The problem of the perverse

Figs in Winter
9 min readJun 7, 2024

If virtue is natural, how come that most people behave unvirtuously?

Chrysippus of Soli, Rome’s Capitoline Museum, photo by the Author.

One of the most powerful ideas of Stoic philosophy is that we are naturally “virtuous,” by which the Stoics meant that Nature endows us with the ability to reason and an innate tendency to act prosocially. And virtue — according to Seneca — is nothing but “right” reason, meaning reason applied to the betterment of social living (Letter 66.32).

If this is so, then we are faced with what is sometimes referred to as the problem of the perverse: on the one hand, Nature gave us virtue; on the other hand, most of us behave unvirtuously (i.e., either irrationally or antisocially) at least some of the times, if not most of them. What gives?

Before we seek an answer to the problem, let’s make sure the premise is right: are we really naturally virtuous in the way the Stoics assumed? I think so, though not because of the reasons they adduced.

The Stoics believed that the cosmos is a living organism endowed with the Logos, i.e., the ability to think rationally. It followed that there is a providential aspect to the universe. Not in the Christian fashion of a god who loves us and cares for us, but in a more impersonal fashion: we are components of the cosmic being, and our function is to make sure the whole works well…

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Figs in Winter

by Massimo Pigliucci. New Stoicism and Beyond. Entirely AI free.