A seated activist from the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion faces the Carabinieri police in the middle of Via Ventiquattro Maggio in central Rome to protest against the G20 Leaders’ Summit on 31 October 2021. Photo by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty


Stoics as activists

You might think of it as a philosophy for turning away from the world, but ancient Stoics took a stand against tyranny

by Massimo Pigliucci + BIO

A seated activist from the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion faces the Carabinieri police in the middle of Via Ventiquattro Maggio in central Rome to protest against the G20 Leaders’ Summit on 31 October 2021. Photo by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty

The year is 133 BCE. The place Rome. Tiberius Gracchus, a tribune of the plebes, is killed in the streets, together with 300 of his supporters. He had angered many in the Senate by sponsoring anti-aristocratic legislation, in particular redistribution of land, a shortened military service, and broadened access to the privileges afforded by Roman citizenship. It is a well-known episode in the history of ancient Rome.

What is less known is that Tiberius had been advised all along by a Stoic philosopher, Gaius Blossius, one of many examples of Stoics deeply involved with politics and social reforms. Gaius had worked for years with Tiberius to improve the condition of the common people. When he saw his friend slaughtered, he left Rome and decided that the time to play by the rules had passed. Plutarch tells us that Blossius moved to the province of Asia (modern western Turkey), where he joined a rebellion against Rome led by Eumenes III, a pretender to the throne of Pergamon. The revolt was initially successful. Eumenes was able to seize a number of cities in Anatolia, conquer the island of Samos (where both Pythagoras and Epicurus had been born), and kill the Roman consul, Publius Licinius Crassus. However, the Roman Senate eventually dispatched another consul, the experienced Marcus Perperna, to the region, and he was able to extinguish the revolt. When the upraising failed, Blossius committed suicide, in typical Stoic fashion.

Stoicism has seen a surprising revival in recent years, and has become a popular philosophy of life, a kind of Western response to Buddhism (with which it has much in common). However, it remains the subject of a number of criticisms, some more justified than others. Despite multiple episodes like the one featuring Blossius, modern critics of Stoicism claim that the philosophy is self-involved and lacks resources to meaningfully engage at the political level.

For instance, in ‘Tune Out, Lean In’ (2021), his survey for The New York Review of Books of a number of volumes on Stoicism, Gregory Hays, a Classics scholar and translator of the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, points out that the ancient Stoics opposed individual tyrants such as Nero, but not the very concept of tyranny. They advocated treating enslaved people as human beings entitled to dignity and respect, but not the abolition of slavery as an institution. They were ahead of their time in regarding women to be as intellectually capable as men, but fell short of any comprehensive politics of gender equality.

On systems of government, Hays writes: ‘The link between Stoicism and autocracy is in some sense a natural one. Stoicism, after all, is about being in control of one’s own thoughts and emotions, an absolute ruler in the citadel of the mind.’ The implication being that, for a Stoic, it doesn’t matter what political system is implemented, as the philosopher retains intact the ability to exercise virtue, no matter what the external circumstances.

Commenting on slavery, Hays says: ‘Seneca’s Moral Letters are sometimes cited as evidence of a more enlightened attitude. The message of his letter 47 might be summarised as “Slaves are people too.” But Seneca’s objections are framed almost entirely around the perceived harm that slavery does to the character of the slave-owner.’

And yet, the episode of Blossius is certainly not an exception in Stoic history. Another famous Stoic who took up arms against what he perceived as tyranny was Cato the Younger, the archenemy of Julius Caesar. Cato was known in his time for such a high level of personal integrity that, when people wanted to excuse themselves for some moral failure, they would say: ‘Well, not everyone can be a Cato!’

Cato had battled Caesar in the Senate for years but, when the latter started a civil war, Cato followed the example of Blossius and took up arms to save his country. He did not succeed, but to this day his name is synonymous with defence of liberty. George Washington, for one, had Joseph Addison’s play about Cato performed to his revolutionary army to inspire them to fight British imperialism.

Perhaps the most comprehensive example of Stoic involvement in politics is the so-called Stoic opposition, a group of senators and philosophers in ancient Rome who actively opposed the tyranny of three emperors: Nero, Vespasian and Domitian. Among these, a remarkable example is offered by Helvidius Priscus, as we are told by Epictetus, the prominent 2nd-century Stoic teacher, in his Discourses:

When Vespasian sent word to [Helvidius Priscus] to tell him not to attend a meeting of the Senate, he replied: ‘It lies in your power not to allow me to be a senator, but as long as I remain one, I have to attend its meetings.’ – ‘Well, if you do attend, hold your tongue.’ – ‘If you don’t ask for my opinion, I’ll hold my tongue.’ – ‘But I’m bound to ask you.’ – ‘And I for my part must reply as I think fit.’ – ‘But if you do, I’ll have you executed.’ – ‘Well, when have I ever claimed to you that I’m immortal? You fulfil your role, and I’ll fulfil mine. It is yours to have me killed, and mine to die without a tremor; it is yours to send me into exile, and mine to depart without a qualm.’
What good, you ask, did Priscus achieve, then, being just a single individual? And what does the purple achieve for the tunic? What else than standing out in it as purple, and setting a fine example for all the rest?

Priscus was first exiled and then killed on the order of Vespasian but, as Epictetus says, his sacrifice was not in vain, because it inspired many after him to continue the battle against oppression. Indeed, one of the people inspired by Priscus was Marcus Aurelius, the emperor-philosopher, whose Meditations tell us:

It was through [my brother Severus] that I came to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus, and to conceive the idea of a balanced constitution, and of government founded on equity and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy which values above all things the freedom of the subject.

These and similar examples show that there is plenty of historical evidence that the Stoics did oppose tyranny and defend the ideal of a society marked by liberty and free speech. Of course, this is to be understood within the constraints of the culture of the time. When Cato opposed Caesar, he was thinking of liberty for non-enslaved white males. And we should not construe people such as Priscus and the others mentioned by Marcus as anything like modern figures such as Martin Luther King Jr or Nelson Mandela.

That said, these examples only establish that a number of individual, if prominent, Stoics did get politically involved, sometimes to the point of risking life and liberty. This, however, is not quite the same thing as establishing that Stoic philosophy requires its practitioners to be politically involved in a way that may lead them – if the circumstances require – to go so far as questioning the system and not just individual actors within it. Only an explicit link between the philosophy of Stoicism and the actions of Stoics would be adequate to respond to the concerns of people such as Hays. And here things get significantly more complicated. And interesting.

The standard account one reads in modern Stoic circles is that two intertwined principles form the basis for political activism in Stoicism: oikeiôsis and cosmopolitanism.

Oikeiôsis is a term that is difficult to translate in English, but that basically means ‘appropriation’ of other people’s concerns. The Stoics developed a sophisticated theory of what we might call developmental moral psychology. According to them, we are born selfish, instinctively acting to maximise self-preservation. But almost immediately, and also naturally, we develop bonds with other human beings, most obviously our caretakers and siblings. Later on, we enter the age of reason, at which point we begin to think in more abstract terms and gradually realise that all human beings – regardless of their appearance or provenance – share the same needs and wants, and have the same fears and hopes, as ourselves. It reasonably follows, therefore, that we should regard everyone else as our brothers and sisters (or, we would add nowadays, any other gender).

This continual expansion of our circles of concern, as the modern utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer has called it, leads Stoics directly to the second notion that makes social and political action our duty as human beings: cosmopolitanism. As Epictetus puts it in the Discourses:

Do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with ‘I am Athenian’ or ‘I am from Corinth’ but always ‘I am a citizen of the world.’

The ideal of treating all other human beings (and, some modern Stoics have argued, other animals as well) as having inherent worth and dignity can of course be actualised in a number of ways, depending on the circumstances on the ground. Stoicism is therefore potentially compatible with a range of specific political paths, though certainly not all (it is oxymoronic, for instance, to talk of Stoic fascism).

The path toward a better world can’t be imposed from above, it goes through every single one of us

More generally, virtue ethics – of which Stoicism is a particular instantiation (together with Epicureanism, Aristotelianism and Confucianism, among others) – is characterised by the notion that the ‘right’ answer to the question of how we should act is always ‘it depends’. This isn’t moral relativism, nor is it wishy-washyism. It’s a recognition that human societies and relations are varied and complex, and that what works in one set of circumstances might not work in another.

The important thing – say modern practitioners of Stoicism – is to internalise a solid framework that incorporates universalist principles such as oikeiôsis and cosmopolitanism, and do our best to act accordingly. Justice, for a Stoic, is not a set of abstract principles but rather a personal inclination to behave in certain ways toward fellow human beings. To treat them with respect and fairness, the way we ourselves want to be treated by others. The path toward a better world cannot be imposed from above, the Stoics think, it goes through every single one of us, individually, just like all the great philosophical and religious traditions have insisted now for millennia.

All of this sounds good, but do Stoic oikeiôsis and cosmopolitanism translate into any kind of political plan? Can they give us the impetus for fighting not just individual, but systemic injustice? I’m afraid the answer is negative, and this is a significant problem for modern Stoics.

Take the idea of cosmopolitanism. According to one of the foremost scholars on Stoicism, John Sellars writing in 2007, the Stoics developed the notion from Socrates and from their philosophical cousins, the Cynics. Indeed, the famous Cynic Diogenes of Sinope (the guy who told Alexander the Great to please move away from his field of view because he was blocking the sun) was apparently the one who coined the term ‘citizen of the world’ (kosmopolitês in Greek). But not only was the Cynic-Stoic idea of cosmopolitanism not a political programme of any kind, it was actually a rather elitist utopia. The idea was that sages – the ideal Cynics and Stoics – would naturally gravitate toward each other and form a community of wise men and women that would transcend geographic origins and boundaries. This would obviously not apply to most common people, whom both philosophical traditions regarded as unvirtuous fools. (To be fair, this sounds worse than it is: every Stoic author we know of, from Seneca to Marcus Aurelius, would have also considered himself a fool.) Moreover, it’s not as if there was ever going to be an abundance of sages. In fact, according to Seneca:

[A sage] perhaps springs into existence, like the phoenix, only once in 500 years.

This lack of a political programme on the part of the Stoics was already recognised in ancient times. Marcus Tullius Cicero, the statesman, orator and philosopher, was very sympathetic to Stoicism, though his chosen philosophy of life was known as Academic Scepticism (‘academic’ because the Sceptics took over Plato’s Academy between 266 and 90 BCE). He was the one who adopted Stoic ideas, particularly from the Stoic Panaetius of Rhodes, and articulated a vision of what an actual state informed by philosophical principles might look like. The result was published by Cicero in two books, De Re Publica (‘On the Commonwealth’) and De Officiis (‘On Duties’), the latter having been described by Frederick the Great as the best work on morals that has been, or can be, written.

What about the above-mentioned fight against tyranny, as embodied by members of the Stoic opposition? Another prominent scholar of Hellenistic philosophy, David Sedley, has pointed out that figures such as the Stoic senators Thrasea Paetus and Helvidius Priscus showed little interest in actually changing the course of things and were basically courting a heroic death by the exercise of unbridled free speech against the emperor. They both succeeded: we have seen above what happened to Priscus, and Paetus was also killed, on the order of Nero.

Indeed, Sedley tells us that one of the most famous tyrannicides of history, Marcus Junius Brutus, purposefully excluded his Stoic friends from the conspiracy against Julius Caesar, because he understood that for a Stoic the political system one lives under – including tyranny – is only a preferred indifferent. A good Stoic will always be able to exercise virtue and be a good human being regardless of the external, including politically systemic, circumstances.

This ought to be a serious problem for modern Stoics, as Hays pointed out in his essay mentioned earlier. Although Stoics strive to be the best human beings they can be, and they certainly do live by an ethos of justice and fairness for others, Stoic philosophy does not seem to have the tools to complement this emphasis on the good individual with a view of how we might envision a good society.

Some philosophers have recognised that the individual and the political must go hand in hand

Modern attempts to update Stoicism for the 21st century (including my own) have simply not considered the issue of political philosophy seriously enough, if at all. Perhaps this is unfair, as philosophies of life are, like religions, primarily about individual improvement (or salvation). We don’t hear very much criticism of, say, Christianity or Buddhism based on their lack of a political programme. That is simply not their point.

And yet some philosophers have recognised that the individual and the political must go hand in hand. That was the brilliance of Plato’s Republic, despite the impracticability (and, arguably, undesirability) of his particular vision. Cicero, another philosopher very much concerned with the political, was also a close friend of the Stoic Senator Cato the Younger and expressed his frustration about his colleague’s utter lack of practical sense in a letter to his friend Atticus:

As for our friend Cato, you do not love him more than I do: but after all, with the very best intentions and the most absolute honesty, he sometimes does harm to the Republic. He speaks and votes as though he were in the Republic of Plato, not in the scum of Romulus.

We too do not live in Plato’s Republic, meaning a utopian society, but in something far more akin to Romulus’ scum. It is not enough to learn how to survive in that scum – we need to think hard about how to turn it into a liveable and just place for everyone.

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