Simple Steps to a Virtuous Life of Purpose

Simple Steps to Virtuous Life of PurposePurpose: do you have one? Are you unsure to your passion and your direction in life?

Don’t worry as you’re not alone. Most people are in the same situation. This post provides a few pointers to how you can gain some clarity, and start living.

A Life of Purpose and Virtue

Stoicism’s prime directives are virtue, reason, and natural law. These abided to develop personal self-control and mental fortitude as means of overcoming destructive emotions. The Stoic does not seek to extinguish emotions, only to avoid emotional troubles. He or she does this by developing clear judgement and inner calm through practised logic, reflection, and concentration.

The Stoic ethical foundation is that good lies in the state of the soul, itself, exemplified in wisdom and self-control, thus improving one’s spiritual well-being. Ultimately, the Stoics believed that the purpose of life is to be virtuous. Cleanthes suggested that this was:

living in agreement with nature

Chrysippus said it was:

living in accordance with experience of what happens by nature.

So, to live according to virtue is to live in agreement with nature. Living according to nature is the highest form of rational activity. And our failure to live a virtuous life occurs:

sometimes because of the persuasiveness of external activities and sometimes because of the influence of companions – Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 7.89 [II-94].

According to the Stoics, virtue is necessary and enough for eudaimonia. Eudaimonia came from cultivating your moral virtues to become a good person. The four cardinal virtues which the Stoics recognised were:

  1. Wisdom (sophia), (concerns appropriate acts) knowledge of what one is to do and not to do and what is neither
  2. Courage (andreia), (standing firm) knowledge of what is terrible and what is not terrible and what is neither.
  3. Justice (dikaiosyne), (distributions) knowledge of the distribution of proper value to each person, and
  4. Temperance (sophrosyne), (human impulses) knowledge of what is to be chosen and avoided and what is neither

The Stoics make a radical claim that the eudaimon life is the virtuous life. Moral virtue is good, and moral vice is bad, and everything else, such as health, honour and riches, are ‘neutral’. The Stoics commit to saying that external goods such as wealth and physical beauty are not good at all. Marcus Aurelius seems to agree with and he provides examples of specific virtuous behaviours (refer to Meditations III.12, IV.33, IX.6, VIII.7, VII.54 for some examples).

The Stoics believed that there is connection between virtue and happiness. After all, the virtuous person is happy just by being virtuous. They understood happiness as a kind of optimal or “flourishing” state of the human being. As virtue is living a rational life, the virtuous person achieves the best condition possible for a rational animal. Chrysippus is said to have held that living with nature “is the virtue of the happy man and a smooth flow of life” (Diogenes, 7.88).

So how do you live this virtuous life. I believe that it starts with a desire to leave what I call, your own personal universe.

Our Personal Universes

Most people create their own confined, predictable universe. They then live inside of this as much as they can. Guess what is at the centre of this universe? Themselves. They put themselves right at the heart of their universe. Most of us do this. We think we are safe in this universe and it’s where we want to live most of the time. When somebody or something invades your universe then it has the potential to cause unhappiness. It also have the potential to distract us from purpose in our lives. A perceived critical comment, or unwanted event only hurts because you are in the confines that you have developed for yourself.

When we are in this universe we like comfort, we dislike pain and avoid stress. We want immediate gratification, despite the long term consequences. We like familiarity and dislike people and things we don’t know. We like to look good, to have success and we fear making mistakes or failing. So much so we don’t subject ourselves to any distress or the irritation of not getting it right first time. We are firmly inside of our comfort zones.

When you look at life in this way then you realise the cause of most of our problems. They arise because of the confines the universe we have created for ourselves. We don’t want to leave this universe and so figuring out what our life purpose is becomes difficult. Outside of the universe things are uncertain. But that shouldn’t mean that you can’t try as there are benefits from doing so.

Leaving our Personal Universe


The purpose of our lives is to be happy – Dalai Lama

So, leaving your personal universe isn’t easy and it definitely takes work. Here’s how you can do it.

The first step is to acknowledge that you’re actually in your own universe and its uncertain out there. It’s normal to struggle with feelings of uncertainty. We want clarity on what our goals and purpose should be. We want a fixed plan to achieve our ambitions and desires. We feel that our habits, routines and productivity levels could be better, if only our days were more predictable. And life would be better if we were more certain of what was going to happen. We all want to feel we’re on the right path, all the time.

Unfortunately, certainty is impossible. If you think it is then you’re fooling yourself; be honest and accept this. Goals, ambitions, habits, routines, our days and lives are never perfect, and they never will be. The day that they are will never dawn, it will never exist

Of course, none of us like uncertainty. It’s something we all struggle with, every day. People who say that they like uncertainty are not being honest, either with themselves or others, or both. It’s possible to distract yourself from these feelings of uncertainty. Drinking alcohol, playing video games, watching excessive amounts of television, aimless surfing of the internet. But developing an awareness of feelings of uncertainty is a skill. When an unhelpful feeling creeps into your thoughts, label this and then see if you can determine what you are uncertain about. This may need a sustained effort to be able to do this consistently.

Also, whenever you feel an unhelpful emotion then you’re probably at the centre of your personal universe. These reactions or outbursts are indicators that you believe that life is revolving around you. The main focus here is your wants, your needs and your feelings. It’s a similar thing when you have a desire, urge or temptation for momentary pleasure, although not as immediately recognisable.

When you leave this self centred universe then possibilities open up. For example, you begin to understand that other people have needs and they experience suffering. You can start to try to reduce this suffering, linking our daily choices and activities to this end. In the end, what matters is being a part of something which is greater than yourself. Once you can do this this then your personal needs and desires become less important. Compassion towards others increases, you begin to appreciate the bigger picture. Things are set into context and perspective.

In Closing ….

If it’s anything, your purpose is to live. To enjoy your life because you only get one chance. There’s no reset button, or going back to the start to try again. Do what you can to enjoy your time but live virtuously. And try to see things from outside of your own personal universe. Move outside of your comfort zone to expand your horizons. There isn’t much else to it really. And yes, you can have passions and drives and things that you enjoy doing. But be aware that those are not your purpose. The purpose of your life is to live it.

Photo credit: leesean via / CC BY-SA

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