Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1: The Consequences of Stoicism - Economic Liberalism, vol. 1 The Beginnings
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1: The Consequences of Stoicism - William Dyer Grampp, Economic Liberalism, vol. 1 The Beginnings 
Economic Liberalism (New York: Random House, 1965). vol. 1 The Beginnings.
Part of: Economic Liberalism, 2 vols.
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The Consequences of Stoicism
Neither Stoicism nor liberalism has been treated well by history. Liberalism has been defined in so many ways that its meaning in the period of the classical economists is nearly forgotten. A summary statement of it would be unfamiliar even to a modern reader who believes himself reasonably well informed. Stoicism has been treated differently but not better. It has been cursed by neglect more than misuse. What little is remembered is an impression of a moral philosophy that is austere, unworldly, passive, and a little sour. None of this, one would suppose, is relevant or interesting to the kind of people who (by another mistaken notion) are believed to populate a liberal economy.
Nevertheless, even in the common impression of Stoicism there is something that makes one want to know more about it, what its ideas were, and what their influence has been. One finds in looking into Stoicism that it has given the modern world some of its most consequential ideas about individual conduct. A few of these ideas have come directly from the Stoics; more often they have been transmitted by Christianity or through the moral philosophy of the Enlightenment. From Stoicism was derived the belief in a harmoniously constituted universe watched over by a benevolent power; the conception of man as a free agent whose every move nevertheless has been preordained by a supernatural power; the belief that men are naturally reasonable; that although inherently selfish they are led in looking after their private interests to promote the good of others; the notion that goodness, or morality, consists more in playing the game properly than in winning it; and the idea that every man’s first duty is to his conscience and that his duty to society is secondary.
THE ACTIVE AND THE PASSIVE LIFE
These ideas can direct men to an active or to a passive life; and some Stoics led one, some another. The passive side, which in fact was quietistic, is best known because Stoicism originated in a period when the active life had less to offer than the quiet. It came to Athens with the Phoenician Zeno in the third century before Christ. That was after the great period of Grecian philosophy and after the great achievements of the city states. There was nothing golden about Greece when Zeno settled there. Stoicism had begun in Asia when that country was subjugated by the Greeks and was brought to a country that was in a dry season of its fortunes. Stoicism counseled a renunciation of power, wealth, and pleasure; it urged men not to let themselves be destroyed by misfortune, pain, poverty, and tyranny. They were told they could make themselves secure by developing the rational side of their natures. That was the mind and it could be supreme and indestructible, incapable of being moved by outside forces if one so willed.
Cultivation of the mind is not identical with cultivating the soul, and indifference to the world is not the same as withdrawing from it. But each can be mistaken for the other, and that often has happened. This mistake has given us our conventional notion of Stoicism, and the notion is uncongenial to the liberal view of things, even repugnant.
The mistake is illustrated in an essay on Bacon by Macaulay who, to himself and others, was the embodiment of liberalism. In one passage he compares the Stoic attitude with that of the Baconian and liberal. Two travelers pass through a stricken land, a Baconian and a Stoic. The natives have been exposed to smallpox. The Stoic informs them that disease and death have no reality to the wise, that the only concern of the people should be to prevent their fears from displacing their reason. During this discourse, the Baconian is busy vaccinating the population. The travelers next meet some miners who cannot find a way of rescuing those of their group who have been trapped underground by an explosion of gases. The Stoic advises indifference to death, and the Baconian makes a safety lamp. The two then meet a despairing merchant whose vessel and cargo are at the bottom of the sea. The Stoic explains that wealth is immaterial, while the Baconian recovers the goods with a diving bell.
This view of Stoicism is less than all of it. Even Macaulay himself was not as independent of its influence as he thought. In his Victorian conscience were qualities that resembled those of the moral hero of Stoicism. Macaulay showed his indebtedness to Epictetus in the very essay in which he derided Stoicism. In one passage he berated Bacon for letting cupidity interfere with his intellectual efforts. The passage illustrates what Epictetus meant by saying that an admiration of riches is a mark of baseness. When Macaulay reproved Bacon for sacrificing his independence in order to secure political preferment, he was applying to a single case the general rule of Epictetus that, “The soldiers swear to respect no man above Caesar; but we to respect ourselves first of all.”1
STOICISM AND POLITICAL AUTHORITY
It is odd that an ethical system which supposedly urged a renunciation of the world should have attracted so many worldly figures and especially remarkable that the system should have had among its believers most of the rulers of the ancient world after the time of Alexander. Their behavior was anything but “Stoical” in the common meaning of that word.
One was Marcus Aurelius. As a philosopher, he is improbable as an emperor, and as an emperor just as improbable as a philosopher. He managed to be both and to be probable at each. He was not altogether great in either position, but he is memorable. His Meditations are one of the strangest records ever left by a man of action. One might, it is true, see in them a figure on whom great but distasteful duties had been imposed, but one would not suppose he carried them out firmly and with energy. Many have noticed the anomaly of a man suited for meditation and instead finding himself at the head of a great empire, ruling it with resolution, driving out dissidents, leading his armies against the barbarians, and (the crowning touch) putting Christians to death. It was almost too much for Matthew Arnold to believe, especially the killing of Christians. He said the Romans must have regarded the Christians much differently from the way the Victorians did and concluded that Marcus Aurelius “is perhaps the most beautiful figure in history.”2 One can, however, explain the conduct of Aurelius in another way, and that is by setting it against the whole of Stoicism.
The conduct of Cicero also is curious. His numerous writings contain rules of conduct that are deduced from Stoicism and are meant to guide an individual who has a variety of interests. The rules do not direct man to be indifferent to the world. Cicero certainly was not. He sought power and exercised it; he wanted wealth and enjoyed it. When he was a rising politician he often was demeaning, but once in command he could be imperious. He was bitter in defeat and proud in victory. He was thoroughly human, a point on which all his biographers agree, from Plutarch through Boissier down to Thornton Wilder in The Ides of March.
It is hazardous, of course, to judge a moral system by the behavior of its believers. Still the two should be consistent in the end. If they in fact are not, there is something wrong with the system or with our understanding of it. The latter is true, I think, of Stoicism. The disparity between its moral principles and the conduct of the Stoics actually was not great. That is because Stoicism eventually came to provide for both the active and passive life. It did not sanction everything its followers did, but neither did it censure them for an active interest in power and wealth. Its praise and blame were dispensed according to the diligence with which individuals used their talents, not by their devotion to either the spirit or the world.
An important element in Stoicism is the idea that each person achieves goodness by fulfilling the part assigned to him by providence. That is, virtue consists in conforming to nature. Epictetus counseled men to do with their own all that was in their power. If their means were large, their part would be an active one. If small, their part would be small also, and their place in the world would not be important. If an individual was born to an inferior position, if he was poor, had little ability and few opportunities, he would find greatest honor in retirement and indifference to externals. If his estate was large, his powers and position great, he could properly lead an active life and attend to externals. His behavior would be just as virtuous as the behavior of a man who consulted only his inner resources.3
By making it possible for men to live honorably in the world as well as apart from it, Stoicism became a moral code suitable to all ranks of society. The change saved Stoicism from becoming a counsel of perfection or, what in practice comes to the same thing, a counsel of despair. The change was enormously consequential but it was not consistent with the initial premises of the Stoic philosophy as they are attributed to Zeno. Yet the change was only one of many. They lessened the consistency of the doctrine and they also extended its influence. They are one reason why it survived for more than 500 years.
Discourses of Epictetus, trans. P. E. Matheson, i, 14.
 Matthew Arnold, “Marcus Aurelius,” Essays in Criticism [First Series] (London, 1865), p. 279.