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A few notes on Stoic political philosophy

An absolutely brilliant passage from one of the best books about Stoicism currently available:

"Coming to see all others as fellow-citizens is quite distinct from striving to build a political community in which all others will be one's fellow-citizens. The community according to which all others are fellow-citizens is already there; it is the cosmos, the whole of which each human being is a part. The Stoics do not envisage a worldwide community that should be established. Rather, they tell us that such a community exists, should be understood, and should transform how we relate to others."

- Katja Maria Vogt, Law, Reason, and the Cosmic City: Political Philosophy in the Early Stoa, 2007, location 1241 

Witness Cicero:

"There are indeed several degrees of fellowship among men. To move from the one that is unlimited, next there is a closer one of the same race, tribe and tongue, through which men are bound strongly to one another. More intimate still is that of the same city, as citizens have many things that are shared with one another: the forum, temples, porticoes and roads, laws and legal rights, law-courts and political elections; and besides these acquaintances and companionship, and those business and commercial transactions that many of them make with many others. A tie narrower still is that of the fellowship between relations: moving from that vast fellowship of the human race we end up with a confined and limited one."

- Cicero, On Duties, I.53

Note that the "fellowship among men" is an unlimited fellowship. It includes human beings everywhere and at all times. This "fellowship among men" is the greater of the two republics we all live in according to the Stoics. The smaller republic is the country we happen to have a formal citizenship in. Both are political communities in the sense that we are citizens in both and have duties towards both.

Note also that laws are the least important element - even in the lesser political community. The most important elements are shared values and mutual friendship:

"But of all the bonds of fellowship, there is none more noble, none more powerful than when good men of congenial character are joined in intimate friendship; for really, if we discover in another that moral goodness on which I dwell so much, it attracts us and makes us friends to the one in whose character it seems to dwell. And while every virtue attracts us and makes us love those who seem to possess it, still justice and generosity do so most of all. Nothing, moreover, is more conducive to love and intimacy than compatibility of character in good men; for when two people have the same ideals and the same tastes, it is a natural consequence that each loves the other as himself; and the result is, as Pythagoras requires of ideal friendship, that several are united in one. Another strong bond of fellowship is effected by mutual interchange of kind services; and as long as these kindnesses are mutual and acceptable, those between whom they are interchanged are united by the ties of an enduring intimacy."

- Cicero, On Duties, 55-56

Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate: Cicero attacks Catiline, from a 19th-century fresco 

A very important difference between Cicero and Seneca is the importance Cicero places on our duties towards our country:

"when you have surveyed everything with reason and spirit, of all fellowships none is more serious , and none dearer, than that of each of us with the republic. Parents are dear, and children, relatives and acquaintances are dear, but our country has on its own embraced all the affections of all of us."

- Cicero, On Duties I.57

Seneca is almost exclusively interested in our duties towards the larger community - the brotherhood of man.

"The understanding I have of my responsibility to the human race comes first, and it counts for more than my responsibility to any one person."

- Seneca, On Benefits, VII.19.9

Seneca could almost just as well have said "more than my responsibility to any one country" here .

Stoicism is all about community - but it is a "virtual" community consisting of every rational being. It wouldn't make sense to try to limit that community to a specific number of people. Any proposed limit would be completely random and irrelevant. Another completely irrelevant factor is what any group defined as "the elite of society" think about Stoicism or even what they think about philosophy in general. Stoicism is there for everyone - and it definitely doesn't follow from the fact that a person can brag about membership of some random "elite" that that person is more qualified to understand Stoicism than, say, a plummer or a garbage man. Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school, was a boxer when he first got interested in Stoicism and worked for years at night watering gardens in Athens while studying Stoicism.

Stoicism is comparatively indifferent toward the empirical politics of a given society. The important thing is the responsibility of the individual Stoic to do his or her best to promote wisdom in the world together with everyone who shares that goal. Whether the country the individual stoic happens to be living in shares that goal or not is basically not important at all. 


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