The Last Attachment:

A (Stoic) Dialogue on War and the State

by Jan Garrett

August 3, 2002

The ancient Stoics with whom we are familiar include a number that were active in Roman public life, for example Seneca and Marcus Aurelius (We might add Cicero, who, although he was not a Stoic in philosophical respects, admired the Stoic ethics). It was assumed by the Romans that those active in public life would also be active in the military. The association of duty, the virtue of courage, and defense of the state was fairly close among the Roman elites, and the Stoics of this period seem to have assimilated this association.

While the Stoics surely did not suppose that one would properly defend the state if he was motivated by lust or anger or any of the other passions associated with vices, the writers most familiar to us do not appear to question whether attachment to the state or its current form might not constitute an excessive attachment similar to attachments to one’s material possessions or the love of a particular friend. Thus, it seems to me that Stoics are a bit more prone to, or at least often give a sort of indirect support to, what one might call the fetishism of the state than they ought, given the general teachings of Stoicism.

Reflecting on this issue may be relevant today. As I write the militarization of “democratic” societies as part of an endless “war on terrorism” threatens to treat preservation of the actual existing state as such an absolute value that all other values, including not only liberty but the values of virtuous action, may be sacrificed for it.

Let us listen in on a conversation between Krates, a Cynic philosopher, and Zeno, his pupil who later went on to found the philosophical school that would be known as the Stoics.

Z. What do you think, Krates, of my proposition that philosophers should take part in the life of the polis (henceforth: state)?

K. Why do you think they should?

Z. Man is by nature akin to man. It is according to nature that humans should serve each other in communities and the state is the natural form of the human community.

K. Is that all?

Z. Logos, reasoned discourse and the power than binds together, binds human beings to one another. It is communication and the medium of communication. And in the Assembly or in the Council men propose what is expedient and just for the whole state. In general, humans are animals with capacity for rational discourse.

K. So, you are saying that we should serve in politics because doing so would be the key expression of our social natures and our rational nature, without which we cannot be fully human or live well?

Z. I admit that philosophical reflection on nature as a whole and on nonpolitical parts of nature, which can be done in private or with a few friends, is also a virtuous activity that can contribute to our happiness. But with that qualification, yes.

K. Does public service entail defending the state against attack, say by military action and war?

Z. Surely it must, for if the state is so closely tied to our social and rational nature, then its preservation would be among the greatest of the advantageous externals.

K. Then the good person will often sacrifice his very life for the state?

Z. Yes.

K. Have you thought carefully about what the state is?

Z. I think so.

K. Perhaps you are mixing things that might be kept separate?

Z. Such as?

K. Is the state just a set of human beings that we might name individually, A, B, C, D, etc.

Z. No, individuals are born and die; they can even leave a state and go away from it forever, yet the state may nevertheless endure.

K. Is the state just a set of laws that hang together with a certain degree of consistency?

Z. I might say that a state is a set of such laws embodied in a population, understanding by that phrase that the population may change over time, as old citizens perish and new ones are born and trained in the laws.

K. Then a change in the laws might constitute the destruction of the state? Suppose a state changes its law regarding the minimum age required to join the Council, say, from 25 to 27. Has the state been destroyed and a new one put in its place?

Z. Well, no, but if the institutions of a democratic state, such as Athens was for most of Socrates’ lifetime, are destroyed and the democracy is replaced by a tyranny, that surely would be a destruction. And if one state is conquered by another and from having been independent became subordinate to its conqueror, that would seem to be destruction as well.

K. Is it really plausible to say that Athens was destroyed at the end of the war with Sparta when the democracy was overturned and the tyranny of the Thirty was imposed by Sparta?

Z. What do you mean?

K. You know that the Athenians’ devotion to democratic laws (together perhaps with their fear that the Thirty might kill or exile them and seize their property) led them to revolt against the Thirty and restore democratic laws.

Z. Yes, I know that history.

K. So the end of the democracy, and the operation of democratic laws, at the time of the Spartan victory did not mean an end to Athens, or even to the annihilation of democratic laws and customs because those laws remained in the hearts and minds of the Athenians.

Z. You may be right.

K. In any case, defending Athens “to the death,” which I imagine some Athenians tried to do before the Spartan victory, did not preserve Athens if an essential feature of Athens is the continuous operation of democratic laws. But if Athens did survive, that was due to something other than the continuous operation of democratic laws. We can dispute some other time whether the revival of democratic laws after the Thirty means that Athens was reborn as a new state or whether the state remained throughout the period in which democracy was suspended.

Z. You seem to mean that the Athenians waited for an opportunity to revive their favored legal and constitutional customs.

K. Yes, but how are those customs related to virtue? You and I agree that virtue is the good.

Z. The customs—or at least the best of those customs—are approximations of virtue. They tell the non-philosopher, the person who is not making philosophical progress, his proper function or appropriate action. If the person becomes a philosopher, and even more if the person becomes a sage, he will have critically sifted those customs and come up with a truly consistent intellectual scheme, consisting in part of a worked out science of ethics.

K. Thus many customs or laws are valuable insofar as they are something like the raw material from which virtue is formed by further habituation and reflection?

Z. They are also valuable in a second way because they contribute to the preservation of advantageous things, things that are normally in accord with nature, and the avoidance of disadvantageous things, things that are normally contrary to nature. They make it possible to grow crops, cure the sick, train the young, etc.

K. But which is decisive, between virtue and these valuable customs and laws?

Z. Virtue, of course.

K. So, then, is the “destruction” of the state by a change of laws or regime or even by conquest a decisive blow to virtue?

Z. Not necessarily—though it could be in a sense if it is accompanied by genocide or the long-term breakdown of the most basic framework of justice: that could produce the total extinction of human beings, and the virtuous among them.

K. But the philosopher should know that the end of a particular regime, even of a particular state (assuming it is absorbed by another state), need not mean the end of the culture (paideia) of lawfulness out of which virtuous habits may grow, with practice and critical reflection—or what Socrates called self-examination.

Z. The philosopher is not a defender of any existing state at all costs, if that is what you mean.

K. The philosopher is not absolutely attached to any particular state nor to its leaders, especially not to leaders who confuse the state with their personal or elite group privilege in the state. There is no absolute duty to defend Corinth or Megara or Athens. Depending on circumstances, of course, the philosopher may have a duty to risk his life to defend a state against its enemies. If in his position of responsibility he has pledged, explicitly or tacitly, to defend the state in a way that is compatible with virtue, he will not abandon his duty out of concern for his health or survival. He will not put money or power ahead of virtue. But he may also yield in the physical struggle and survive, with equanimity, if externals permit, to live to promote virtue another day.

Z. It seems so.

K. May we conclude, then, that the philosopher’s total attachment to his or her state is not justified by devotion to virtue. Attachment to the state is conditional, like his attachment to family and friends whom he may “love very deeply” if not more so than those whose attachments to family and friends are mixed up with their self-regarding passions.

Z. It may be overridden not by lust or greed or anger but by devotion to virtue itself in certain circumstances.

K. The “material of virtue,” if we can call roughly good customs and laws that, can be preserved even if regimes fall. That preservation would be highly preferred, and it would give the philosopher something to work with after the regime has been altered.

Z. This can happen, and often does, though it does not always happen.

K. Then perhaps there are acts that a philosopher will not do to preserve a regime, acts for example that harm highly valuable advantageous things, such as the lives of innocent persons which are often overlooked in the prosecution of a war.

Z. Innocent persons?

K. I don’t mean virtuous persons necessarily or even for the most part. I mean persons who are not remotely blameworthy for the actions of an enemy government. Even if we suppose it is not wrong to kill attacking enemy soldiers in self-defense, it may nonetheless be of dubious "virtue" to attack enemy fortresses in ways that are certain to produce injury and death to children and other politically powerless persons. The mere "preservation" of our own state cannot justify it.

Z. Your argument seems persuasive, although I must think about it further. But I agree with what seems to be a corollary of what you say: we must not confuse the state itself with a fragile deity, as if the very presence of what is valuable on earth were dependent upon the preservation of the state in its current form.