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Ancient Stoicism, Human Rights and The Dignity of the Individual

In August 2018, I published an article in Quillette, in which I defended Roman Stoicism from its Christian critics. The article examined the ethical possibilities of Christianity as compared with Roman Stoicism by asking the question of whether Stoicism might have produced an alternative ‘ethical West’. I thought the question of deep intellectual history in the West deserved further consideration, in light of the recent positive focus given to the history of Christian ethics, particularly on the part of some members of the intellectual dark web, most notably Jordan Peterson.

The popular historian Tom Holland has insinuated that the cultural shift from a pagan to a Christian worldview in the fourth century Roman world inculcated a new era of moral insight. But Christianity is not unique in its consideration of the human person. Similar sentiments were expressed by Stoics.

Stoic universalism is a plausible philosophical path through which something like human rights might eventually have been achieved in a non-Christianized Rome. The claim of Christianity to moral and historical particularity in Western history ought therefore to be contended, if we are to develop a holistic picture of the Western philosophical inheritance.

The Christian Ethical Revolution

There is an argument to be made in favor of a partial Christian moral revolution—a shift in moral sentiments—in Late Antiquity. This transformation was not in all ways positive, and was certainly not universally applied, but, as ancient historians like Peter Brown and Kyle Harper have argued, the particular role of dignity in the Christian imagination was, when applied to individual persons, a powerful starting point for later ethical theorization on human rights and abolitionism. Likewise, as Peter Brown eloquently argues in Through the Eye of a Needle, early Christian attitudes toward the poor could be quite distinct—and perhaps even more inclusive—than attitudes toward poor non-citizens in pagan civic religion.

Still, defenses of Christian ethics frequently rely on a monolithic characterization of the pagan in opposition to the saintly Christian. But pagans were multifarious in their ethical and philosophical commitments, and were often cognizant of the indignities suffered by the poor or otherwise marginalized in their communities. Indeed, Hellenistic ethical thought was entirely committed to the project of alleviating suffering through the application of reason. As Martha Nussbaum has chronicled in her book, the Therapy of Desire, this was not only focused on inward, psychological struggle, but often took the form of social criticism.

This revolution, then, ought not to be taken as a uniquely Christian contribution to Western thought: in the more plural environment of first, second and third century Rome, Stoicism and other salvific religio-philosophical movements anticipated the ethical advances made by Christianity in later centuries. These movements did not last, so their contributions are easy to overlook, but they are suggestive of the broader nature of shifting ethical opinion in the ancient world. I wish to defend the role of Stoicism in the early moral development of the West: the West’s ethical bedrock ought to be located in the early Roman period, and not exclusively in the early Christian centuries.

The Problem of Stoic Interiority

In an article entitled “Christianity and the Roots of Human Dignity in Late Antiquity,” Kyle Harper posits that Stoicism itself could not have given rise to a concept of human rights, given that Stoicism’s ethical philosophy rested on the fundamental premise that human freedom consisted not of political liberation, but of the renunciation of desire. “The Stoics placed enormous emphasis on human freedom,” Harper writes, “however, they viewed freedom not as a space for the exercise of moral autonomy but rather as a state achieved by a rare sage, whose reason had allowed him to conquer his emotions and desires.” On this view, even the slave must abandon any hope of actual freedom; he has merely to conquer his desire to be free and thereby become open to achieving inner peace.

Some Stoics, like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, emphasized a particular kind of asceticism in the face of suffering. Modern philosophers like Massimo Pigliucci have advocated for a renewed appreciation of this approach as an antidote to the chaos that modern life is liable to inflict on people. But such a narrow characterization misses a central pillar of Stoic moral thinking: virtue ethics. The central virtues were commonly agreed to comprise of justice, temperance, courage and wisdom. The last of these in particular relates to the emphasis placed by some Stoic teachers, like Epictetus, on personal action in response to suffering, but other Stoic writers emphasized the social dimension of the virtues, particularly justice and courage.

Harper’s analysis of Stoicism is far too directly inflected through the lens of Epictetus. The vision of Stoicism given in his Handbook and Discourses is not necessarily reflective of Stoicism as a whole, and certainly does not exhaust the ethical possibilities of Roman Stoic thought. Roman Stoicism admitted of intellectual diversity, just as modern Christianity can. Other ancient perspectives—ignored by Harper and Holland—are available to us, such as Hierocles’ cosmopolitan scheme, which anticipates Peter Singer’s expanding circle of ethical concern. Martha Nussbaum, among others, has elegantly reconstructed the ethical views of the earlier Greek Stoa, especially in relation to their political views, but at least one other Roman Stoic deserves consideration for his advocacy of ethical positions intended to promote human flourishing on a broad scale: Musonius Rufus.

The Ethics of Gaius

Gaius Musonius Rufus was the tutor of Epictetus, active during the first century AD. He lectured widely and was generally beloved, but he frequently courted political and social ostracism by freely rejecting or questioning some of the ethical expectations of his day. Famously, he believed that women should be encouraged to study philosophy (Lecture III). We see in Musonius Rufus that the notion of universal human dignity was not at all alien to the Stoics: the virtue ethics practiced by the Stoics was in theory available to anyone, both slave and free, and—contrary to Harper—the virtues make ethical demands that are not limited to silent abdication in the face of challenging circumstances. In fact, the Stoicism of Musonius Rufus demands exactly the kind of ethical charity from its adherents for which the Christianity of Paul is known: in Lecture XIX, for example, Musonius asks us to consider the waste of affluence: “What good are gold-decked rooms … Are not all these things superfluous and unnecessary … how much more commendable than living a life of luxury it is to help many people.” There is nothing remotely resigned here: Musonius’ lectures resonate with a sense of ethical purpose on a grand social scale. He speaks against the rich, advocates for a life of civic responsibility (Lecture XIX), and argues, like Hierocles, for a universal ethics based on cosmic citizenship (Lecture IX). Most importantly, he argues repeatedly that the Stoic virtues are applicable not only in private, but also in public life. Neighborliness, Musonius argues, is mandated by a consideration of the virtue of justice:

If you will agree that man’s nature most closely resembles the bee which cannot live alone … but bends its energies to the one common task of his fellows and toils and works together with his neighbors … if this is so, and in addition you recognize that for man evil consists in injustice and cruelty and indifference to a neighbor’s trouble, while virtue is brotherly love and … concern for the welfare of one’s neighbor—with such ideas … it would be each man’s duty to take thought for his own city and make of his home a rampart for its protection (Lecture XIV).

Musonius does not counsel retreat: the rampart is designed not to protect the home against the city, in a libertarian sense, but to protect the city and the neighbor in a broader sense against social injustice. This is Stoic ethics given a social valence, which recognizes the ethical necessity of brotherhood and stewardship.

The lectures of Musonius Rufus therefore make considerable use of the moral implications of Stoic virtue ethics and, in so doing, argue for and demand social change. Although Musonius does not condemn slavery outright, any more than Paul does, he suggests that all human beings possess essential dispositions toward goodness: “Of what, then, is this evidence if not of the existence of an innate inclination in the human soul toward goodness and nobleness, and of the presence of the seeds of virtue in each one of us” (Lecture II).

If such sentiments do not amount to an argument for universal human dignity, given in Stoic form, it is difficult to see how else they may be interpreted. In Galatians 3:28, Paul famously espouses an apparently universal sentiment, within which human difference is dissolved by membership in the Christian community. It is an elegant proposal, but it is deceptive. Musonius Rufus’ ethics is not partial: it does not omit slaves or women, but pertains to all human beings, not only those of a certain community; it advocates for inalienable and innate qualities within human beings, which demand a universal and fair ethical response. As Hierocles does in his ethics, Musonius presents a moral system with universal applicability, possessed of the kinds of ethical resources that would be marshaled in defense of human dignity at later periods of history. It does not depend upon devoting oneself to a mystery religion or political party. Abolitionism, civil rights and other social liberation movements rely on the image of the innately dignified human person, which Stoicism pioneered. While the Christian version of this sentiment is laudable, it is partial: it is only within the Christian community that a common humanity is affirmed. For Musonius, innate human reason grants dignity, thus virtue is available to all human beings, regardless of their religious dispositions.

Musonius presented public lectures in which he argued for the implications of Stoic virtue ethics in a range of social contexts. Stoic ethics were not complete, nor were the social implications of Stoic virtue ethics fully realized within Roman society, but Christianity was not unique in its stance toward social ethics and issues, and was certainly not unique in its advocacy of universal human dignity. Given time, Stoic ethics might well have produced a legal and philosophical regime of human rights. Harper is right in one sense, however: the Roman Stoics tend to overemphasize the capacity for internal restraint and thus sometimes neglect the role of institutions in the maintenance of our freedoms, but they do not foreswear justice or ignore humanity. As Martha Nussbaum has argued, the earlier Greek Stoa was centrally concerned with the institutional flourishing of justice, and, even within the Roman context, “the directly political side of cosmopolitanism could come into its own in a very practical way as Roman Stoic philosophers had a major influence on the conduct of political life.” Clearly Harper’s critique, whatever its merits, overemphasizes the internal aspect of Stoic philosophy at the cost of its wider ethical context. The Stoics could, and did, comment on and engage with the social world around them, and often found it wanting.

On the one hand, Stoicism admitted of the moral resources necessary for the creation of ethical societies, but this argument should not supplant a straightforwardly historical consideration of the role of Christianity in Western ethical thought. The latter was clearly important, given the path that was trodden by history in actuality. Conjectured histories of the variety I proposed in my Quillette piece must remain speculative. However, Stoicism presents us with an ancient but viable ethical alternative to the monotheisms of Late Antiquity, Christianity and Islam: it is a system which admits of criticism and adaptability, and it proposes a comprehensive and humane moral system, which does not require assent to other metaphysical claims to be workable or effective. In its modern form, revisited and adapted by the likes of Lawrence Becker and Massimo Pigliucci, it offers a way through the stresses and uncertainties of life, and a means by which modern people in the West might reclaim a valuable and beneficent part of their ancient heritage, until recently almost entirely forgotten and unexplored.

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6 comments

  1. If we are lauding the value of an ethics that is universally applicable, I find the use of the term ‘The West’ in the conclusion somewhat undermining of that. But then I find the whole concept hopelessly vague. Stoic philosophers of a Mediterranean civilization, with its hinterlands at once in Africa, Asia and Europe, might have felt similarly, especially if their vision extended to the entire cosmos.

  2. Thanks for your comments Lucas and John,

    I’d like to respond to a couple of things:-

    First, in regards to Musonius and his ascription of the possibility of virtue to all people – I don’t see anything bland here. Musonius’ clearly argues that all human beings have access to Virtue – and that there could be no discrimination between slaves and emperors in this. The career of Epictetus suggests as much. Hierocles, perhaps even more clearly, suggests that all human beings ought to be considered within concentric circles of ethical concern, and that eventually even the most lowly should be embraced by our standards. The ascription of dignity, then, lies in the belief that all human beings are capable of partaking in the good, and not only those whose station or birth confers some kind of material benefit.

    The implications of Stoic ethics are clear, and (I would argue) unambiguously collapse the ancient rationale for slavery. The Stoics did not share Aristotles’ belief that some classes of people were naturally born slaves: such a sentiment totally reverses Stoic attitudes toward the universality of ethical concern. Given time, I don’t see that the practices of ancient slavery (for example) would have survived ethical scrutiny, even without Christianity.

    As to the supposed universality of Christian thoughts on dignity – I find this fairly hard to swallow. Some Christians, like Gregory, clearly did take Paul’s words in such a cosmopolitan way, I grant you that. Nonetheless, the examples suggestive of Christian sectarianism throughout history are simply too numerous to mention, and surely speak against your affirmation of Christian generosity in this regard. I don’t deny the sentiment exists in Christianity, but I think a universalist notion of dignity finds purer expression in Stoicism, unencumbered by supernatural dogmas or other theological traditions which require assent if they are to be accessed fully.

    As for the benefaction of the poor – this is a complicated topic and I don’t want to fully adjudicated it here. I admit in the essay that ancient Roman society never did fully embrace or implement a political vision of Stoicism (these nevertheless existed) and that Roman society was frequently rife with injustice. I am also fully prepared to admit that Christian practices might have been superior in this regard. Still, the distinction between pagan civic benefaction and Christian charity elides evidence for other forms of pagan generosity, and these were not always based on citizen status alone (not to mention, the Roman empire was vast, and Brown treats it fairly uniformly in the chapter to which I refer. Egypt was quite unlike Britain, for example). I might write about this particular topic again; suffice to say that Brown overstates the case in my mind.

  3. the internet does not reward stoicism. because stoicism means not shooting your mouth off about things you know little about, and the internet rewards shooting your mouth off about things you know little about. often handsomely.

  4. Thanks for this exciting update, Ben, I really appreciated. Here are comments I have.

    First, I agree with Lucas that your discussion of human dignity moves too quickly. When Kyle Harper locates the concept of human dignity in Gregory of Nyssa, he’s talking about a very specific principle: ‘

    He argues that the value of human nature – and specifically the rational nature of man, created in the image of God – could not be expressed in units of exchange value. For Gregory, human nature was incomparably worthy. “For He who knew human nature said that the entire cosmos was not worthy to be exchanged for the soul of a man’.

    What I get from your Musonius quotation is a blander affirmation that there is a little bit of good in everyone. Whatever one thinks of the principle Harper extracts from Gregory (utilitarians wouldn’t like it), it’s a point of difference.

  5. Thanks for this exciting update, Ben, I really appreciated it. Here are some comments I have.

    First, I agree with Lucas that your discussion of human dignity moves too quickly. When Kyle Harper locates the concept of human dignity in Gregory of Nyssa, he’s talking about a very specific principle: ‘

    He argues that the value of human nature – and specifically the rational nature of man, created in the image of God – could not be expressed in units of exchange value. For Gregory, human nature was incomparably worthy. “For He who knew human nature said that the entire cosmos was not worthy to be exchanged for the soul of a man’.

    What I get from your Musonius quotation is a blander affirmation that there is a little but of good in everyone. Whatever one thinks of the principle Harper extracts from Gregory (utilitarians wouldn’t like it), it’s a point of difference.

    Second, I think the contrast you draw between a total Stoic universalism and a more sectarian Christian analogue is unfair. Different authors may have placed differing emphases on the primacy of the Christian community, but Christian in general did have a universal understanding of human dignity. Gregory of Nyssa is explicitly talking about human nature as such.

    Third, you mention Brown and the the idea of benefaction to the poor, but you don’t say much explicitly to stave off the objection that such benefaction was a Christian innovation. Musonius’ comment about ‘how much more commendable than living a life of luxury it is to help many people’ could be easily be about traditional civic benefaction rather than aiding specific individuals in especial need. This is a potential contrast that it would be worth addressing more closely.

    Finally, I will say that I am glad you are backing away from the counterfactual claims. But I think this is a good thing not just because they are generally slippery, but because I believe that it would have been extremely difficult for Stoicism alone to drive moral development as Christianity did. We’ve been through this before, of course, and there are many factors in play. As Tom Holland has pointed out, Stoicism was primarily an elite project. Besides which, we can ask whether Stoicism would have had the institutional resilience of the Church in the face of political collapse, whether Stoics would have felt impelled to preach their gospel to all nations, and so on.

  6. ““Of what, then, is this evidence if not of the existence of an innate inclination in the human soul toward goodness and nobleness, and of the presence of the seeds of virtue in each one of us” (Lecture II).

    If such sentiments do not amount to an argument for universal human dignity, given in Stoic form, it is difficult to see how else they may be interpreted.”

    From an otherwise erudite essay the above-quoted lines are rather sloppy. Quite surprising considering this is the essence of your essay. I don’t see how everyone having an inclination towards the good implies that all humans have a universal dignity. I understand virtue was commonly seen to be synonymous with the truth (highly valued), but is it synonymous with dignity? — something that is above all value. If anything, it merely foreshadows the concept of virtue ethics, which was no doubt employed by the stoics with their conception of the “model-sage”. But, this is a long-shot from a universal human dignity.

    Perhaps I am ignorant and this needs to be read within the greater context, however, the essay should have included the necessary information so that the intended conclusions could be drawn.

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