Classical stoicism and the western tradition

Lisa Hill, The University of Adelaide

Christopher Brooke, Philosophic Pride: Stoicism and Political Thought from Lipsius to Rousseau, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2012 (304 pp). ISBN 9-78069115-208-0 (hard cover) RRP $96.95.

How do I cope in a world riven with strife? Why should I help others? Are slaves people too? If I’m unhappy here on earth, is it okay for me to leave? These are the sorts of questions to which the ancient Stoics applied themselves. The answers they came up with continue to benefit us.

Inspired by the teaching of Socrates and Diogenes of Sinope (Diogenes the Cynic), Stoicism was founded at Athens by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE and was influential throughout the Greco-Roman world until 529 CE. The word ‘stoicism’ is derived from the word ‘porch’ or ‘stoa’, from which Zeno preached, and its teachings were transmitted to later generations largely through the surviving books of Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, C. Musonius Rufus and Marcus Aurelius, as well as Diogenes Laertius whose Lives of Eminent Philosophers is like a Who’s Who of the classical world.

Stoicism is a philosophy of consolation and self-defence in a troubled world and is perhaps best known for its doctrine of apatheia which stresses the centrality of duty and the idea that, through reason and self-discipline, we can attain inner calm (ataraxia) by learning to accept events with tranquillity. But there is far more to Stoicism than resigning ourselves to the world, as Christopher Brooke’s book, Philosophic Pride: Stoicism and Political Thought from Lipsius to Rousseau, ably demonstrates. Brooke begins by quoting Ernst Cassirer for the seemingly extravagant claim that Stoic thought has been vital in the ‘formation of the modern mind and the modern world’ (p. xi). This is, in fact, true, and yet there has been relatively little work carried out on the legacy of Stoicism. Brooke’s book is therefore a welcome addition to the literature.

My own interest in Stoicism stems from admiration for its ambitious and idealistic political program, a program that has had profound implications for the Western political tradition. I therefore assumed that this study would deal with the political and emancipatory potential of Stoic philosophy, which is not unreasonable considering that Brooke is a political theorist and historian of political thought in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge.

The Stoics were the first systematic feminists.

The Stoics developed a number of radical ideas that eventually made their way into Western thought. One route was via Christianity; for example, like Stoicism, Christianity is in theory universalistic and cosmopolitan: according to Paul, the Apostle, ‘you are all sons of God, through faith … There is no such thing as Jew and Greek’ (Holy Bible, Galatians 3:23–29). But the main path was via a neo-Stoic revival that began in the Renaissance and took off in the 17th and 18th centuries when many Stoic ideas were revived and refined in their secular form. The Stoics originated the idea of cosmopolitanism; they were arguably the first and most influential promulgators of the idea of natural law; they were certainly the first systematic feminists; they developed the concepts of social oikeoisis and impartiality that were the foundations of 18th and 19th century utilitarianism; and they were the first universalists and therefore (along with the less influential Sophists, Epicureans, and Cynics) the first philosophers to condemn particularism.

The Stoics were progenitors of both utilitarianism and liberalism by virtue of their radical proposition that anyone who is human is a person, an equal bearer of rights. Since we are all related parts of the same entity—the divine ‘mind-fire spirit’—and share equally in the possession of ‘reason’, we are natural equals on earth. Everyone, opines Cicero, has the spark of reason and ‘there is no difference in kind between man and man’ (De Legibus, I. 30; see also Seneca, Epistles, 44.2–3). Equality demands impartiality: the wise person accepts that the laws governing her conduct are the same for everyone regardless of ethnicity, class, blood ties or gender. Judgments about the welfare of others are always unbiased: ‘persons’ are ends in themselves and ultimate units of concern regardless of their secondary characteristics or relationship to us personally (Hill 2001).

The natural law of ‘Right Reason’ (God) pervades everything and impels us towards right action (Diogenes, ‘Zeno’, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, VII. 88). We are duty bound to promote the welfare of others whether they are strangers or intimates. To be exclusively self-regarding is not only contrary to natural law; it is a sign of moral immaturity. Conversely, moral maturity is synonymous with impartiality; hence the Stoics were keen to work on the extirpation of any emotions (for example, anger, passionate attachment, anxiety) that might undermine our capacity to treat others fairly. Social oikeoisis is a developmental achievement that begins, naturally, in a state of self-regard and a greater concern for intimates, from which we move, in an equally natural direction, towards impartial other-concern. The greater intensity of feeling typically associated with familiars is gradually displaced over time by dispassionate, ‘rational’ concern for the world at large, resulting in the detached performance of duty characteristic of the true Stoic and, later, the true utilitarian.

These injunctions placed great demands on Stoic disciples, requiring them to challenge the entrenched chauvinisms of their time, especially those relating to women, slaves, foreigners and the poor. Therefore, many Stoics were feminists: Cleanthes wrote that ‘Virtue is the same in Man and Woman’ (Diogenes, Lives, VII. 175) while C. Musonius Rufus taught that women deserve the same education as men. Since women too are ‘human beings’, they will need to learn philosophy in order to acquire a sense of justice and develop the sociable virtues. After all, ‘could it be that it is fitting for men to be good but not women?’ Further, women should also be ‘judged by the same moral standards as men’ (Musonius 1905, pp. 39–45, p. 87). The Stoics were also the first to oppose the institution of slavery. Epictetus opined that it is disgraceful to be supported by another person’s labour (Epictetus, Fragment 13 in Discourses, 4, p. 459) while Seneca commanded his reader: ‘Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself, breathes lives and dies’ (Seneca, Ad Helviam, XII.4. p. 461).

The Stoics were keen to work on the extirpation of any emotions.

The Stoics pioneered and systematised the idea of universal and equal rights as applying, without exception to everyone, everywhere. They pluckily persisted in this claim even in the face of hostile norms and lamentably low-to-non-existent anchoring practices. But since Stoic cosmopolitanism is a state of mind rather than a legally constituted state, this was not a barrier to these eternal optimists (on whom—true story—the mythical Jedi knights of Star Wars fame were based): we enter the cosmopolis the moment we internalise and begin to act on Stoic precepts. Once we accept that all of humanity shares in a natural fellowship, we recognise our duty to meet the needs of our natural siblings and by implication, they have a right to expect that (Marcus, Meditations, 11.4).

All of these commitments (impartiality, universalism and egalitarianism) led the Stoics to develop the cosmopolitan ideal, the concept of the oikoumenh, the human world as a single, integrated unit that would later become so important to Western thought. Community is derived from the fact of our common humanity rather than the characteristics that distinguish us from strangers. After all, as Marcus Aurelius tells us, the community of rational beings is based not on ‘blood or seed’, but on common ‘intelligence’ (Marcus, Meditations, 12.26).

But I guess these are really the Stoic headlines as I see them; they are not the headlines in which Brooke is necessarily interested, since he’s more concerned with the reception of other Stoic ideas within the Western tradition. Brooke notes that after Stoicism died out—when in 529 CE the emperor Justinian closed down all the philosophical schools—‘there was little interest in or detailed knowledge of the Stoic’s arguments for about a thousand years’ (pp. xii–xiii). After canvassing the initial Augustinian response to Stoic thought, Brooke picks up the story from the Renaissance and Reformation where he usefully tracks the reappearance of Stoicism in the work of a long list of important thinkers like Lipsius, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Grotius, Locke, Pufendorf, Shaftesbury, the scandalous Mandeville, Fenelon, Hutcheson, Butler, Bayle, Rousseau, Smith and Hume among many others (the omission of a well-known neo-Stoic of the 18th century—Adam Ferguson—is, however, curious). Some of these thinkers were hostile (for example, Augustine, Hobbes, Mandeville); others were not (for example, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Butler). Something I liked about Brooke’s book is that it is not just a study of Stoicism in the hands of the usual suspects but is just as much about Stoicism as received by less well-known thinkers like Bishop Cumberland, J.F. Buddeus, Jean Barbeyrac and Elizabeth Carter, the latter of whom translated All the Works of Epictetus into English, thereby bringing Epictetus to the 18th century British public.

While Brooke pays little attention to Stoic cosmopolitanism and almost none to the emancipatory content of Stoicism, he does cover a lot of ground that is perhaps less well trodden. This is one of the book’s key virtues. In mapping the uptake of Stoic thought through time, Brooke explores such varied topics as private property, human sociability, luxury, vanity, needs, determinism, questions about the character and attributes of God, the relationship between self-interest and benevolence, the immortality or otherwise of the soul and the nature of virtue.

Brooke covers a lot of ground that is less well trodden.

Brooke also makes good work of the replay of the ancient battle between Epicureanism and Stoicism that has reverberated throughout the history of Western political thought since the Renaissance. The Stoics and Epicureans were contemporaries and obdurate rivals: the Stoics disliked the individualism and hedonism of the Epicureans and were contemptuous of their view that the only rationale for refraining from crime was to avoid anxiety about detection. The Stoics also despised the Epicureans’ refusal to get involved, to take responsibility for the welfare of others, as exemplified in their avoidance of politics. Instead, Stoics stressed the importance of duty and service to others. Because it is natural to ‘desire to benefit as many people as [one] can’, politics is their preferred career (Diogenes, ‘Zeno’, Lives, VII. 21; Cicero, De Finibus, III, 65–8). The Roman Stoics, in particular, were deeply implicated in the turbulent machinations of Roman politics, often putting their own welfare at risk to prosecute Stoic values.

Brooke shows how, and in what respects, some of the greatest—and lesser—minds of the Western tradition went to war in defence of either Epicureanism (for example, Mandeville; Bayle) or Stoicism (for example, Hutcheson), though there were some, like Buddeus and Barbeyrac, who were neutral and others, like Rousseau who synthesised elements of both (pp. 181–202). I would add Adam Smith as another synthesiser although Brooke seems unsure about where Smith is really positioned (p. 207).

I found particularly engaging the book’s excursus on Stoic theology, particularly as it drew attention to hostile reactions that might otherwise have been missed, given how seemingly benign was their theology. Reacting to the official religion of the Greek pantheon—those capricious, sex-crazed, ill-tempered gods who meddled in human affairs from the heights of Mount Olympus—the Stoics devised a less discombobulating religion that spoke of an orderly universe with no divine intervention whatsoever. Instead ‘Reason’, the ‘mind-fire spirit’ existed as intelligent matter, residing benignly in all life and impelling it unconsciously and teleologically towards goodness and niceness.

Clearly, the Stoics were incorrigible optimists. Marcus Aurelius, for example, denied the existence of evil altogether (‘in the way of Nature there can be no evil’, Meditations, II. 17), portraying a universe where everything, despite appearances, performs some positive role in the divine masterplan. Even roguery, deception and boorishness are ‘necessary to the world’ just as ‘disease, death, slander and treachery’ are perfectly normal (Marcus, Meditations, VI. 1, IX. 42, IV. 44).

Stoicism and Christianity have much in common.

This upbeat, almost hippy-ish Deism sounds harmless enough yet it could still provoke scandal in the Age of Reason. Even a fellow-traveller like Elizabeth Carter’s contemporary, Catherine Talbot—referring to the former’s translation of Epictetus—wrote that ‘[i]t is terrifying to think what effects a book so mixed up of excellence and error might have in this infidel age’ (p. 172). The Stoics refusal to acknowledge that we might be made to reckon for our sins in a later life, their insistence that happiness is to be found in this world alone, and their controversial endorsement of suicide (‘if thy feelest thyself adrift, and canst not win thy way, betake thyself with a good heart to some nook … or even depart altogether from life, not in wrath but in simplicity, independence, and modesty’, wrote Marcus (Marcus, Meditations, X. 8)) were all ‘shocking and hurtful’ (p. 173) to 18th century sensibilities. As Jean Barbeyrac had earlier noted, the Stoics would meet with resistance because they ‘did not present any hope of another life … did not properly acknowledge the immortality of the soul; and they failed to appreciate that “rigid and overstrained maxims are not at all proper to inspire virtue”’ (p. 144). Diderot likewise reported that the Stoics were ‘materialists, fatalists and, strictly speaking, athiests’, however, he meant this as a good thing, unlike Augustine, who likened Stoicism to a ‘declar[ation]’ of ‘war on God’ (p. 11).

That Stoic thought was used as a supplement to ‘mainstream varieties of Christianities’ (p. 133) is considered odd by Brooke, and understandably so. But, despite the alleged atheistic tendencies of Stoicism, (about which I am sceptical) in fact Stoicism and Christianity have much in common. Christianity owes a large debt to Stoicism: the ‘Holy Spirit’ of Christian theology presents itself originally as the ‘creative fire’ of the universe in Stoic theology while Christ is described in the fourth gospel as the logos, a term the Stoics used to refer to ‘reason’. The belief that we are God’s offspring is also held jointly by Christians and Stoics, as are the doctrines of the Great Chain of Being and the inevitability of a final conflagration. Asceticism (or at least limitation of needs) is common to both and both are perfectibilist. So, Stoicism was really a kind of Clayton’s Christianity or Christianity-Lite that 18th century intellectuals could embrace so as to feel pious and spiritual without the inconveniences of guilt, depressing dogma and having to feign acceptance of revealed religion’s preposterous claims. That Stoic Deism also offered liberation from the oppressive authority of the established Church was an added bonus. One didn’t need bibles or clerics to interpret God’s intentions anymore: as Adam Ferguson asserted, the data was right there in front of us. ‘True religion’ consists in the ‘study of nature, by which we are led to substitute a wise providence operating by physical causes’ for ‘phantoms that terrify, or amuse the ignorant’ (Ferguson 1767, pp. 89–90). Stoicism therefore represented a guilt-free, do-it-yourself religion for those who weren’t ready to give up the idea of a universe superintended by a benign—if rather distracted—supreme being.

Philosophic Pride belongs in every university library. It is a rather dense book covering a lot of thinkers and a lot of ideas in a fairly short space. It is, therefore, at times rather discursive, moving quickly between themes and minds. But oddly, not much is lost because of this, something I attribute to Brooke’s authoritative command of the material and his ability to write succinctly and with great clarity. His book was not what I expected but this is what makes it worth reading.


C. Musonius Rufus 1905, ‘Should daughters receive the same education as sons?’ in C. Musonii Rufi Reliquiae (1905), trans. ed. O. Hense, reproduced 1947 in C.E. Lutz, ‘Musonius Rufus “The Roman Socrates”’, Yale Classical Studies, vol. X, pp. 3–147.

Cicero 1988, De Republica; De Legibus, trans. C.W. Keyes, William Heinemann Ltd, London.

Cicero 1961, De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, trans. H. Rackham, William Heinemann Ltd, London.

Diogenes Laertius 1958, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, trans. R.D. Hicks, William Heinemann Ltd, London.

Ferguson, A. (1767) 1996, An Essay on the History of Civil Society, ed. with introduction by F. Oz-Salzberger, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Hill, L. 2001, ‘The first wave of feminism: Were the Stoics feminists?’ History of Political Thought, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 12–40.

Marcus Aurelius 1987, The Meditations (The Communings with Himself of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus), trans. C.R. Haines, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.

Seneca 2002, Epistles, in three volumes, trans. with introduction by R.M. Gummere Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.

Seneca 1965, ‘De Consolatione Ad Helvium’ in Moral and Political Essays, trans. John W. Basore, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.

Lisa Hill is Professor of Politics in the School of History and Politics at The University of Adelaide. Her interests are in political theory, intellectual history and issues in electoral law and behaviour.