Stoic Q&A: what about slavery?

Slavery in Ancient Rome

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]

B. writes: one thing that I continue to struggle with is the notion of Amor Fati. I know that Epictetus was a slave and embraced Stoicism, but I find it difficult as an African-American to embrace this philosophy which is quite silent about slavery. I know this has been touched on a bit by a number of authors (and that Stoicism did not have the time to evolve like other philosophies or religions over the past few centuries or millennia on this issue), but I find it hard to love fate in the context of American chattel slavery. And I don’t know what to do with this and Stoic philosophy. This is not helped by the fact that most of my Stoic heroes or modern-day exponents are White straight men who may face personal challenges — like all humanity — but do not face systematic oppression or marginalization in the ways that other groups do.

I have heard that Nelson Mandela was inspired by Stoicism, but I have not deeply researched to what extent it informed his actions. Maybe all philosophies of life break down at some point? Maybe Stoicism is great at the individual level, where pragmatic action can be directed locally towards the most useful ends? Or maybe a Stoic sensibility and perspective can enable someone to have the courage to fight (in sort of a Cato way) for justice? And I wonder if this raises a larger question about the inherent benevolence of Nature and how even bad things serve some greater purpose — which I cannot accept in general and which sounds repugnant in the context of American slavery and the manifestations of racial subjugation.

These are all excellent and rather tough questions. Let me try to break them down and at least begin to address a number of them, though you should consider this only part of a long, overdue, and complex conversation.

Let’s start with “amor fati.” Although the specific phrase is often repeated by Nietzsche, the concept can be traced back to Marcus and Epictetus:

“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.” (Enchiridion VIII)

It’s a tricky idea, because if read at face value — in both Epictetus and Nietzsche, for that matter — it implies a sort of passivity and quietism. But we know from the broader context of Stoic (and Nietzschean) writings, as well as from the personal stories of many Stoics (and of Nietzsche) that that can’t be the right interpretation. Rather, amor fati is best understood within the basic concept of the dichotomy of control, and it is therefore an exhortation to accept what one cannot change, as part of what Providence or the universe throws at us (I’ll come back to this distinction near the end).

The tricky part is that we don’t really know what we can influence or not. Slavery, as a social institution, is clearly not “up to us” in the sense that we don’t have complete control over it, like we do over our values and judgments. But we can surely influence how society is structured, or how people think about social institutions. The way Stoics deal with this issue is by deploying the famous metaphor of the archer (in Cicero’s De Finibus, III), reminding ourselves that efforts to change things are up us, while outcomes are not. We should therefore strive to make this a better world, but also accept with equanimity the possible failure of our attempts. (The only alternative would be to get angry at our failures, which would simply make a bad situation worse, adding a self-inflicted injury.)

Seneca does talk about slavery, for instance in Letter XLVII to Lucilius, “On master and slave”:

“‘They are slaves,’ people declare. Nay, rather they are men. … Kindly remember 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. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave. As a result of the massacres in Marius’s day, many a man of distinguished birth, who was taking the first steps toward senatorial rank by service in the army, was humbled by fortune, one becoming a shepherd, another a caretaker of a country cottage. Despise, then, if you dare, those to whose estate you may at any time descend, even when you are despising them.” (1, 10)

This passage is not only a testament to the Stoic idea of cosmopolitanism — where every person, no matter her stature in life, is deserving of respect — but points to a major difference between the ancient and the modern (i.e., Colonial) concepts of slavery. This difference is also discussed by Mary Beard in her wonderful SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. The Colonial idea of slavery was intrinsically racist, founded on the conceit that some people are literally sub-human, not worthy of the same consideration as the rest of us. That was not the case in Ancient Greece and Rome, where one could become a slave by losing a battle. Both the Athenians and the Romans lost hundreds of thousands of their own to enslavement by others, so they were very conscious that slavery was a result of accident, not a sign of inferiority. (Needless to say, this does not excuse the institution, but the difference is often neglected, and people simply confuse the Ancient and the Colonial concepts.)

Epictetus too talks about slavery, most famously in Discourses I.2, entitled “How one may preserve one’s proper character in everything.” I related before how Brian Johnson, in his incisive The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life, discusses the part where Epictetus compares two slaves who are being asked to hold their master’s chamberpot. One of the slaves has the sort of character that cannot abide by such demeaning task, and Epictetus essentially says that the slave should rebel, a very rare, even dangerous, proposition to anyone at the time to utter:

“A lowly slave can not choose to do the work of an extraordinary individual because he does not have the power to bear it any more than the extraordinary individual can bear to hold the chamber pot. … It is up to our own initiative for each of us to introspect and identify what our own self-worth is since that is the operative and necessary capacity in these two conflicting roles. … Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.”

That said, it is certainly the case that no Stoic questioned the very institution of slavery. But it is rather unfair to criticize Stoicism in particular for this failure. Every single ancient philosophy and religion, including Christianity, has incurred in the same failure. Indeed, a few months ago I was in Rome and visited the Ara Pacis Museum, built around the altar to peace ordered by Octavian Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. The exhibit concluded with a bit on Christianity, and reminded visitors not only that Paul and several other Church fathers had written in support of slavery, but that the early Popes and cardinals actually owned slaves, and thought it perfectly normal to do so. Modern Christians, of course, reject slavery, and so do modern Stoics, and I think you should keep that in mind in your evaluation of the philosophy, as it would be rather odd to judge Christianity by its modern outlook, while holding modern Stoics to what the ancients thought, or failed to think.

In terms of Stoic role models, yes, most of them are white men, no way around it. But I would suggest that this is simply a historical accident — rather like saying that most Confucian philosophers are Chinese — instead of an indictment of the philosophy. Indeed, it is precisely by spreading Stoicism among women, transgenders, blacks, Hispanics, and so forth that we will see the emergence of new role models. Mandela himself, incidentally, was not a Stoic, but Martha Nussbaum (in this article, and in the book it refers to) tells the story of how he was inspired to set aside his anger and embrace an attitude of forgiveness and peace by reading a smuggled copy of Marcus’ Meditations. Perhaps you yourself can be a role model to others, by exemplifying Stoic philosophy with your own behavior.

You mention that Stoicism is an individual-level philosophy, and that is certainly the case. Indeed, all ancient virtue ethics was individual-level, not recipes for the organization of society. These were personal philosophies, aiming at improving ourselves first and foremost. Society, then, becomes better from the bottom up, so to speak, because more and more individuals act for the common good — a major point of Stoicism. One may see this as a limitation of virtue ethics in general, and of Stoicism in particular. Then again, given the questionable record, ever since the Enlightenment, and up to the 21st century, of top down philosophies (e.g., communism, neoliberalism, no to mention of course several flavors of fascism) to bring about justice and happiness, perhaps it is time to give the botton up approach a new chance.

In this respect you are correct in linking the virtue of justice (and the related Epictetian discipline of action) with the courage to fight against tyranny and injustice. Surely if more people took this seriously, instead of simply starting entirely pointless hashtag campaigns meant more to signal their own virtue to the in-group than to effect any actual change, the world would be a bit better. Moreover, keep in mind that Stoicism, as I’ve written recently, is not a magic wand: it isn’t, by itself, goin to solve the world’s problems. That is up to the collective efforts of humanity, not to any individual. Again, by comparison, you could just as easily declare Christianity, Buddhism and so forth an abject failure because after thousands of years of existence we still have wars and injustices, sometimes even — ironically — in the very name of those religions.

Finally, a comment on the idea of Providence and the inherently benevolent nature of the cosmos. The ancient Stoics were, as is well known, pantheists. They believed that god is made of matter, and it is co-extensive with nature itself. The reason Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus at times sound almost Christian, however, is not because they believed in anything like a personal God with a plan, but rather because the universe, for them, was a living organism. We, as part of that living organism, therefore have a “function” that helps the whole. We may not like our individual function, but there is comfort in the idea that it serves the evolution of the cosmos. Epictetus explains this by reminding his students of the famous metaphor of the foot stepping into the mud for the good of the organism, first introduced, apparently, by Chrysippus:

“If I in fact knew that illness had been decreed for me at this moment by destiny, I would welcome even that; for the foot, too, if it had understanding, would be eager to get spattered with mud.” (Discourses II.6.9-10)

While some modern Stoics are pantheists, and others are theists, both Lawrence Becker and I, among several others, think that modern science has pretty much dispensed with the idea of the universe as a living organism. The universe is what it is, and things happen because of the cosmic web of cause and effect (recognized by the ancient Stoics too). So there is no consolation to be had from that quarter. But we do not need it, as Marcus himself very clearly realized 18 centuries ago:

“Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind Providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director. If then there is an invincible necessity, why do you resist? But if there is a Providence that allows itself to be propitiated, make yourself worthy of the help of the divinity. But if there is a confusion without a governor, be content that in such a tempest you have yourself a certain ruling intelligence. (Meditations XII.14)

Regardless of whether there is a plan or not, in other words, and whether the plan is the result of the intentions of a deity or the byproduct of the doings of a cosmic organism, it simply does not matter. We still need, as human beings, to get up in the morning and do the job of human beings. And what is that, exactly?

“It is a proper work of a man to be benevolent to his own kind, to despise [i.e., not be attached to] the movements of the senses, to form a just judgment of plausible appearances, and to take a survey of the nature of the universe and of the things that happen in it.” (Meditations, VIII.26)

Let’s get to work, shall we?


Post Scriptum: thanks to Don Robertson for reminding me of this passage from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, where he seems to suggest (second part) that the Stoics actually directly condemned slavery:

“They declare that he alone is free and bad men are slaves, freedom being power of independent action, whereas slavery is privation of the same; though indeed there is also a second form of slavery consisting in subordination, and a third which implies possession of the slave as well as his subordination; the correlative of such servitude being lordship; and this too is evil.” (VII.1.121-122)


16 thoughts on “Stoic Q&A: what about slavery?

  1. Marcus

    Good points, both in question and answer. I believe it is important to keep an open mind and do not get stuck in the mindset of 2000 years ago. Stoicism is a great source of insights but there is much more to life than it. I suggest exploring many other currents and ultimately arriving at ones own realisations. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. E. O. Scott

    This is an excellent question, and certainly a “long, overdue, and complex conversation,” as Massimo puts it.

    To add just a little bit, I’d like to point out that the this kind of issue is exactly what motivated some of us to start the “Stoics for Justice” group on Facebook last year (

    We wanted a modern Stoicism that could speak powerfully to topics like racism, social justice, and activism, and that has something substantive and competent to say to people who personally live through such challenges.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. David Morgan

    If you’re looking for people of color with strong Stoic tendencies, Mahatma Gandhi’s approach to life and politics strongly paralleled Stoicism. The book, “Gandhi and the Stoics” by British historian Kharsedji Sorabji, bears out the affinity between them. And of course, Gandhi had a quite an influence on Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach to the American civil rights movement.


  4. Lawrence Becker

    This is a superb Q & A, that has given me a lot to reflect on this morning. I have often been disturbed by the fact that the ancient Stoics did not address the question of the institution of slavery when it seems that they came so close to encountering that question by embracing the common humanity principle strongly enough to have cosmopolitan aspirations. But Massimo is certainly right that rejections of the institution of slavery are very hard to find anywhere in the ancient world. And, if we put together Orlando Patterson’s massive comparative study Slavery and Social Death with the cognitive implications of sociological theories that emphasize the screening effects of “forms of consciousness” we may be able to justify the supposition that for most of human history we were simply unable to imagine that slavery could be eliminated in large-scale societies. Thus the general silence from both philosophy and religion on the question. But I am far from settled on that answer. So I am still thinking.Thanks to you both for this discussion.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. Jason Malfatto

    But it is rather unfair to criticize Stoicism in particular for this failure. Every single ancient philosophy and religion, including Christianity, has incurred in the same failure.

    So much the worse for every single ancient philosophy and religion. After all, it’s not like B. claimed that some other ancient philosophy or religion was superior to Stoicism.

    So one might reframe the question as: Why should I look to antiquity for solutions to modern moral problems? Where’s the relevance, in other words?

    Offhand, I can think of some superficially satisfactory answers (e.g. that humanity hasn’t changed much –
    psychobiologically speaking – over the millennia, so the moral challenges they faced in the ancient world can help put our challenges more into perspective).

    But the answer that I keep coming back to pertains not specifically to Stoicism but to virtue ethics in general, which is that modern secular ethics has been sorely lacking in it and could use a lot more of it: albeit, with less emphasis on emulating ancient (white male) role models and with greater inclusion of modern heroes (like MLK, Gandhi, Malala Yousifazi, etc.).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Massimo Post author


    Other than the fact that human beings have not, in fact, changed much, the point is that Stoicism is being updated for the 21st century (by Larry Becker, myself, and several others), just like other philosophies and religions have been.


  7. Stewart Slater

    Maybe we could divide Stoic ethics into two separate areas: the actual moral claims that Stoicism makes, and the tools it gives its followers to pursue them. The first would be “Exercise Virtue” which would be further divided into the 4 traditional virtues. In the context of the question, I suppose the definition of justice would be expanded in modern Stoicism to include a prohibition on slavery. Massimo, Larry et al’s work has shown than updating the philosophy in the light of subsequent discoveries is perfectly reasonable, and this particular instance does not seem too much of a stretch. The tools Stoicism gives seem psychologically valid and therefore remain useful.
    I always slightly worry when we adopt moral superiority to the ancients that while our current morality is more expansive, there is no sign that we are any better at following it than our forebears were theirs.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. jbonnicerenoreg

    If one is really in love with everything that happens (amor) then the problem is insoluble because you’ll be approving of contradictory things. (Freedom and slavery). I think it is Nietzschean rather than Stoic. For Stoics the attitude is one of welcoming since whatever comes is a product of or is the good logos. For a neutral logos the attitude would be cautious but indifferent since you have no way of knowing what it is.


  9. Jason Malfatto

    …the point is that Stoicism is being updated for the 21st century (by Larry Becker, myself, and several others), just like other philosophies and religions have been.

    And, from what I’ve seen, you’re all doing a fine job of it, Massimo, as far as one can go in that direction.

    My point is that updating an antiquated philosophy or religion is not an obviously good idea, particularly to those who are (shall I say?) less culturally invested in that tradition.

    I read B’s question as an indication that you have your work cut out for you in selling Stoicism to a non-white audience…to which I should add: non-male and non-macho audiences, as well, given Seneca’s use of ‘effeminate’ (or its Latin equivalent) to characterize those whom he deemed moral failures.

    That said, the Nelson Mandela story (care of Martha Nussbaum) that you mentioned above is a good example of expanding the circle to include role models who may not meet the strict criteria of a Stoic, but who nonetheless warrant our praise and admiration. Now that we are a part of a global civilization with numerous moral traditions from around the world in play, where cosmopolitan values can be tested like never before, virtue traditions like Stoicism (and Epicureanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, etc.) can and should inform modern ethics, though the lessons we draw from tradition may be negative as often as they are positive, given how we’re situated today.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Massimo Post author


    Indeed, though I would add two caveats. First, I’m not in the business of selling Stoicism, but of simply putting it out there as a valuable option. Second, I do regard other traditions, like Buddhism, Taoism, etc., as just as good and valuable. So long as we can get more people to embrace an ethical life and reflect on what they do and why, I think we are all going to be better off.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: I intended “selling Stoicism” not literally (as in: trying to profit monetarily from it), but rather metaphorically (as in: persuading others that it’s a “valuable option”). Sorry if that wasn’t clear enough.

    Glad to end on an agreement. As you may recall, I take an eclectic approach to the topic of morality/ethics, so for me it’s not about picking any one tradition and then locking into it (although that ship may already have sailed, simply by virtue of being a socially liberal North American secular humanist).


  12. Nanocyborgasm

    A well thought out response, I think, to this irksome question. It is indeed unfortunate that slavery until very recently was not widely condemned. There’s a telling passage in Politics, by Aristotle, where he goes about justifying slavery even while admitting it is an injustice. So clearly even the wisest in history saw discrepancy between the injustice of slavery and the societal acceptance of it, and held that cognitive dissonance. As you point out, colonial slavery even had to invent racism to justify it.

    As to the point of justice in general, I would like to point out a notable difference between Stoicism and most religions, in that Stoicism demands that justice come from humans, not the gods, while many religions, like Christianity, believe all virtues spring from the divine. In Stoicism, it is for humanity to make use of the virtues that are granted to us, if only we choose to. We cannot expect justice to fall from the heavens, any more than we can expect to harvest money from trees.


  13. Stephen Rustyak

    alone among these wise men stands the buddha- who explicitly condemned the ownership of one human being by another,,,,,,,,,,,


  14. Lawrence Becker

    Thanks Massimo, for appending Donald Robertson’s reminder of the passage in DL VII. 121-122. It is certainly an important reminder. The sentence about “lordship” being evil Is especially pertinent to the discussion at the point you raised it. When I confess it is a point I have trouble remembering. Maybe that is because in DL it is buried in a long and perplexing discussion of differences between the good man and the bad man (VII. 118-125). And in that context I don’t quite know what to make of it. That longer discussion has the cumulative effect of saying that only good/wise men can be free, rulers, magistrates, and orators – and for practical political purposes it is not clear what that leaves for people who don’t live up to the standard of Stoic wisdom and good character. Maybe what it rules out is chattel slavery and particularly ruthless forms of subordination? Hence the frequent reminders in Seneca that we should treat slaves as fellow human beings – while presumably leaving them un-emancipated. That just makes the original question about Stoicism and slavery more pressing for me, partly because I think Stoicism does have the resources to give a robust answer about the injustice of slavery as an institution.


  15. Stewart Slater

    Since it is difficult to think of a civilization that the Stoics could have known about which did not practice slavery, I wonder if they just assumed it was a fact of nature which could perhaps be mitigated, but not eliminated. In the same way that illness could not be avoided, but could be treated (successfully or otherwise), so it was the duty of a Stoic to treat his slave well, but not necessarily to free him as it was a “natural” state for some of humanity, and might be that “fate” of the particular slave in question.


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