DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

18. The cosmic city

Everybody without exception strives for a good and happy life, but only the wise achieve it. Most people in fact misapply the very words ‘good’ and ‘happiness’, which they mistakenly associate with morally indifferent states like wealth and honour. This simple point came to be extended by the Stoics to all the other things which are conventionally prized. Everybody wants to be rich, free, powerful, beautiful, loveable, and so on, but, paradoxically, only the wise achieve these goals. Everyone else is, whatever they may think, actually poor, enslaved, powerless, ugly and unloveable. This is because real wealth is to have something of genuine worth (that is, virtue), or to lack nothing that you need; real freedom is to be in full control of your life (including the knowledge of when to accept death rather than ever be forced to do what you do not truly want to do); real power is to be able to achieve everything you want; real beauty is a quality of the soul not the body; and only the genuinely beautiful are genuinely loveable. These Stoic ‘paradoxes’ are of Socratic inspiration.

A primary motif of Stoic political thought is the extension of such paradoxes into the civic realm. Conventional political ambitions belong to the realm of the indifferent just as much as wealth and health do. Thus, while Stoicism actively promotes conventional political activity as a way of following human nature, it at the same time downgrades it in relation to true moral goodness. Everybody wants to have power, and would like if they could to be a king; but only the wise have power (only they can achieve everything they want) and kingship (defined as ‘rule which is accountable to no one’). These Socratic redefinitions were extended even to humbler civic aims: only the wise are generals, orators, magistrates, lawyers, and so on.

An upshot of this was a corresponding downgrading of the civic institution within which such offices operated. A city, in the conventional sense of a human cohabitation with geographical boundaries, a legal code and so on, is an artificial construct. A city in the most correct sense is not constrained in these ways: in fact the world itself is the ultimate city, being a habitation common to humans and gods, united by their shared rationality.

The idea was of Cynic inspiration. The Cynics had already coined the expression ‘citizen of the world’, kosmou politēs, which the Stoics took over. In a way every human being is a citizen of the world, and this generous version of Stoic cosmopolitanism was to become enormously influential on the ideology of the Roman Empire, as well as leading some Stoics to challenge entrenched gender and class barriers. But on a narrower criterion – influenced by Zeno’s early utopian work the Republic (see Zeno of Citium) – it is not all human beings, but only the wise, who participate in the real cosmic city. The cosmic city has its own law, a natural moral law defined as ‘right reason (orthos logos) which commands what should be done and forbids what should not’. This notion of a cosmic moral law which transcends local legal codes exerted a powerful influence on later theories of natural law.

Although the Stoics encouraged political involvement in conventional cities, and were themselves prepared to act as advisors to monarchs, there is little reason to think that any Stoic before the late second century bc (see Panaetius §2) made a serious contribution to non-utopian political theory.

Citing this article:
Sedley, David. The cosmic city. Stoicism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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