The final idea in my series of the 12 ideas that can change your life.

Your mind will tell you that your worth comes from without—that your value as a person is reflected in how others judge you. As such, you should always do what will increase your estimation in the eyes of others. This gets it all wrong—in multiple ways. Your worth would not come from your achievements, your status, or the admiration given to you by others. These things are beyond your control, and therefore cannot be indications of your worth.  But why do we even need to know what we are worth? Are we for sale? Do we ever get to cash in on our worth? No. ‘Self-worth’ is the wrong concept. What really matters is our virtue—how we are fulfilling our unique potential to live according to our values.

Virtue is the only thing really good in life. It is the only thing that cannot be corrupted to serve evil ends. The central idea here—the genius idea at the core of Stoic philosophy is that the purpose of our lives is to do good AND that good can only come from what is up to us. Those may sound like simple ideas, but together they are powerful. Yes, it is true that much of what happens to us is beyond our control—losses, sickness, tragedy, bad luck, faulty genes, people slandering us, betrayal, nasty relatives, natural disasters, war, and death can all happen to us—and most of these will happen to us. But these things are absolutely powerless over our virtue because they are not the product of our free choice.  This means that if you accept that the purpose of your life is to live with virtue, nothing can stop you from doing so. Living for virtue yields a kind of invincibility. 

Virtue requires living according to your values. So what are those?

No one can truly tell you what your values must be.  Others can only tell you what values hold meaning for them. The Ancient Greeks recognized four primary values:

  • Courage—the ability to endure the fear and difficulty that would stop us from achieving our goals.
  • Temperance (or self-control)—the ability to resist excesses.
  • Justice—the ability to treat the people we interact with fairly and compassionately.
  • Wisdom—the ability to make effective decisions in response to practical problems.

Now, it is up to you to define what your values are, but you could certainly do a lot worse than these four. Notice that these values provide direction in how you would try to live your life, but they are not goals unto themselves. For example, you never get to say you have achieved Self-control and can cross that off your to-do list. Alas, there is always another batch of warm cookies on the horizon. Also notice that no matter what your life circumstances—even if you are in a prison cell, exiled to a foreign land, lingering on your deathbed, or (gasp!) have to wait three minutes in line at the deli counter, it is still possible to live according to your values.

In a Nutshell: Virtue means making the most of your human potential—living according to the values you have chosen rationally. Virtue requires choice. Fate, fortune, luck, the actions of others and everything else you can’t control are irrelevant. If you choose to make virtue your purpose, nothing can ever get in your way.

How to Use This Idea:

Your task, if you choose to accept it, is to live the most excellent life you can live. There are three parts to doing this: Values Clarification, Responding to Problems, and Reviewing Your Progress.

Values Clarification. Spend some time evaluating what your values are—what you would consider the essential characteristics of a life well lived to be? One tried and true (if a tad morbid) method of doing this is to imagine your own funeral (or at least a party given in your honor years from now) and ask yourself how you would like to be described and remembered.

Responding to Problems. Whenever you encounter a problem, focus only on the part of it that you can do something about. As you consider your options, ask yourself what kind of response would be consistent with your values. If you confront a problem that you cannot do anything about, accept it, or use the classic Stoic response, “This is nothing to me.”

Reviewing Your Progress. At the end of every day (or week, or whatever timeframe works for you), think back over your actions and evaluate how well you did at living according to your values.  If you did well at something, acknowledge it, and encourage yourself to continue in that fashion. If you did something that was not in line with your values, accept that, but also recommit yourself to living according to your values going forward.

The Fine Print:

You might as well accept this now: You are never going to live according to your values, at least not perfectly. We humans are flawed creatures, capable of doing good only by constantly pushing back against our irrational tendencies. But this shouldn’t stop you. Virtue is about the journey—it’s something you move towards, slowly over time.  The ancient Stoics sometimes employed the idea of a Stoic Sage—a being who could have perfect virtue. It wasn’t that they believed that he really existed or should be worshiped.  Instead, the Sage was a useful concept, one that allowed them to ask ‘What would the Sage do’ in any given circumstance? This provided them with a model that they could seek to emulate, even though they would never attain the status of a Sage.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

A mis-lived life. Humans waste a great deal of effort obsessing on and making futile demands about what is not up to them. Making Virtue your purpose will ensure that you do not live your life focused on trivialities. By setting our sights on goals that are not up to us, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Living for attainment, achievement, wealth, or status will, for all but a lucky few, lead to a life lacking in some essential quality.

What This Will Help You Gain:

Self-Actualization. Making the most of your human potential means doing what you can to live according to your values. Over time this will lead to your flourishing.

The Source of this Idea:

This idea is old. It is the core of Stoic Philosophy, a school of thought that originated in ancient Greece and later spread to Ancient Rome. It is most associated with the philosophers Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. My understanding of Stoic philosophy has been shaped primarily by two modern writers, William B. Irvine and Massimo Pigliucci.  Some of the treatment I gave to Values also reflects principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, associated with Steven Hayes. The critique of the view of self-worth given at the beginning of this post, and indeed many of the ideas that run throughout all of the 12 ideas comes directly from Albert Ellis, the creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).  Ellis saw REBT as an application of ancient and modern philosophies including stoicism.


The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (so far)

Idea #12: In the end, all that matters is that you lived with and for virtue. Because there is only virtue.

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.


3 thoughts on “In the end, all that matters is that you lived with and for virtue. Because there is only virtue. 

  1. This a nice piece. It would be better to add how much of it overlaps with the work of Albert Ellis who created Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy aka REBT. It is my contention that Steve Hayes who you site as a source of this idea gives inadequate acknowledgement to the influence of Ellis on his work. It is important for all to acknowledge how each stand on the shoulders of others thinkers. With that said, keep up the fine dissemination of useful ideas!

    1. Excellent point. I certainly agree that anyone writing about cognitive psychotherapy (including third wave psychotherapies) is standing on Ellis’s shoulders. I did acknowledge him in just about every other piece. I cite Hayes here because some of what I said about values, and the funeral question in particular I have only encountered through ACT.

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