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

Audio Recordings from Stoicon 2016

Audio recordings from Stoicon 2016, available for download as MP3 files.

Stoicon 2016 was a huge success!

You can now download MP3 audio recordings of the talks below…  Here’s the opening talk by Massimo Pigliucci called “Stoicism 101”.

Stoicon 2016 Logo

You can download the files by right-clicking on the speaker’s name and selecting the Save link as… or Download option from your browser’s context menu.

  1. Donald Robertson
    Stoicism, Mindfulness, and Cognitive Therapy
  2. Julia Annas
    Is Stoic Virtue as Off-putting as it Seems?
  3. William Irvine
    On Becoming an Insult Pacifist
  4. Lawrence Becker
    Stoic Ethics-in-Action
  5. Debbie Joffe Ellis
    Albert Ellis, A Model of Resiliency, Compassion, and Stoicism in Action
  6. Christopher Gill
    Can you be a Stoic and a Political Activist?
  7. Cinzia Arruzza
    Let us Take Care of Ourselves, Stoic Exercises and Foucault
  8. Jules Evans
    Stoicism as a Wellbeing Intervention in the Workplace, prisons and Mental Health Charities
  9. KEYNOTE – Ryan Holiday
    The Daily Stoic: Practical Philosophy for Pragmatic People