What Is Stoic Wisdom?

This short explainer will provide you with a straightforward understanding of what the Stoic virtue of Wisdom is and how you can apply it in your life.

Definition Of Stoic Wisdom

Stoic Wisdom comes from the Greek term “phronesis” (φρόνησις). The definition of the virtue is thought to precede the Stoics and can be found in the teachings of Plato.

Plato’s definition of the virtue of Wisdom is as follows:

The ability which by itself is productive of human happiness; the knowledge of what is good and bad; the knowledge that produces happiness; the disposition by which we judge what is to be done and what is not to be done.

These definitions are perhaps somewhat abstract and antiquated, but their practicality can be clarified by Wisdom’s subdivisions of good sense, good calculation, quick-wittedness, discretion, and resourcefulness.

In his book The Quest for Character, the modern Stoic author Massimo Pigliucci provides the following succinct definition of his own which gives further clarity:

Cognitive strength that entails the acquisition and use of knowledge; it includes creativity, curiosity, judgment, perspective, and the ability to provide counsel to others.

What the Stoics Said

“To live a good life: We have the potential for it,” writes Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations. “If we can learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference.”

This good life is exactly what the ancient Stoics believed the practice of philosophy would allow us to pursue.

As Marcus Aurelius alluded to, it would help us rationally examine our judgments and understand what is good (virtue), what is bad (vice), and what is indifferent (everything else).

Virtue, the Stoics held, is the only true good in life. And for this reason, as Cicero notes in his work On Duties, we should prioritize it:

For what, in the name of heaven, is more to be desired than wisdom? What is more to be prized? What is better for a man, what more worthy of his nature? Those who seek after it are called philosophers; and philosophy is nothing else, if one will translate the word into our idiom, than “the love of wisdom.” Wisdom, moreover, as the word has been defined by the philosophers of old, is “the knowledge of things human and divine and of the causes by which those things are controlled.”

It’s this Wisdom of course that informs our application of the other three cardinal virtues of Justice, Courage, and Temperance. It’s the disposition by which we judge what to do and what not to do. It’s what the practice of philosophy furnishes us with.

To the Stoics, this internal clarity far outweighed the pursuit of externals like material gain, wealth, reputation, and status.

As Cicero concludes, if it’s this good life we want then philosophy, or the pursuit of Wisdom, is the only way to get there:

And if the man lives who would belittle the study of philosophy, I quite fail to see what in the world he would see fit to praise. For if we are looking for mental enjoyment and relaxation, what pleasure can be compared with the pursuits of those who are always studying out something that will tend toward and effectively promote a good and happy life? Or, if regard is had for strength of character and virtue, then this is the method by which we can attain to those qualities, or there is none at all.

How Can I Practice Stoic Wisdom?

The word “philosophy” itself comes from the ancient Greek words φίλος (philos: “love”) and σοφία (sophia: “wisdom”). The Stoics, with their love of wisdom, took the name quite literally as Donald Robertson explains in How to Think Like a Roman Emperor:

They loved wisdom, or loved virtue, above everything else. If “virtue” sounds a bit pompous, the Greek word for it, arete, is arguably better translated as “excellence of character.” Something excels, in this sense, if it performs its function well. Humans excel when they think clearly and reason well about their lives, which amounts to living wisely.

If we’re trying to emulate the Stoics by holding virtue or wisdom to be the only true good as they did, this idea of “excellence of character” is a helpful one.

It may not always be clear how to act in a virtuous way, especially for those just getting started with philosophy, but if we approach it in terms of excelling in our actions then it might be a little easier to understand.

Donald Robertson clarifies this further by explaining how wisdom and virtue can guide our actions:

The Stoics adopted the Socratic division of cardinal virtues into wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. The other three virtues can be understood as wisdom applied to our actions in different areas of life. Justice is largely wisdom applied to the social sphere, our relationships with other people. Displaying courage and moderation involves mastering our fears and desires, respectively, overcoming what the Stoics called the unhealthy “passions” that otherwise interfere with our ability to live in accord with wisdom and justice.

So what we’re trying to do each day is apply Wisdom to every area of our life.

We want to think clearly and reason well with respect to how we:

  • Treat others and contribute to the common good (Justice)
  • Face our fears and seek to do the right thing despite opposition (Courage)
  • Protect ourselves against excess and unhealthy desires (Moderation)

To do this, we build our cognitive strength and knowledge each day through our curiosity, our diligence in learning, and above all, our love of Wisdom.