Doubtful Descent of Human Rights from Stoicism

(Section omitted from paper read in Athens, June 2007)




            If the Stoics contributed to the development of human rights or even natural rights in the modern sense, we would expect this tendency to be expressed in the writings and actions of the Greek and Roman Stoics. There ought to be historical evidence of commitment to something like human rights even if they would not have used our terminology. Let us look in particular in the writings of Roman-era Stoics like Seneca and that Stoic-friendly Skeptic Cicero, who gave positive expression to Stoic ideas in his dialogues.


            Space does not permit a thorough discussion of Cicero’s views of property. It is clear that in De Officiis, Cicero places a high value in principle on respect for the property of others.  He even goes so far as to derive an anti-theft principle from the law of nature, in a passage that starts from premises about common human nature and common human interests, and concludes that the law of nature dictates a rule against theft, whether the victim is a kinsman, a fellow-citizen, or a foreigner.[1]  Yet nothing in Cicero’s argument is critical of the customary civil law on this topic.


No things are private by nature but either through long occupancy . . . or through victory [i.e., conquest in war] or by [due process of] law, bargain, purchase, or allotment . . . Whence of [originally common] things [some] became each one’s own, what had fallen to each, each one should retain it.[2]


Cicero does not try to justify the customary procedures by which things have “fallen to” each owner in the past. He never claims that every person, or even every citizen, ought to have the same formal opportunity to acquire possessions. His Stoic-influenced ethics is uncritical of the modes of appropriation that have the blessing of long use. Moreover, he seems to oppose involuntary property transfers between persons subject to Roman law, even if aimed at relieving the suffering of the poor (although not if needed in an emergency, for the defense of the republic). Generosity for Cicero is a virtue, but not one that calls for legal enforcement as do the property-related prohibitions included under justice.


            Torture, of course, is a key human rights issue today. In one defense speech, Cicero seems to refute the usual rationale for torture of slaves as witnesses in court trials, i.e., that torture would make the slave blurt out the truth.[3] He argues that torture creates conditions of fear and desperate hope in which “there is but little room left for truth.” The courtroom context of this speech makes it impossible to tell whether Cicero was expressing his personal view, but it does not matter: his point is not that torture violates the human or moral rights of slaves being tortured, but that torture is an unreliable method of extracting truth. Elsewhere[4] Cicero describes the horror of crucifixion and the threat of crucifixion, clearly both a form of torture and a form of the death penalty. But his point at most is that these practices are wrong when they violate the respect due, in Roman legal culture, to Roman citizens. Seneca later is quite capable of evoking the horror of being crucified or tortured by other methods.[5] Yet his aim is not to defend or invoke a human right not to be tortured. It is to defend the Stoic view that suicide is sometimes an appropriate action.


The Roman-era Stoics did occasionally address the issue of gender equality. Musonius Rufus, a first-century Stoic philosopher whose students left us notes on his discourses, addressed the question of the capacities of women for virtue and philosophy. In his view women’s capacities in this respect are equal to men’s but one should not infer from this that there should be any major change in male and female social roles.[6]


Seneca’s writings on slavery are famous.  He discusses the condition of those who are slaves by legal status in a number of places.[7] He argues for kind treatment of such slaves and insists that masters should not act as haughty superiors toward them.[8]


In his essay On Benefits Seneca praises the virtue “humanitas” at some length.[9]  This virtue seems to connote kindness or liberality toward the needy and socially vulnerable within one’s sphere of influence and avoidance of cruelty. Yet because ancient and medieval writers commonly distinguish the sphere of justice from that of generosity and gratitude, even if there are analogous features in the corresponding duties, it is unlikely that humanitas can generate a doctrine even of very limited human rights.  A virtue related to what modern philosophers would have called imperfect duties, humanitas does not correspond to duties that call for legal enforcement.


In his letters on slavery Seneca stresses that virtually everyone is a slave. His message is the standard Stoic one that all but the rare sage are slaves to external things because of their false judgments about the value of externals. Adopting a metaphor more suggestive of the Platonic tripartite model of the soul than the unitary model of the early Stoics, Seneca suggests that many “free” people are slaves to lust or greed or ambition or fear. He calls for masters to treat slaves kindly to win respect from them. The larger context of the letter shows that Seneca opposes what he considers cruel and inhumane treatment of slaves, but he proposes neither abolition of slavery nor the gradual   emancipation of slaves. He knew how much slaves hated their condition and wished to escape it. “In exchange for freedom they pay out the saving which they have scraped together by cheating their own bellies.”[10] But his real aim is to convince his reader to escape from the more serious slavery that derives from not knowing or not practicing the precepts of philosophy: “[Moral] liberty cannot be bought. You must . . . seek [this good] from yourself.”


Elsewhere Seneca addresses the question of slaves’ moral status in a discussion of whether slaves can properly be said to benefit their master. He insists on the humanity of the slave: “He who denies that a slave can sometimes give a benefit to his master is ignorant of the nature of the bond connecting human beings [ius humanum]; for not the [social] status, but the intention, of the one who bestows is what counts. Virtue closes the door to nobody.”[11] Later he explains:


It is a mistake for anyone to believe that the condition of slavery penetrates into the whole being of a man. . . . Only the body is at the mercy and disposition of a master; but the mind is its own master. It is, therefore, the body that Fortune hands over to a master . . .  that inner part cannot be delivered into bondage [unless, of course, it delivers itself by judging externals to be truly good or evil—J.G.]. [12]


This is surely an eloquent passage, but it does not transcend the standard Stoic teaching about moral freedom. Far more letters are reliably attributed to Seneca than to St. Paul, but in one of Paul’s authentic letters, he urges the Christian master of a slave to manumit the slave, who had by then become a brother “in the Lord.”[13] By contrast, we have no indication that Seneca might have been moved to urge a Stoic master of Stoic slaves to manumit them given the common kinship of humans with gods.[14]


Thus we have seen that although the natural law as the Stoics understood it clearly dictated certain moral attitudes, it did not call for a concerted effort, as modern human rights doctrine does, to promote or defend legal or constitutional standards or to pressure states to modify their policies toward sections of their own population. The absence of such a mandate is reflected in the actual practice of influential Stoics during the Roman imperial era.


The Stoic writers, especially in the imperial era, were politically very cautious. That fact did not rule out acts of courage, as when Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus tried personally, even if ineffectively, to prevent armies engaged in a civil war from carrying their mayhem into the streets of Rome itself.[15] Nor did the Stoics’ political caution prevent them from being expelled from Rome under a few emperors (and welcomed back by their successors). Nor did their relative caution always prevent them from being perceived as a threat. A Stoic Senator like Thrasea Paetus might absent himself from the Senate so as to avoid being called upon to rubber-stamp crimes committed by the emperor Nero.[16] This silent act could be understood as protesting when the person involved had a philosophical position famous for equating virtue with the good, thereby making him less malleable than most by persons with greater political power, and was a prominent figure about whom those facts were known.



[1] Cicero: De Officiis 3.6.27-28

[2] De Officiis 1.7.21.

[3] Marcus Tullius Cicero:  For Sulla 28.78, in M. Tullius Cicero: Orations (Perseus Digital Project, Gregory R. Crane (ed.) <>) (visited 14 March 2006)

[4] For Rabirius, Accused of Treason, V.6-17, in Cicero: Orations; Against Verres LXIV.165-LXV.170 in Cicero: Orations

[5] Lucius Annaeus Seneca: Ad Marciam 20.2-3, in J. W. Basore (trans.): Moral Essays (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1932), vol. II; Epistulae Morales 70

[6] Musonius Rufus 3, 4, in “Women’s Life in Greece and Rome” <><visited 28 July 28, 2006>

[7] Seneca: Epistulae Morales 47, 80; On Benefits III.18-22, in Moral Essays (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1939) vol. III

[8] Seneca: Epistulae Morales 47

[9] Seneca: On Benefits 1.4.2, 1.15.2, 2.3.1, 2.11.4, 3.18-28, 4.14.3, 4.17.3-4, 4.18.1, 6.25.5, 6.26.2, 6.27.6

[10] Seneca: Ep. Mor. 80

[11] Seneca: On Benefits 3.18.2, Basore trans. modified.

[12] 3.20

[13] Letter to Philemon 1:16

[14] For a fuller account of Seneca as a Stoic in politics, see Miriam Griffin: Seneca: A Life in Politics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976)

[15] Tacitus: The Histories 3.81 in M. Hadas (ed.), The Complete Works of Tacitus (New York: Random Houses, 1942)

[16] Tacitus: The Annals 16.21-34, in Hadas (ed.)