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2 September 2013

Life Is Not A Good, But The Use Of Life Can Be

Life is an indifferent thing, but the use of life is not.                                                           Epictetus 2:6

     The Stoic considers the act of living to be a matter of indifference; that is to say, life is unimportant in and of itself.
     This is a difficult teaching for anyone to accept who is not familiar with classical virtue ethics. Yet with a little reflection we find this teaching must be true. If it were not so, men would not choose to die for the sake of virtues like courage, duty, loyalty, and justice. Virtue, then, ranks higher in the scale of importance than life. Life alone is a satisfactory end for bacteria and worms, and even for the larger animals, but Man is more than a beast. We possess Reason, and this Reason judges Virtue to be our satisfactory end. Surely what we share in common with the gods, Reason and Virtue, is of more worth than what we share in common with beasts, mere life.
     Stoicism rightly goes beyond most other schools of virtue ethics in declaring Virtue to be not only a higher good than life and the myriad other things men call "good", but the sole good. If there are many goods, they will be in conflict with each other. By striving after two goals, you obtain neither fully. More importantly, life, luxury, possessions, and all the other lesser so-called "goods" can be used for evil. How can something that can be used for evil, for Vice, be counted as a good? (And what irreverence towards the true Good to utilize the term so carelessly!) They are tools at best, used well or used poorly, but with no intrinsic value in themselves. 
     Our lives are nothing. Our use of them is everything. Let us use our lives well.