Commusings: A Contemplation on Virtue by Jeff KrasnoSep 15, 2023
Dear Commune Community,
My big little news: You can now get a free course pass to my first online program, Stoic Meditations. The course consists of 10 contemplations based on this 2,000-year-old philosophy for living “the good life.”
My initial introduction to Stoicism came courtesy of Schuyler, who often calls me “stoic” due to my unflappable demeanor in response to chaos and adversity. Someday there may be an oil painting of me working assiduously at the kitchen table while my three daughters and a baker’s dozen of their friends whir the blender and throw slime at me.
The unemotional endurance of hardship, however, belies the true nature of Stoicism, which is best described as a dynamic philosophy of personal ethics founded by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd century BC.
Stoicism is a system of logic and rationality applied to virtue. The philosophy lays out a path to eudaimonia — Greek for flourishing or well-being. Eudaimonia is achieved through living an ethical life in accordance with nature and by practicing the cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, courage and moderation. I untangle these virtues in today’s essay.
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In love, include me,
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A Contemplation on Virtue
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” — Epictetus
A central tenet of Stoicism is the acknowledgment that we don’t control the world around us. We can only control how we respond — and our response to the course of human events should be guided by four primary virtues: wisdom, justice, courage and moderation.
The contemplation of wisdom, justice, courage and moderation deserves a book, or four. Defining and embodying these qualities is the work of a lifetime. And before we begin exploring each virtue specifically, it is important to note that these core virtues are intertwined. For example, you can be courageous, but if your bravery is wielded for self-serving desires at the expense of others, what good is it? In order to be virtuous, courage needs to be paired with justice.
We begin with moderation. Temperance and self-control are echoed across many religions and philosophical schools of thought. These qualities can often be understood as sobriety or abstinence from the pleasures of the flesh. The ascetics felt that the sublimation of earthbound pleasures led to a more spiritually enlightened life.
Personally, I see moderation as the bringing together of opposites. This understanding is more in line with the Buddhist notion of “the middle way,” or Taoism, which considers the universe as an organism emerging out of opposites, as symbolized by the image of the yin-yang.
The universal logos – the foundational intelligence of the cosmos – can be seen as an evolutionary process of moderation. Nature seeks coherence out of the coincidence of opposites that innately occur. The feminine and masculine collaborate to create life. Positive and negative charges dance in repulsion and attraction to create electricity. Atoms, a fundamental structure of the universe, are balanced by positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons. Photosynthetic life (i.e. plants) creates oxygen and glucose out of carbon dioxide and water. And non-photosynthetic life, you and me, use oxygen and break down glucose to create carbon dioxide and water. You can find this elan towards coherence throughout natural systems.
I think of a personal moderation practice in a similar light. The Stoics were keen on acting in accordance with nature. I try to mimic nature’s ability to bring binary opposition into coherence. Here are four basic principles:
- The ability to avoid excesses and extremes
- The ability to remain centered and balanced
- The ability to foster cohesion and cooperation
- The ability to find a middle path between hedonic desire and asceticism
You can apply these principles to personal consumption habits relating to food, alcohol, sugar, social media and consumerism. You can also overlay these principles on top of opinion. For example, you can rigorously examine your own opinions and identify areas where they have, perhaps imperceptibly, become extreme. It’s not that strong feelings are not at times justified. But are the source of those passions anchored in the true nature of an event or are they outgrowths of your judgment or bias?
In this time of extreme political rancor and binary opposition, where can you foster common ground? Where is there shared humanity to be found?
Humanity’s greatest projects have been predicated on our unique ability to cooperate flexibly at scale. When we have the courage to compromise, we unify moderation with justice. The merger of these three virtues begets wisdom.
Courage is often stereotypically personified on the battlefield. The brave warrior throws caution to the wind and runs heedlessly toward the enemy line.
There is a kernel of truth to this patriarchal version of valor. Courage certainly reflects the ability to confront and overcome fear. Courage also exhibits one’s inclination to risk one’s own well-being for a greater good.
However, this battlefield depiction of bravery does not consider the underlying nuance and substrate of the quality. Any display of courage necessitates a willingness to be vulnerable. Courage as vulnerability can be seen in any situation where a person puts themselves in a position where they could be hurt, suffer personal loss or be shamed. Certainly, this is the case for a soldier. But it is also true for someone walking into an AA meeting, or coming out as gay, or confronting a deep-seated phobia, or making a risky career move.
The definition of vulnerability is the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of attack or harm, either physically or emotionally. In this way, vulnerability is synonymous with courage. This denudes courage of its false association with heroic masculinity.
Courage also often involves non-conformity. The ability to act rightly in the face of popular opposition requires profound mettle. Often we are afraid to stand up for something we believe is just because we worry we will be judged. Courage eschews the fear of judgment. You take a stand irrespective of what others think. And, in this way, courage is a repudiation of the ego, which often tells you that you are what other people think of you.
Lastly, courage is often misconstrued as wild and irresponsible. This is where courage meets moderation and good discernment. Courage faces fear in a manner that is neither cowardly nor reckless. Courage understands fear not as a transitory emotion that temporarily hijacks your amygdala but as something that should be revered. Acts of courage involve a rational assessment of risk, often in a split second. In this way, courage requires tremendous presence in the present moment. Furthermore, the only reason to display courage is to achieve a just and worthy goal. If there is no reasonable chance for success, brave acts are no longer courageous, they are reckless.
In summary, here are some core tenets of courage:
- A willingness to be vulnerable
- A willingness to risk one’s own well-being for a greater good
- A willingness to act rightly in the face of popular opposition
- The ability to confront and understand fear and act in a manner that is neither cowardly nor reckless
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius referred to justice as thoughts and acts resulting in the common good. He also posited that justice was the source of all other virtues. What good is wisdom if it is not justly administered? What use is courage if it only serves self-interest?
Justice is a highly social concept. As a matter of personal ethics, justice is where your thoughts and actions interface with the rest of the world. Justice can also refer to acts of the state and it can be conflated with a superficial understanding of karma that proffers that people “get what they deserve.”
The philosopher John Locke argued that justice derives from natural law, values intrinsic to human nature. Social contract theorists argue that justice emerges from agreement between people as to how to run a society. Jeremy Bentham and the Utilitarians posit that justice is served when it benefits the most possible people. There are economic theories of distributive justice – how the surplus of society should be divvied up across a population. There is retributive justice that outlines appropriate punishment for those who have violated the rights of others. And there is restorative justice, which is focused on the restoration of well-being for those who have been caused harm.
There is a consilience that emerges behind all of these iterations of justice. The unifying theme is that the world should be governed by fairness, a commitment to impartiality and a lack of favoritism.
Plato might argue that there is an ideal form of justice. By the time it reaches our messy human condition here on earth, this perfect perennial justice gets refracted and bent and perverted. It is then the work of philosophers and thinkers to distill its true meaning, to not see justice’s shadow but to look toward the light and behold its true form. From there we must reify it, take it out of the air and give it eyes and ears and arms and legs.
Martin Luther King famously uttered, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
We inch along this moral arc in hopes of aligning our human condition with our highest principles. It is hardly a straight line and it requires courage. America’s Declaration of Independence enshrined these famous words on parchment, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Despite this noble expression of justice, we are grimly aware of the hypocrisy embedded in these words. 100 years would elapse after the scrawling of this verse before slavery was abolished, and it would be a century and a half until women achieved suffrage in the United States. The instantiation of justice requires courage — principled battles waged by brave and engaged citizens in an effort to unite daily life with universal values.
When you are looking through the Stoic lens, you are always seeking to better the world and yourself in ways that you can control. Ask yourself, how do my thoughts and actions promote justice as a friend, parent, citizen or member of an organization?
Here are some basic guidelines for justice that can be applied across myriad situations:
- A commitment to fairness, impartiality and non-favoritism
- The equal distribution of opportunity
- A social contract that administers both fair retribution to those who have caused harm and restoration to the victims of harm
I confront justice every day as a parent. When my daughters were young and less able to process emotions and verbalize, they would get into heroic scraps. Lolli would steal Cheese from Micah. Cheese was Micah’s beloved and bedraggled stuffed mouse. Micah would turn scarlet, screaming her head off. She would escalate the matter by violently hurling a magna-tile at her sister. Of course, one action always begets an equal opposite reaction. Someone would inevitably get hurt and come running to mom or dad.
When you think about it, how different is this really from our global political quarrels?
Well, it is in this kind of situation where we can all practice justice. In my example, I would need to manage the situation with impartiality and not play favorites. I would need to treat each daughter equally, consider an appropriate punishment and address any harm caused.
Justice – like the other three cardinal virtues – cannot really exist on its own. Justice requires good judgment that is borne from wisdom. It requires centeredness that derives from moderation. And it requires courage to enact.
Wisdom is often associated with age. It conjures the image of the village elder – the wise old grandmother healer with a cupboard full of herbs and tinctures. Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism and author of the Tao Te Ching, is often portrayed as a wizened sage with a long white beard. There is even a fable that he was born old and with his beard.
The suggestion here is that wisdom must be accrued through experience. This offers an important distinction between wisdom and knowledge.
Certainly, wisdom and knowledge are not mutually exclusive and we should strive for both. But we have all met people who are wise but did not get a PhD from Harvard and, most definitely, the opposite is true. There are people who are knowledgeable but lack wisdom.
The French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne said, “We can be knowledgeable with other men's knowledge but we cannot be wise with other men's wisdom.”
Essentially, you can read books, study lessons and take online courses to gain knowledge. But wisdom is not about throwing more grocery items in the intellectual cart. It’s not an accumulation of facts and figures.
Knowledge is understanding all of the component parts of something. Wisdom is grokking the simple essence and utility of it.
There’s an oft-quoted aphorism, “Knowledge is understanding how to make a bomb. Wisdom is understanding not to use it.“
In this sense, wisdom is more of a moral quality. In many ways, it’s not about what you know, it’s about fostering good judgment and discernment.
Wisdom is also about cultivating an awareness of what you don’t know. For example, the greatest leaders tend to surround themselves with people who have capacities and talents in areas that they do not. The sage recognizes where he is deficient. In this way, wisdom is connected to humility.
Take, for example, the person who fails. The wise and humble person understands that failure begets experience and experience begets wisdom. However, this requires admitting your mistakes and being willing to adapt. The proud person will not recognize the failure and will attempt the same thing again and again. It is oft-said that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. More concisely, you might say that this is the definition of hubris. Pride often stands in the way of wisdom.
Here are four basic tenets of wisdom:
- The quality of having good, unbiased judgment
- An ability to contemplate and act morally, leveraging knowledge, experience and understanding
- A possession of self-awareness and insight into the nature of the mind
- The humility to acknowledge one's own deficiencies and learn from failure
Wisdom can be understood as the sum of Stoicism’s other core virtues: moderation, courage and justice. Wisdom uses a balance cunning and humility to bring opposing sides into moderation. Wisdom employs judgment in determining the proper moment for courage. Wisdom leverages discernment to find what is fair and just.
Wisdom has no terminus. We can experience moments of epiphany, where the nature of existence suddenly makes sense. Wisdom burns like a fire in the black of night. The more it rages, the more darkness is revealed. Socrates wrote, “True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves and the world around us.” The pursuit of wisdom rewards the curious.
If you cultivate these core Stoic virtues of moderation, courage, justice and wisdom – then you will be on your way to leading a full and flourishing life.
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