Adherents to ancient philosophy of stoicism were deeply committed to cosmopolitan ideals of treating all people with respect and dignity regardless of race or nationality.

Stoicism vs. Nationalism
Paul Meany
Intellectual History Editor

Paul Meany is the Editor for Intellectual History at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, a project of the Cato Institute. Most of his work focuses on examining thinkers who predate classical liberalism but still articulate broadly liberal attitudes and principles. He is the host of Portraits of Liberty, a podcast about uncovering and exploring underrated figures throughout history who have argued for a freer world. His writing covers a broad range of topics, including proto‐​feminist writers, Classical Greece and Rome’s influence on the American Founding, ancient Chinese Philosophy, tyrannicide, and the first argument for basic income.

At a time when extreme nationalisms are resurgent, it is essential to reflect on nationalism’s arch‐​nemesis: cosmopolitanism. Nationalism is the belief that economic, political, and social systems should be structured in whichever manner that best supports the interests of a particular nation and the state that rules said nation. By contrast, cosmopolitanism is anchored by an axiomatic commitment to the core proposition that all human beings–regardless of race, religion, or political orientation–are part of one universal community that comprises the whole of humanity. Natural rights based libertarianism has a close relationship with cosmopolitanism. The former asserts that all individuals are equally endowed with a set of fundamental rights rooted in their inherent nature as a human being as opposed to finding individual worth in legal or conventional norms.

Ancient Geographic Determinism

Cosmopolitanism is an important development in human affairs because it is so unusual historically. Fear of the other, whether it takes the form of racism, nativism, or some other form of outgroup hatred, has been the unquestionable norm until quite recently; some still haven’t shaken the dark habit of humanity’s excessive localism. Sadly, throughout history, many looked for the differences rather than the obvious similarities people possess.

The philosopher Aristotle theorized that climates determined the differences between various races. In the western world, it is cold, meaning people are hardy and tough but lack skill and intelligence. This explained why the barbaric tribes produced great warriors, and a love of freedom yet had no great temples, literature, or art. On the opposite end of the spectrum, he theorized that the eastern world is hot, resulting in intelligent but lazy people who are naturally inclined towards another’s authority. Unlike the western people, easterners had great works of architecture, literature, and art. However, they lacked a love of freedom and made paltry warriors.

This explained to the Greek mind why the west was ruled by anarchic tribes while despotic rulers dominated the east. For Greeks like Aristotle Greece was conveniently located between the extremes of the barbaric west and the effeminate east, thus having the virtues of both east and west but the vices of neither.

Phrenology and the Enlightenment

Even the Enlightenment, despite its elevation of rationalism, science, and progress, was not immune to xenophobic tendencies. Indeed, rationalism and scientism were used to justify these tendencies. The most egregious example of this was the use of phrenology–now considered quackery–to justify racial hierarchy. It consisted of examining the bumps and divots in skulls to deduce how the brain worked not only in general but on an individual level.

Eventually, this practice was co‐​opted by those who wished to justify their racism using “science.” For example, François‐​Joseph‐​Victor Broussais concluded that by examining skulls, he could deduce that Caucasians were the most beautiful race, that the Maori people could never live in civil society, and that various African tribes lacked intellectual capability. This gave a veneer of scientific respectability to the proposition that racial differences were not only skin deep but inherent differences hardwired into people’s brains; since nothing could change the dents on your skull, some races were destined for servitude and mediocrity while (white) others were justified in exploiting what were effectively human beasts of burden.

Diogenes, the First Rootless Cosmopolitan

One of the earliest references to cosmopolitanism comes from a quip by the infamous philosopher Diogenes of Sinope. Diogenes was a colorful character who lived in ancient Greece during the fourth century. As one of the founders of the cynic school of philosophy, Diogenes believed that all artificial practices and social norms were contrary to human happiness. He condemned the family, property, and even money, as concepts undeserving of respect. Diogenes aimed to lead by example. He denied all rules of social decency, urinating, defecating, and even masturbating in public.

In Ancient Greece, Greek men were defined by their relationship to their local origins, their family, and of course, the city‐​state they lived in. These three identities were essential for the self‐​image of Greek males. In this context, it was especially shocking when Diogenes,asked where he was from, quipped “I am a citizen of the world,” the word for which is in the original Greek ‘kosmopolitês,’ the root for our word ‘cosmopolitan.’ Diogenes wished to show disdain for the conventions which arbitrarily separated people into different tribes, classes, and citizenries. According to Diogenes, these conventions artificially divided people into arbitrary groups.

Cynics and Stoics

The Cynic school of philosophy, which Diogenes helped found, posited that our first and highest form of affiliation should be to our common humanity, not the uncontrollable secondary characteristics of race, gender, or class. Unfortunately, what Cynic texts remain extant are in a woefully fragmentary state, meaning that most of our knowledge of Cynicism comes not from the Cynics themselves but from other sources and not always those which viewed cynicism in a positive light. Thankfully this is not the end of cosmopolitanisms’ journey. Influenced heavily by the Cynics, the Stoic school of philosophy continued to develop theories of morality based upon the idea of a higher natural law inherent to all peoples.

Stoicism was a school of philosophy that believed the ultimate aim of life was to live well, and that living well required moral virtue. Moral virtue can be acquired and understood by applying our reason to understand the order of the universe. From what we can gather from fragmentary texts, the Founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, was not a dedicated or conscious cosmopolitan. His student and eventual successor, Chrysippus, became dedicated to cosmopolitanism’s ideals due to the influence of cynic philosophers such as Diogenes. Chrysippus ambitiously explained that since all people possess reason to understand how the law ought to be, they must be part of a larger city composed of all rational beings. The unity of human rationality is a key aspect of Stoic thought.

While the early Greek Stoics were revered in their time, their texts also survived only in fragments. This means that the bulk of our extended writings on Stoicism come from later Roman authors such as Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, who all discussed themes of cosmopolitanism.

Three Stoic Lives: Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius

Born outside Rome in 106BC in a place known as Arpinum, Cicero was a statesman, philosopher, and orator active during the Roman Republic’s twilight days. He was especially famous in his day for his oratorical skills. But after Julius Caesar took power, Cicero’s political career waned, and he took to writing to distract himself from the depressing state of his beloved Rome. Cicero, while not a Stoic, greatly admired many stoics and openly adopted some of their ethical principles. Throughout his writings, he discusses Stoic tenets, making him an excellent source from which to learn about those Cynic authors whose works did not otherwise survive.

Nearly a century after Cicero, the Roman Seneca was a statesman, philosopher, dramatist, and, above all, a Stoic. He was born in 4BC, and, unlike Cicero, Seneca lived under the reign of the autocratic emperors; the Roman Republic was a fading memory. Famously, Seneca was the tutor to one of Rome’s worst emperors, Nero. Seneca became Nero’s imperial advisor along with another man named Burrus. For the first few years of Nero’s reign, Seneca and Burrus had immense power and influence and ruled justly, but, as their influence waned, Nero took greater control. Seneca was eventually forced to commit suicide by his former student, who believed him to be part of a plot to overthrow him.

Despite Nero’s authoritarian legacy, the last of the famous Roman cynics was himself an emperor. Marcus Aurelius’ is revered by many as a humane and honorable ruler; it would not be an exaggeration to claim that he came close to Plato’s ideal of the philosopher‐​king. Born in 121AD, he reluctantly became emperor in 161AD reigning until his eventual death. While many ambitious people would jump at the opportunity to be emperor–the most powerful position any one human could hold in the ancient world–Aurelius had no love of power. A philosophically‐​inclined man, he had a keen interest in philosophy, especially Stoicism, like Cicero before him; Aurelius never claimed to be a full‐​fledged stoic, but he adopted many of their practices. If there was ever a man who needed the stern attitude that Stoicism demanded, it was Aurelius given that he spent much of his reign fighting various wars on the borders of the Roman empire.

The writings of these three Romans Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus were highly influential on the development of cosmopolitan ideals, which were derived from tenants of Stoic philosophy.

What Makes Us Human?

The Roman Stoics believed that each person was special due to the capacity to reason with which they were endowed. This attribute dictates how we ought to treat one another. Cicero believed that humans stood between beasts and gods, though their rationality made them more akin to the latter than the former.“What is there, I will not say in man, but in the whole of heaven and earth, more divine than reason?” Cicero deduced that, since there is nothing more divine than reason, the Gods must logically possess reason. Therefore, humans’ sharing of reason results in a divine partnership between the gods and humanity, meaning that there is a dash of divinity within each and every person.

Cicero showed that our faculties of reason were what truly defined us as humans. This meant that regardless of race, political allegiance, or religious creed, there is a minimum level of respect that ought to be afforded to all. Cicero writes, “Thus however one defines man, the same definition applies to us all. This is sufficient proof that there is no essential difference within mankind.” In a similar vein of thought, Seneca writes, “Praise in him what can neither be given nor snatched away, what is peculiarly human. You ask what that is? It is his soul, and reason perfected in the soul. For the human being is a rational animal”.

The Irrelevance of Secondary Characteristics

Because reason is the essence of what it means to be human, the Stoics argued that we should downplay our non‐​essential differences in other areas. Race, class, or membership in a particular political community are not what make us truly human. Although they are important to consider in particular contexts, they are not essential or sufficient to our identity as rational beings worthy of dignity and respect.

This is how Stoicism could garner a wide variety of adherents from across the Greco‐​Roman world. Birth and lineage didn’t matter. Whether you are a former slave–like another famous Stoic philosopher, Epictetus–or the most powerful man in the world–such as the emperor Marcus Aurelius– Stoics believed that at birth, all people were given two personas. The first represented the base features of humanity (reason, speech, and the human form) while the other was unique for every individual, containing our talents, abilities, and features. Speaking of the first persona, Cicero writes, “Everything seemly is derived from this, and from it we discover a method of finding our duty.” We all have differences in our abilities, tastes, and preferences. Still, these need not cloud our cooperation as long as we follow Cicero’s aptly put advice that “each person should hold on to what is his as far as it is not vicious, but is peculiar to him, so that the seemliness we are seeking might more easily be maintained.”

Where Do We Owe Our Allegiance?

Aurelius says that part of his education was learning to be impartial, non‐​partisan, and thus “not to be green or blue partisan at the races, or a supporter of the lightly or heavily armed gladiators at the circus.” (At the time, political parties were increasingly being structured around sports fandom.) Even as the Emperor of Rome, Aurelius understood his allegiance was owed to a higher order than to the state of Rome. However, this did not lead him to abandon his loyalty to Rome; instead, he stated that “my city and my country, as I am Antoninus, is Rome; as I am a human being, it is the world.” Aurelius understood that the circumstance of birth and the bias of familiarity naturally aligned him with Rome, but that his true allegiance was reserved for humanity as a whole. This non‐​partisanship stretches into all aspects of life as we all live within the same interconnected world. Stressing this interconnectivity, Aurelius advised that we should “constantly think of the universe as one living creature, embracing one being and soul; how all is absorbed into the one consciousness of this living creature; how it compasses all things with a single purpose, and how all things work together to cause all that comes to pass, and their wonderful web and texture.”

Were the Stoics Evil Globalists?

Some might read this and start to get nervous. An all‐​powerful Emperor stating his allegiance to humanity sounds like a recipe for a one‐​world government. Critics of globalism and cosmopolitanism often evoke the fear of a world‐​order consisting of one supreme state ruling over all peoples. However, the Roman Stoics were not arguing for a one‐​world government; instead, they were merely arguing that our moral allegiance is owed ultimately to humanity as a whole, not to our individual states. All of the Roman authors I have listed were deeply politically engaged in their time, and none ever made a case for a one‐​world government. (And in the case of Cicero in particular, yearned for a return to the days of a smaller, pre‐​imperial, Roman Republic.) Instead, these cosmopolitan thinkers believed that one could be a patriot who is loyal to one’s country while still keeping in mind one’s duty towards humanity as a whole.

Following the teachings of Hierocles, Cicero adopted an idea of oikeiosis, a process of making something one’s own. Through this process of oikeiosis, children first realize they are individuals, and thus they begin to care for themselves. This process continues as they mature. Slowly the child realizes that their immediate family is their own. Therefore, they take it upon themselves to care for their family as well as their own wellbeing. This process continues until the whole of humanity is encapsulated by ever‐​expanding circles of familiarity that we create around us. Cicero encapsulates this point by quoting the comic poet Terence’s line, “I am a human being; I think that nothing human is alien to me.” Cicero believed one could always serve humanity best by aiding those who are closest to you, that “human society and its union will best be preserved if your acts of kindness are conferred upon each person in proportion to the closeness of their relationship to you.” At a very minimum, that we should not harm others and that we should be generous, within practical limits, to strangers in need. Seneca thought that we could serve two republics simultaneously, the particular place of one’s birth and that of wider humanity. But unlike Cicero, Seneca argues we should not only refrain from harm but also promote the good of others irrespective of familiarity.

The Universal Law of Nature

This endowment of reason not only affords us rights but also creates a sort of universal brotherhood. Marcus Aurelius described this concept most effectively. He begins with the premise that all human beings share reason, which aids us in dictating how we should act towards one another. If reason regulates human conduct, it is similar to law, which has the same function. Those who live under the same law are called citizens. If law and reason are the same, then each human lives under the “law” of reason. Since people living under the same law are citizens, each and every rational person is a citizen of the world.

According to Aurelius, we are all cosmopolitan by our very nature as people. “It makes no difference whether a person lives here or there, provided that, wherever he lives, he lives as a citizen of the world.” Cicero echoes similar sentiments arguing that “we are all constrained by one and the same law of nature.” This law of nature was non‐​negotiable. As Cicero writes, “There will not be one such law in Rome and another in Athens, one now and another in the future, but all peoples at all times will be embraced by a single and eternal unchangeable law”. Seneca argues the nature of humanity was “truly great and truly common” and that it is not limited by “neither to this corner nor to that, but measure the boundaries of our nation by the sun.” Above all, the Stoics believed that our duties to humanity go beyond the convention of borders due to the depth of our common humanity.

The Legacy

In a purely historical sense, Stoicism was a major influence upon the Western world. Importantly, the universal nature of humanity present in Stoicism was adopted by Christianity, which came to dominate European religious life. Cicero’s De Officiis (On Duties) was among the most widely read books in the European world up to the 19th century. Intellectuals of all persuasions were in one way or another familiar with Cicero’s work so much so that it shows up in seminal texts such as Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith was introduced to Aurelius through his professor Francis Hutcheson’s noontime lectures. Within The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith refers to Marcus Aurelius as “the mild, the humane, the benevolent Antoninus.” Despite there being over a millenia between the two Smith found much to admire in Aurelius’s stoicism. Immanuel Kant, who wrote one of the finest treatises on cosmopolitanism entitled the Perpetual Peace, was heavily influenced by both Cicero’s De Officiis and Marcus Aurelius’s teachings found within his diary, Meditations.

These ideals of cosmopolitanism are worthy of our contemplation because of what they aspired to achieve: a universal understanding of humanity coupled with a deep respect of all rational beings. However, history shows us that the ideas of the stoics all too often remained theories that were not put into practice due to the deep‐​seated xenophobia that has hindered humanity’s progress since the dawn of civilization. But as Marcus Aurelius opined, “does an emerald lose its quality if it is not praised?”