Plato and Aristotle. Rather than dividing the psyche into rational and non-rational parts, the Stoics suggested a holistic psychological framework that includes impression, assent, and motivation.
Chapter 1, which we’re looking at today, focuses mostly on the naturalistic approach, while Chapter 2 looks at value and indifferents and Chapter 5 provides more information on psychology (emotions and motivation). So we will cover the second and third topics in upcoming posts, while focusing on the naturalistic approach right here.
So what does living in agreement with nature actually mean? It all goes back to Zeno and Chrysippus:
They [the Stoics] say that being happy (eudaimonein) is the goal (telos), for the sake of which everything is done and which is itself done for the sake of nothing else; and this consists in living according to virtue, living in agreement [or ‘consistently’], and again (which is the same thing) living according to nature. (Stobaeus 6e, 2.77.16-19, cited in Gill p. 26)
This passage is wide open to interpretation, and scholars have been debating its meaning and significance for over 2,000 years. Clearly there are implications for both human nature and cosmic nature. On the human nature side, we can mostly agree that this means a combination of rationality and sociability (or rationality applied in a social context), which is developed across the human lifespan from infancy through rational maturity. On the cosmic nature side, we can say that the cosmos reflects structure, order, and wholeness (a trio which Gill emphasizes throughout the book). This pattern is fractalized throughout creation, suggesting to the ancient Stoics an underlying rationality to the universe. Therefore, Gill concludes (p. 34),
Happiness, as the goal of life, can be understood as the highest expression of human nature, as encapsulating the chief markers of humanity at its best, namely rationality and sociability (more precisely, sociability shaped by rationality). Alternatively, or in addition, happiness can be understood as an expression (the highest manifestation among terrestrial animals) of cosmic or universal nature. This is because happiness encapsulates, at the human level, two key features of cosmic nature, namely structure, order, and wholeness, and providential care, both of which can also be seen as expressions of rational mind or agency… To restate the point, human beings harmonize themselves, at the deepest level, with the core principles of nature as a whole by achieving virtue and happiness, of the kind open to human beings.
We will be examining both human nature and cosmic nature in more detail in later chapters, so I won’t belabor the point here. However, it will be important to keep in mind throughout our discussion of Learning to Live Naturally that the underlying structure of Stoicism relates to this relationship between virtue, happiness, and nature.
Are Virtue and Happiness the Same Thing?
Gill next examines the exact nature of the relationship between virtue and happiness. Many ancient sources suggest that they are equivalent—that “happiness consists in virtue,” to quote Diogenes Laertius (7.87-88), but Gill argues against this identification. One of the biggest differences between virtue and happiness, he suggests, is that happiness is taken to be an end unto itself, while virtue is both an end in itself and the means to this end. In technical terms, we would say the virtues are both final and instrumental goods, but happiness is only a final good. On this view virtue is required for happiness, but it is not happiness itself.
Another distinction between virtue and happiness raised here is that “virtue is a property of the agent, whereas happiness is a property of the agent’s life” (p. 36). In other words, while virtue depends on the quality of a person’s character, happiness depends on living a life in agreement with nature. Personally, I’m not sure this distinction matters much for Stoic practitioners, although I can understand its importance for academic philosophers. Maybe it matters in a technical way.
In my own life, however, I would never think about “living a happy life” as distinct from “being happy.” When we start reflecting on our life as a whole—which Julia Annas, in The Morality of Happiness, identifies as the starting point of philosophy—we enter a more impersonal, almost third-person zone of reflection. If I think about “my happiness” or (aspirationally) “my virtue,” it’s always in the first person. Psychologically speaking, these are just two different perspectives on the same thing. For this reason, I tend to agree with John Sellars’ conclusion in The Art of Living that these two perspectives are simply alternatives and that “ultimately not much hinges on this restatement” (Sellars, 2003, p. 168).
Distinguishing between virtue and happiness does have some advantages, though. One is the interesting idea that “although virtue is the only thing that is essential for happiness, happiness can include things other than virtue” (p. 37). Those things would primarily be
psychological goods (such as psychological health and inner strength), which are said to naturally result from virtue
pursuits or practices such as literature, music, or (to use an ancient example) horsemanship
prudent actions performed by a virtuous person
However, all these other good things depend on virtue. No virtue means no psychological goods or true expertise in literature or music (hence the paradoxical Stoic claim that only the wise person is a true musician, only the wise person is truly rich, etc.). No matter how skilled you are at horsemanship, it’s not a truly noble pursuit unless you are also virtuous. But if you are virtuous and you acquire expertise in one of these pursuits, they become “quasi-virtues.”
I think this idea of psychological goods and quasi-virtues goes a long way toward filling out what a life of virtue actually looks like. The Stoic sage isn’t like the forest hermits of ancient India, the street-dwelling Cynics of ancient Athens, or the Christian anchorites living alone out in desert caves and eating bugs. The wise person has a rich, vibrant life, filled with social connections, intellectual pursuits, and physical activity. (Although it should be said that this is dependent on context, and the sage might choose to live on the streets if virtue required it. Or perhaps, as in the case of Diogenes the Cynic, the sage would combine a life of penury with social connections, intellectual pursuits, and physical activity.)
Complementary to the holistic psychological framework that Gill investigates in later chapters, this picture of the vigorous and well-rounded sage helps us think through how our ideal wise person would experience and interact with the world. We know they would be dynamic, responsive, and engaged with the world, not withdrawn and focused on self-denial. They would have emotions, but perfect emotions, and they would act with wisdom as circumstances required. This “happy life” would depend on the sage’s virtue, but would encompass a broader class of goods than the virtues alone.
Virtue as Skill or Expertise
I don’t know about you, but as a Stoic practitioner I don’t need any convincing that virtue is a skill that requires lots and lots of practice! Very helpfully, Chris Gill finishes his examination of the virtue-happiness relationship in Chapter 1 by explaining the theory behind virtue as a skill.
The question of what constitutes virtue goes all the way back to the early Stoa (and, of course, to Plato and Socrates before them). One ancient source, linking virtue with human nature—particularly those two primary characteristics, rationality and sociability—describes the cardinal virtues “as a matched set, cover the four main sectors of human action and experience, both as regards one’s own activities and one’s relations to others” (Gill, p. 43):
The goal of all these virtues is to live consistently with nature. Each virtue through its individual properties enables the human being to achieve this. For from nature a human being has initial inclinations (aphormai) for the discovery of what is appropriate [wisdom], for the balancing of his motives [moderation or temperance], for acts of endurance [courage], and for acts of distribution [justice]. Each of the virtues, by acting in harmony (sumphōnōn) and by its own particular properties, enables the human being to live consistently with nature. (Stobaeus 5b3, 2.62.7–14, cited in Gill 2022, p. 46)
As Gill points out, each of the four inclinations cited here reflects aspects of human rationality and/or sociability. The virtues, therefore, are rooted in those elements of human nature that most distinguish us from other animals and represent our highest capabilities.
Cicero, in On Duties 1, takes this idea even further by enumerating dual aspects—an inward-looking and outward-looking—of each cardinal virtue. For example, courage is described on the one hand as “disdain for things external,” and on the other as undertaking difficult or dangerous tasks that are “useful.” Justice is both “giving what is due to others and a more active quality of beneficence, kindness, or liberality” (Gill, p. 45). Gill (p. 46) concludes:
We might see Cicero’s account as reflecting this two-fold emphasis in Stoic ethical thinking, focusing first on the virtue in question as an expression of human rationality and then as expressing sociability, informed by rationality.
This concludes our brief tour of Chapter 1 of Chris Gill’s masterful book, Learning to Live Naturally. Obviously I am just barely scratching the surface here, but I hope to have given you an overview of some of its most important points. Naturally, I have to be selective in the material I present, and I readily admit to focusing on the areas I find most surprising, innovative, or corresponding to my own interests. Nevertheless, I hope you found this useful. Please join me next time as we move on to Chapter 2: Virtue, Indifferents, and Practical Deliberation.
Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness (1993, Oxford University Press)
John Sellars, The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy (2003, Bristol Classical Press)
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