What political ideas are supported by Stoic philosophy?

Becoming something of a majority leader, Cato pressed his conservative optimates to pass a resolution condemning Pompey’s attempt to change election law for his own interest…

The Stoic leading the statehouse thwarted the conqueror at every turn, using his now-perfected filibuster to kill the populist legislation. With little room to maneuver, Pompey would try a new approach.

—Pat McGeehan, Stoicism and the Statehouse (2017), p. 56–7.

This passage from West Virginia state delegate Pat McGeehan’s recent book illustrates one of many ways that today’s students of Stoic tradition have found it to be a rich resource for ongoing political inspiration.

While the idea of a “political stoic” personality may sound like an oxymoron to our modern ears, the Stoics were famous in the ancient world for being politically engaged.

Today we normally think of a “stoic” as a rather amoral person—obsessed with eliminating uncomfortable emotions, and indifferent to the events around them. But to the ancients, Stoicism was an extremely active and pro-social life stance that focused very much on finding ways to (materially!) serve and benefit the people around us. So much so, in fact, that a Stoic who wanted to withdraw from politics had a lot of explaining to do! Justice—and an especially broad and demanding understanding of Justice at that—is one of the four virtues that lie at the center of the Stoic life, and to be apolitical was tantamount to being un-Stoic.

Modern Stoics have recently dusted off this long-neglected and once-famous aspect of Stoic moral philosophy and begun to bring it back into fashion—McGeehan’s book being a case in point.


Now, McGeehan happens to be a passionate libertarian. I myself have a leftward bent, and I’ve argued that Stoic principles can and should inspire us to care about racial justice, and even to engage in protest movements (despite the apparent tension between Stoicism and some forms of protest rhetoric).

Other modern Stoics have recently argued for a virtuous approach to handling the environment, for reconciling the apparent tension between Stoic virtue ethics and consumer capitalism, and more (check out the Stoics for Justice reading list for more modern Stoic perspectives).

Point being, practicing Stoics can and do hold a variety of political opinions, and we can be found at most points of the left-right continuum (or any other metric scheme you may devise). But not all points. As we say, Stoicism is a “big tent,” but not just anything goes.

Stoicism is largely a philosophy of life, in that its focus is on personal character and action, and not so much on ideological systems or statecraft. And it’s true that Stoic practice often looks like little more than a lone individual reflecting pensively over a private notebook:

But that doesn’t make it politically irrelevant. If anything, Stoicism’s focus on individual deliberation, action, and citizenship makes it more relevant to our real political lives.


All well and good, you say, but what actual political ideas does Stoicism support? Well, ancient Stoicism’s heyday lasted some 600 years, and “the Stoics,” like their modern counterparts, were a diverse group of people that made a wide variety of political comments—some quite conservative, to use the term broadly (like Hierocles), some much more radical (like Zeno, with his ideal republic).

But from my reading of the Stoics, three principles do stand out to me as especially characteristic and central to Stoic political philosophy in any era. These are agreed upon by virtually all practicing Stoic thinkers, from Chrysippus in the 3rd century B.C.E. to Lawrence Becker in 2017:

  1. Cosmopolitanism (“world citizenship”): Following Socrates, the Stoics asked us to view ourselves as a κοσμοπολίτης—a “citizen of the world”—in addition to adopting our normal role as a citizen (πολίτης) of our country of birth.Moreover, they taught that all humans belong to a sort of common family, and that because we all share in the “sparks of virtue,” all of us—regardless of gender, class, ability, or race—are equals in a strong sense.

    On this count Stoicism is often credited with providing the first Western articulation of liberal and egalitarian values (albeit in a form that needed to be developed further). Scholars have detailed a number of ways that Stoic egalitarianism touches on liberal issues we very much care about today: such as feminism[1]tolerance[2]citizenship[3], and our obligations to refugees[4]. The Stoic stances on such issues often stand in stark contrast against Plato and Aristotle’s far more elitist view of humanity.

    Jut like modern liberal tradition has led to a variety of views on both the right (such as libertarianism and free-market liberalism) and left (such as efforts to effect genuine racial equality), Cosmopolitan concerns can lead Stoics in a variety of political directions. But, as modern Stoic philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has arguedStoic cosmopolitanism categorically rules out certain political positions, such as Naziism, or corrosive instantiations of identity politics.

    Sometimes Stoics have made grave political errors: the ancients acknowledge the moral equality of slaves but stopped short of advocating actual political liberty and social dignity for them (a mistake that the “Southern Stoics” of the United States repeated centuries later), for example, and, oddly, they refused to consider that we might have any moral duties toward animals whatsoever. Virtually all modern Stoics strongly disagree with these views. Like anyone else who draws inspiration from ancient texts, we certainly have the obligation to think critically about our tradition, and to make sure that we are wielding it in a morally responsible way.

  2. Punishment should never be about retribution: Historically, there have been a variety of ways that people have explained why we punish criminals. Punishment can serve the purpose of reparation of the damage done, rehabilitation of the offender, restoration of the relationship among the involved parties, deterrence of future crimes, and (temporary or permanent) incapacitation of an offender who is likely to repeat the offense.

    Many people believe that retribution is also a valid justification for punishment, at least within certain bounds. The Stoics absolutely and categorically reject retribution as a valid principle of Justice. To a Stoic, revenge—and, more broadly, taking any pleasure in seeing another human being harmed—is always 100% irrational and vicious. “Such inhumane bestiality,” says Seneca, “is far removed from the wise” (On Anger, 1.6.4).

    This has implications for criminal justice reform. Seneca suggests, for example, that punishing every criminal for a widespread offense can actually create more crime than it prevents, and that magistrates should thus be allowed to apply clemency and discretion when enforcing the law (On Clemency, 1.23).

    If he were alive today, then, it seems that Seneca would be a vocal opponent of the War on Drugs and of mandatory minimum sentencingfor non-violent drug crimes. A Stoic takes a forward-looking approach to criminal justice, much like the approach a public health official takes to a disease. The health of the community is more important than whatever perverse satisfaction society derives from applying heavy punishments to every criminal.

  3. Social and Political Service: The other major theme of Stoic tradition is that humans beings are first and foremost “rational and social creatures,” and that our highest excellence in life is intimately wrapped up in the project of benefiting others. This led them to a strong ethic of service which informs and underlies the rest of their political thinking.Point being, a Stoic can’t afford to be lazy, inactive, or to focus only on themselves. We all have social roles to fill, and filling them well takes a lot of focus and energy. “At every hour devote yourself in a resolute spirit,” says Marcus Aurelius, “as befits a Roman and a man [sic], to fulfilling the task in hand with a scrupulous and unaffected dignity, and with love for others, and independence, and justice” (Meditations, 2.5).

    “No philosophical school is kindlier and gentler,” says Seneca, “nor more loving of humankind and more attentive to our common good, to the degree that our very purpose is to be useful, bring assistance, and consider the interests not only of itself as a school but of all people, individually and collectively” (On Clemency, 2.5.3).

    And, in my favorite summary of Stoic action, Seneca writes: “We shall remain in active service right up to the very end of life, without ceasing to apply ourselves to the common good, to help the individual, and to give assistance with an aged hand even to our enemies. We Stoics are the ones who grant no exemptions from service at any age, and as that most eloquent of poets puts it, ‘We clamp down the war-helmet on our gray hair.’ We are the ones who hold so strongly that there is no inactive moment before death that, if circumstance allows, death itself is not inactive” (On Leisure, 1.4).

    Now, Stoic social engagement can take many forms, and the options are hardly exhausted by activism and running for political office. We each choose and occupy different roles in society, and the Circles of Hierocles (pictured below in a modern, extended form) suggest that our responsibilities to humanity apply at many levels—both personal and public. But I have no doubt that if the ancient Stoics knew about how our modern liberal democracies work, they would expect us all to strive to be good citizens as far as our other duties allow—informed and engaged on a local, national, and international level.

Footnotes

[1] Scott Aikin and Emily McGill-Rutherord, “Stoicism, Feminism and Autonomy” (2014).

[2] Andrew Fiala, “Stoic Tolerance” (2003).

[3] Anthony A. Long, “Stoic Communitarianism and Normative Citizenship” (2007).

[4] William O. Stephens, “Refugees, Exiles, and Stoic Cosmopolitanism” (2018).

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2 thoughts on “What political ideas are supported by Stoic philosophy?”

  1. I guess a rightleaning stoic who wished to engage in activism might have a difficult time finding a group which embraced cosmopolitanism, while a leftleaning stoic in the same situation might have a hard time finding a group which hasnt been corrupted by identity politics.

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