Stoicism: political resistance or retreat?

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This paper examines Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of Roman Stoicism. Arendt and Foucault develop their analysis of Stoicism in the context of a similar account of modernity. Both argue that since the eighteenth century, states have crossed the threshold of political modernity: governance has become a matter of regulating life processes rather than protecting or facilitating political freedom. Yet despite sharing what we might call a bio-political account of modernity, Arendt and Foucault radically diverge in their analysis of how we might overcome the breach between freedom and politics. One of their key differences comes to light in their mutually incompatible reception of Roman Stoicism. On the one hand, Arendt argues that in response to the decline of political freedom in the late Roman Empire, the Roman Stoics invented the idea of absolute freedom within oneself, and in doing so set the seal on what she sees as a strictly non-political concept of freedom. Arendt therefore deplores Stoicism as one of the seminal philosophical and popular sources that legitimates the claim that freedom resides in the self’s relationship to itself rather than in the political domain. If, as she maintains, Roman Stoics developed a non-political concept of freedom, their philosophy is the very last place we should look to challenge bio-political modernity. On the other hand, drawing specifically on Roman Stoicism, Foucault argues that reconstituting the ethic of the self’s relationship to itself “is an urgent, fundamental and politically indispensable task” if, as he puts it, “there is no first or final point of resistance to political power other than in the relationship one has to oneself.” This paper argues that the model of Roman Stoic self-mastery does indeed have a political application and significance. We should not therefore conceive it as an anti-political flight from the world (Arendt), but nor should we treat as means of political resistance (Foucault). Rather, I argue that Stoic ethical practices aim to cultivate civic virtue rather than communicative or agonistic political action.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFrench and Italian Stoicisms
EditorsKurt Lampe, Janae Sholtz
Place of PublicationLondon UK
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781350082045, 9781350082052
ISBN (Print)9781350082038
Publication statusPublished - 2021

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