The Stoic Paradoxes

In 46 a.d.C. three years before his death, Cicero wrote his “Paradoxa stoicorum” a brief book dedicated to Marcus Brutus. The Stoic Paradoxes were six precepts that encapsulated Stoic philosophy and, according to Cicero, the Stoics only explained in their inner circles. If a non stoic would hear them, he would probably find them puzzling, if not laughable. What does it mean, they may ask, that “Only what is beautiful is good” or that “All the vices and all virtues are equal” ?

“Since these things are remarkable and contrary to everyone’s opinion (they themselves even call them “paradoxes”), I want to-test whether they can be brought into the light, that is, into the forum. I have treated the same things as Stoics hardly say in gyms and at leisure.” And with much more pleasure he says: “I have written insofar as these we call paradoxes, they seem to me mainly Socratic and very true”.  Although Cicero was an Academic Skeptic, by the end of his life he leaned toward Stoicism. In the book Cicero uses the Stoic Paradoxes to explain his ideas about the nature of moral goodness, the possession of virtue, good and bad conduct, the transcendence of wisdom, and the sources of real wealth. He specifically claims that what he is doing is playfully transcribing the Stoic paradoxes into language befitting the Forum to see whether or not it can be done.

I – Oti monon to kalon agathon That only what is beautiful is good

In classical greek, the word Kalon meant both beautiful, noble and honorable, the ideal perfect beauty in the physical and moral sense. (Words such as calligraphy come from Greek Kallos “beauty” and graphein “write”) Stoics thought that honorable actions were beautiful, and were more desirable goods than good-looks, or beautiful buildings. (This paradox is probably playing around with a famous poem by Sappho that says: “What is beautiful is good, and who is good will soon be beautiful.)

Cicero was not a Stoic, and in many cases he didn’t completely agree with the Stoic position, nevertheless he had a good account of Stoicism and he was no amateur in the matter.

“I never was one who reckoned among good and desirable things, treasures, magnificent mansions, interest, power, or those pleasures to which mankind are most chiefly addicted. For I have observed, that those to whom these things abounded, still desired them most: for the thirst of cupidity is never filled or satiated. They are tormented not only with the lust of increasing, but with the fear of losing what they have.”

“But some one will ask, ‘What then is a real good?’ Whatever is done uprightly, honestly, and virtuously, is truly said to be done well; and whatever is upright, honest, and agreeable to virtue, that alone, as I think, is a good thing.”

“As far as I am concerned, true reasoning will have more weight than the mob’s opinion; and I will never say that someone has lost goods who has lost cattle or furniture, and I will often praise that wise man Bias,When the enemy captured Priene, his homeland, and the rest fled and carried off their property, and he had been warned by someone that he should do the same thing, he said, “But that is what I’m doing, for I carry all that is mine with me.” 9. He did not even consider these toys of fortune which we call “goods” as his own. Someone will ask,”What then is good?” If something which is done uprightly and honorably and with virtue can be truly said to be well done, then I believe that alone which is upright and honorable and virtuous is good.”

II – Oti autarkês ê aretê pros eudaimonian That Virtue is sufficient for a good life

The Stoic motto and doctrine of the good life was: live according to nature. To act in accordance with nature is first of all to act in accordance with your own nature as a human being. For man, this means to act rationally, since his nature, which distinguishes him from the rest of the universe, is to be rational. Virtue was conceived as a disposition to act in accordance with reason. To know the truth about yourself and the world is the same thing as to be able and willing to act according to that knowledge. Virtue is also the one and only summum bonum.

The things which we normally consider good, like pleasure, wealth, fame, and health cannot be considered real goods, and pain, poverty, anonymity, and sickness cannot be considered real evils. The only real good is virtue, and the only real evil is vice. But wealth, fame and health, can come as consequence of virtue, just as sickness, poverty and pain may follow us for our vices.

The Stoics maintained, quite controversially among ancient ethical thought, that the only thing that always contributes to happiness, as its necessary and sufficient condition, is virtue.

“You don’t know, madman, you don’t know how much force virtue has. You appropriate virtue’s great name: what its value is, you are ignorant. No one can fail to be most happy who is complete in himself and dependent on himself and who places all that is his own in himself.”
“Exile is terrible to those who have their habitation, as it were, circumscribed, not to those who consider the whole world to be one city. Every hardship and affliction crushes you who consider yourself happy and prospering. Your desires are tortured, you are crucified day and night, you for whom what you have is not enough, and who fear that even that won’t last long.”

III – Oti isa ta amartêmata kai ta katorthômata That all the vices and all virtues are equal

Stoics used to say that a wrong action was wrong regardless of the consequence. If a pilot sinks a ship, it doesn’t matter if the cargo was corn or gold. To kill an animal for no reason, as bad as killing a human being.

“offenses should not be measured by the outcome of things, but by the vices of the people committing them. The matter in which someone commits an offense can be
greater or less, but the offense itself, however you turn it, is the same.”

IV – Oti pas aphrôn mainetai. That all fools are madmen

Stoics thought that only the ideal Sage was truly sane, all the rest were insane, in different degrees. We will never become sages, but we can progress toward wisdom and go as far away as possible from folly.

Cicero addresses directly to one of his political enemies:

“And look how I despised those weapons of your brigandage. I have always thought you launched and hurled horrible injustices at me: I never thought they reached me, unless
perhaps you thought something of mine was being ruined or burned down when you were destroying walls, or when you were throwing criminal torches onto roofs.  Nothing is mine, or anyone’s, which can be carried off, taken away, or lost.
If you had taken away my divine constancy of soul, my knowledge that the republic stood, much against your will, because of my care, my vigilance, and my plans; if you had blotted out the undying memory of this eternal service, even more if you had taken from me that mind whence those plans flowed, then I would admit I had suffered an injustice.

Do you distinguish a citizen from an enemy by birth and location, not by soul and deeds? 30. You made a slaughter in the forum, you held temples with armed bandits, you burned private homes and holy shrines. Why is Spartacus an enemy if you are a citizen? But can you be a citizen, since because of you there was once no state?

And do you call me “exile”, which is your name, when everyone thinks that the republic went into exile with my departure? Will you never look around you, most insane man, nor ever consider what you are doing or what you are saying? Don’t you know that exile is a punishment for crimes, but that my journey was undertaken on account of my most glorious deeds?”

V – Oti monos o sophos eleutheros kai pas aphrôn doulos That only the sage is free and every fool is a slave

“No one is free unless he is wise. What then is freedom? Ability to live as you wish. Who then lives as he wishes, if not the one who pursues upright things, who rejoices in duty, whose way of life is considered and planned, who doesn’t obey the laws because of fear, but follows and cultivates them because he judges that to be most advantageous, who says nothing, does nothing, in fact thinks nothing unless it is willingly and freely, whose every plan and undertaking proceeds from and returns to him, nor is there anything which has more power for him than his own will and judgement, to whom even that which is said to have the most power. Fortune herself, yields, since, as the wise poet said, she shapes herself according to each man’s own character?”

“So this happens only to the wise man, that he does nothing unwillingly, nothing sorrowfully, nothing under duress. Although this ought to be more fully discussed, it is nevertheless a concise truth which ought to be acknowledged, that no one is free except him who is so furnished with virtues.”

VI – Oti monos o sophos plousios Only the wise man is rich

The Stoics want us to change our values. If the propositions above mentioned are true, there is only one kind of good, that is virtue, which springs from wisdom and one kind of evil, vice that comes from ignorance. Wisdom is something that is always with the sage, and that would be desirable to have under any circumstances. Therefore, a wise person is richer than an emperor, because whether the emperor is wealthy, he can be miserable due to his folly, but a wise man, even in poverty will be rich.

“It is fitting that your soul should judge you rich, not people’s talk or your possessions. If
it considers that it lacks nothing, if it doesn’t trouble about anything more, if it is satisfied or even content with your money, then I yield; you are rich. But if because of greed for money you consider no profit to be base (when in your station no profit can really be honorable), if every day you defraud, cheat, demand, bargain, plunder, and grab, if you rob your partners, loot the treasury, if you wait for something from your friends’ wills, or you don’t even wait and forge them yourself, are these the signs of a wealthy man, or a needy one? “Is it a man’s soul, not his money- box, which is usually called rich?” Although that box is full, I will not consider you rich as long as you seem empty to me. In fact, men measure a man’s wealth by how much is enough for him. Someone has a daughter: he needs money; he has two: he needs more; he has many: he needs still more; if a man has fifty daughters, as they say Danaus had, so many dowries require a lot of money. The measure of a man’s wealth, as I said before, is adjusted to how much he needs. 


I have based this post in thesis by Mark O. Webb:

Submitted to the Graduate Faculty
of Texas Tech University in
Partial Fulfillment of
the Requirements for
the Degree of

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