Stoics on the Unity of Virtue

Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume I: Greece and Rome (Westminster: Newman, 1959) 398.

Copleston summarizes the Stoic view of virtue:

If all the virtues are so bound up with one another that he who possesses the one must possess the others, it is an easy step to supposing that there are no degrees in virtue. Either a man is virtuous, i.e., completely virtuous, or he is not virtuous at all. And this would seem to have been the position of the early Stoics. Thus, according to Chrysippus, a man who has almost completed the path of moral progress is not yet virtuous, has not yet that virtue which is true happiness. A consequence of this doctrine is that very few attain to virtue and then only later in life…But while this strict moral idealism is characteristic of the earlier Stoicism, later Stoics emphasised much more the conception of progress, devoting their attention to encouraging man to begin and continue in the path of virtue. Admitting that no individual actually corresponds to the ideal of the wise man, they divided mankind into fools and those who are progressing towards virtue or wisdom.

The Stoics believed that one had to have all of the virtues in order to be virtuous, since the virtues are interconnected with one another. James may have gotten this idea from the Stoics when he said in James 2:10-11 (NRSV) that breaking one of God’s commandments is the same as violating all of them: For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

Like the early Stoics, James also seems to have had a perfectionist streak, one that denied that a virtuous person could be a mixture of virtue and vice. He states in James 3:8-11: [N]o one can tame the tongue–a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. James would probably agree with the Stoics who held (in Copleston’s words) that “Either a man is virtuous, i.e., completely virtuous, or he is not virtuous at all.”

And the Apostle Paul may have had a similar sort of idea. A while back, Nick Norelli had a post about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Nick stated the following: Since ‘fruit’…in [Galatians] 5:22 is singular then does that mean that we must exhibit all or nothing in terms of love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance? If so then do you know anyone who bears this fruit? I can think of very few people…

There is a part of me that can sympathize with the Stoic point of view. If a person truly loves his neighbor as himself, then he won’t kill, rape, or steal. If he does one of those things and not another, then he is not a truly loving person.

At the same time, I can envision a person having some of the spiritual attributes of Galatians 5 and not others. One may not be all that joyous, gentle, or temperate, but he can still care for people. He may just have a hard time showing it.

Still, wouldn’t it be nice if all of the spiritual attributes were combined and intertwined under one worldview? That’s what Christianity professes to offer: We’re joyful because God loves us. We’re also patient because we know that God desires our good and will bless us in his due time, and we’re temperate because we’re not looking to the things of this world to satisfy us, since our satisfaction and security are in God. And because we know a loving God, we feel energized to pass that love on to others. (“That’s how it is with God’s love, once you experience it…You WANT to PASS it ON.”) For me, sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Getting past the first step of believing in a loving God whom I can’t even see is rather difficult, to be honest.

I can’t say that I’m virtuous. I’m not as bad as people think I am, since there are times when I reach out to others. But there are plenty of times when I blow a fuse with God or the people I love. Do those bad times cancel out my virtuous deeds? I’m not the most patient person in the world, plus I don’t love everybody, so am I technically not virtuous?

My hunch is that everybody is a mixture of good and evil. I’ve said that over and over on my blog, whether the subject is the rabbinic view of the last judgment, my rants against evangelicalism, Alcoholics Anonymous, or the characters on Desperate Housewives. A person can do some really bad things, but she can also do some really good things. Is she virtuous? It’s tough to tell! If she truly loves virtue, then why isn’t virtue ruling all of her acts? Yet, we are weak human beings, and forcing our moral principles to override our emotions, our desires, and our insecurities can be quite difficult.

I guess that’s why I prefer the later Stoics to their perfectionist predecessors: no one is perfect in terms of virtue, but hopefully we’re progressing, or at last we’re willing to progress.

UPDATE: See More on Virtue.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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