The World’s First Humanists

What we can still learn from Stoic cosmopolitanism.

Marcus Aurelius

The world during the Late Roman Republic had never been more cosmopolitan, owing in no small part to the influence of the Stoics.

Stoics such as Panaetius, who shuttled back and forth from Athens to Rome, Rutilius, who stood up for the inhabitants of Asia against his own countrymen, and the Syrian Posidonius, who moved from Athens to Rhodes to start a school that became the empire’s stopping place, were not Greeks or Romans so much as World Citizens.

The supranationalism of the Stoics went all the way back, at least, to Diogenes the Cynic (d. 323 BCE), who, upon being asked where he came from, declared, “I am a citizen of the world [Greek, cosmopolites],” a radical claim at the time and the first recorded use of the term “cosmopolitan.”

“The eagle,” said the Stoic teacher Musonius, quoting Euripides, “can fly through all the air, and a noble man has all the earth as his fatherland.” The wise can make themselves at home anywhere, so that exile, to them, is not the punishment that it may seem. Indeed, one of several advantages of exile is that we are not dragged into political service by a country that only seems ours, or bothered by people who only seem to be our friends, or waylaid by petty relatives. Rutilius flourished so fulsomely in exile that he refused Sulla’s invitation to return to Rome.

Even Marcus Aurelius, as emperor, did not think of himself as merely Roman: “My city and state are Rome… But as a human being? The world. So for me, ‘good’ can only mean what’s good for both communities.”

Why Egoism Is Self-Defeating

Stoic cosmopolitanism is rooted in the belief that all human beings form part of the same organism and that this organism, like each of its parts, is shot through with God. Some people indeed behave like cancers, but even they, if only they knew it, are doing the work of God. Just as our eyes, ears, and teeth each have a role to play in our body, so we, too, each have a role to play in society, even if it is only to serve as a warning to others.

“Kindly remember,” said Seneca, “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.”

To live selfishly is fundamentally self-defeating. To feel alive and happy, we need to have a sense of working with others, for others–because, like ants and bees, that is the kind of creature that we are. If we do not contribute to our community, we will feel disconnected and depressed. In a word, we will feel dead–and, in truth, might as well be.

Whatever good we do, said the emperor Marcus, we should do it quietly, without expecting anything in return, “as simply as a horse runs, or a bee makes honey, or a vine bears grapes season after season without thinking of the grapes it has borne.” Our reward will be our own, and much greater than any wealth or honour that might or might not be bestowed upon us: to lead and to have led a good life, to do and to have done what we were born to do.

Of course, human beings are not nearly as dependable as ants and bees. Some people will go rogue. They will behave badly or hide away at home. So much is to be expected and has been woven into the fabric of the world. To get angry or upset about it will only make matters worse, sometimes much worse.

We might even look upon bad behaviour as an opportunity. One day, a rascal who had injured Lycurgus’ eye was sent to him for punishment. But instead of having him whipped, Lycurgus [the legendary lawgiver of Sparta] educated him and then took him to the theatre. As the Spartans looked on in amazement, Lycurgus declared, “The person I received from you was unruly and violent. I return him to you a good man and proper citizen.”

Why Education Is Better Than Punishment

Socrates, the grandfather of the Stoics, famously said that people only do wrong because, in the moment, they think it is the right thing to do. At his trial, he argued that if he did corrupt the youth as charged, he must have done so unintentionally since he had always known that corrupting the youth, or indeed anyone, would have amounted to injuring himself. Therefore, if he did corrupt the youth, the city and its jurors would do better to educate rather than punish him.

In our dealings with other people, it is helpful to remember that, in their minds, they are only doing what they think is right or best. They, like us, are functioning at the limit of their understanding, because that is all that we can do, no more and (significantly) no less.

Sometimes, education is impractical or impossible. But even if we have to punish people, it should never be for revenge but only ever to improve behaviour. In an apocryphal story, Plato once began to strike a slave before suddenly staying his hand. When, hours later, a student came upon him still in this same awkward posture, he said, “I am punishing an angry man.” In a similar story, an angry Plato asked his nephew Speussipus to whip a disobedient slave on his behalf, explaining that a slave should not be in the control of one who is not even in control of himself.

If, for all our philosophy, we are still bent on revenge, we need not dirty our hands but simply leave it to fate and fortune, which tend to the side of the good. Death, if nothing before that, will answer to our grievances, and bury our enemies in the dust of their own insignificance.

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.