Can you be a Stoic and a political activist? by Christopher Gill

Can you be a Stoic and a political activist?

by Christopher Gill

The answer to this question is certainly ‘yes’, as I’ll go on to explain. It might seem puzzling why anyone should think there is a contradiction, but people sometimes do think that. For instance, at the 2015 Stoicon, Vincent Deary, a British health psychologist and well-known writer, was critical of the idea of modern Stoicism. Deary assumed that being Stoic, under modern conditions, meant accepting your situation in life, whatever this was, even if this was the result of social injustice. He praised a client of his, an elderly widow, who responded to her situation in a rebellious and angry spirit, because she saw it as the result of injustice, rather than what he saw as the ‘Stoic’ response of putting up with this. The ancient Stoics did urge us to accept, in a calm spirit, things that are genuinely inevitable – above all, the fact of our own future death and that of other people, including those close to us. But this does not mean that we should accept unjust situations, which are not inevitable and are the result of deliberate human action. On the contrary, the Roman Stoics, in particular, were well-known for challenging what they saw as political injustice – in that sense, they were well-known for being political activists and they can provide models for us in this respect.

The key to understanding Stoic thinking on political involvement – like much else in Stoic ethics – is their theory of ethical development. The Stoics believe there is a pattern of life-long ethical development that is natural for human beings – that expresses human nature at its best – and we should do all we can to take this process forward. This pattern consists in two, interconnected strands. In one strand (centred on value), we gradually gain a better understanding of the virtues, what these involve, and how to embed these in our lives. (The Stoics thought there were four generic virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and self-control, and that these were interconnected and inseparable.) Also, we gradually recognize that living in line with the virtues is what really matters in human life – what brings us real happiness.

The second strand of ethical development centres on our relationship to other people. The Stoics believed that, alongside the natural motive of self-preservation, there is a second natural motive, namely to care for others of our kind. The instinct, found in all animals, including human beings, to love and care for our children, is a clear example of this motive. As we develop, human beings express this motive in more complex and rational ways, which also express a growing understanding of the virtues. This leads to two main kinds of outcome. One is social involvement (in family, communal, or political life), in a form that expresses understanding of the virtues. Another is the recognition that all human beings – because they are all capable of this process of rational, ethical development – are, in a sense, brothers and sisters to us, or fellow-members of a single world-community. Although different Stoic sources emphasize one or other of these outcomes, they are often seen as compatible or mutually supporting. Social or political involvement in a specific, local context is achieved in the best way (the way that expresses the virtues), if it is combined with recognition of the fundamental kinship or co-citizenship of all human beings as rational agents.

This Stoic theory of ethical development makes sense, I think, of their thinking on political involvement. Our evidence for their ideas on this topic is rather limited, and, as with other topics, different Stoics seem to have interpreted these ideas in somewhat different ways. But there are some consistent themes. First of all, the Stoics thought that, other things being equal, we should get involved in community and political life in our specific or local context – unlike the Epicureans, for instance, who thought such involvement was likely to undermine our own peace of mind. Secondly, our involvement should be carried out in a way that also expressed and promoted our understanding of the virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, self-control). Thirdly, our involvement at a local level should also reflect the recognition that, although different kinds of people have different claims on us, all human beings as such have a kinship and in a sense co-citizenship with us. These principles have a direct bearing on the sense in which Stoicism encourages us to be political active; it also has a bearing on how far one can be a Stoic and also a political activist, which usually means challenging the established political order in some way. I’ll give some examples of how the ancient Stoics put these ideas into practice and then discuss how they might help us to formulate our own approach now.

First, were ancient Stoics active in politics and if so how? In looking at this question it’s worth bearing in mind that, for much of the time that ancient Stoicism was most active (from the third century BCE to the second century CE), Greece and later Rome were ruled by kings or emperors, even though at other times, Athens had been a democracy and Rome a republic. It’s also worth noting that, for the most part, and unlike some other ancient philosophies, Stoicism did not consistently recommend one form of government as the best one absolutely. Rather, they maintained that, whatever context we find ourselves in (with exceptions noted shortly), we should be involved politically in a way that is consistent with our specific situation in life, character and talents, and our ethical principles. In Hellenistic Greece (that is, third to first century BCE), the main options were either involvement in local or community politics or being a philosophical advisor to a king, and some Stoics played both these roles.

Also, simply being a philosophical teacher in Athens was regarded as a kind of public or political role. It’s worth remembering that this often meant teaching and arguing in a public place, such as the colonnade or Stoa after which the school was named. In Rome, a number of members of the political élite adopted Stoicism as their philosophy, and combined this with various forms of political involvement. These included being a leading politician and general under the Republic (Cato the younger, first century BCE), advising an emperor (Seneca, advisor to Nero, first century CE), and being the emperor himself (Marcus Aurelius, second century CE). At the other end of the social scale, Epictetus, an ex-slave (first-second century CE), took on the role of a philosophical teacher; he had no direct involvement in politics, but taught many students who went into political life. So, ancient Stoics seem overall to have practised what they preached, and to have become involved in politics to the extent that was feasible in their context and personal situation.

How far did this involvement express distinctively Stoic values? And did it lead them to engage in political activism, that is, challenging political authority on the grounds of injustice? This is, in fact, a very well-marked feature of political life in the late Roman republic and Empire. It mainly took the form of exemplary gestures, designed to signal moral disapproval of a given political ruler or regime, typically a dictator or emperor. Although Stoicism did not reject sole rule as a constitutional form (or indeed any given constitutional form), they rejected tyrannical abuse of power, seeing it as an exercise of injustice in the political sphere. This is the common thread underlying a series of famous exemplary gestures.

Cato committed suicide (in 46 BCE), in a very deliberate and obvious way, rather than submit to what he saw as Julius Caesar’s illegitimate and unjust replacement of the Roman republic by dictatorship. A number of Roman senators, such as Helvidius Priscus and Thrasea Paetus (both first century CE), signalled their disapproval of the injustice of the emperor in power, for instance, Nero or Domitian. They did so by refusing to attend the senate, by remaining silent there, or walking out in protest – and these gestures were recognized as challenges to the regime and often led to exile or execution. (There was in fact a general expulsion of philosophers in 89 CE under Domitian, in response to this kind of attitude.) Seneca’s attempt to retire from his role of Nero’s adviser, when it was clear his attempt to control Nero’s excesses had failed, was taken as a gesture of disapproval and led to his enforced suicide in 65 CE. These are clear cases where Stoic principle (the refusal to be complicit in an unjust political order) led certain Romans from being politically active to being political activists, using exemplary gestures in the way that Gandhi did successfully in his campaign of passive resistance to the British rule of India which he saw as unjust.

This passage of Marcus Aurelius Meditations sums up the two features of Stoic political thought considered so far. ‘… through him [Severus] I have come to understand Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus, and have grasped the idea of a state based on equality before the law, which is administered according to the principles of equality and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy, which values above all the liberty of its subjects’ (1.14). Marcus refers to a number of the well-known Stoic activists I have just discussed. Marcus also sums up his own credo as an emperor. Although not all Stoics would necessarily have shared this approach, it clearly represents a Stoic type of ideal, namely Marcus’ attempt to play his role in life (as an emperor) in a way that was consistent with expressing the virtues in a political context.

What about the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humanity or co-citizenship in the world? What role did this play in their political thinking? Sometimes it provides a kind of objective or broader framework for more localized political action, placing this in a broader moral framework: as in this quotation from Marcus. ‘As Antoninus, my city and fatherland is Rome, as a human being, it is the universe. It is only what benefits these cities which is good for me’ (6.44.6). At other times this idea is brought more directly into moral or political decision-making. Antipater, one of the Hellenistic heads of the Stoic school (in 159-129 BCE), argued that when we are doing business, for instance, selling a house, we should be open and honest about the faults of the property, even if we make less money, bearing in mind that all those involved are members of the brotherhood of humankind and deserve just treatment (Cicero, On Duties 3.52). Cicero (106-43 BCE), though not a Stoic himself, sometimes adopted Stoic principles; he maintained that anyone who becomes a tyrant (unjust ruler) puts himself outside the brotherhood of humanity or the ‘body’ of rational human agents. More controversially he maintained that this principle justified the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE (On Duties 3.22-28, 32). These examples give us some idea how the idea of the brotherhood of humankind was used to support both political involvement and social and political activism in the sense I am considering here.

Finally, what lessons can we learn from Stoic thinking and practice on this subject that might help us today? I would not want to suggest that Stoic political principles provide a straightforward answer to any given political question, for instance how we should have vote in the British referendum on our membership of the EU (June 2016) or the recent US presidential election (November 2016), but they certainly can provide ideas on which we can reflect in making such decisions. In particular, I think the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humankind or co-citizenship of the world has a special value for us in the present political climate. Many of the most intense debates today on both sides of the Atlantic centre on how we should respond to the claims of refugees from war-zones, how we should respond to people who want to become immigrants in our country, or how we should treat people whose religion is different from our own, or from that prevalent in our country.

I think the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humankind can help to place these questions in a broader perspective and can lead us to recognize that treating whole classes of people who differ from us in one of these ways as somehow less than human or wholly outside the boundaries of our ethical concern is morally unacceptable. More generally, I believe the Stoic approach of locating questions of political involvement and activism within the broader framework of human ethical development is a helpful one. I think there is considerable value in trying to view one’s life as an on-going project of ethical progress, centred on bringing together our growing understanding of the virtues and of how to treat other people better; and that this view can help us to adopt a more thoughtful and constructive view of political engagement than is often held.

Further Reading

A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge, 1987: sections 57, 67, also 59D.

Chapters by M. Schofield (ch. 22) and C. Gill (ch. 29) in C. Rowe and M. Schofield, The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought, Cambridge, 2000.

Griffin, Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics, Oxford 1976 (1992).


This post is the transcript of Professor Gill’s presentation at the STOICON 2016 conference.  The video of talk can be viewed here.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism

13 thoughts on “Can you be a Stoic and a political activist? by Christopher Gill

  1. C. Florius Lupus

    Quote: “…treating whole classes of people who differ from us in one of these ways as somehow less than human or wholly outside the boundaries of our ethical concern is morally unacceptable.”

    We have to be very careful with such generalizing statements in order not to be misled. A Stoic very well recognizes the concept of an “enemy”. Marcus Aurelius fought several wars against the Parthians, Sarmatians and various Germanic tribes, Cato went to war against Caesar. Stoicism does not equal universal love for all humans, just because they are humans. When people become a threat to us, to our kinship or to justice itself, then logic and reason demand that they have to be destroyed. It would not be stoic, if we let irrational affections and feelings prevent us from doing what is necessary, even if it requires harsh actions against other human beings.

  2. Michael Kaliher

    While the breadth of my understanding of Stoicism doesn’t begin to approach Dr. Gill’s, I have to agree with C. Florius Lupus. It seems to me the timbre of Stoicism is more dispassionate than Kumbaya. The masters certainly convey a respect for life, but also encourage us to practice equanimity. I doubt there were any Stoics out in the streets burning barricades after the recent US election.

  3. Dutch

    An admirably clear and illuminating talk by Dr. Gill. Thanks for posting.

    A couple points in response:

    -Dr. Gill says “It might seem puzzling why anyone should think there is a contradiction [between being a Stoic and being politically active], but people sometimes do think that.”

    I don’t find it puzzling at all that someone might think that. This is, after all, a philosophy very much focused on developing and fortifying one’s “inner citadel” and continually reminding oneself that external things are “not in our control.” Getting from those largely self-regarding fundamental principles to the philosophy’s broader ethical outlook as discussed here takes time and a fair bit of study.

    And we should be aware that a general commitment to working toward justice and “treating other people better” will not necessarily lead all good and rational people to the same conclusions, the same solutions, or the same political affiliations.

  4. Ron Peters

    I think a key point concerning political involvement from a Stoic perspective is that whether and how we should be involved must be assessed by applying our reason on a very specific case by case basis. C. Florius Lupus accuses Chris Gill of making misleading over-generalized statements, then tells us that when unspecified “people” become an unspecified “threat to us” that “logic and reason” somehow requires us to destroy them. And if you read Professor Gill, he’s not talking about blanket love for everyone at all times, or anything resembling Kumbaya. Rather, he’s warning against the kind of blanket hatred of all Muslims that is being encouraged by many high-profile, thoughtless and cruel politicians in the UK, the EU and US. And that kind of hatred is simply unjust and insupportable by Stoics.

    1. Monsiour Ramboz

      The arrival of millions of illiterate, unemployable, military age men from an alien culture with radically different values is what people are concerned about in Europe (and the US should be paying attention). You can try paint this as racist and xenophobic if you makes you feel better, but really people are quite right to be worried. It will not end well.

  5. Monsiour Ramboz

    And Marcus Aurelius fought wars to prevent Rome being overwhelmed by aggressive foreign forces, which it eventually was. If my understanding is correct this was partially due to allowing Germanic tribes to settle in Roman lands who then turned on them. A lesson for today perhaps? Current events in Germany and Sweden suggest yes (Google “Cologne new year mass rape” if you don’t know what I am talking about, a single example of many that the media and authorities conspired to keep from the public)

    You may say Marcus would be philosophical about the sack of Rome, it was external event over which the Romans had no control…or maybe they did have the opportunity to control the situation and had their heads in the sand like much of modern Stoic movement. The fall of Rome ushering in the Dark Age which depending on who you listen to lasted a 1,000 years, worth preventing in hindsight…maybe?

    Cultures that don’t defend themselves get wiped out, that is an unambiguous lesson from history. Maybe you will not miss it until it’s gone, though it will probably be your children who have to deal with the consequences. Maybe you don’t have children, I do.

    On a wider note, if you hadn’t guessed I come from the right of the political spectrum, I actually became interested in Stoicim as it appeared to me (and others I might add) more compatible with conservative political positions than say Buddhism. It is a shame that the so called “big tent” Stoicism the self acclaimed sages of modern Stoicism are trying to create is so unapologetically progressive.

    What would the Stoics have thought of a presidential candidate who profits from their own charitable foundation, laughs about protecting rapists and pushes for war against the world’s second nuclear power (definitely not wise IMO)? What would they say about a corrupt EU establishment who use lies and deception to maintain power at all costs? Who destroy the economies of it’s member states while the establishment officials live in luxury at the expense of the people.

    There may be a competing school of neo-Stoicism emerging, watch this space.

    1. Nigel Glassborow

      Old Rambo here is a prime example of where Stoicism without its faith can take us. Stoicism is neither ‘left’ nor ‘right’ of the political spectrum – it is for what is appropriate and such is mostly the middle path.

      The middle path is where wisdom, courage, justice and moderation lead, where Stoic wisdom is based on the knowledge that we are all part of the One and the One is the living conscious Cosmos.

      Take out the faith and the basis of what is virtue can be easily lost. Which is why if one is going to go down the path of Neo-Stoicism one needs to have a very strong basis for one’s moral compass otherwise much of the Stoic practices and training can lead to the ‘idiote’ believing that they are ‘perceiving’ matters correctly and that they are making ‘correct value judgements’ when all the time their judgements are based only on what they erroneously believe is in their own individual best interest having not correctly considered what is in the interest of the whole.

      Starting from the false preconceptions that come from committing oneself to a particular political stance, especially an extreme stance, rather than dealing with matters as they are presented, will lead to a perversion of the Stoic enterprise.

      Rambo’s declaration of wanting ‘a new branch of Neo-Stoicism’ is a threat I have been long aware of, a threat that would lead to a non-Stoic group that will bring Stoicism into disrepute by claiming to be Stoic – a group that would be fundamentally contrary to what is fundamental to being a Stoic, just as ISIS/Daesh is peddling a so called faith that is fundamentally contrary to what Islam is really about.

      Instead of talking about starting a new group, Rambo here needs to go back to basics and discover what Stoicism is really about and in the process to address his anger issues and face up to where his fears really come from.


  6. Nigel Glassborow

    To pull the debate together:

    Christopher Gill says, “…treating whole classes of people who differ from us in one of these ways as somehow less than human or wholly outside the boundaries of our ethical concern is morally unacceptable.”

    C. Florius Lupus says, “When people become a threat to us, to our kinship or to justice itself, then logic and reason demand that they have to be destroyed. It would not be stoic, if we let irrational affections and feelings prevent us from doing what is necessary, even if it requires harsh actions against other human beings.”

    Ron Peters says, “Rather, he’s warning against the kind of blanket hatred of all Muslims that is being encouraged by many high-profile, thoughtless and cruel politicians in the UK, the EU and US. And that kind of hatred is simply unjust and insupportable by Stoics.”

    As we can see this subject is mostly considered against what are intellectualised emotionally driven generalisations.

    Yes, hatred of whole groups of people is irrational and mostly fear based with the fear being driven by the natural ‘tribalism’ that is part of our make up where we are naturally careful, even wary of those who live amongst our ‘tribe’ but who are ‘different’ and/or make little or no effort to fit in.

    It is perceived that such ‘outsiders’ are a threat to our collective control over our ‘tribe’s territory’. Whether it be through warfare or invasion, in accordance with our nature as ‘animals’, group instincts start to kick in whereby our natural inclination to be sociable to our fellow kind (humanity) is overridden by the drive to see the ‘invader’ as not of our ‘tribe’ (less than human), whereby we start to pull the circle of universal inclusion back in so as to be able to allow the instincts that support us in self-defence to override the instincts that support us as ‘social animals’.

    So we have need to be careful both regards the risk of triggering the ‘they are not us’ instincts through oration and regards letting situations get out of control whereby the ‘they are not us’ instinct is going to be triggered regardless – just by the sheer mass of any migration of ‘others’ into our ‘national’ territories, especially where a minority of the ‘outsiders’ are known to be a threat in the manner of ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’.

    If the leaders and the thinkers are seen to be blinded to such considerations by fear of being accused of being xenophobic or racist then those who feel ‘threatened’ will feel even more insecure and fearful and so will surrender yet further to the defensive instincts of humankind – defensive instincts that have been built into us all by the processes of Nature, the very Nature that we as Stoics turn to for guidance as to what is appropriate.

    Politicians need to be allowed to look to the need to control any influx of ‘outsiders’ so as not to cause mass insecurity without being berated by those who have not looked to the wider picture. Western politicians also need to stop the crusade whereby they peddle their chosen system of government and so upset the balance in other counties so causing the mass migrations.

    In accord with classical Stoicism, good governance is what is to be encouraged regardless of if it is based on a monarchy, a dictatorship, a senate of powerful individuals or some form of elected term limited dictatorship that we in the West tend to call democracy. After all democracy is not and never has been the be-all-to-end-all.

    We also need to look to what we consider to be good governance. Some peoples, because of their culture and their history, need the ‘strong leader’ form of governance. We in the West have been gradually trying to remove all such ‘strong leaders’ from power – with disastrous effects. Better some issues of individual freedoms etcetera rather than whole counties being decimated due to the loss of the necessary ‘tough’ leadership that keeps warring tribes from tearing each other apart.

    In accord with Stoic ideas, diplomacy will achieve much where ‘regime change’ will bring nothing but chaos.

    Evolution ensures the ‘survival of the fittest’ through competition and diversity. Any drive to force what are ‘tribal’ animals to live totally as one people with no ‘boundaries’ will lead to great suffering.

    As with much in Stoicism, opposites are compatible. So there is a need to accept division as well as unity.

    The intellectual drive towards globalisation is leading to an opposite drive towards division and warfare whereby countries are breaking down into ‘warring’ clans and tribes be they based on territory, nationality, ethnic divisions or just opposing political parties.

    We have need as Stoics not to just consider intellectualised principles, but to also consider the nature of the animal that we are and so to encourage the ‘establishments’ to govern us appropriately.

    As Dutch says, “Getting from those largely self-regarding fundamental principles to the philosophy’s broader ethical outlook as discussed here takes time and a fair bit of study.”

    This is why the Stoic is taught to view themselves as a servant of the whole while also being an autonomous individual – where ‘one’ is both the whole and the individual.


  7. Michael Kaliher

    In retrospect, my example of a protester burning barricades as an example of activism was probably too facile, and may have been biased. Someone who declines to work in the administration of a leader whose values he deplores could also be seen as an activist. Putting one’s ethics ahead of professional ambition can be revolutionary.

  8. Bodo Müller

    Wouldn’t it be appropriate for a stoic to let refugees into the country and help them especially with education to make the world a better place if the go back int their homeland? I would think that this would serve humanity well and would thus be virtuous/honorable.

    1. Michael Kaliher

      I don’t recall anything in Epictetus regarding refugees or immigrants. Marcus Aurelius might be a good place to look. He may have complained about them, as he generally complained about everyone, but if he did he probably revealed his values and thinking in the process.


What do you think?