Stoicism and the Military: an Unvirtuous Coupling – by Massimo Pigliucci

Let’s go back to the basics: what is Stoicism? Nowadays there seem to be two alternative, not necessarily mutually exclusive conceptions of it. On the one hand, Stoicism is the modern version of an ancient philosophy of life. On the other hand, it is a collection of life hacks that have been demonstrated to be helpful in specific circumstances.

The distinction I’m making here is no different from, say, the difference between Buddhism, understood as a life philosophy, and various meditation techniques. Many Buddhists do not meditate, and yet they embrace fundamental aspects of the philosophy, such as the four noble truths and the eightfold path to enlightenment. Contrariwise, lots of people reap benefits from meditation and yet do not consider themselves Buddhists. I am one of them, for instance.

In the case of Stoicism, the philosophy is about becoming an excellent human being, which for the Stoics specifically means one who uses reason to solve problems and acts in a prosocial, cosmopolitan manner. One way to behave like a Stoic is to use the four cardinal virtues (prudence, courage, justice, and temperance) as one’s moral compass. Another way is to practice Epictetus’s three disciplines (desire, action, and assent).

If you want to be a Stoic, in the sense of the philosophy, you don’t have to engage in any kind of specific exercise, like keeping a journal of self-examination, engaging in a premeditatio malorum, practicing the view from above, reflecting on your mortality, getting up before dawn to meditate at sunrise, or any of that. Those things are useful, and may even reinforce your philosophy of life. But they are not, in themselves, “Stoic.”

The idea that the techniques can be decoupled from the underlying philosophy is particularly evident when we consider that modern cognitive behavioral therapy was inspired, among other sources, by the writings of the ancient Stoics. Yet, if you go to a CBT practitioner to take care of, say, your anxiety or depression, you are not thereby practicing Stoicism. And of course you may be a philosophical Stoic without ever having to go to CBT.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because I’ve noticed what I consider a deeply disturbing trend over the past several years: an unholy—so to speak—entanglement of Stoicism and militarism. An entanglement that may farther the cause of militarism but does nothing good to promote Stoicism.

One good example is an article by Kristin Hitchcock, a self-described “army wife,” entitled “How Elite Soldiers Use Stoicism to Survive – and How You Can Too” and published in Modern Stoicism. It seem to confuse Stoicism and life hackery, with worrisome results.

Hitchcock begins by telling us that “Stoicism and the mental readiness of soldiers are nearly one and the same.” Not at all. If soldiers were truly practicing Stoicism they would probably not be soldiers in the first place, or at the very least they would assent—to use Epictetus’s frequent phrase—only to just wars.

A just war is one that is conducted solely if a number of strict ethical criteria have been met. These include (but are not limited to): just cause, right intention, last resort, proportionality of response (i.e., no “shock and awe”), fair treatment of prisoners, no unethical means of warfare (e.g., mass rape of civilians, use of biological or nuclear weapons, and so forth), no targeting of civilians, and immediate cessation of hostilities upon accomplishment of minimum objectives. Arguably no war has ever met all these criteria, though some have come close (World War II, for instance).

“Stoicism focuses on conquering your mind through mental and physical exercise. Therefore, it’s become a source of inspiration for most US military branches, including Special Forces Units,” continues Hitchcock. But that’s only half the story, and the least pertinent one at that. Yes, mental and physical exercises are certainly explicitly recommended by Stoics like Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. But the goal is not readiness to fight, it is ethical self-improvement. This goes oddly entirely unmentioned throughout Hitchcock’s article.

We are then told that “Stoicism was widely accepted by the Roman military since the early years of the philosophy.” But this is simply not true, so far as we know. Stoicism was likely appealing to portions of the Roman elite (those who were not enthralled with Epicureanism), while Roman soldiers were known for practicing the mystery religion of Mithraism, which became very popular in the imperial Roman army between the first and the fourth centuries.

Hitchcock provides her readers with a list of what she thinks are key Stoic principles: the dichotomy of control, the impermanence of things, the practice of gratitude, and self-reflection. Not a single word about ethics or virtue.

Those principles are indeed part and parcel of standard Stoic practice, but to what aim? Epictetus’s fundamental rule of life, often misleadingly referred to as the dichotomy of control, is meant to convince us that the only thing that is truly up to us is our judgment (discipline of desire and aversion). But that’s only the first step. Epictetus then goes on to tell us that our task is to make sure that we develop good judgment. By that he doesn’t mean judgment about how to best shoot other people, but judgment about how to act properly toward fellow human beings (discipline of action). We are then meant to perfect our judgment so that it becomes automatically good, no matter the circumstances (discipline of assent).(Discourses III.2)

As Stoics we certainly appreciate the impermanence of things, but that is so that we are not attached to externals and free ourselves to focus on ethical self-improvement. Yes, we ought to practice gratitude, for having a faculty of judgment (prohairesis) and for being able to use it correctly (i.e., pro-socially). And yes, we have to engage in self-reflection, but again the goal is to make ourselves into cosmopolitan human beings (Discourses, I.9).

“We can cultivate a greater sense of inner peace and contentment by letting go of attachment to external things,” says Hitchcock. That is true, but it isn’t a goal of Stoicism. It’s, at best, a byproduct of Stoic practice. Again, the goal of Stoicism is to be a good citizen of the world, not to be serene while participating in the likely unethical killing of other human beings, which is what most militaries do or prepare themselves to do most of the time (see just war above).

Am I arguing that Stoicism entails pacifism? Not at all. But militarism, which is what most countries have practiced throughout history, is clearly at odds with the principles of a cosmopolitan philosophy of life. Consider this passage from Seneca, let it sink in, and then think about the alleged “oneness and sameness” of Stoicism and soldiering preparedness:

We are mad, not only individually, but nationally. We check manslaughter and isolated murders; but what of war and the much-vaunted crime of slaughtering whole peoples? There are no limits to our greed, none to our cruelty. And as long as such crimes are committed by stealth and by individuals, they are less harmful and less portentous; but cruelties are practiced in accordance with acts of senate and popular assembly, and the public is bidden to do that which is forbidden to the individual. Deeds that would be punished by loss of life when committed in secret, are praised by us because uniformed generals have carried them out. (Letter 95.30)

How does that strike you, vis-a-vis Stoicism and the military?

Hitchcock and other similarly minded writers like to bring up Marcus Aurelius, probably because he was, after all, also a soldier (unlike Seneca, and definitely not at all like Epictetus; or Zeno; or Cleanthes; or Chrysippus; or Posidonius; you get the drift). Yet the emperor-philosopher constantly strikes a note of toleration, understanding, and compassion toward our fellow human beings, one that is pretty hard to find in modern writings about the military: “But they are mistaken. Well, then, teach and enlighten them without any resentment.” (Meditations, 6.27)

Time to address the obvious objection to what I’ve written above: but weren’t there plenty of Stoics who took up arms and in fact practiced a rather martial lifestyle, for instance Cato the Younger, the archenemy of Julius Caesar so highly praised by Seneca? Yes there were. But I’ve never understood why this sort of argument is supposed to represent such an implicit “gotcha!” Consider two counters to it.

First, many of the Stoics we know of also owned slaves and said pretty sexist things about women. Does that imply that modern Stoics also ought to be pro-slavery and sexist? I didn’t think so.

Which brings me to the second, more encompassing, response: there is always a distinction between what a philosophy (or religion) entails and what its practitioners do. And when the two are in contrast, we should always go with what is entailed by the philosophy, not with what people who claim to practice it actually do.

I’m sure many Buddhists fall short of the teaching of the Buddha. And I know for a fact that many Christians, including a good number of Popes, do not measure up to the example of Jesus. While such imperfect acting ought to be pointed out and criticized, it by no means amounts to a criticism of the underlying philosophy or religion.

The same goes for Stoicism. A splendid example of this is a paper by Scott Aikin and Emily McGill-Rutherford, which raises the question of the relationship between Stoicism and feminism. Aikin and McGill-Rutherford ask two related, yet clearly distinct questions: (i) Were the ancient Stoics feminists? (ii) Does Stoicism logically entail feminism?

The answer to the first question is clearly negative, despite the occasional admission by Seneca, Musonius, and Epictetus that women do, in fact, have the same mental faculties as men, and that they ought to be taught philosophy. These statements, as welcome as they surely are, need to be evaluated against the repeated use, by the very same authors, of terms like “womanly” meant in a clearly derogative fashion.

By contrast, the answer to the second—far more important—question is a resounding yes, because Stoicism is a cosmopolitan philosophy that teaches us to treat any being capable of reason as if they were our brothers and sisters. Clearly, women qualify.

So, the fact that individual ancient Stoics practiced a military life and engaged in warfare, especially when understood against a cultural background where economies were based primarily on war and slavery, is historically interesting but philosophically irrelevant. But Stoic cosmopolitanism, while not requiring strict pacifism, certainly discourages any deep entanglement with the military as it is structured today, in the US as well as in many other countries. So please let us not further encourage such unvirtuous coupling.


Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His books include How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books) and The Quest for Character: What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us about Our Search for Good Leaders (Basic Books). More by him at

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