Stoicism, Virtue, and Death

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Early this morning I received an email from a listener. It struck me, after reading it, that a public response might be more useful than restricting the impact of my answer to a 1:1 email.

Here are the contents of that message:

Hi Tanner, so I’ve got a question regarding stoicism. We should be indifferent to anything that can make us less virtuous, but what about death? Death can kill us (pretty obvious i think) which would result in us being dead, and that means, not being able to be virtuous.

One of the reasons I wanted to respond to this publicly is because it highlights a common struggle within Stoicism (and probably any philosophy); that problem is language. Just as is the case in Science, in Philosophy the words we use don’t map directly–in regards to their definitions–to the same words used in public.

For example:

In Science the word “Theory” describes something that explains observable facts. The Theory of Gravity is a Theory about how gravity works based on how we can observe it working.

But outside of Science we don’t use the word “theory” in that way. Outside of Science we would say, “Well, I have a theory about how Jeff got into that car accident. I think he was futzing with the radio and not paying attention.” That’s not a Theory, it’s a theory (capital and lowercase t’s). In this way a theory is a, potentially, partially educated guess but is most usually synonymous with “having a hunch.”

This listener has used the word indifferent correctly, which I’m happy to see because indifferents vs. indifference is a common sticking point of understanding for people new to Stoicism (and perhaps this person isn’t new to it, I don’t know). However they’ve extrapolated something from their understanding of indifferents which isn’t true:

We should be indifferent to anything that can make us less virtuous.

This isn’t true. Virtue, in Stoicism, is the only good. Anything that makes us less Virtuous is, therefore, not an indifferent because it damages the only good. Instead, anything which damages our Virtue is a Vice or is Vicious.

But it gets a little more confusing because this listener is absolutely correct that death is an indifferent, and their question about how the Stoics could view death as an indifferent if it permanently ends our ability to practice Virtue is a smart one because it identifies something that seems, from a distance, like a contradiction.

Death is an outlier because it is an inevitability.

Because death cannot be avoided, and because it is a part of Nature (and Nature, to the Stoics, is god), while it does prevent any future Virtuous behavior from being expressed (because it prevents any future version of us from existing), it cannot be viewed as being Vicious. Death can only be viewed as a natural process which is beyond our control and is therefore an indifferent.

And while it is an indifferent, it’s (usually) a dispreferred indifferent specifically for the reason this listener points out: because it prevents us from existing and continuing to be Virtuous. I parenthetically noted this is usually the case because sometimes death is a preferred indifferent; for example if you have a terminal condition that will cause you great pain, rob you of your mental faculties, and cost your family millions to keep you on life support until you die of other causes, death may well be a preferred indifferent.

Death is, of course, very personal for many people, so I won’t say more on when it is preferred vs. dispreferred; I’ll leave you, dear reader, to suss the rest of that out for yourself.

In any case, death does prevent our ability to be Virtuous, which makes it dispreferred, but it’s also an inevitable feature of Nature, which means we must treat it as an indifferent–dispreferred or otherwise.

It’s also worth noting that death could be viewed as strictly a preferred indifferent since one might say death is a motivator to become Virtuous in the first place… before you run out of time to do so.

About the author

Tanner Campbell

Hi, I'm Tanner. I spend most of my time writing in the philosophy space and I'm the host of the Practical Stoicism podcast. When I'm not writing, I'm reading or recording. In rare moments when I'm not writing, reading, or recording, I'm spending time with my partner and our dogs.

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