Skip to main content

Stoicism and Evil Governments

This article claims that a Stoic has no reason to get depressed by bad political conditions since an evil government is not really a bad thing for a Stoic - since nothing can be bad for a Stoic except his own bad choices. Even so, the article claims, a Stoic acknowledges that an evil government is capable of doing "terrible things" to people.

To make this line of thinking work we have to think of ourselves as Stoics who can't be harmed by an evil government - since nothing can be bad for us as Stoics except our own bad choices - and other people as non-Stoics who will suffer terribly if they are oppressed by the evil government.

In my opinion, this interpretation of Stoicism is flat out wrong.

First of all, an evil government is indeed a bad thing. The Stoics distinguish between internal good/bad things such as our own good or bad choices and external good/bad things such as other people's happiness or unhappiness:

"some bad things are in the soul, i.e., vices and vicious actions. The external ones are having an imprudent fatherland and an imprudent friend and their unhappiness."

- Diogenes Laertius , 7.96

Almost all modern interpreters of Stoicism will deny that there can be such a thing as external good or bad things  - since they think that this would mean that our happiness does not just depend on ourselves but also on the happiness of other people. Because of this they will insist that the happiness of other people must be an indifferent to a Stoic.

In my opinion, this is an absurd interpretation of Stoicism which both ignores that all sources describes the happiness of other people as an external good and not an indifferent and overlooks the fact that the sources makes it very clear that not all goods are essential to our happiness.

A Stoic will work hard for the common good since a thriving community is exactly a good thing. It is not an indifferent. But it also the kind of good thing that a Stoic realizes that he can't always have.

Secondly, nothing an evil government can do to any person - Stoic or non-Stoic - can be a terrible thing since the only terrible thing that can befall any human being - whether they think of themselves as Stoics or not - is their own bad choices.

A Stoic will still fight the evil government, of course, since the evil government can certainly make conditions more challenging but a good Stoic's first priority in caring for other people will always be to try to improve their ability to deal with anything life presents them with. In other words - to make them as strong and wise as possible.

Gladiator fighting a lion. Roman fresco from the amphitheatre of Merida, Spain; 2nd century CE. Location: Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, Merida, Spain.


  1. Here's the link to the article:

  2. Hi Jannik, thank you for writing this essay, it's an excellent subject for discussions.

    I agree entirely that an evil government is indeed evil. However, according to Margerat's book on Stoic emotions, one would feel distressed if 1). Something evil is in presence and 2). That person truly believes it's evil. If a bad government is in presence and a Stoic truely thinks it's evil, should the Stoic feel distressed?

    1. The short answer is no. External good and bad things of the kind described in the quote from Diogenes Laertius above are not related to the our happiness in a way which can determine whether we are happy or unhappy. A wise person can certainly be perfectly happy in a badly run country - but just as a wise person will prefer to have friends even though friends are not strictly necessary for the wise person's happiness, the wise person will also prefer to live in a wisely run country.

  3. @Jannik
    Congrats, a hectic venture only a stoic can, please
    Came here from

  4. Makes perfect sense. One does not need to be stressed over evil things, but one must not stop working towards a good alternative.

  5. I actually think other people's happiness is more important than one's own. This doesn't mean one should give all his/her possessions so others can buy big houses and fancy cars, because that's preciously what will eventually make them unhappy. ��

  6. Jannik, sorry about the constant commenting. Stoic justice is a subject I'm intensely interested in. Do you think you could post some more quotes relating to this subject in the future? I'm a firm believer of working for the greater human cosmo, so that we continously increase the wisdom of our communities. We live in an interesting political era right now, during which some countries see the rise of extreme division under very conservative governments, whereas some countries (like the one I live in) sees the youngest female priminister coming into power and having a baby 6 months after being elected. I don't think communities in these countries are necessarily more wise than the other, so I really would like to understand how a Stoic would contribute in both communities.

    1. This blog was made for commenting :-) Did you see this post, Victoria:

      Like the post above, it's about the relation between the happiness of the community and one's own happiness.

    2. I just read it. Many of my questions have been answered since I started following you on G+. Thank you so much! You are doing certainly fulfilling your duty of making the world a wiser place! =)

  7. Hi Jannik, I just read this today :

    It's an article written to counter the popular mordern Stoic opinion of "people do things out of ignorance, therefore a Nazi who actively carried out mass killing was still following orders and didn't know the true good." The author offered a lot of evidence that the particular Nazi in the article was indeed evil, therefore we should not think lightly of the crimes he had committed. I tend to agree with him, as it reminded me of what you've written here about. I've even quoted Diogenes' words in the comment.

    What's your opinion of this subject? Are some people really quite evil and do wake up in the morning thinking :"how can I upset others", or are they simply ignorant? I'm not saying an evil person is not worthy of salvation, but their faults, in my opinion, should not be dismissed, because they were merely "Following orders".

    1. A lot of people are very aggressive in a way that makes them want to hurt other people - or at least ignore other people in ways that can potentially cause great suffering to others. But I think that in most cases that aggressivenes has it roots in fear. Nazism grew so powerful because it appealed to one demographic groups fear of losing privileges to another demographic group
      - just as many right wing parties do today. I don't think it makes a lot of sense to call people who vote for those parties evil. Even the politicians who scare people into hating each other are not evil in the sense that their ultimate goal is to hurt others. Their goal clearly is to gain or preserve power. It seems to me that the reason the term "evil" is so popular is that it allows to divide the world into "good guys" and "bad guys". I guess "Ignorance" is an annoying and boring concept to many - since it's so obvious that we are all ignorant :-) But that doesn't change the fact that most of the suffering in the world is caused by ignorance.

    2. Ha! I love the way you worded it:' "Ignorance" in an annoying and boring concept to many. ' I keep forgetting that Socrates' “There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.” basically treats ignorance the same as evil.

      I think I commented too soon there. =) need to really learn to suspend my judgement!! maybe I just couldn't resist interesting historical writings!! =)

    3. Interestingly, Cicero says of one of his opponents in the senate:

      "So great was his passion for wrong-doing that the very doing of wrong was a joy to him for its own sake, even when there was no motive for it."

      - Cicero, De Officiis (On Duties) , II.84

    4. Oh dear, I wonder, was this the famous Clodius?! =)

    5. Haha, that Caesar!

      I've always wondered what Cato would have reacted towards Caesar's assassination? I guess a Stoic wouldn't have taken a life easily. Then again Cato was supportive of Cataline's execution without a trial.

      Oh well, what do I know, I've only been shown a tiny part of what happened >2k years ago. My ignorance truly shocks me everyday. :-D

  8. Here's a fun inversion, at which I arrive simply by adding economy of action to the mix:
    Let's say we have two societies: One is in the grips of climate change, and things are very hard indeed for everybody. Here, a stoic should work to educate the people into calm persistence, because calm persistence will reduce suffering for everyone.
    Another society is in the grips of a fascist movement, and things are very hard indeed for everybody (because fascism is always corrupt and inefficient), but for "designated targets" in particular. Here there is an economy of action in play: if a stoic educates the people in perseverance, the fascists will simply increase their efforts in the production of misery: The suffering of the designated targets is the only way they can create contrast so that the non-targets feel better off. If, on the other hand the stoic seeks to make the rulers more wise, so as to no longer want evil things, that would be a more efficient way.
    How can the rulers become more wise? The easiest way is to change who the ruler is.

    If changing the ruler isn't possible, then the stoic's choice is clear: The people as a whole must be educated in the path of persistent resistance. Civil disobedience, general strikes, blocking of key infrastructure, these are all modes of resistance that are made more effective if the participants adopt a stoic mindset.

    1. Great comment, Andreas! I agree :-) But how is it an "inversion"?

  9. A useful summary of a basic Stoic position on politics

    "A good society and a well governed state are goals which we should do our utmost to achieve. But our success in achieving them is a purely ‘external’ matter, of secondary importance at most. It is still possible in the vilest society and the worst political conditions, as Socrates and Cato proved, for individuals to live good lives. And the good life lived by the individual is what counts."

    - Seneca - Moral and Political Essays. Edited and translated by John M. Cooper and J. F. Procopé, Cambridge University Press, 1995, location 308


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Aristotle on happiness and external goods

According to popular opinion both in ancient Greece and today, happiness requires things such as wealth, good health, good looks, friends, family and good reputation. In Plato's dialogue Euthydemus Socrates challenges those beliefs by claiming that none of those things are good, if they are not used wisely. In fact, Socrates claims that a person who has wisdom doesn't need any of those things at all since he or she can turn any situation into something beneficial for him- or herself.

"If wisdom is present, the one for whom it is present has no need of good fortune".

- Socrates in Euthydemus, 279E

In other words, Socrates claims that wisdom is a sufficient requirement for happiness (and a necessary requirement too, of course). Aristotle famously challenges that claim. But what exactly does he say? Let's have a look.

"we suppose happiness is enduring and definitely not prone to fluctuate, but the same person’s fortunes often turn to and fro. For clearly, if we t…

A documentary about the relationship between Seneca and Nero

A few years ago PBS did a series in four episodes called "The Roman Empire in the First Century"

Episode 3 is about Nero's reign but they tell the story by focusing on the relationship between Seneca and Nero. They do a fairly decent job and mostly present Seneca as a Stoic who tries to play the part assigned to him by fate as well as possible. The text is very pompous, though (to say nothing about the music!). Sigourney Weaver is narrating and sounds like she's quite uncomfortable about the whole thing. Every time a person is mentioned or quoted they show a bust of that person - if one is available - and every single time Seneca is mentioned, they show the "pseudo-Seneca" bust from Herculaneum even though everyone now agree that it is not a representation of Seneca.

All in all a pretty strange experience. It's incredibly rare that anyone mentions Seneca in anything about Rome produced for television so they deserve lots of credit for that - and also fo…