Values in Classical Stoicism

by Dr. Jan Garrett


This is a rough version of a chart that could be refined considerably. (See comments below.) I give some translations of the ancient Stoic terms, Greek originals first, Latin translations second. When there is just one translation, it is Greek. Wherever a list uses “etc.” there are other items that could be added. For instance, I only give five virtues, but there are many more.

Stoics classify values as goods, evils, or indifferents. The indifferents are neither good nor evil, in the strict sense.


Goods & Evils


The Stoics classify indifferents into three mutually exclusive classes: preferred, rejected (a.k.a. dispreferred), and unqualifiedly indifferent. Unqualifiedly indifferent things neither generally accord with our nature (as the preferred things do) nor are they generally contrary to our nature (as rejected things are).


1. It is important to remember that the terms translated “good,” “bad,” “indifferent,” “preferred,” and “rejected” have precise meanings within the context of ancient Stoic philosophy. These translations do not always correspond to the normal meanings of the words in contemporary English. (The meaning of the original Stoic terms did not always correspond to the normal meanings of the words in the original Greek, for that matter.)

2. “Preferred” things are also called primary things in accord with nature and “rejected” things are also called primary things contrary to nature. Of course, that does not mean that selecting preferred things has priority over choosing the good, but that preferred things are the things that we naturally pursue, even as children, long before we study philosophy and try to become virtuous. Likewise, rejected things are the sorts of things that even children tend to avoid in favor of preferred things.

3. The ancient Stoics distinguished not only between good things, evil things and indifferent things, but within the class of indifferent things, they distinguished between preferred things, rejected things and unqualifiedly indifferent things. The chart gives no examples of unqualifiedly indifferent things.

4. Within the classes of good things, evil things, preferred things and rejected things, the Stoics also distinguished between “___ for themselves” and “___ for other things.” Money, for instance, is a thing preferred for other things. The charts do not make this distinction between “for themselves” and “for other things.”

5. The Greek word “hedone” is ambiguous. On the one hand, it represents a class of passions or emotions and falls under the class of evil things. There I have translated it “delight.” On the other hand, it represents physical pleasure. Some ancient reporters regarding Stoicism place physical pleasure among the preferred indifferents; others say that it has some positive value but not enough to be included even among the preferred indifferents. Cicero is aware of the distinction between these two meanings of “hedone,” translating it as “laetitia” (delight) when he means the emotion, as “voluptas” (pleasure) when he means physical pleasure.

6. The Greek writers on Stoicism distinguish in practice between “lupe,” which I translate as “distress” (following translators of Cicero, who uses the Latin “aegritudo” for the Greek “lupe“), and “ponos,” which I translate as “pain” (following translators of Cicero, who uses the Latin “dolor” for the Greek “ponos“). Unfortunately, translators of Greek often use “pain” to translate “lupe,” which leads to absurdities. Thus, a Cynic who is a kind of stand-in for the sage in Epictetus is made to say in English translation, “Am I not free from pain?” What he is really saying is “Am I not free from distress?” As I read them, the ancient Stoics did not teach that sages would be free from physical pain, only that they would be free from the bad feelings, i.e., passions or emotions (pathe), which include distress.

7. The four emotions listed under Evils are really genera (large classes) of emotions. These four genera are broken down more specifically in the reports we have of ancient Stoic ethics, such as those of Cicero, Arius Didymus (the probable author of the Stoic Ethics section in the Anthology of John Stobaeus), and Diogenes Laertius. Anger, for instance, is not ignored but is included as a specific kind of lust. Based on the ancient records, we could construct an interesting classificatory chart of the emotions according to the Stoics.

8. Note that the good feelings correspond (as contraries) to the passions Lust, Fear, and Delight. No good feeling corresponds to Distress. Stoic sages, if there are any, will experience the good feelings. Nonsages will experience the passions. I suspect that the ancient Stoics would have admitted, if pressed, that Stoics who are not sages but are making progress toward wisdom will experience a kind of anticipation or foreshadowing of the good feelings.


This essay originally featured in Dr. Garrett’s website, The Stoic Place.