Stoic Realpolitik

International Philosophical Quarterly 46 (3):277-292 (2006)
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Thanks to its doctrines of natural right and moral egalitarianism and to its prominent historical role in defying totalitarian government, Stoicism is often cited as a touchstone for liberal democracy. Less well known, however, is an alternate lineage, culminating in a Stoic Realpolitik that emerges in Justus Lipsius’s political writings. The foundation of this Realpolitik becomes increasingly clear in the progression of Stoic thought through Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Tracing this lineage reveals that the subject of politics isfundamentally problematic for Stoicism, especially since the denigration of politics is central to Stoic ethics. The Stoics ultimately arrive at a surprising moral pessimism, evidenced most prominently in Marcus’s Meditations. In Lipsius’s version of Stoic Realpolitik, the populace is characterized as being of inconstant behavior, and Stoicism is viewed as a resource for steeling the prince’s character against the masses, whose moral emendation is hopeless.



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