The Stoic Way of Life

The Stoic way of life is the expression that encompasses the Stoic’s attitude toward practical affairs. It really is “an anachronism,” writes Ludwig Edelstein in his book The Meaning of Stoicism.

It was Pythagoras who first taught a “way of life.” The Stoics usually speak of an “art of life,” an ars vivendi, not in the sense of any inspirational action but in the sense of a settled disposition, which makes man act with the certainty of an accomplished craftsman, which teaches him how to do things in an unvarying order.


From the very beginning Stoic teaching was interested in man in the context of his community.

Perhaps it is true that classical ethics taught man how to shape himself, that is, to shape his being as an artist shapes a statue. The harmonious personality was the aim of Epicurus also. Yet one often gets the impression that these ancient moralists thought of man as if he were isolated from others. This is not so of the Stoic, for whom man is a social being and can perfect himself only within the community of man and not just the community of citizens either. The highest ideal of the Stoic way of life, therefore, was to live with others. While it was the dream of the Epicurean sage to live hidden from the world, it was the duty of the Stoic sage to understand that he could never consider himself a private individual. Social obligations take precedence over individual tasks, and individual ethics is ipso facto social ethics. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Stoicism exercised such profound influence on Christianity.

Family Life

Generally speaking we owe much to Stoic ethics as they “imbued man’s actions with a new respect for human dignity.” For example, the Stoa first recognized the equality of husband and wife. They also believed that children were free to choose their own path and that slaves were people. At the time, these beliefs cut through the established Greek philosophical guard.

Not only did they hold that men and women have one virtue and that beyond and above the manly virtues there are human virtues which are valid for both men and women, but they considered matrimony to be much more than a community of the body, to be a community of the soul. The wife is the husband’s other self, his truest friend. He will, therefore, not marry for money or for family connections or even for beauty. What is important about married life is what contributes to the human qualities of both partners, the use of their common life. Nothing is further from the stoic attitude … than the point of view expressed by Shakespeare’s Petruchio “I will be master of what is my own; she is my goods, my chattels.”

Thus the first step is taken in acknowledging the dignity, the rights, and the humanity of the other person; and what is true of the husband’s attitude toward his wife is true also of his attitude toward his children. Their rights must be respected and especially their right to educate themselves and choose their own way of life. When Epictetus was confronted by a son who did not have his father’s permission to study philosophy, he was not afraid to defend the son against the father. The father’s rights and prerogatives are limited by the rights of the son, or rather the obligations of the one as well as of the other must be respected.

So what of slaves then?

This respect for the inalienable and indefeasible rights of the individual appears most clearly in the attitude prescribed with respect to the slave, the third member of the family in addition to parents and children. The slave, said Chrysippus, is a man hired for life. Slavery is nothing but subordination to the master; if it turns into possession of the slave by the master, it is lordship, and this is evil. As human beings, free men and slaves are equals.

The Workman

The Stoic defense of the workman, or laborer, is fascinating. The prevailing view at the time was that work was not disgraceful or dishonorable; it was a necessity. This necessity, however, gave you a free pass on virtue because you were, in effect, a servant of others. The Stoa changed this view and in the process, created a precursor to professional ethics.

Whether or not the preclassical centuries were free of contempt for manual labour, by the end of the classical era it had become something contemptible in democratic and oligarchical societies alike. Socrates’ defence of the workman on the ground that work brings neither disgrace nor dishonor is quite revolutionary, and so is the Pythagorean theory of work and workmanship. What is much more characteristic of the common attitude is Aristotle’s remark that the artisan is subject to limited servitude while the slave is subject to unlimited servitude. Between the two, then, there is only a difference of degree. Surely, in all early centuries there is no idealization of work as such. It is considered to be a dire necessity rather than an ennobling activity; and, most important, it precludes man from practicing moral virtue.

Stoic philosophy attributed to work a value of its own, however. Work is a natural human occupation and does not exclude man from a virtuous life; it is compatible with the moral order and forms a part of it, for morality can be realized not merely in performing the duties of the citizen but also in any other human action. Aristotle had allowed that workmanship may be noble or ignoble depending on the degree of virtue that it requires as an accessory; but he had declined even to discuss the question in detail in his Politics because that would be ungentlemanlike. For the Stoa it was axiomatic that in whatever station man may find himself it is possible for him to live up to moral rules.

… In terms of economic theory it means that the arts and crafts are no longer distinguished as less noble than the possession of wealth. Worker and capitalist are on the same level, so to speak. The relation between them becomes that of two rich men, equally independent, making use of their wealth, the wealth of the one being his skill or manual strength and the wealth of the other his money. There is also a change in the attitude toward the product of wealth and toward the worker. The classical age was concerned only with technical proficiency in the artist and with the product of his art or craft. Now the human qualities of that craftsman, his inner relation to his achievement and to his customer, his reliability, his wish to do right in the widest sense of the term, are made the main content of appreciation. This point is especially important. Aristotle can still put the aporia: will it not be necessary for artisans to have virtue, since they frequently fall short in their tasks owing to intemperance? But he decides that nothing can be done about this. While the owner of a slave is educated and becomes virtuous, the artisan who lives in limited slavery is outside the control of his employer; his virtue is personal concern.

Through Stoic teaching, work is moralized, however. A sense of responsibility toward it is enjoined upon everybody. How one behaves in the performance of one’s work is no longer a matter of indifference. The more character must, so to speak, shine through one’s doings; Soberness and temperance must shine through every activity. Thus an ethos of work and workmanship arises, unknown before or known at most to the political theorist who can speak of the official as a servant of the state or of the law.

Most important perhaps, the rehabilitation and the reshaping of men’s attitude toward manual work eventually leads to a more general theory of calling or vocation. The classical age knew nothing of what can be properly called professional ethics. That is, it was not understood that each profession imposes specific duties. For example, the physician must help his patient, be he free or slave, friend or enemy, and on no condition is he permitted to do any harm. The judge is not allowed to show favor to anybody, not even to the friend who may appear before him; impartiality is his specific virtue. These duties are imposed upon the member of the profession by the role he plays in life.


Forget Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, how about capital in the 4th century BC.

In the Stoic’s opinion, business too has an ethics of its own. To make as much money as one needs is fair but to steal from another what is his is against the human law, said Chrysippus (one of the main Stoics).

… Stoic philosophy initiated a reversal of the attitude of the wealthy to the poor and infused the ideal of humaneness with the virtue of generosity. …

Generally speaking, the thesis of the Stoics was that he who has money does not have it for himself, does not possess it or own it anymore than he owns his wife or his children or anything else. You have money for the benefit of your children, of your relations, of your friends, or the state, say Seneca. The rich man, to put it succinctly, is but the trustee of his wealth. Such a position was maintained by the Stoics without in any way casting doubt on the right of private property. Private property is a natural good; it is guaranteed by justice, which gives to everybody his own. The world is a theater with different seats, and one must not complain if one does not sit in the front row nor claim that one has a right to do so. Rights differ as men differ. The Stoa, therefore, opposed socialism and communism as they were preached in Hellenistic utopias, but it does not condone a theory of the laissez faire, to which Aristotle had already objected.

The Stoics were not exactly for the invisible hand either. Their approach, built on the foundation of community, is worth visiting, and learning from.

[T]hey asked the individual to learn that it is necessary for him to live for others and that he is born for human society at large, of which he must always feel himself to be a member rather than a fragment separated off. Here in humanity and not in the state, in the moral company of man, he is truly at home. He must take care of present and future as far as social problems are concerned; and the greatest sin of a human being is to say après nous le Déluge or, as the Stoics put it in the familiar words of a Greek poet, “it is wicked and inhuman for men to declare that they care not if when they themselves are dead, the universal conflagration ensues.”

We can add The Meaning of Stoicism to our growing collection of Stoic wisdom.