The Pathos of Politics (15) Stoicism


All things are parts of one single system, which is called Nature. The individual life is good when it is in harmony with Nature. In one sense, every life is in harmony with Nature, since it is such as Nature’s laws have caused it to be; but in another sense a human life is only in harmony with Nature when the individual will is directed to ends which are among those of Nature. Virtue consists in a will which is in agreement with Nature. ~ Zeno

The Stoics developed the idea that virtue consisted of acting in accordance with Nature. Hellenist philosopher Zeno of Citium (334–262 bce) founded the Stoic school of philosophy.

Well-being is attained by little and little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself. ~ Zeno

Zeno was a native of Cyprus, a Hellenized Phoenician, and a stranger to Athens. His philosophy was an outgrowth that came from Hellenization: the spread of Greek culture through the conquests of Alexander, and by dint of its intellectual vigor.

The Hellenistic World

The Hellenistic period lasted from ~300 bce to 200 ce. Even at the peak of Roman power, Hellenization was a more potent cultural force than Romanization, which held its own only in areas where it did not compete with Hellenistic culture.

The Hellenistic world was characterized by Greece acting as a clearinghouse for new ideas by non-Greeks. Men Hellenized their names, and garbed their works in Greek language and forms, in hopes of finding a wider audience. Zeno was exemplary.

Virtue, which alone is truly good, rests entirely with the individual. Therefore, every man has perfect freedom, provided he emancipates himself from mundane desires. ~ Zeno

The Stoics did not think of themselves as political theorists, nor is stoicism a theory of state. Still, stoicism had lasting influence in providing a philosophic justification for a disciplined life. Many of the political elite in the Hellenistic and Roman periods professed, if not always practiced, stoicism.

Stoicism not only infused political philosophy with the concept of natural law, it set the platform for all philosophies that followed which espoused virtue as a product of human will through self-restraint.

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. ~ Turkish Hellenistic Stoic philosopher Epictetus

The political implications of Stoic philosophy forge a double-edged sword, in having a conservative bent while justifying revolution when deemed rational.

The Stoic idea that no one can rob a person of integrity, and its promotion of detachment to materiality, affords easy submission to authority.

Other men have power only over externals. ~ Zeno

The sharp edge of the Stoic sword came from the fact that authority has force only through fear. Men determined to live in accordance with their natures, with indomitable wills, are the very men that tyrants fear, and rightfully so.

Stoicism stands out for centering its teachings emphatically on individual responsibility and integrity and doing so without threating divine penalties or promising rewards, as religions commonly wont. As matterists, the Stoics did not even dangle an immortal soul as an allure.

Creeds rarely demand so much and pledge so little. As a consequence, Stoicism never had mass appeal. Instead, 2 types that tend to austerity find Stoicism attractive: reflective ascetics who attain peace of mind through withdrawal from the world, and, conversely, activists who seek communion with Nature by aiming at its apogee, which also encompasses the individual’s life. Both types have holism in mind.

Zeno turned Plato’s Republic inside out with his own Republic (Politeia). The purpose of Politeia was to outline the ideal society based upon Stoic principles, where the virtuous would live a life of simple asceticism in equality, regardless of gender. Zeno excluded the ignorant, as “the unwise are incapable of living together harmoniously in a community.”

Zeno’s utopian state was without artifice. There was no need for courts of law or money. Equity reigned, as all was shared.

Zeno’s Politeia was well within the Greek tradition of societal idealism. The notion of a utopia populated by an ethical people has roots as far back as Homer’s “city of the just” in the Odyssey (~800 bce), and the race of heroes in Hesiod’s Works and Days (~700 bce).

Societal progress toward ethical perfection has been dreamt by many political philosophers. Marx’s “pure” communism resembled Zeno’s ideal state.

Democracy embraces idealism, in entitling all citizens to an equal say in political affairs, regardless of intelligence. This notion accords with natural (inalienable) rights.