Stoic Moderation

The four parts of the virtue

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

🏛️ Theory

The Stoics, like other ancients, promoted the four cardinal virtues: moderation, courage, justice, and prudence.

Today, let’s focus on moderation.

Moderation is understood as knowing the proper amount of things. Epictetus tells us to treat life like we’re at a banquet. We should enjoy it while we can, but not take too much. In other words, we should practice self-control.

It’s less well-known that the Stoics broke down each cardinal virtue into parts. Moderation is an important idea, but it can be hard to know how to apply it. Breaking it down into parts helps put it into practice in different situations in our lives.

The Stoic Arius Didymus, an advisor to Augustus and an important figure in his own right, described the subcomponents of the virtue as:

To moderation: orderliness, propriety, modesty, self-control.

Arius Didymus, Epitome of Stoic Ethics

Let’s go through each.

Orderliness

Orderliness is a knowledge of when something must be done and in what sequence and, overall, of the order of actions.

Arius Didymus, Epitome of Stoic Ethics

Also translated as good discipline, this is the skill of knowing what and how to do it. What one has to remember when thinking about the virtues is that they're broader than just “moral” in the modern sense. The virtuous person lives the good life – they’re disciplined enough to pull it off. That takes some degree of competence. Moderation isn't just about doing the right thing; it's about building enough skill to be able to do the right thing well.

Propriety

Propriety is <a knowledge> of suitable and unsuitable motions.

Epitome of Stoic Ethics

This one is harder to translate – alternatives may be seemliness, fittingness, or appropriateness. 

This aspect of moderation is social. It means knowing what impulses and desires are appropriate given the situation. 

That depends on the role you’re playing.

For example, you may eat as a vegan when you’re on your own, but as a vegetarian when with family. Even if you have strong reasons to be vegan, sometimes it’s more important to take part in eating with one’s family. Perhaps a better citizen is vegan, but it’s more important to be a good family member and foster that connection at the moment – it’s just a couple of meals anyway.

Other examples may be more complicated. Again, this subcomponent brings out the idea that immoderation is "a skill issue." Here the skills involved are social.

Modesty

Modesty is a knowledge which can avoid correct reproach.

Epitome of Stoic Ethics

Modesty is related to honor. It’s knowing what ought to be done and possessing the self-respect to do it. It involves both avoiding what is beneath you without claiming what is above you. The modest person strikes the balance between false humility and pride. They see themselves accurately and act honorably. 

Self-control

Self-control is a knowledge that does not overstep the bounds of what has come to light in accord with correct reasoning.

Epitome of Stoic Ethics

Another interpretation of this comes from Diogenes Laertius: 

“The state which is invincible, cannot be lessened, by pleasures.”

Someone with self-control exemplifies Publius Syrus’s maxim:

Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself.

Someone with self-discipline domesticates their desires and doesn’t gorge themselves physically or mentally. Most importantly, they build the ability to recognize a good decision and follow through.

There we have it. 

When you're thinking about this virtue, bring these four subcomponents to mind. Focus on one. Be precise and ambitious.

🎯 Action

Exercise moderation today. Zoom into one of its subcomponents: orderliness, propriety, modesty, or self-control and focus on that subskill.

🎧️ Michael and I had an in depth discussion on the components of moderation here:

We’re planning on releasing other detailed discussions on justice and prudence too. Stay tuned.

📺️ Friend of the newsletter, Johnathan Bi, has been dropping high quality videos and interviews on the great books. He’s starting with Nietzsche and Rousseau. Check them out here.

What's the most important aspect of moderation?

What form of moderation are you working on now?

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