Stoic cosmopolitanism: ideal state or individual ethics?

(photo: Temple A at Laodiceia, photo by the Author)

Cosmopolitanism, the notion that all humankind belongs to a single ideal city, the cosmopolis, is crucial both in Stoic philosophy and, increasingly, in modern politics. For a while, after World War II, we lived in a world that - even though divided between eastern and western blocks - seemed willing to come together, if prompted to do so by the threat of nuclear self-annihilation. The United Nations, with all its faults and limitations, is only the second attempt in the history of humanity to get every nation on earth around the same table to discuss issues, instead of resorting to violence. (The first attempt was the League of Nations established after WWI, which failed precisely because it was exclusionary, with membership limited to the world’s democracies.) We are now living through a hopefully transitory phase of hyper-nationalism, renewed tribalism, Brexit and the increasingly overt American rejection of the whole notion of a United Nations. The ideal of cosmopolitanism is as needed as ever, and it helps looking at its deep early history.

I am grateful to John Sellars for having published a masterly scholarly paper on the topic, entitled “Stoic cosmopolitanism and Zeno’s Republic” (History of Political Thought, vol. 28, issue 1, pp. 1-29, 2007), which is the main source for this essay. John challenges the classical view of the development of Stoic cosmopolitanism, proposing an alternative that I think makes far more sense. Let’s start with the basic comparison and then get some more details to flesh out the full picture.

The standard model, so to speak, argues that there were three distinct conceptions of cosmopolitanism in antiquity: the Cynic, the early Stoic, and the late Stoic. The Cynic ethic was universal, but individualistic, as epitomized of course by the very colorful character of Diogenes of Sinope. Diogenes, incidentally, appeared to have coined the term, kosmopolitês in Greek. The early Stoics, beginning with Zeno himself, the founder of the school, (allegedly) rejected the Cynic approach in favor of an idealized, “Spartan,” version of cosmopolitanism that they got from Plato. Paradoxically, this early cosmopolitanism was elitist, because it would be achieved only in the ideal Republic, reserved only to sages. Think of it as an anarchic community of enlightened people. Finally, the late Stoics would (again, allegedly) ignore their founder and look instead to the sort of humanistic cosmopolitanism that Cicero develops through several of his writings.

John’s model, by contrast, is one of continuity, and squarely puts the origin of the concept where it belongs, with Socrates:

“Do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with, ‘I am Athenian,’ or ‘I am from Corinth,’ but always, ‘I am a citizen of the world.’” (Discourses I, 9.1)

From this common source, both the Cynics and the early Stoics derive their initial version of cosmopolitanism, which is then made more articulate by Seneca, and influences the latter period of the school’s history. One of the tantalizing glimpses of how the Cynics thought about the matter is found in two poetic lines left by Crates of Thebes, who was Zeno’s teacher. Paraphrasing Homer, he wrote:

There is a city Pera in the midst of a wine-dark vapour, Fair, fruitful, passing squalid, owning nought. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VI.85)

The standard reading of this is that Crates is talking about an imaginary city, a kind of never-never land, similar to Plato’s notion of an ideal society isolated from the rest of the world. But John points out that “pera” is simply the word for the Cynic knapsack, which they used to carry around all their worldly possessions. He then translates the same passage as:

[The] knapsack is a city in the midst of wine-dark delusion, noble and rich, surrounded by squalor.

Which makes a lot more sense, I think, both linguistically and, more importantly, philosophically. The Cynics are not invoking a political ideal, but rather a lifestyle that can be practiced in the here and now. They thought that this lifestyle was literally “in accordance with nature” (as opposed to the more abstract meaning given to the phrase by the Stoics): their allegiance to the cosmos (natural law) implied a rejection of the arbitrary customs of any particular city (human law). In this sense, John comments, the Cynics saw themselves as more akin to other animals than to “civilized” mankind. There was a reason, after all, why they were named after the lifestyle of dogs.

What about the early Stoics? Here is how Plutarch (not a sympathetic commentator) summarizes Zeno’s views:

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 (pantas anthrôpous) as our fellow citizens and local residents (dêmotas kai politas). (De Alex. fort. 329a–b)

John interprets Zeno as envisioning not an ideal state, Plato-style, but rather “an individual cosmopolitan ethic that would, in theory, form the foundation for a future world-wide community in which everyone would be a sage, along with an intermediate stage in which sages - whether geographically dispersed or together in one location - would acknowledge each other as ‘fellow-citizens.’ … There appears to have been an attempt to offer both a pragmatic ethic that can be put into practice here and now alongside a speculative vision of a possible future grounded upon that ethic.” This, in a nutshell, is still the program of the modern Stoic community.

Skip forward to the late Roman Republic. Cicero (who was not a Stoic, though sympathetic to the school) clearly rejected the Cynic approach, articulating instead one of the first humanistic versions of cosmopolitanism. But he was, in fact, strongly influenced by the middle Stoic Panaetius, who himself discarded the Cynic “wing” of Stoicism. Panaetius’ Stoicism was moderate, shall we say, as nicely described by Seneca:

I think Panaetius gave a charming answer to the youth who asked whether the wise man would fall in love: ‘As to the wise man, we shall see; what concerns you and me, who are still a great distance from the wise man, is to ensure that we do not fall into a state of affairs which is disturbed, powerless, subservient to another, and worthless to oneself.’ (Letters to Lucilius, CXVI.5)

Cicero articulates his version of cosmopolitanism in De Officiis (On Duty), where he rejects a distinction between wise and foolish, affirming the value of the ordinary individual, in turn leading to a vision of humanity as made up of equal fellow citizens. According to both Panaetius and Cicero, all humanity shares in the ability to be rational, and this ability is in turn the basis for a universal brotherhood. Their view is realistic: the citizens of the cosmopolis are not sages, so they do require legislation to keep things working smoothly. While Cicero, of course, thought that Rome would provide the necessary legislation and, most importantly, inspiration, we can think of a better version of the United Nations’ charter and declaration of human rights, or perhaps an altogether new worldwide institution based on more democratic and humanistic ideals, as the difficult but achievable goal.

The contrast, according to John, then is between a “liberal” Stoicism, represented by the middle Stoa of Panaetius and Posidonius, articulated by Cicero, and then by Seneca, and a “left wing” Stoicism to which belong Zeno, Chrysippus and Epictetus. So which one are you, a liberal or a leftist Stoic?

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