#1004 The Cardinal Virtues

Of Stoicism + Science + Optimize

The other day we chatted about my recent staycation with my Stoic friends.

(btw: Laughing as I type this but you know what I do when I’m feeling a little too fragmented with inputs and need a little clear-my-mind break? I go on a staycation—locking myself up in my no-inputs hermitage so I can read and write and think. … Which just so happens to be the most important part of my Job so… Note to self: Keep on doing that.)

Today we’re going to go back to Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic and chat about the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism, the six “core” virtues of modern science and the core virtues of Heroic.

First: Massimo.

He tells us: “The Stoics adopted Socrates’s classification of four aspects of virtue, which they thought of as four tightly interlinked character traits: (practical) wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Practical wisdom allows us to make decisions that improve our eudaimonia, the (ethically) good life. Courage can be physical, but more broadly refers to the moral aspect—for instance, the ability to act well under challenging circumstances… Temperance makes it possible for us to control our desires and actions so that we don’t yield to excesses. Justice, for Socrates and the Stoics, refers not to an abstract theory of how society should be run, but rather to the practice of treating other human beings with dignity and fairness.”

Note: That’s from Part II of the book: “How to Behave in the World.” The short answer on how to behave? It’s revealed in the title of the first chapter from this section: “It’s All About Character (and Virtue).”

Massimo thoughtfully walks us through the four cardinal Stoic virtues: Wisdom + Courage + Temperance + Justice.

He tells us: “The Stoics derived their understanding of virtue from Socrates, who believed that all virtues are actually different aspects of the same underlying feature: wisdom. The reason why wisdom is the ‘chief good,’ according to Socrates, is rather simple: it is the only human ability that is good under every and all circumstance.”

He also connects these four cardinal virtues to the modern Positive Psychology movement which was founded on an exploration of shared virtues among all cultures—which I found particularly awesome because the next book on my stack to read is called The Power of Character Strengths and was written by two of the leading scientists behind the VIA Institute on Character.

Massimo says: “Other cultures have developed, more or less independently, their own sets of virtues as socially important character traits, each arriving at its own classification of the relations among virtues. Interestingly, though, there is much more convergence than we would expect in these days when cultural relativism is so often portrayed as the norm. A study by Katherine Dahlsgaard, Christopher Peterson, and Martin Seligman looked at how virtue is articulated in Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, and what they call ‘Athenian philosophy’ (mostly Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle). They found a rather surprising amount of congruence among all of these religious-philosophical traditions and identified a set of six ‘core’ virtues: Courage, Justice, Humanity, Temperance, Wisdom, and Transcendence.

Four of the six are indistinguishable from the Stoic virtues. Stoics also accepted the importance of ‘humanity’ and ‘transcendence,’ although they didn’t think of these as virtues, but rather as attitudes toward others (humanity) and toward the universe at large (transcendence).”

To recap and drop it into our Heroic framework.

Our Stoics had their four cardinal virtues: Wisdom + Courage + Temperance + Justice. Modern scientists looked across a range of religious-philosophical doctrines across a range of cultures and found the same four virtues and added two: Humanity + Transcendence.

I think we can all agree that Wisdom + Courage + Temperance (or, as I prefer, Self-Mastery) are essential. Then, as we briefly discussed in our Note on Musonius Rufus, I think “Justice” is a very weak word to capture the LOVE the Stoics (and all other traditions) encouraged us to feel for their families, communities and world. So, why not just call the fourth virtue “Love”? Then we can throw the scientist’s “Justice” and “Humanity” under that umbrella.

Now we have Wisdom + Self-Mastery + Courage + Love.

To run it through our Heroic model: We start by having Wisdom. We know the game we’re playing (eudaimonia!) AND, very importantly, how to play it well (operationalize virtue!).

Then we cultivate our Self-Mastery (with an emphasis on the fundamentals so we can Optimize our Energy). Why? So we can more consistently live with both Courage (in all aspects of our lives but with an emphasis on Work) and so we can more consistently live with Love.

As we do the hard work of operationalizing virtue, we make progress in closing the gap between who we are capable of being and who we are actually being—more and more consistently living with eudaimonia and expressing the Optimus-best version of ourselves.

That leads us to Transcendence. From my vantage point, the eudaimonically-best version of ourselves naturally (almost effervescently) transcends self-interest and lives a life committed to more than just themselves.

A Greek word for that? Hērōs.

We become modern, everyday “protectors” of our families and communities and world.

We have strength for two. We give the world all we’ve got.


P.S. Helping us operationalize these virtues by integrating ancient wisdom + modern science + practical tools is what our Heroic Mastery Series and Heroic Coach programs are all about. If that sounds like fun, we’d love to have you join us!

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