There is no Stoic virtue more important than justice, because it influences all the others. Marcus Aurelius himself said that justice is “the source of all the other virtues.” Stoics throughout history have pushed and advocated for justice, oftentimes at great personal risk and with great courage, in order to do great things and defend the people and ideas that they loved.
- Cato gave his life trying to restore the Roman Republic.
- And Thrasea and Agrippinus gave theirs resisting the tyranny of Nero.
- George Washington and Thomas Jefferson formed a new nation—one which would seek, however imperfectly, to fight for democracy and justice—largely inspired by the philosophy of Cato and those other Stoics.
- Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a translator of Epictetus, led a black regiment of troops in the US Civil War.
- Beatrice Webb, who helped to found the London School of Economics and who first conceptualized the idea of collective bargaining, regularly re-read Marcus Aurelius.
Countless other activists and politicians have turned to Stoicism to gird them against the difficulty of fighting for ideals that mattered, to guide them towards what was right in a world of so much wrong. A Stoic must deeply believe that an individual can make a difference. Successful activism and political maneuvering require understanding and strategy, as well as realism… and hope. It requires wisdom, acceptance and also a refusal to accept the statue quo.
It was James Baldwin who most brilliantly captured this tension in Notes of a Native Son:
It began to seem that one would have to hold in mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in light of this idea it goes without saying that injustice is commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but one must fight them with all one’s strength.
A Stoic sees the world clearly…but also sees clearly what the world can be. And then they are brave, and strategic enough to help bring it into reality.