Abstract. The stability of axisymmetric plasmas confined by closed poloidal magnetic field lines is considered. The results are relevant to plasmas in the dipolar fields of stars and planets, as well as the Levitated Dipole Experiment, multipoles, Z pinches and field reversed configurations. The ideal MHD energy principle is employed to study stability of pressure driven Alfvén modes. A point dipole is considered in detail to demonstrate that equilibria exist which are MHD stable for arbitrary beta. Effects of sound waves and plasma resistivity are investigated for Z pinch and point dipole equilibria by means of resistive MHD theory. Kinetic theory is used to study drift frequency modes and their interaction with MHD modes near the ideal stability boundary for different collisionality regimes. Effects of collisional dissipation on drift mode stability are explicitly evaluated and applied to a point dipole and hard core Z pinch. The role of finite Larmor radius, equilibrium sheared flows, and drift reversed particles in modifying ideal stability thresholds is examined.