Stoicism, Temperance, and the Role of the Paternalistic State

Libertarians often complain about the role of a paternalistic state, whether it’s seatbelt laws, limits on the size of soft drinks, higher taxes on beer and cigarettes, gun control, and many other laws the state will enforce to protect us.  Libertarians do have some reason to fear a protective state because some free choices will have to go.  But are free choices inviolable?

I can’t help wonder what the ancient Stoics might think.  Perhaps they would agree strongly with some protections and regulations on our behavior.  After all, they valued temperance for individuals, so why not temperance on a societal level?  This is all speculation but the ancient Greeks often liked to think of the self as a microcosm that reflected the larger macrocosm.  So maybe our own self-regulated behavior should reflect a self-regulating society.

In the name of the virtue of temperance we shouldn’t out-right ban everything.  We shouldn’t outright ban externals because that would be treating externals as bad.  Instead, maybe we should be lawfully limiting the extreme behavior with regard to externals.  For example,  we can drive cars fast but there has to be a speed limit that keeps vehicles from driving too fast.  We can drink caffeine but our drinks will have an upper limit of caffeine in them.  Heck, maybe all drugs could be legalized since drugs aren’t evil in themselves but they can be regulated and taxed more than other things that are preferred for our health and safety.

In the name of temperance, the amount of greed on Wallstreet would certainly need to be regulated.  Too much greed and concentration of wealth can’t be good for the health of the state.  We saw what Wallstreet speculation did to the economy during the housing and lending crisis of 2008.  Perhaps, this idea of a paternalistic state is beginning to sound more like Plato’s Republic than Zeno’s Republic.  But one must remember, Zeno’s Republic might’ve only been limited to the role of an anarchy for well-seasoned Stoics.  If people in your society are all Stoics, then there wouldn’t need to be courts, currency, and temples.  But in the case of a civilization made up of only an insignificant amount of Stoics, perhaps Stoic principles would need to be more lawfully enforced.  Also, Plato’s Republic was far far more authoritarian than what’s being proposed so far.

What’s more, laws are just a mean to keeping society self-regulated but individuals need to educated to be self-regulated as well.  After all, laws aren’t always there to keep ourselves in check.  So, we’d have a national curriculum applied to all our schools and universities to teach Stoic temperance from kindergarten to secondary school and beyond.  The schools would not only teach self-discipline but practical wisdom, justice, and courage.

In the Stoic state, there would be no outright prohibition on goods and services but there would be limits on excess.

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Stoicism and the US War on Drugs

The War on Drugs is the name given to the campaign by the US Federal Government of prohibiting drugs and giving military aid and intervening to disrupt the illegal drug trade.  Stoicism isn’t a philosophy that sells an effort that is ultimately futile. The War on Drugs is usually criticized because it doesn’t appear to be helping people stay off drugs. Instead it might be exacerbating the situation and is costing the US taxpayers $500 million dollars per year.

In the 1980s, while arrests for all crimes rose 28% , the number of arrests for drug offenses rose astronomically at 126%. The War on Drugs has significantly led to an effect of mass incarceration of people who simply enjoy drugs and like profiting from selling them. A Stoic approach wouldn’t be for mass incarceration of drug offenders; in fact, Stoicism would be for a therapy/rehabilitation that would free the soul of drug offenders from the externals (the drugs) they wrongly mis-perceive as good.

Stoicism says we all equally lack perfect virtue. In Stoicism, no one is truly
perfectly good except for the Sage. In the US War on Drugs, people who do or sell drugs are painted as evil compared to those who don’t. Stoicism judges people with greater equanimity than the War on Drugs does.

The US War on Drugs has disproportionately locked up the poor compared to wealthy and has disproportionately locked up hispanics and blacks compared to whites. The War on Drugs has a history shrouded in institutional racism. Stoicism is cosmopolitan in nature, believing that everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or creed is deserving of dignity.

Let’s do the Stoic thing and end the War on Drugs.

automatic weapon bullet camouflage close up
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Is Humility A Virtue Nested Somewhere In The Four Stoic Virtues? Yes, Actually.

Let’s take a look at this paragraph I borrowed from the Stoic Ethics section of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The Stoics elaborated a detailed taxonomy of virtue, dividing virtue into four main types: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Wisdom is subdivided into good sense, good calculation, quick-wittedness, discretion, and resourcefulness. Justice is subdivided into piety, honesty, equity, and fair dealing. Courage is subdivided into endurance, confidence, high-mindedness, cheerfulness, and industriousness. Moderation is subdivided into good discipline, seemliness, modesty, and self-control.


If I had a to guess, I’d say humility might be nested in the sub-virtue piety.  When we think of piety we usually think of religious devotion.  But in this context, I think it means reverence for the universe.  And if you revere the whole universe, you pay it a deep respect.  Basically, you inflate the importance of the universe and you deflate your importance relative to it.  So you basically humble yourself before the Divine Whole of the Universe.

Another place where humility would be nested would be in modesty.  Modesty means being moderate in one’s estimation of one’s abilities.  So there appears to be two places where humility resides as a sub-virtue.


Is Stoicism individualist or collectivist?

Is Stoicism individualist or collectivist?  Individualism tends to value the individual needs above family needs, work group needs, and needs of the broader society.  Collectivism tends to value the needs of the family, work group, society above the individual’s needs.  It’s actually not an either/or for Stoicism because Stoicism incorporates both the needs of broader groups and the needs of the individual.

Stoically speaking, individually we need to focus on our virtue.  We need to make sure we are trying to live up to the life of a Sage.  By living a life of virtue we ensure that we’re keeping ourselves mentally healthy and simultaneously flourishing and being worthy of praise.

Some people think Stoicism stops at just making ourselves better.  But there’s a problem with that.  One of the Stoic virtues is justice.  And the Stoic concept of justice entails a sense of compassion, empathy, fair treatment of other individuals as well as oneself.  So our need to get ourselves ethically perfected means we must also care about the needs, interests, and welfare of others.

Because of the virtue justice, we can never think of ourselves as apathetic to the needs of others.  We should care about other’s interests, needs, and feelings.  Everyone is our sister and brother.  We are all rational human beings helping each other achieve a better life.

Marcus Aurelius compares human beings to bees and ants working together, doing our social duties.  Individually, we don’t want to fail to do our social duties.  If we do that we isolate ourselves and harm our ethical development.

As Stoics we have just as much as obligation to get our house in order and the world’s house in order at the same time.  Just because our own satisfaction of our needs is in our power doesn’t mean our attempt at justice for the world isn’t in our power.  Is a better world in our power?  No.  Is trying to make the world better in our power?  Yes.  There’s a big distinction between trying to do good and doing good.  Trying to do good, for the Stoic, is always in our power.  Achieving good results for others is never in our power.  Always in the hands of fate.



But these are foolish things to all the wise,
And I love wisdom more than she loves me;
My tendency is to philosophise
On most things, from a tyrant to a tree;
But still the spouseless virgin Knowledge flies,
What are we? and whence come we? what shall be
Our ultimate existence? What’s our present?
Are questions answerless, and yet incessant.

Lord Byron, Don Juan (1818-24), Canto VI, Stanza 63



Knowledge is indivisible. When people grow wise in one direction, they are sure to make it easier for themselves to grow wise in other directions as well. On the other hand, when they split up knowledge, concentrate on their own field, and scorn and ignore other fields, they grow less wise — even in their own field.

Isaac Asimov, The Roving Mind (1983), Ch. 25