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:

As John Sellars points out in a scholarly paper on the subject, though, Zeno’s ideal was not a concrete political program. It was, however, based on the Stoic notion of cosmopolitanism, which could be made concreted by way of appropriate social and political structures.

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:

Though he referred to Plato’s, not Zeno’s Republic, the sentiment is the same (“don’t wait for Plato’s Republic” was a common way to say don’t wait for utopia). We can build a society that is as close as one can actually come to the ideal by engineering laws that embody and encourage the practice of virtue. Of course, Cicero thought that the Roman Republic came close to being such a state, which is why he desperately tried to avoid the destruction of the Republic at the hands of Julius Caesar.

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:

The protagonist of the episode was Paconius Agrippinus, who was sent into exile by Nero in 67 CE. He and Epictetus were lucky compared to another member of the (informal) opposition, Helvidius Priscus, who ended up first exiled and then executed by Vespasian. Here is an exchange between him and the emperor, again reported by Epictetus:

The bottom line, then, is that the Stoics would, ideally, seek to establish an anarchy of reasonable people. Short of that, they would agree with Cicero that we need to work toward the most just state we can actually realize. And they would fight, even at the cost of their own lives, against what they perceive to be an unjust government.

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

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