Stoicism as a subversive activity

Figs in Winter
13 min readMay 31, 2024

Stoic philosophy is often presented as “conservative,” yet it is anything but

Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism, Wikimedia, CC license.

Is Stoicism a conservative or progressive philosophy of life? To a first approximation, the very question makes no sense. “Conservative” and “progressive” are modern, culturally and temporally specific labels for certain ways of seeing and acting in the world. Nevertheless, it does make sense to ask whether practicing Stoicism leads one to simply embrace the status quo or to consciously attempt to subvert it. Or, perhaps, neither.

Some Greco-Roman philosophies do, I think, inherently favor the status quo. Epicureanism teaches us to disengage from social and political life on the eminently sensible assumption that it is more likely to cause us pain rather than pleasure, and since a life of tranquillity characterized by lack of pain is the goal of the Epicureans, this makes sense.

Similarly, Pyrrhonian Skepticism should be classified as socially “conservative,” since the Pyrrhonists are supposed to suspend judgment on all “non-evident” matters, such as the goal of life, or which society is best, and simply follow the customs prevalent in whatever social milieu they happen to live.

The Cynics, by contrast, were in-your-face subversive, constantly flaunting and ridiculing social customs…

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Figs in Winter

by Massimo Pigliucci. New Stoicism and Beyond. Entirely AI free.