Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Stoicism and the Status Quo

I saw on some blog an argument that stoicism is a philosophy favoring the status quo.  According to the author, that's why it was the favorite philosophy of the Roman Emperors.

Although no emperor was named, one must assume the author had Marcus Aurelius in mind, and may have somehow concluded, rather stupidly, from the fact that he was a stoic that all, or most, emperors were stoics as well.  As far as I am aware, though, no other emperors were acknowledged stoics; not even other "good" emperors like Antoninus Pius. 

What the author apparently wasn't aware of is the fact that most emperors were not fond of the stoics, or other philosophers for that matter.  They tended to send them into exile or otherwise repress them.  For example, Domitian sent one of the greatest stoic philosophers, Epictetus, as well as others, into exile.

They emperors had what was, for them, good reason to find the stoic philosophers a major annoyance.  The stoics held that no one, not even an emperor, could compel them to do anything that was contrary to the tenents of stoicism.  An emperor, like others, could only do things to the body of the stoic.  The essential nature of the stoic, that which is in his sole control--his thoughts, his integrity, his knowledge, his reason--remained untouched.  Epictetus even spoke of this by directly referring to the emperor and his power, and the fact that for all that power the stoic may remain  unaffected.  Stoics always oppposed tyranny, and the emperors, or at least those many who were tyrants, were well aware of this fact.

I suppose the claim that stoicism is a philosophy which accepts the status quo has its basis in the fact that the stoics valued and sought tranquility, and attaining this state meant that one had to accept the fact that certain things are beyond one's control.  But, stoicism also teaches a respect for one's fellow creatures, the value of virtue and honesty, the control of violent emotions.  If an emperor or a state purported to restrict the ability of a stoic to follow what stoicism considered good and live "according to nature" the stoic would not simply accept that fact, or believe it to be a part of nature, or beyond his control, and therefore "good" or even indifferent.  To maintain otherwise is simply the result of ignorance.  A stoic would continue to live in accordance with the tenets of stoicism, even if thrown in jail, or tortured, or killed as a result.

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