“So what was it that Agrippinus used to say? ‘I won’t become an obstacle to myself.’ The news was brought to him that ‘your case is being tried in the Senate.’ ‘May everything go well! But the fifth hour has arrived’ — this was the hour in which he was in the habit of taking his exercise and then having a cold bath — ‘so let’s go off and take some exercise.’ When he had completed his exercise, someone came and told him, ‘You’ve been convicted.’ ‘To exile,’ he asked, ‘or to death?’ — ‘To exile.’ — ‘What about property?’ ‘It hasn’t been confiscated.’ — ‘Then let’s go away to Ariccia and eat our meal there.’” (Discourses I.1.28-30)
That’s how Epictetus describes one of the famous episodes of the so-called Stoic opposition, a group of philosophers and Senators who criticized and opposed the rule of the emperors Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian, during the late I century. The Agrippinus in question was Paconius Agrippinus, who was sent into exile by Nero, and whose own father had been put to death for treason by the emperor Tiberius. The Stoic opposition is important because it was a result, not an aberration, but of deliberately applying Stoic philosophy to politics. It should be a good counter to so many nowadays who insist in thinking of Stoicism as a quetist philosophy, inward looking and inherently favoring the status quo.
Which is a rather strange position, since the first and most famous example of a Stoic taking up arms to oppose someone he thought was a tyrant was none other than Cato the Younger, the archenemy of Julius Caesar often praised by Seneca as a role model. That, of course, was in Republican times, but the Stoics gained notoriety for systematically opposing the tyranny of emperors, so much so that Tacitus tells us that Cossutianus Capito, an advisor to Nero, uttered these words against the Stoic Thrasea Paetus: “Either let us pass over to his creed, if it is the better, or let these seekers after a new world lose their chief and their instigator. It is the sect that … subverts the empire, they make a parade of liberty: the empire overthrown, they will lay hands on liberty itself. You have removed Cassius to little purpose, if you intend to allow these rivals of the Bruti to multiply and flourish!” (Tacitus, Annals, xvi. 22)
This more than hints at the fact that the Stoic opposition was a consequence of philosophical principles, not just a local affair triggered by personal antipathy or lust for power. The idea is explicitly reinforced later on by Marcus Aurelius himself, one of whose teachers was Junius Rusticus, a direct descendant of Arulenus Rusticus, who was executed by Domitian for having written a panegyric in praise of Thrasea:
“It was through [my brother Severus] that I came to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus, and to conceive the idea of a balanced constitution, and of government founded on equity and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy which values above all things the freedom of the subject.” (Meditations, I.14)
The Stoic opposition had taken shape initially under Nero, whose first victim in this regard was the Senator Rubellius Plautus, sent into exile in 60 CE. He was accompanied by none other than Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ teacher, who in turn was to be exiled two more times, again by Nero in 65 CE, and sent to the inhospitable Greek island of Gyarus, and then once more around 75 CE by Vespasian, who for good measure expelled all philosophers from Rome (only to be outdone by his son Domitian, who expelled them from the entire Italian peninsula — including Epictetus, thus leading to the establishment of his school in Nicopolis, on the Western coast of Greece).
In 65 CE, still under Nero, it was Epaphroditus, the emperor’s secretary and Epictetus’ master, who denounced both Seneca and his nephew, Lucan, who were then both ordered to commit suicide. As we all well know, Seneca certainly wasn’t a model Stoic, something he readily admitted himself, but in all fairness he was faced with a near impossible situation in trying to reign in the increasingly unhinged Nero.
Barea Soranus, another Stoic teacher, was put on trial in 66 CE, after false accusations made by the Stoic teacher Publius Egnatius Celer. Celer was later openly accused by Musonius Rufus, and as a result fell out of favor with the emperor Vespasian.
That same year it was Thrasea’s turn to be charged with treason and put to death. His crime was one of the earliest recorded campaigns of civil disobedience: he did not attend Senate meetings, refused to take the yearly senatorial oath to the emperor, never sacrificed for the health of the emperor, and excused himself from voting to confer divine honors to Poppaea (the wife Nero killed, apparently accidentally, in a fit of rage), after skipping her funeral.
The above mentioned Paconius was a friend of Thrasea, and so was another Stoic who was sent in exile at the same time, Helvidius Priscus, about whom Epictetus writes:
“When Vespasian sent for Helvidius Priscus and commanded him not to go into the Senate, he replied, ‘It is in your power not to allow me to be a member of the Senate, but so long as I am, I must go in.’ ‘Well, go in then,’ says the emperor, ‘but say nothing.’ ‘Do not ask my opinion, and I will be silent.’ ‘But I must ask your opinion.’ ‘And I must say what I think right.’ ‘But if you do, I shall put you to death.’ ‘When then did I tell you that I am immortal? You will do your part, and I will do mine: it is your part to kill; it is mine to die, but not in fear: yours to banish me; mine to depart without sorrow.’” (Discourses, 1.2.19-21)
Moving forward to 82 CE, Dio Chrysostom — whom we have seen mentioned in the Meditations — who was a Stoic-influenced rhetorician, banished by Domitian. In 93 CE seven more people were brought to trial for insulting the emperor. Three were put to death: Arulenus Rusticus (Junius’ ancestor named earlier), Herennius Senecio, and Helvidius Priscus (the son of the elder Priscus). The Stoic opposition only came to an end with the period of the five so-called good emperors, the last of whom was Marcus. Dio, for instance, returned to Rome under Nerva, the first of the five, and Epictetus had good relations with Hadrian, the third good emperor.
So there is plenty of historical evidence that the Stoics did oppose tyranny and defended the ideal of a society marked by liberty and free speech. Of course this is to be understood within the constraints of the culture of the time. When Cato the Younger opposed Caesar he was thinking of liberty for non slave white males, especially of the higher social classes. And we should not construe people like Priscus and Agrippinus as anything like modern figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela. The point, however, is that the Stoic opposition was not an aberration, but rather the logical consequence of a philosophy counting justice among one of its virtues, and a discipline of prosocial action among its principles.
When I hear modern Stoics emphasizing courage and wisdom, but somehow neglecting social justice, I am therefore dumbfounded. And if I were not a decent practitioner I would get positively irritated by many of our critics who insist that Stoicism counsels passivity in the face of social evils. It does no such thing, so if you are genuinely interested in Stoicism, the question is: are you a member of the Stoic opposition, wherever you are in the world? Because there are plenty of threats to liberty and freedom of speech for us to oppose, at home and abroad.