The Doubtful Descent of Human Rights from Stoicism

(To be presented in Athens, June 2007)

by Jan Edward Garrett[*]


For many scholars concerned with the influence of ancient philosophy, it is a truism that the Stoics played an important role in the origin of natural or human rights. The following remark by Pierre Hadot is typical: “The Stoic believes in the absolute value of the human person. It is too often forgotten, and cannot be repeated too much, that Stoicism is the origin of the modern notion of ‘human right.’”[1]


Yet study of the relevant evidence gives little reason to think that the conduct of the ancient Stoics or others influenced by their ideas foreshadowed contemporary human rights positions expressed in or inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, comparison of Stoicism with such positions reveals sharp basic contrasts between the two, suggesting that they are so alien that it is unlikely that Stoicism could have contributed much to the later emergence of contemporary rights views.


This paper compares the meaning and function of natural law in classical Stoicism with that of human rights in our own time. It compares the comprehensive doctrine of classical Stoicism with contemporary conceptions that put human rights at their center. Although omitted from the spoken presentation, an important section examines texts by, and historical accounts of, Roman-era Stoics and Stoic-influenced writers in search of evidence that they tried to promote reforms that would be welcomed by today’s human rights advocates. The impression of dissimilarity between Stoicism and human rights culture is reinforced by study of the social function of Stoic philosophy in antiquity. We see that Stoicism provided a rationale not to engage in the sort of advocacy encouraged by contemporary human rights.




The Stoic school, founded in 300 B.C.E., flourished for about 500 years. Its adherents and fellow travelers included members of the Roman elite and at least one emperor. Although internally diverse, the Stoics retained agreement on many key doctrines. For our purposes, the primary features of Stoicism are these:


            1. Like other philosophical positions during the Hellenistic period, classical Stoicism was a philosophy of life,[2] centered on an account of the good or flourishing life and a strategy for promoting it.


            2. Classical Stoicism is perfectionist, insofar as it held that the point of the moral life is to perfect one's soul, in terms of knowledge and volition.[3] This perfectionism is expressed in the sharp distinction the Stoics often made between sages, who alone are good, wise, and happy, and all other persons.

            3. Stoicism held that the passions were incompatible with moral perfection. They understood passions as both violent movements of the soul and false judgments. The error that constitutes a passion lies in thinking of “advantageous” things like health, wealth, and political power as true goods (essential to happiness) and their “disadvantageous” opposites as evils. Such things are neither good nor evil.


            4. Also characteristic of classical Stoicism is its theology of divine immanence. The Stoics understood the supreme deity, designated by many names and descriptions as organizing and controlling from within the entire physical universe. Moreover, divinity is present as reason within human beings themselves.  This view grounds another contrast, that is, one between humans, who share reason generically with the gods, and nonhuman life forms, which do not.[4]


            5. The Stoics were natural law theorists, because they held that there was, in nature, a divinely based “law,” and that the good life and proper moral conduct required obedience to this law. At least the early Stoics seem to have understood obedience to the natural law as equivalent to leading the virtuous life of a sage.


6. The Stoics also produced an account of moral development. They tried to explain how progress between moral baseness and wisdom was possible. Essential to the account of moral development is appropriate action or proper function (kathēkon). Appropriate actions are roughly defined as actions for which, when done, a reasonable justification can be given.[5]


In doing appropriate actions, persons typically select advantageous or “natural” things for themselves and others. They do so according to patterns determined by well-defined roles (citizen, parent, brother, patron, client, business partner, etc.) General precepts related to justice, generosity, and gratitude help define these roles and thus to determine which actions are appropriate. Such considerations often override self-interest considered narrowly and natural love for offspring. Such precepts are logically supported by the Stoic view that social harmony is essential to the fulfillment of human (rational) nature.


The appropriate actions of Stoic sages and non-sages in the same roles and circumstances are often externally similar. But a sage’s actions are “right actions” (katorthōmata) because they are performed from perfected moral dispositions. If non-

sages perform appropriate actions consistently and with increasing insight, they may advance and become sages.[6]



I must now sketch the basic framework of contemporary human rights discourse.


1. Human rights are understood as entitlements attaching to individuals, being somehow qualities or powers of individuals.[7] Such so-called “subjective” rights are contrasted with “objective” right, which is understood as the sum of a person’s duties (moral or legal). The language of subjective right emphasizes the persons who have the right.


2. Human rights concern matters relating to the most important needs and interests of human beings,[8] the objects of which are not entirely under their control.


3. Human rights are “prior to” legal rights in the sense that agreement about human rights can be a basis for enactment or reform of laws affecting legal rights.


4. Human rights are primarily addressed to governments because of their power to create, modify, and enforce laws, but they are also designed to affect the conduct of individuals under the jurisdiction of governments.[9]


5. The concept of human rights functions within cultures at least partly committed to institutionalizing them. Essential to the concept is its rhetorical use. The concept often serves to enable human rights advocates to raise issues of justice that might otherwise go unnoticed.


6. The “human” in “human rights” signifies that such rights are “possessed” least controversially by prototypical cases of human beings, e.g., those who are viable out of the womb and not in a persistent vegetative state.


7. Human rights presuppose one or more shared features of human beings that exist prior to their participation in culture. The capacity for moral agency, realizable in most adult humans, is a common candidate for such a feature.[10]


8. Survival of human rights culture requires widespread agreement across otherwise diverse cultures that certain human interests are important enough to merit a human rights defense. John Rawls’ notion of an overlapping consensus between otherwise divergent detailed (“comprehensive”) religious and philosophical views provides one way of understanding this agreement.[11]


III (Omitted)




We now turn to systematically consider differences between Stoicism and human rights culture, beginning with the Stoic law of nature (LN) and the allegedly related modern notion of human rights.


.           1. The LN in Stoicism is part of, or identical to, the mind of the supreme divinity and binding on us for that reason. Contemporary human rights culture does not require anyone to believe that human rights depend upon the will of God, although it is compatible with such a belief.


            2. The LN in Stoicism is fully grasped only by the sage, who is on some accounts “as rare as the Ethiopian phoenix.”[12] Human rights culture assumes that most adult human beings can apprehend human rights principles. Stoicism is perfectionist, but human rights culture is not.


            3. The LN in Stoicism is almost always described in the singular. This is to be expected since it is identified with the right reason of the supreme divinity. In human rights culture, the set of human rights has always been understood as a plurality.


            4. The LN in Stoicism commands us to regard life, health, material possessions, and the conduct of others as indifferent things. Advocates of human rights affirm that we should care very much whether humans have what they need to avoid starvation, severe lasting illness, torture by others, isolation from community, etc.[13]


            5.  The LN in Stoicism is ultimately an objective moral standard, independent of human conventions. It does not cease when humans and all beings other than Zeus are destroyed in the periodic conflagrations expected by most Stoics. Today, human rights principles provide standards to evaluate and propose changes to laws, but partisans of human rights need not regard them as altogether independent of convention.


            6. The LN in Stoicism is best understood in terms of “objective right,” as this term was explained above. Human rights, by contrast, are “subjective rights.” We say, e.g., that each human being has a right to a fair trial or to practice a religion of his or her choice.


            7. Finally, from a historical perspective, the LN is a conceptual invention of Stoic philosophers. Its function was to serve as an anchor for the system of the Stoic school. Stoicism taught its adherents the importance of “following nature,” but nature in this sense was the same as the divine reason that pervades the system of material bodies and the basic order of human society. To follow nature was synonymous with obeying the law of nature. By contrast, human rights in the twentieth century and “the rights of man” previously were rhetorical tools of movements for profound social change, beginning with the promotion of liberal ideas such as freedom of conscience and political liberties. They have been invoked by abolitionists, feminists, anticolonial movements, and even the labor and socialist movements[14].


            Let us now turn to systematic differences between Stoicism and contemporary human rights culture as linguistically mediated practices. Only in the context of a complex practice does a relatively abstract word or phrase acquire a precise meaning. The more dissimilar Stoicism and human rights culture are, the less likely the earlier might have created a concept or doctrine able to find a comfortable home in the later.


            1. The ethics of classical Stoicism is a form of virtue ethics, as was the ethics of Aristotle. The primary focus, especially for the Stoics, was on the perfection of the individual. For the Stoics the good life was simply the virtuous life. By contrast, human rights culture is especially concerned about rules and the application of rules, because human rights are standards for positive laws that should govern conduct and therefore be enforced.


2. For Stoicism appropriate action is conduct that accords with one’s socially determinate role, with special exceptions allowed for the rare sage. For human rights culture right conduct is action or non-action compatible with, or called for by, human rights principles.


3. Stoicism did not recognize what human rights culture has recognized since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as economic and social rights (Articles 22-27). Of course, the Stoics were not alone in this. As Samuel Fleischacker has shown, nobody, prior to 1790, understood distributive justice as requiring state redistribution of material means “so that everybody is supplied with a certain level.”[15] The change in the conception of distributive justice discovered by Fleischacker corresponds to a change in the content of “the rights of man” or human rights.


            4. Stoicism is what John Rawls calls a comprehensive view. Comprehensive views include detailed metaphysical, political, moral, and religious doctrines and are typically at odds with one another. Other examples are Thomas Aquinas’ Christian Aristotelianism and J. S. Mill’s empiricist utilitarian liberalism. Human rights culture, it is argued, is not built around a comprehensive view but around a moral-political “module” shared by many overlapping comprehensive views. The human rights module would fall within the overlap. The following differences reflect the comparatively limited character of contemporary human rights culture:


            a. Classical Stoicism contains a theory of the nature of the passions and is committed to regarding them as evil. Human rights culture is compatible with a wide variety of theories of the passions. To be an adherent in good standing of human rights culture, one need not be confident that she has found the true theory.


            b. Classical Stoicism was committed to metaphysical determinism, the doctrine according to which every event follows from prior events in series that permit no deviation.[16] Human rights culture is noncommittal on the issue of determinism.[17]


            c. The ancient Stoics held that humans (but not animals) carried a divine spark within, which they equated with reason. Defenders of the Stoic origin of human rights see a link between this view and the assertion, in key human rights documents, that every human being possesses inherent dignity.[18] But human rights culture is not committed to denying something like inherent dignity to nonhuman life.[19]


            d. Stoic philosophy contains a theory of moral development in individual human beings. Human rights culture is not committed to any one theory of moral development.

It is more directly concerned with discovering the material and social conditions required to promote the autonomy of human beings than with discovering the best theory of moral development.       




Another reason for skepticism about claims of Stoic ancestry for human rights is the ideological function that really existing Stoicism served in the context of Hellenistic and Roman society.


The Stoics fundamentally identified with the cosmopolis or world-city, conceived as the city of gods and (especially wise) humans, but there was no essential conflict in their minds between this identification and allegiance to, say, the Roman imperial system.


            Brent D. Shaw has shown that Stoicism subtly “acted as a reinforcer of traditional values.” It regarded traditionally given roles as “natural.” A person’s moral progress “lay in the order and coherence of his words, thoughts, and actions…with Nature. The man who plays his role well . . . that the human drama might function well is adjudged the morally good man.”[20] Epictetus, he notes, lists roles associated with appropriate actions, including arguably natural ones like father, mother, old, and young and social ones like ruler, citizen, general, and soldier. But he also includes “slave, cripple, and beggar.” All these roles are customary ones in Hellenistic-Roman society. “Stoicism was thus cosmic metaphor positing a Divine Economy in which every thing and every person had its proper place.”[21]


            The key to grasping the structure of Hellenistic and Roman society is the patron-client system.[22] In the Roman case this relationship developed out of Roman patriarchal traditions and is clearly an extension of the patriarchal family. Wealthier and more politically powerful families attracted as clients less powerful citizens, freedmen, and foreign residents, who would support them and in turn be protected by them. The system was extendable: prominent clients of the greatest patrons were themselves patrons of lesser clients. The late Republican civil wars seem to have been struggles between the most powerful patrons (or warlords) for absolute dominance. The victory of Augustus meant that, for the time being, the emperor would be the supreme patron.


To judge by Cicero’s treatment of the virtues relating to the basic social bonds of human society, the Romans recognized two families of principles whereby resources might change hands. Cicero refers to the virtue corresponding to one of them as justice, the virtue corresponding to the other as beneficence.[23] The principles of  “justice,” which included those governing commercial transactions, might be enforced by law. Commercial transactions were important in Roman life, but more personal interactions corresponding to beneficence and gratitude, central to operation of the patron-client system, were far more important for the Romans than for us. The prominence of these virtues is clear from Stoic and Stoic-influenced texts of the late Republic and early Empire.[24] Like the early Stoics,[25] the Roman-era writers distinguished generosity from justice, which entailed non-injury and fidelity related to contracts. Nowhere do we find a Stoic commitment to a government-backed material floor in relation to all the inhabitants, non-citizens as well as citizens, of their cities or states. There is no sign of the view that political leaders should try to secure to every person within state borders sufficient material goods for subsistence or sufficient land or tools to produce for themselves what seems required for a minimally decent life, and thus no movement toward social or economic rights. Even if this idea had been conceivable at that time, the Stoics’ emphasis on the moral excellence of the giver and their doctrine that poverty is an indifferent would have served to discourage them from adopting it.[26]


Systematic philosophies of life express, by adaptation, opposition, or both, the prevailing social structures of their times. Roman-era Stoicism adapted, at least in a general way, to the patron-client system. In particular, the Stoics of the imperial age adjusted their rhetoric, and sometimes made questionable concessions, to the carefully crafted imperial ideology expressed in the cult of the emperor, Roman public art, and Roman architecture. Political reality combined with organic Stoic analogies to dampen enthusiasm, even among the elites, for the limited but real political liberties enjoyed by Roman citizens under the Republic. For the Stoics there was no question of a struggle for political liberties extended to all persons. Nor did the Stoics address whether freedom of conscience ought to be legally protected. For them showing proper piety is an internal matter, in each person’s power already. No law could prevent it.[27]


VI. Conclusion


            No doubt fact-based stories can be told linking ancient Stoicism and subsequent philosophical, theological, and political views, but changes of context bring changes of meaning. Discursive systems involving the terms law of nature, right of nature, natural right, and human right do succeed one another historically. There may be family resemblances between each system and its historical successor. But resemblance is not a transitive relationship. Later systems near the end of such series may be radically different in all or most aspects from early ones. That is the case for classical Stoicism and contemporary human rights doctrine.


            What seems decisive for development of the human rights position is the emergence of three assumptions that change the context for political discourse: (1) that human individuals possess the kind of value that positive laws should be designed to respect; (2) that whole categories of people, up till now regarded as inferior by social elites, have been subject to shared injustice; and (3) that legal or treaty recognition of their rights might ameliorate that situation.

[*] Jan Edward Garrett (b. 1943), Ph. D. (Minnesota), Professor, Department of Philosophy and Religion, Western Kentucky University. E-mail:

[1] Hadot, The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (trans. Michael Chase, Harvard University Press, 1998) 311. Among the many others who make such claims are Jacques Denis (1823), cited in George H. Sabine: A History of Political Theory (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1959) 154; Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, cited in Andrew R. Dyck: A Commentary on Cicero, De Officiis (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996) 170-71; Sabine: 153-54; Phillip Mitsis: “The Stoic Origins of Natural Rights,” in Katerina Ierodiakonou (ed.): Topics in Stoic Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 153, 162; Martha C. Nussbaum: Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2005) 36

[2] Pierre Hadot: What Is Ancient Philosophy? (trans. Michael Chase, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2002)

[3] J. B. Schneewind: The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 11-12

[4] For a translation of key Stoic texts related to theology, see A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley (eds.): The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) 323-33

[5] Long and Sedley: 59B

[6] Long and Sedley: 359-68; Tad Brennan, The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, Fate. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005: chapters 11-12

[7] For the definition, see William A. Edmundson: An Introduction to Rights (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004) 9-10. For an attempt to trace the earliest European reflections on this type of right, see Brian Tierney: The Idea of Natural Rights (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).

[8] Brian Orend: Human Rights: Concept and Context (Orchard Park, NY: Broadview, 2002) 94-97

[9] Orend: chapter 5

[10] See, for instance, Martha C. Nussbaum: Sex and Social Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 57. Nussbaum’s theory of capabilities may be understood as explicating of the objects of human rights (those things to which a human right entitles a person).

[11] Jack Donnelly: Universal Human Rights (2nd ed., Ithaca: Cornell University Press 2003) 40-41, 51-53. Rawls himself introduces the notions of comprehensive views and overlapping consensus in order to ground his political liberalism, which applies to the domestic or national case rather than the international case, but given internal diversity of countries like the U.S. or France, the idea seems as applicable globally as it does to the domestic case.

[12] Arius Didymus: Epitome of Stoic Ethics (ed. and trans. Arthur J. Pomeroy, Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1999) 68, lines 1-9; SVF 3.658 (Long and Sedley: 61N)

[13] A Stoic today who has accepted duties corresponding to human rights culture might act appropriately to ensure, to the best of her ability, that others receive the objects of their human rights. As a Stoic, however, she would approach such tasks without “violent feelings” such as anger at violators of human rights or distress at inability to prevent violations.

[14] Micheline Ishay: The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 2004),  chapter 3

[15] Samuel Fleischacker: A Short History of Distributive Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004) 4.

[16] Long and Sedley: sections 55 and 62.

[17] See B. Swimme and T. Berry: The Universe Story (New York: Harper Collins, 1992). This is a grand narrative of the universe that incorporates indeterminacy into natural history from the beginning but includes recent social and cultural events on earth. Had the book been longer, the authors could have included the rise of human rights culture.

[18] Orend: 244

[19] Cf. Martha C. Nussbaum: Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2005). Nussbaum is both a defender of CHRC and an advocate of extending the circle of inherent worth to include nonhuman beings.

[20] Brent D. Shaw: “The Divine Economy: Stoicism as Ideology” Latomus (1985) 44:16, 36 (Bruxelles: Editions Latomus)

[21] Shaw: 16, 37

[22] John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed:  In Search of Paul (Harper SanFrancisco, 2004), chapter 6; Joseph M. Bryant: Moral Codes and Social Structure in Ancient Greece (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996) chapter 6

[23] De Officiis 1.20

[24] See especially Cicero: De Officiis, and Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On Benefits, in Moral Essays (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1939), vol. III

[25] Arius Didymus: 15, 19, 37, 45

[26] Martha C. Nussbaum: “Duties of Justice, Duties of Material Aid: Cicero’s Problematic Legacy,” in S. K. Strange and J. Zupko (eds.): Stoicism: Traditions and Transformations  (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004) 214, 225-26

[27] We do find what seems to be an affirmation of natural liberty of conscience in a letter by the Christian writer Tertullian ca. 212 C.E. Cf. Ad Scapulam II.2 <> <visited 28 July 2006>