115 Stoic Quotes About Power and Politics

Updated November 17, 2022

The founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, taught that individuals have an obligation to engage in the public sphere. In this article, we're going to take a look at 115 Stoic quotes about power and politics that remain highly relevant despite the thousands of years that have passed since the ancient Stoics walked the earth.

Figuring out how to remain Stoic in the face of the tense climate of political discourse these days isn't the simplest task. It's easy to want to just disengage-- after all, shouldn't we just be focusing on things we can control? In the following quotes, you'll find wisdom about power, politics, and communicating with others that can help you fulfill your duty to engage in the public sphere while remaining true to your Stoic virtues.

Stoic Quotes About Power

Marcus Aurelius was one of the most powerful people in the world at the time of his death. Seneca the Younger was the tutor to the infamous emperor Nero. Here are some quotes from the ancient Stoics and like-minded thinkers about the nature of power.

seneca the younger image and quote about power

 

“Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.”

– Seneca the Younger

“He who has great power should use it lightly.”

– Seneca the Younger

“If you sit in judgment, investigate, if you sit in supreme power, sit in command.”

– Seneca the Younger

“Make sure you’re not made ‘Emperor,’ avoid that imperial stain. It can happen to you, so keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god-fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“If you have been placed in a position above others, are you automatically going to behave like a despot? Remember who you are and whom you govern– that they are kinsmen, brothers by nature, fellow descendants of Zeus.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.”

– Abraham Lincoln

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

– Lord Acton

“The attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and then only for a short while.”

– Albert Einstein

“I am not interested in power for power's sake, but I'm interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good.”

– Martin Luther King Jr.

“We live in a world which respects power above all things. Power, intelligently directed, can lead to more freedom. Unwisely directed, it can be a dreadful, destructive force.”

– Mary McLeod Buthane

“I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

– Thomas Jefferson

“The problem of power is how to achieve its responsible use rather than its irresponsible and indulgent use; of how to get men of power to live for the public rather than off the public.”

– John F. Kennedy

Quotes About Personal Power

One of the primary ideas in Stoic philosophy is that there are some things that are in our control and other things that are outside of our control. In short, external events are outside of our scope of control, but our own thoughts, feelings, words, and actions are within our control.

Understanding what you have the power to change is essential to living a good, virtuous life, according to the Stoics. Otherwise, you will spend a lot of time fretting about things you don't control instead of focusing your energy on where your power actually lies.

“The pressure of adversity does not affect the mind of the brave man. It is more powerful than external circumstances.”

– Seneca the Younger

“Happy is the man who can endure the highest and lowest fortune. He who has endured such vicissitudes with equanimity has deprived misfortune of its power.”

– Seneca the Younger

“ Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”

– Epictetus

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Suffering arises from trying to control what is uncontrollable, or from neglecting what is within our power.”

– Epictetus

“A man should be upright, not kept upright.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Up to us are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not up to us are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”

– Epictetus

“The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Loyalty is the holiest good in the human heart.”

– Seneca the Younger

“You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”

– Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

“What it lies in our power to do, it lies in our power not to do.”

– Aristotle

“The only power you have on this planet is the power of your decisions.”

– Paulo Coelho

“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”

– Laozi

Stoic Quotes About War

Warfare between tribes or societies is older than recorded history and intimately connected with questions of power and politics.

“The fear of war is worse than war itself.”

– Seneca the Younger

“The chief bond of the soldier is his oath of allegiance and love for the flag.”

– Seneca the Younger

“War is one of the constants of history, and it has not diminished with civilization or democracy.”

– Will Durant

“You've been told that you're broken. That you're damaged goods ... there is also Post-Traumatic Growth. You come back from war stronger and more sure of who you are.”

– James Mattis

Quotes About Politics

What advice can we glean from the Stoic philosophers about politics 2000 years later? As you'll see, much of their commentary on the subject is just as applicable today.

marcus aurelius image and quote about politics and governance

“That which isn’t good for the hive, isn’t good for the bee.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“No one can hold absolute power for long, controlled power endures.”

– Seneca the Younger

“Unjust rule does not last forever.”

– Seneca the Younger

"The universal cause is a rushing torrent; it carries all things in its stream. How cheap are these creatures who turn to public affairs and, as they fondly imagine, act a philosopher's part; like snotty children, one and all!

Tell me, my friend, what are you to do? Do what nature demands of you at this very moment. So set to work, if you are able, and do not look around you to see if anyone will notice. You should not hope for Plato's ideal state, but be satisfied to make even the smallest advance, and regard such an outcome as nothing contemptible.

For who can change the convictions of others? And without that change of conviction, what else is there other than slavery of people who grumble away while making a show of obedience?

Go on, then, and talk to me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. If they saw what universal nature wishes and trained themselves accordingly, I will follow them; but if they merely strutted around like stage heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them.

The work of philosophy is simple and modest; do not seduce me into vain ostentation."

– Marcus Aurelius

“The opinion of 10,000 men is of no value if none of them know anything about the subject.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“As for our friend Cato, you do not love him more than I do: but after all, with the very best intentions and the most absolute honesty, he sometimes does harm to the Republic. He speaks and votes as though he were in the Republic of Plato, not in the scum of Romulus.”

– Seneca the Younger

“No power can be maintained when it is only represented by hypocrites.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

Stoic Quotes About the Cyclical Nature of History

Marcus Aurelius was well-aware of the cyclical nature of history and how it related to the empire he himself ruled. When engaging with politics, it can be helpful to zoom out and look at the bigger picture rather than getting caught up staring through a microscope.

marcus aurelius image and quote about politics

“Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future, too.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Consider, for example, and you will find that almost all the transactions in the time of Vespasian differed little from those of the present day. You there find marrying and giving in marriage, educating children, sickness, death, war, joyous holidays, traffic, agriculture, flatterers, insolent pride, suspicions, laying of plots, longing for the death of others, newsmongers, lovers, misers, men canvassing far the consulship and for the kingdom; yet all these passed away, and are nowhere.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.”

– George Bernard Shaw

“History repeats itself, but in such cunning disguise that we never detect the resemblance until the damage is done.”

– Sydney J. Harris

“The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

– Mark Twain

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

– George Santayana

“It is not worth while to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man's character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.”

– Mark Twain

“History repeats itself in the large because human nature changes with geological leisureliness.”

– Will Durant

Quotes About Corruption

In any discussion of power, the topic of corruption isn't far behind.

“All cruelty springs from weakness.”

– Seneca the Younger

“Successful crime is dignified with the name of virtue; the good become the slaves of the wicked; might makes right; fear silences the power of the law.”

– Seneca the Younger

“Occupants of public offices love power and are prone to abuse it.”

– George Washington

“Power does not corrupt men; fools, however, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power.”

– George Bernard Shaw

“A great civilization is not conquered from without, until it has destroyed itself from within. The essential causes of Rome's decline lay in her people, her morals, her class struggle, her failing trade, her bureaucratic despotism, her stifling taxes, her consuming wars.”

– Will Durant

"No man who is corrupt, no man who condones corruption in others, can possibly do his duty by the community."

– Theodore Roosevelt

Stoic Quotes About Patriotism

The Stoics were cosmopolitans-- meaning they believed that "all humankind belongs to a single ideal city."

“Do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with ‘I am Athenian’ or ‘I am from Corinth’ but always ‘I am a citizen of the world.’”

– Epictetus

“Men love their country, not because it is great, but because it is their own.”

– Seneca the Younger

“To preserve the life of citizens, is the greatest virtue in the father of his country.”

– Seneca the Younger

“For morality life is a war, and the service of the highest is a sort of cosmic patriotism which also calls for volunteers.”

– William James

Stoic Quotes About Leadership

Through the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and the works of other Stoics, we are able to gain profound insight into the qualities of virtuous leadership.

marcus aurelius image and quote about leadership

“It is the responsibility of leadership to work intelligently with what is given, and not waste time fantasizing about a world of flawless people and perfect choices.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“To govern was to serve, not to rule.”

– Seneca the Younger

“Authority founded on injustice is never of long duration.”

– Seneca the Younger

“No random actions, none not based on underlying principles.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Do not be overheard complaining… not even to yourself.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“So I look for the best and am prepared for the opposite.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Epithets for yourself: Upright. Modest. Straightforward. Sane. Cooperative. Disinterested… Maintain your claim to these epithets—without caring if others apply them to you or not… Set sail, then, with this handful of epithets to guide you. And steer a steady course, if you can, Like an emigrant to the islands of the blest. And if you feel yourself adrift—as if you’ve lost control—then hope for the best, and put in somewhere where you can regain it.”

– Marcus Aurelius

seneca the younger image and quote about leadership

“It is impossible to imagine anything which better becomes a ruler than mercy.”

– Seneca the Younger

“No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit for doing it.”

– Andrew Carnegie

“It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome.”

– William James

“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.”

– Douglas MacArthur

“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.”

– Jim Rohn

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

– Winston Churchill

Quotes About Discourse With Others

In our current moment, discussing politics has become something of a battlefield. Tensions are high, and people with different viewpoints increasingly find it difficult to communicate with one another in a rational and productive way.

In the following quotes, the Stoics and some other great thinkers share some advice on interacting with other people that you don't necessarily agree with.

“A real man doesn’t give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance—unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“People exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“With what are you discontented? With the badness of human beings? Recall to your mind this conclusion, that rational animals exist for one another, and that to endure is a part of justice, and that people do wrong involuntarily.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“No plague has cost the human race more dear: you will see slaughterings and poisonings, accusations and counter-accusations, sacking of cities, ruin of whole peoples, the persons of princes sold into slavery by auction, torches applied to roofs, and fires not merely confined within city-walls but making whole tracts of country glow with hostile flame.”

– Seneca

“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment: ‘Is this necessary?’”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Anger [is] a short madness: for it is equally devoid of self control, regardless of decorum, forgetful of kinship, obstinately engrossed in whatever it begins to do, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trifling causes, awkward at perceiving what is true and just, and very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes. That you may know that they whom anger possesses are not sane, look at their appearance.”

– Seneca the Younger

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Consider that you also do many things wrong, and that you are a human being like others; and even if you do abstain from certain faults, still you have the disposition to commit them, though either through cowardice, or concern about reputation, or some such mean motive, you abstain from such faults.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“They are certainly moved toward things because they suppose them to be suitable to their nature and profitable to them. ‘But it is not so.’ Teach them then, and show them without being angry.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“‘This man who has fallen into error and is mistaken about the most important matters, and thus has gone blind, not with regard to the eyesight that distinguishes white from black, but with regard to the judgment that distinguishes good from bad — should someone like this be put to death?’ If you put the question in that way, you’ll recognize the inhumanity of the thought that you’re expressing, and see that it is equivalent to saying, ‘Should this blind man, then, or that deaf one, be put to death?’”

– Epictetus

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.”

– Dale Carnegie

“As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.”

– Andrew Carnegie

“Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.”

– George Washington

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

– Mark Twain

“Seek the best in everyone that you meet. Seek the worst when dealing with yourself.”

– Sasha Azevedo

“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.”

– Carl Jung

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain - and most fools do.”

– Benjamin Franklin

“Every person's map of the world is as unique as their thumbprint. There are no two people alike. No two people who understand the same sentence the same way... So in dealing with people, you try not to fit them to your concept of what they should be.”

– Milton H. Erickson

“Success in dealing with people depends on sympathetic grasp of the other person's viewpoint.”

– Dale Carnegie

“The first thing to learn in intercourse with others is non-interference with their own particular ways of being happy, provided those ways do not assume to interfere by violence with ours.”

– William James

Quotes About Purpose and Duty

As the emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius clearly felt a strong sense of duty to lead virtuously. While we might never be as powerful as a Roman emperor, there is much we can learn from the Stoics about purpose, duty, and meaning in life.

“A good man does not spy around for the black spots in others, but presses unswervingly on towards his mark.”

– Marcus Aurelius

"We do not choose our own parts in life, and have nothing to do with those parts. Our duty is confined to playing them well."

– Epictetus

“Let men see, let them know, a real man, who lives as he was meant to live.”

– Marcus Aurelius

"Remember that you are an actor in a play of such a kind that the author chooses...For this is your duty, to act well the part that is given to you; but to select the part belongs to another.

Even as the Sun doth not wait for prayers and incantations to rise, but shines forth and is welcomed by all: so thou also wait not for clapping of hands and shouts and praise to do thy duty; nay, do good of thine own accord, and thou wilt be loved like the Sun."

– Epictetus

"It is man's peculiar duty to love even those who wrong him."

– Marcus Aurelius

"The true felicity of life is to be free from anxieties and pertubations; to understand and do our duties to God and man, and to enjoy the present without any serious dependence on the future."

– Seneca the Younger

“A man’s worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions.”

– Marcus Aurelius

"The highest duty and the highest proof of wisdom - that deed and word should be in accord."

– Seneca the Younger

“Do not be wise in words– be wise in deeds.”

– Marcus Aurelius

"Who-only let him be a man and intent upon honor-is not eager for the honorable ordeal and prompt to assume perilous duties? To what energetic man is not idleness a punishment?

The whole duty of man is embraced in the two principles of abstinence and patience: temperance in prosperity, and patient courage in adversity."

– Seneca the Younger

“Even the smallest thing should be done with reference to an end.”

– Marcus Aurelius

"It is man's duty to live in conformity with the divine will, and this means, firstly, bringing his life into line with 'nature's laws', and secondly, resigning himself completely and uncomplainingly to whatever fate may send him. Only by living thus, and not setting too high a value on things which can at any moment be taken away from him, can he discover that true, unshakeable peace and contentment to which ambition, luxury and above all avarice are among the greatest obstacles."

– Seneca the Younger

"Everything - a horse, a vine - is created for some duty... For what task, then, were you yourself created?"

– Marcus Aurelius

Keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, and unassuming; the friend of justice and godliness; kindly, affectionate, and resolute in your devotion to duty."

– Marcus Aurelius

"It is better to do one's own duty, however defective it may be, than to follow the duty of another, however well one may perform it. He who does his duty as his own nature reveals it, never sins."

– Laozi

"If we must accept fate we are not less compelled to affirm liberty, the significance of the individual, the grandeur of duty, the power of character."

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Stoic Quotes About Liberty

Whenever we talk about power, the question of freedom looms nearby. Epictetus, once a former slave, had a lot to offer us about the topic of freedom, while Marcus Aurelius discusses his gratefulness to the man that taught him about the "idea of a polity" in which everyone has "equal rights and equal freedom of speech."

“He is free who lives as he wishes to live; who is neither subject to compulsion nor to hindrance, nor to force; whose movements to action are not impeded, whose desires attain their purpose, and who does not fall into that which he would avoid.”

– Epictetus

“...And from him I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed…”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Only the educated are free.”

– Epictetus

“Not to be offended with other men’s liberty of speech, and to apply myself unto philosophy.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”

– Benjamin Franklin

“Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.”

– Albert Einstein

“Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”

– John F. Kennedy

“Being tolerant does not mean that I share another one's belief. But it does mean that I acknowledge another one's right to believe, and obey, his own conscience.”

– Viktor E. Frankl

As you can see, the wisdom in this collection of quotes doesn't fall within party lines. To be a Stoic in the modern political landscape doesn't specifically call for you to be a democrat or republican, liberal or conservative, or adhere to a particular less-powerful party like the Libertarian Party or the Green Party.

Instead of treating politics like a football game, where one team is pitted against the other, we can use Stoicism as a framework through which we can look at the world, our country, and our community. When we have worked to cultivate the Stoic virtues in ourselves, we are better able to see what role we can play in leadership and politics and which candidates and issues will genuinely be beneficial for the "beehive," as Marcus Aurelius would say.

If you're searching for more Stoic wisdom, check out our Stoic quotes on a wide variety of topics, including life, death, happiness, and anxiety.

 

Written by: Sophia Merton
Sophia received her BA from Vassar College and has always maintained a deep interest in the question of how best to live one’s life. She hopes to help others understand how they can apply Stoicism in their day-to-day lives in order to become the person they want to be, embrace the present moment, pursue their purposes, and rid themselves of unnecessary anxiety.

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This website provides the best stoic quotations on the topics of life, death, control, anxiety, and wisdom in general.

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