June 7, 2021 - 2:33pm

In an interview last week with The New York Times Magazine, the Cambridge professor Mary Beard took a few big swings at Stoicism. She said that she found it “mystifying” that people could be interested in “a philosophy that, if you looked at it really hard, was nasty, fatalistic, bordering on fascist.”

She singled out second century emperor Marcus Aurelius for particular criticism:

What comes out in Marcus Aurelius particularly is rather clichéd thoughts: Never take a major decision when your mind is troubled. We can all agree with clichés like that. And they come with the rubber stamp of great antiquity because they were written by an emperor — an emperor who was about as brutal in massacring the enemy as Julius Caesar. But we tend to forget that side of him because he’s a bearded “philosopher.” It’s not very salutary to look at your Amazon ratings, but I always feel terribly pleased — though it doesn’t happen often — when I’m higher up than Marcus Aurelius.
- Mary Beard

As two authors who just wrote a book about how Stoicism can contribute to a better world, we find such remarks to be at complete odds with Stoic philosophy and the ancient philosophers who developed it.

Stoicism’s founder, Zeno of Citium, described his utopian vision for the perfect Stoic society as a place where there was no hierarchy, no private property, and no currency. He promotes an anarchical political world, where there are no temples, marriages, courts of law, or armies. Hardly what one could call borderline fascist.

Fascism is intrinsically associated with a belief in the superiority of one’s national state identity. This is the polar opposite to Zeno’s cosmopolitan ideal that gives primary importance to one’s humanity. Stoicism is open to all, not just Athenians or Romans, not just men, and not just the rich. How is this borderline fascism?

This cosmopolitan understanding of the world is also expressed by the much later Roman Stoic philosopher and physically disabled ex-slave, Epictetus:

When one is asked where one is from, never reply “I’m Athenian” or “I’m Corinthian,” but rather “I’m a citizen of the universe.” For why say, in fact, that you’re Athenian rather than just a citizen of that corner in which your poor body was thrown down at the time of your birth?
- Epictetus, Discourses 1.9

While Mary Beard might be critical of the most famous Stoic, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (presumably due to his role in leading the Marcomannic Wars), she seems to ignore his reconciliations with conquered tribes and his respectful attitude towards his foreign enemies. Marcus’ cosmopolitan side wasn’t for show. In fact in his personal journal, he states that those who take pride in killing their fellow human beings are no better than spiders who take pride in catching flies (Meditations 10.10). Marcus’ humane treatment of those he fought against, by incorporating many of them into the Empire and giving some of them Roman citizenship, lies in sharp contrast to Julius Caesar, who publicly gloats of his war crimes during his conquest of Gaul.

If Beard had taken a more generous view of Marcus, she could just as easily have singled him out for his kind treatment of orphans, for the times he liberated slaves, or his restraint when dealing with rebellion. In short, Mary Beard may call Stoicism “nasty”, but it is our view that Stoic philosophy is precisely what is needed to counter chauvinism, fascism, and sectarianism. This is because Stoicism is inclusive of everyone, regardless of gender, race, or nationality.

Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos are co-authors of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in.

Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos are co-authors of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in.