The Role of External Goods in Humans’ Lives: Are They Necessary to Become Virtuous?

Aristotle and the Stoics both agree that virtue is associated with something we might call an “art of life,” which is related to external things, such as wealth, health, and friendship. Aristotle calls the external things “external goods” but the Stoics would use the term “indifferent.” Aristotle and the Stoics value the virtues. Aristotle believes that external goods are necessary requirements to achieve the virtues. I agree with the Stoics that the indifferent can be helpful but are not required for three reasons: So people don’t place too much value in it, to allow people become virtuous even with little or no indifferent, and based on my experience.   

Aristotle argues that virtue is a central ingredient in eudaimonia and the external goods are a precondition or the basics of eudaimonia since at least some of them are desirable intrinsically. He questions, how can someone be generous to friends if he does not have friends? He claims, “…it needs the external goods as well; for it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment” (Nicomachean Ethics I, viii, 30). In other words, these basics are important because they allow people to do virtuous actions and in order to participate in the full range of virtues, people should not lack these external goods. However, the Stoics would disagree on the “impossible” part. 

The Stoics would disagree on the priority and argue that virtue should always be chosen first while the indifferent, including pleasurable things, should follow virtue since they simply are not good in all cases. The Stoics see the indifferent as something that is desirable and people can wish for. For example, Seneca argues that a man “does not love riches, but he would rather have them…if his health is bad he will endure it, but he will wish for good health” (On the Happy Life, 21 and 22). Furthermore, Seneca would disagree with Aristotle that the external goods are required for the virtues since external goods can be a source of distraction if they are valued too much. People who get distracted by the indifferent, such as appearance, drinking, and luxury are called “preoccupied” in the “On the Shortness of Life” chapter. Similarly, Epictetus agrees with Seneca that people should not spend time on “what concerns the body…eating a great deal, drinking, and moving one’s bowels or copulating…but justice” (The Handbook, 25). In other words, the Stoics believe that people who place too much value in the external goods tend to get distracted from achieving the virtues. Therefore, I agree that people should not value too much the external goods because they are not required but focus on their virtues. 

Aristotle may argue that if the external goods are not required for the virtues, why are there poor people who are not virtuous? Epictetus argues that our actions are good or bad and everything else is indifferent. However, I think the Stoics would mean that external goods are not just good or bad in the strongest sense but refers to how we make use of them, virtuously or viciously. Poor people can have courage and wisdom based on the choices they make. In other words, people who lack external goods like wealth can still be virtuous by how they chose their actions. For example, my family immigrated to the US and left their property behind. Even though they lost their fortune and did not know anyone in the states, they still chose to act virtuously. Their values, wisdom, and courage were still part of them even after the major change in their external goods. This proves to me that external goods are not required to act virtuously but the choices we make matter the most. 

The Stoics disagree with Aristotle on the requirement of achieving the virtues. External goods are not always good and being virtuous is about the choices we make.