Character Over Comfort

The Stoic definition of courage

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

🏛️ Theory

For the Stoics, courage was knowing what to avoid.

Think about a paradigmatic action of courage from Stoic history: Cato the Younger's decision to purge corrupt officials from the Roman treasury. This act was popular with the public – but risked his reputation, political office, and comfort. He made enemies out of many Roman elites. 

This act was courageous because Cato knew what to avoid: playing a part in propping up the corrupt bureaucracy. It may have been tempting to steer clear of risks to his political career and discomfort, but that’s not what drove his choice.

Contrast this with what cowardice looks like in this situation: staying on the comfortable path and lacking the conviction to reform a broken institution. The risks associated with Cato's actions explain why his predecessors chose to look the other way. The office was just a stepping stone to greater things anyway.

For the Stoics, the coward values the wrong things. They put externals – like their reputation and pleasure – above their character.

So – going back to the definition – what does one avoid? Risks to one’s character. Instead, pursue excellence.

Determine who you would be. Then be it.

🎯 Action

Bring to mind one courageous action. Do it.

🏛️ We just launched a new set of routines on courage in Stoa. Find it in the “View Courses” section of the app.

💬 One of my favorite quotes about courage from Tim O’Brien.

All of us, I suppose, like to believe that in a moral emergency, we will behave like the heroes of our youth, bravely and forthrightly, without thought of personal loss or discredit… If the stakes ever became high enough—if the evil were evil enough, if the good were good enough—I would simply tap a secret reservoir of courage that had been accumulating inside me over the years. Courage, I seemed to think, comes to us in finite quantities, like an inheritance, and by being frugal and stashing it away and letting it earn interest, we steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account must be drawn down. It was a comforting theory. It dispensed with all those bothersome little acts of daily courage; it offered hope and grace to the repetitive coward; it justified the past while amortizing the future.

🗨️ And a story from from Epictetus:

That’s why, when Florus was wondering whether or not he should attend Nero’s theatrical spectacle and even play a part in it himself, Agrippinus said,


But when Florus asked him why he wasn’t going himself, Agrippinus replied,

‘Because I don’t even stop to consider it.’

The point is that, as soon as someone starts to deliberate about this kind of thing, weighing up the relative values of externals and making a decision on that basis, he’s not far off being one of those people who are unaware of his own role.”

Discourses, 1.2

🎧️ A discussion with Alex Petkas from The Cost of Glory about two courageous characters:

🗽 Learn more about Cato the Younger:

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