Stoic q&a: are Stoics anarchists?

[image: anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, Wikipedia; this is essay #288 in the Figs in Winter series]

D. writes: I was just reading an essay by Mikhail Bakunin in which he criticizes Marx, and specifically his support for the idea of a State. As an anarchist, Bakunin believes the State will always be unfair because it is inevitably based on minority rule. He also believes the idea of nation states is harmful because it incentivizes competition and conflict, often leading to war. Suffering becomes justified in the name of State’s morality, i.e., patriotism. What I wanted to ask you is: are Stoics anarchists? Taking the Stoic notion of cosmopolitanism, would they believe the idea of State to be a bad one? Would they say government divides and dominates people by way of the morality of patriotism? Or would they be in favor of countries and borders like the ones we have today?

Very good question! And the answer is complicated… Ideally, yes, Stoics would be anarchists. Zeno of Citium, in his Republic, describes what amounts to an anarchic society of sages. Everything is in common and there is no need for laws or temples, because people use reason to resolve their differences. Here is how Plutarch describes what Zeno writes:

The much admired Republic of Zeno, the founder of the Stoic sect, is aimed at this one main point, that our household arrangements should not be based on cities or parishes, each one marked out by its own legal system, but we should regard all humans as our fellow citizens and local residents. (De Alex. fort. 329a–b)

We see the outlines of an actual political program in the middle Stoics, particularly Panaetius, who greatly influenced Cicero (see his On Duty). For these authors, we can’t wait until everyone is a sage, and we ought to use our shared ability to reason about things, however imperfectly, to move forward. As Marcus says:

Set yourself in motion, if it is in your power, and do not look about you to see if anyone will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter. (Meditations, IX.29)

Still, even the Roman Empire, at its ideal best, was meant to be a cosmopolitan (or at least ecumenical) state. When Octavian Augustus, the first emperor, talked about the Pax Romana (Roman Peace), he had in mind something that Cicero, and later Seneca, might have approved of: a prosperous society where everyone was welcome regardless of creed or origin. Moreover, the famous five good emperors (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, but especially Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius) again tried to establish Rome as the beacon of civilization and as a source of stability, prosperity, and cosmopolitanism. Notice, among other things, that they engaged only in defensive, not expansionist, wars.

Of course, modern Stoics wouldn’t endorse the implementation of cosmopolitanism by way of empire, but it is hard to imagine a truly borderless, anarchic, and at the same time functional and peaceful world. At least not in the near future. Nevertheless, that does remain the goal. I have argued that Stoic cosmopolitanism implies the eventual abolition of national barriers, and I agree with Bakunin that patriotism is pernicious, and so is inter-state competition, which often does lead to conflict, whether overt or not (i.e., cold or hot war).

All of the above said, though, we also need to understand that Stoics are fundamentally pragmatists, and they will strive to be virtuous regardless of the form of government under which they happen to live, including tyranny. The so-called Stoic opposition, a group of Senators and philosophers who opposed the emperors Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian, is a perfect example of the fact that Stoics think they have a duty to deal with the situation on the ground, and not sit around and wait for Plato’s, or Zeno’s Republic to just happen. Here is how Epictetus — who was himself sent into exile by Domitian — describes one episode of the Stoic opposition:

So what was it that Agrippinus used to say? ‘I won’t become an obstacle to myself.’ The news was brought to him that ‘your case is being tried in the Senate.’ ‘May everything go well! But the fifth hour has arrived’ — this was the hour in which he was in the habit of taking his exercise and then having a cold bath — ‘so let’s go off and take some exercise.’ When he had completed his exercise, someone came and told him, ‘You’ve been convicted.’ ‘To exile,’ he asked, ‘or to death?’ — ‘To exile.’ — ‘What about property?’ ‘It hasn’t been confiscated.’ — ‘Then let’s go away to Ariccia and eat our meal there.’ (Discourses I.1.28–30)

When Vespasian sent for Helvidius Priscus and commanded him not to go into the Senate, he replied, ‘It is in your power not to allow me to be a member of the Senate, but so long as I am, I must go in.’ ‘Well, go in then,’ says the emperor, ‘but say nothing.’ ‘Do not ask my opinion, and I will be silent.’ ‘But I must ask your opinion.’ ‘And I must say what I think right.’ ‘But if you do, I shall put you to death.’ ‘When then did I tell you that I am immortal? You will do your part, and I will do mine: it is your part to kill; it is mine to die, but not in fear: yours to banish me; mine to depart without sorrow.’ (Discourses, 1.2.19–21)

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

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