One key element of Stoicism is the concept of the four cardinal virtues, which are said to have come into Stoicism from Plato, who wrote in his book The Republic, concerning the “Perfect State” that “it will obviously have the qualities of wisdom, courage, self-discipline, and justice.” (Republic 5, 1, 428)
In Hebraic Stoicism, we can derive these same four virtues from the Wisdom of Solomon:
5 If riches are a desirable possession in life,
what is richer than wisdom who effects all things?
6 And if understanding is effective,
who more than she is fashioner of what exists?
7 And if any one loves righteousness,
her labors are virtues;
for she teaches self-control and prudence,
justice and courage;
nothing in life is more profitable for men than these.
(Wisdom of Solomon 8:5-7 RSV)
The most profitable things we can have are these four labors of Wisdom:
The First Century Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria writes of these four labors of Wisdom:
For there are four generic virtues: prudence, courage, self-control, and justice. And of these, every single one is a princess and a ruler; and he who has acquired them is, from the moment of the acquisition, a ruler and a king, even if he has no abundance of any kind of treasure; (Philo; On the Posterity of Cain and His Exile; 128)
We cannot make our lives better or happier by focusing on things that are out of our control. Money and material things cannot produce happiness because, in the end, they are out of our control. We may think we control them, but there are always factors we cannot control, and these factors lead to worry, and anxiety about the constantly looming possibility of their loss.
Now there is nothing wrong with having material things and enjoying them, but we must not focus our priorities on them, they must not be central to our happiness. If we have them then we have them, and if we lose them we lose them, and we can still be happy, because money and material things are ultimately not the things that make a meaningful life or a better person. The things that make a better person are self-control, prudence (rational thinking), justice and courage. Neither caterpillar nor moth can destroy these things and thieves cannot steal these things.
Philo’s Midrash on the Four Virtues
In a recent blog, I showed that the ancient Hebraic Stoics understood Gen. 2:7 to refer to man has having been endowed by the Creator with a rational mind with which to rule over the emotions. (Read it here)
The ancient Hebrew Stoics saw the verses immediately following Gen. 2:7 (Gen. 2:8-14) as an allegory, elaborating on how the rational mind can rule over the emotions, through the four cardinal virtues.
The first century Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria composed a beautiful midrash on Genesis 2:8-14 about these four virtues. These verses of Genesis read:
8 And YHWH Elohim, planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed.
9 And out of the earth, made YHWH Elohim to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food: the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
10 And a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it was parted and became four heads.
11 The name of the first is Pishon: that is it which compasses the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold.
12 And the gold of that land is good; there is bdellium and the onyx stone.
13 And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasses the whole land of Kush.
14 And the name of the third river is Tigris: that is it which goes toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
(Gen. 2:8-14 HRV)
Philo saw the presence of “an allegorical spirit” in the Torah, and specifically in these verses about the Garden of Eden or Paradise, an allegory in which he saw “…the paradise, made by God, all the plants were endowed in the souls and reason, producing for their fruit the different virtues,…”. He writes:
(153) …But in the paradise, made by God, all the plants were endowed in the souls and reason, producing for their fruit the different virtues, and, moreover, imperishable wisdom and prudence, by which honourable and dishonourable things are distinguished from one another, and also a life free from disease, and exempt from corruption, and all other qualities corresponding to these already mentioned. (154) And these statements appear to me to be dictated by a philosophy which is symbolical rather than strictly accurate. For no trees of life or of knowledge have ever at any previous time appeared upon the earth, nor is it likely that any will appear hereafter. But I rather conceive that Moses was speaking in an allegorical spirit, intending by his paradise to intimate the dominant character of the soul, which is full of innumerable opinions as this figurative paradise was of trees…. (On Creation 153-154)
Elsewhere Philo writes about the river that went out of Eden to water the garden:
(125) As, therefore, the seeds and plants which are put into the ground grow and blossom through being irrigated, and are thus made fertile for the production of fruits, but if they are deprived of moisture they wither away, so likewise the soul, as it appears when it is watered with the wholesome stream of wisdom, shoots forth, and brings fruit to perfection….
(127) On which account it is said in Genesis, “And a fountain went up from the earth, and watered all the face of the Earth.” (Gen. 2:6). …In this way in truth, it is that the word (Logos) of God irrigates the virtues; for that is the beginning and the fountain of all good actions. (128) And the lawgiver shows this, when he says, “And a river went out of Eden to water the Paradise; and from thence it is divided into four Heads.” (Gen. 2:10) For there are four generic virtues: prudence, courage, self-control, and justice. And of these, every single one is a princess and a ruler; and he who has acquired them is, from the moment of the acquisition, a ruler and a king, even if he has no abundance of any kind of treasure; (129) for the meaning of the expression, “it is divided into four heads,” is … nor distance; but virtue exhibits the pre-eminence and the power. And these spring from the word [Logos] of God as from one root, which he compares to a river, on account of the unceasing and everlasting flow of salutary words and doctrines, by which it increases and nourishes the souls that love God. (Philo; On the Posterity of Cain and His Exile; 125, 127-129)
Notice that Philo says:
And of these, every single one is a princess and a ruler; and he who has acquired them is, from the moment of the acquisition, a ruler and a king, even if he has no abundance of any kind of treasure;
Philo gives a more detailed explanation in Book I of his Allegorical Interpretations (I have quoted the relevant verse from the HRV version for reference):
And a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it was parted and became four heads. (Gen. 2:10 HRV)
XIX. (63) “And a river goes forth out of Eden to water the Paradise. From thence it is separated into four heads: the name of the one is Pheison. That is the one which encircles the whole land of Evilat. There is the country where there is gold, and the gold of that land is good. There also are the carbuncle and the sapphire stone. And the name of the second river is Gihon; this is that which encircles the whole land of Ethiopia. And the third river is the Tigris. This is the river which flows in front of the Assyrians. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.” (Gen. 2:10-13) In these words Moses intends to sketch out the particular virtues. And they also are four in number, prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. Now the greatest river from which the four branches flow off, is generic virtue, which we have already called goodness; and the four branches are the same number of virtues. (64) Generic virtue, therefore, derives its beginning from Eden, which is the wisdom of God; which rejoices and exults, and triumphs, being delighted at and honoured on account of nothing else, except its Father, God, and the four particular virtues, are branches from the generic virtue, which like a river waters all the good actions of each, with an abundant stream of benefits. (65) Let us examine the expressions of the writer: “A river,” says he, “goes forth out of Eden, to water the Paradise.” This river is generic goodness; and this issues forth out of the Eden of the wisdom of God, and that is the word of God. For it is according to the word of God, that generic virtue was created. And generic virtue waters the Paradise: that is to say, it waters the particular virtues. But it does not derive its beginnings from any principle of locality, but from a principle of preeminence. For each of the virtues is really and truly a ruler and a queen. And the expression, “is separated,” is equivalent to “is marked off by fixed boundaries;” since wisdom appoints them settled limits with reference to what is to be done. Courage with respect to what is to be endured; temperance with reference to what is to be chosen; and justice in respect of what is to be distributed. (Allegorical Interpretation I, 63-65)
Philo’s Midrash on Genesis 2:10 teaches that generic virtue goes out as an unceasing and everlasting flow from the Word of Elohim to increase and nourish specific virtues in the souls of those that love Elohim and that from there generic virtue is marked off by fixed boundaries as prudence, courage, self-control, and justice and that each of these is a ruler and a queen that helps us to rule over our passions.
The Fourth Book of Maccabees (which has sometimes been titled “On the Supremacy of Reason) we learn much more about these four Labors of Wisdom, or “virtues” which 4Maccabees calls “Four Kinds of Wisdom”:
Now the kinds of wisdom are rational judgment, justice, courage, and self-control.
4Maccabees goes on to say:
Rational judgment is supreme over all of these, since by means of it reason (Logos) rules over the emotions.
If you are benefiting from these blogs on Hebraic Stoicism, please let us know in the comments. The time has come for a revival of the Stoicism of the ancient Hebrews!