How to square the circle: Stoicism as personal philosophy vs issues of social justice

Here is a conundrum I have been pondering for a while now. On the one hand, Stoicism is a personal philosophy, meant to help us to excel (in the ethical sense, not by becoming celebrities or making a lot of money) as human beings. On the other hand, the Stoics talk of the virtue of justice, which is other-regarding, and we have plenty of historical evidence of Stoic proficientes fighting against injustice.

The two aspects of Stoic philosophy seem at odds with each other. Take the concept of virtue, for instance. Even on Stoic fora I often read something along the lines of “action (or stance) X is virtuous / unvirtuous.” Where X may be concern for the environment, or for equality, and so forth. But, strictly speaking, that can’t be right, because virtues are not properties of actions or stances, they are character propensities of individual agents. It may, or may not, be virtuous for me — given my specific situation — to participate to a march in favor of action on climate change. But the action is not virtuous per se, without reference to both the specific circumstances and the motivation and other characteristics of the agent. If I go to the march not out of genuine concern for the environment, say, but because I want to impress my friends, then I am not acting virtuously.

If this is right, then — as I’ve argued elsewhere —it is misguided to ask questions along the lines of “is X Stoic?,” which happens to be one of the most frequent kind of question posed on Stoic fora.

Then again, how do I square in my own mind the fact that I publish an occasional column of Stoic advice, where people ask me whether whatever they are doing or considering doing is in line with general Stoic principles? Worse, why do I write essays on Stoicism and vegetarianism, or Stoicism and feminism? Some would argue (and have, in fact, argued) that those are just the predictable result of my progressive liberal bias. Perhaps, but I don’t think so, and here is why.

To begin with, its clear that the ancient Stoics themselves did think of social and political matters “from a Stoic perspective.” Zeno of Citium, the founder of our sect, wrote a whole book called The Republic, in which he outlined the ideal Stoic society — which turns out to be, from what we can tell from the surviving fragments of the book — an enlightened anarchy of sages where men and women treat each other equally and resolve issues by considerate reflection, not force.

The same Zeno wrote that slavery is evil, and Seneca had this to say on the matter:

“They are slaves,” people declare. Nay, rather they are men. ... Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.” (Letters to Lucilius, XLVII.1, 10)

That doesn’t sound like someone who doesn’t think there is a meaningful answer to the question: “is slavery Stoic?.” 

Let’s take stock. We have the undeniable notion that virtues are particular character traits of individual moral agents, not universal attributes of actions or stances. But we also have equally undeniable evidence that the Stoics thought that certain social arrangements were more, or less, in conformity with Stoic principles.

So when I suggest that Stoicism logically entails feminism — strictly defined as the notion that women should not be discriminated against, on the ground that they are human beings like everyone else — I’m at least in good company: I’m arguing in a way that is not different from what Zeno or Seneca might have. Or Epictetus, for that matter. In response to a distraught father who could not bear to stay at the side of his sick daughter, Epictetus says:

“Well then, do you think that you acted right? ... Well then to leave your sick child and to go away is not reasonable, and I suppose that you will not say that it is.” (Discourses, 10)

Epictetus strongly implies in this section of the Discourses that when the father left his sick daughter out of emotional distress this was not just not right given the particular situation and agent, but not right for a father in general. That squares well with what scholar Brian Johnson calls Epictetus’ role ethics, the notion that we all play different roles in life, and that it is our (Stoic) duty to play them to our best.

Sometimes the roles will conflict with each other, in which case it is up to the individual agent to resolve the conflict, depending on the specific circumstances. But on many occasions the very label we attach to a given role will give us strong clues on how to play it well:

“Reflect on the other social roles you play. If you are a council member, consider what a council member should do. If you are young, what does being young mean, if you are old, what does age imply, if you are a father, what does fatherhood entail? Each of our titles, when reflected upon, suggests the acts appropriate to it.” (Discourses II.10.10)

Moreover, Epictetus explicitly says that there is one role that trumps all others, no matter what:

“You are a citizen of the cosmos, and a part of it, and not a subordinate part, but a principal part of it. For you are capable of understanding the divine administration, and of reasoning on what follows from that. What then is the profession of a citizen [of the world]? To have no private gain, never to deliberate as though detached [from the whole], but to be like the hand or the foot, which, if they had reason and understood the constitution of nature, would never exercise impulse or desire, except by reference to the whole.”(Discourses, II.10.3-4) 

Whatever we do, we should first and foremost keep in mind the interest of the human cosmopolis. That truly is the Stoic thing to do.

However, that does not immediately yield a number of specific social or political stances that are, ipso facto, “Stoic.” That’s because different agents may reasonably disagree about what sort of action or stance is or is not in the interest of the human cosmopolis. Only sages would readily and surely agree on which courses of action to pursue or ideas to endorse. But we are not sages. So we need to make a case for why, say, feminism is more (or less) in synch with Stoic principles than anti-feminism. The same for action, or inaction, about climate change. And so forth. Though I would hope that by this stage in history we can all at least readily agree that slavery is decidedly not in harmony with Stoic philosophy.

What about my above mentioned Stoic advice column? What sense can we make of that, now that we are a bit more clear about the dual individual-social aspect of Stoicism? If you read the columns I have written, you will see that in each case I start from a relatively detailed explanation, provided by the person seeking advice, of the specifics of both the situation and the agent. The more details are provided, the more sound advice may be given, and the more one can make a case that such advice is “Stoic” in nature.

So to recap:

  • Virtues are character traits of specific individuals, not attributes of actions or ideas in general. So it makes little sense to ask whether an action or idea is “Stoic” without reference to a particular situation faced by a particular agent.
  • However, some ideas or actions are more or less in harmony with Stoic philosophy, although since we are not sages, there will be reasonable disagreement concerning individual cases, which means that we need to make a good explicit argument in order to endorse, or reject, such ideas or actions, from a Stoic perspective.


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