Don’t Let It Ruin Your Happiness
Even those who know very little ancient Roman history likely know the final words that Shakespeare put into the mouth of Julius Caesar — “et tu, Brute” — “you too, Brutus?” — which he said upon discovering that a man he thought was a friend was part of a conspiracy to kill him.
Killing Caesar unleashed a horrendous civil war that caused the deaths of scores of notable Romans, including Brutus, whose real final words we have. Brutus quoted a line from a now-lost play spoken by Heracles — the god who was considered to be the protector of mankind:
O wretched virtue, you were merely a name,
And yet I worshipped you as truly real;
But now, it seems, you just do what fate commands.
We don’t know whether Brutus was a Stoic, but these final words make it seem so. Plutarch quotes the same lines from that play in his introduction to On Superstition, as part of his criticism that the Stoics considered virtue to be a physical, corporeal, i.e., “real” thing.
The point here is that the Stoics, both contemporary and ancient, hold as an article of faith that virtue is the only good.
Virtue, however, is just an abstract concept. It is but a name. There’s nothing there that’s tangible. There’s nothing there that in any firm, physical sense that can be called “real.” It’s a creation of the mind. Like other creations of the mind, it may be talked about. It can be used. The results of using it can be evaluated. Yet, it is not real in the sense that other things are real, like places, objects, or even laws of mathematics.
So, even though virtue isn’t real, we can investigate it and assess whether this belief that virtue is the only good leads to good outcomes. Does it lead to happiness (eudaimonia)?
Socrates thought so. He said, “…this is my doctrine; the men and women who are gentle and good are also happy, as I maintain, and the unjust and evil are miserable.”
The Academic Skeptic philosopher, Cicero, who included Brutus in some of his philosophical dialogues and who was also killed in the civil war said, “If then it is happiness to rejoice in such goods of the soul, that is…