Nobody expects the Stoic Opposition!

the Spanish Inquisition“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.


Categories: History & Biographies

11 replies

  1. Excellent post. Very useful pieces of history for ethical theorists like me to keep in mind – of for political theory and stoic practice.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Good stuff. Just this morning I was responding to a post in FB Stoicism Group on this very theme . . . it would have been adroit to have simply linked to this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Resistance is hard. Many like me are passive resistors. One resistance we have is to vote. But the resistors in the Capitol building who got arrested for protesting the attempt to repeal the ACA perhaps made the difference. Perhaps Stoics have something to learn from Cynics?


  4. amorfati,

    that’s a major reason I write these posts. We now have quite a collection of resources to link to when people raise recurring issues. Of course, I don’t mean these be conversation stoppers, rather conversation-informers…

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Philip,

    there is always something to learn from the Cynics, but getting arrested during a protest is certainly not in contradiction with Stoic philosophy. That’s what most of the people mentioned in the OP did, some paying for it with exile, others with their life.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. It would be great to play with some cultural evolutionary modeling around the adoption of the Stoic system (in contrast to others) by citizens and the “justification” of Roman emperors to exile and comdemn to death to his major exponents..


  7. Thank you for the post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, not just for Stoic resistance but also for that part of Roman history.

    I believe I read somewhere that the Stoic virtues go together, we can’t really emphasise one or two but ignore the others.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Massimo, thanks for another interesting post. I agree that Stoicism is not, or not simply, a quietist philosophy. Yet, one might also argue, that the sphere of political activity for Stoics is quite narrow. All the classical examples seem to be of the same ilk: “opposing the tyrant”. And what is opposing the tyrant like? The tyrant wants you to pronounce as good what you judge to be bad. Or, he wants you to pronounce as bad what you judge to be good (or to pronounce as false what you judge to be true). And this cannot be accepted by a Stoic. Because for a Stoic, the purity of judgement, of assent, is the core principle.

    On the other hand, when it comes to more “mundane” matters, say arms control, or unemployment, or the working conditions of miners, you wouldn’t expect Stoics to be especially involved. And this is because, I think, for Stoics, matters of bodily existence and of bodily health are indifferents. Matters of bodily existence and of bodily health are much less interesting, for a Stoic, than the power of assent. A Stoic may be willing a forfeit her life against a tyrant who tries to meddle with the sanctity of one’s power of assent. But she seems much less likely to expend energy in matters of public health, public safety or public welfare.

    What do you think?


  9. Ram,

    thanks for your thoughtful comment, but I very much disagree. To begin with, Zeno wrote an entire book, his Republic, on what an ideal Stoic society would look like, so they did have a comprehensive political view.

    Second, remember that indifferent” just means that it does not affect your virtue, not that you shouldn’t care. Otherwise it wouldn’t be “preferred.”

    Third, even a tyrant telling you not to talk is not affecting your virtue, as directly demonstrated by some of the quotes in the OP, so there is nothing special about tyrants.

    Lastly, as I wrote in the OP, one of the four cardinal virtues is justice, which certainly doesn’t apply just to the fight against tyrants.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Justice being a key Stoic value, I agree that social justice should be important to Stoicism.

    But we also need to have a discussion about what social justice is. The term is getting a bad wrap because of identity politics and left-wing extremism. I don’t think the extremists represent social justice in general, just as the Christian Right doesn’t represent Christianity in general. But these groups are so loud that public perception becomes distorted.

    In other words, I think the far left is doing to social justice what conservative Christians did to Christianity.

    So I see social justice as two fold: standing against racism, sexism, etc. while also standing against political extremes.


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