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.

Nietzsche’s thought experiment to determine our own greatness.

Sisyphus, by Titian.

Possibly under the influence of Plato, who was himself influenced by Pythagoras, the Stoics held that the universe undergoes cycles, being periodically destroyed in a great conflagration [Greek, ekpyrosis] and then reborn, ad infinitum.

Because God, being perfectly rational, is bound to make the same choices, each cosmic cycle plays out similarly or even identically, so that the world as we know it, with us in it, existed in the previous cycle and will recur in the next.

In around 200 CE, the philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias wrote: “[Chrysippus and the Stoics] hold that after the conflagration all the same things come to be again in the world numerically, so that even the same peculiarly qualified individual as before exists and comes to be again in the world…”

In his Letters, the Roman Stoic Seneca (d. 65 CE) tells Lucilius: “Things that vanish from our sight are merely stored away in the natural world: they cease to be, but they do not perish… the day will come again that will return us to the light. It is a day that many would refuse, except that we forget everything before returning.”

This concept of eternal recurrence, or eternal return, is even echoed in the Bible:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after (Ecclesiastes 1:9-11).

In the City of God Against the Pagans (426 CE), St. Augustine seeks to deny that these and other such verses refer to eternal return. If “the wicked walk in a circle,” says Augustine, “this is not because their life is to recur by means of these circles, which these philosophers imagine, but because the path in which their false doctrine now runs is circuitous.”

Enter Nietzsche

In the 19th century, Nietzsche used eternal return as a thought experiment, as perhaps the Stoics had done, to determine the degree to which our individual will is aligned with the will of the world.

How, asks Nietzsche, would we feel if a daemon visited us one night and told us that we will have to live out our life over and over again? Would we feel joy, or desperation?

In the chapter of Ecce Homo (1908) entitled, Why I Am so Clever, Nietzsche says, “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati [love of fate]: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it … but love it.”

In his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Albert Camus compares the human condition to the plight of Sisyphus, the mythical king of Ephyra who was punished for resisting the gods by being made to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again. Camus concludes, “The struggle to the top is itself enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Even in a state of utter hopelessness, Sisyphus can still be happy. Indeed, he is happy precisely because he is in a state of utter hopelessness, because in recognizing and accepting the hopelessness of his condition, he at the same time transcends it.

Or, in those wonderful words of Virgil, “The only hope for the doomed is no hope at all.”

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.

Cato’s Suicide, by Charles Le Brun.

Stoicism’s surprising influence on religion, politics, and mental healthcare.

In the Classical World, the old religion privileged ritual over doctrine, and educated people turned instead to philosophy for guidance and consolation. In the imperial period, Stoicism rose into the foremost philosophy among the Roman elite. It was, in a sense, the real religion of ruling Romans, including, under the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the emperor himself.

From this highpoint, Stoicism gradually lost ground to Christianity, but at the same time worked its way into the incipient religion. Paul the Apostle had met some Stoics while in Athens, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles: “Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks [sic.], encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say?” Early Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen were steeped in Stoicism, as were, two centuries later, Ambrose and Augustine.

The influence of Stoic philosophy is felt even in the Bible. For instance, the Gospel of John opens with the verse, “In the beginning was the Word [Greek, Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The logos, according to the Stoics, consists of creative fire, or pneuma [“spirit”], the ancestor, perhaps, of the Holy Spirit.

Broader points of parallel between Christianity and Stoicism include that God is a benevolent creator, that each of us has a divine element, and that we ought to pursue virtue and love one another. The resemblances are such that, in the sixteenth century, the Flemish Catholic philosopher Justus Lipsius, who lived in a time of great strife and schism, sought to harmonize Christianity with Stoicism to create a more secular ethics—inaugurating the Stoic revival known as Neostoicism.

It is tempting to ask why Christianity eclipsed Stoicism at all. In addition to the more philosophical elements, Christianity offered mythology and mysticism, including the promise of an afterlife, which enabled it to speak to many more people. With its broad appeal, Christianity also served to repair a split in society by bringing the people and their leaders back under the banner of a single creed.

This ties up with a criticism of Stoicism, namely, that it is elitist. A philosophy that is all about ruling oneself probably speaks more to the ruling classes. On the other hand, the great Stoic teacher Epictetus began life as a slave, and, by Stoicism, rose into an elite. If Stoicism is elitist, it is more because it appeals to temperaments that are already of a certain disposition, to Catos more than to Caesars, and to Senecas more than to Neros. As Seneca says, “Philosophy shines for all. Socrates was no patrician; Cleanthes hauled water… Plato did not come to philosophy a nobleman but was ennobled by it… Everyone has the same number of ancestors. There is no one whose origins lie anywhere but in oblivion.”

Politics and ideas

Today, Stoicism also appeals most often to men, especially young men, in search of a masculine ideal of composure, resilience, self-sufficiency, and so on. But Stoicism is “virile” only in that mastery has historically been associated with men. There is, despite the obvious potential, very little about “manliness” in the primary Stoic sources, and the Stoics were remarkably egalitarian for their age.

People concerned with virility tend to the right of the political spectrum. While Spartanism has long been associated with the far right, Stoicism has not shared in the same fate, probably on account of its strong cosmopolitan strand—which might even have endeared it to the left, had it not been for its dogmatic disregard for a person’s external circumstances.

Outside of the Church, Stoicism also exerted an important influence on the history of ideas, including on the thought of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Adam Smith, and J.S. Mill, who, in On Liberty (1859), hailed the Meditationsof Marcus Aurelius as “the highest ethical product of the ancient mind.”

The few failings which are attributed to him, were all on the side of indulgence: while his writings, the highest ethical product of the ancient mind, differ scarcely perceptibly, if they differ at all, from the most characteristic teachings of Christ. (On Liberty, II)

Despite its influence and importance, the study of Stoicism has long been left out of university curricula, perhaps because its more theoretical texts have all been lost, or, more likely, out of academic snobbery for a philosophy that is practical and accessible, and tainted by the “unimaginative” Romans.

In politics and government, the shining example of Cato inspired the American revolutionaries to fight for their own Republic, which they created in the image of Cato’s—even debating whether the executive branch would not be better represented by two consuls, rather than the president that they finally settled for. George Washington staged a play about Cato at Valley Forge during the American Revolutionary War. When he died, Thomas Jefferson had a copy of Seneca on his bedside table. 

The freedoms that we in the West have come to enjoy—and that many people, in Russia, in China, and elsewhere, still do not—owe in no small part to the mark left by Cato and his fervent defense of the Roman Republic.

Over the past two thousand years, humanity has made a great deal of progress in science and technology, but very little in politics. The world, now armed with nuclear weapons, is still crying out, American included, for fail-safe systems of government. That, surely, is not beyond us.

Mental healthcare

In the field of mental health, Stoicism inspired what has become the most common form of talking treatment, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)—showing that people can derive some benefit from “elitist” Stoic principles without needing to be familiar with the underlying philosophy.

Aaron Beck (d. 2021), the father of CBT, wrote that “the philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers.” Albert Ellis (d. 2007), the founder of rational emotive behaviour therapy, a precursor to CBT, frequently cited the Stoics, and was especially taken by a line from Epictetus: “Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinions about them.”

But CBT is only a form of firefighting, and hardly fulfils the true promise of Stoicism, which is for integral mental health and more.

Other forms of talking treatment often involve “looking in,” sometimes to the point of navel-gazing, but Stoicism, like Eastern philosophy, suggests that the answer lies rather in looking out, or looking in only insofar as it can help to look out and dissolve the boundary between in and out.

The relentless positive thinking that pervades popular self-help books is similarly unhelpful, serving only to tide us to the next crisis, for which it lays the ground.

Long-term mental health relies instead on coming to terms with reality, including that of our own mortality. It is only by coming to terms with reality that we can, ourselves, become real.

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.