Chris Gill on Stoic Ethics – How to Relate to Other People
Hear Chris Gill give us a talk on one of the most important part of living the daily life of a Stoic – namely, how can we engage with other people? Please also find a script of the talk below.
Stoic Ethics: How to relate wisely to others
One of the key messages of Stoic ethics – perhaps the key message – is that all human beings are capable of achieving happiness by their own efforts. This is because happiness (or ‘flourishing’, eudaimonia) depends ultimately not on acquiring external things such as money or status, or even health or the well-being of our families, but on developing virtue or the virtues. The virtues are the set of qualities that are essential to a human life, qualities such as wisdom, courage, self-control and justice. Stoics believe that all human beings are fundamentally capable of developing these virtues. In that sense, we all have the basis for creating our own happiness: it is ‘up to us’ or ‘within our power’. They also believe that virtue alone is ‘good’ in a complete sense, whereas the other things which we value – which it is natural for us to value – such as health are of a lesser value, they are (in Stoic terminology) ‘preferred indifferents’. (See A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge 1987 = LS, sections 58, 60-1, 63.)
But if this is right, the question naturally arises: what value do we place on relationships with other people? If our happiness depends on ourselves and not, ultimately, on others and on their survival and wellbeing, what room is there for love and commitment to others? Some modern scholars (such as Richard Sorabji and Martha Nussbaum) have questioned whether there is room for love in the full sense within Stoicism, and they talk about Stoic ‘detachment’ from other people. They refer especially to Stoic ideas about accepting the death of those who are close to us, ideas I’ll discuss a bit later. In ancient Greece and Rome, incidentally, nobody, as far as I know, criticised the Stoics for ‘detachment’ of this kind: so this is a purely modern view. (R. Sorabji, Emotion and Peace of Mind, Oxford 2000: 181-4, M. C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge 2001. 359-60).
I think the view that the Stoics are ‘detached’ from other people is mistaken, and that Stoicism places a very positive value on interpersonal and social relationships. However, I recognise that there is a challenge we need to try to meet: to show how the idea that happiness depends ultimately on us is compatible with giving a profound value to other people and our relationships to them.
One way of approaching this question is through Stoic ideas about ethical development. Stoics believe that our whole life as human beings – and not just our youth or middle adult years – can and should consist of an on-going process of ethical development or self-transformation. The target or norm for this process is achieving wisdom, and so enabling wisdom and the other virtues to shape all aspects of our lives. This is a perfect or ideal goal and none of us will achieve it fully, though aiming for this goal is still the best way for us to live our lives.
This process of development is sometimes subdivided in ancient Stoic writings into two strands: one centres on the idea I outlined at the start, that happiness depends on developing the virtues in ourselves. Stoics believe that as human beings, we are instinctively or naturally attracted towards things such as health and property; as we develop as rational moral agents, we learn how to select such things properly. We gradually learn that what matters, ultimately is not acquiring these things for their own sake but doing so wisely or in a way that expresses our growing understanding of the virtues, so that the things other than virtue become secondary (‘preferred indifferents’). (LS 59D = Cicero On Ends 3.17-22.)
The other strand in our development is a social one. Stoics believe that all animals (and not just human beings) are instinctively motivated to care for others of their kind, a motive shown most clearly in parental love for offspring. Human beings, as rational animals, are naturally able – and, the Stoics, think naturally motivated – to express this motive in more complex ways than other animals. One way is sustained involvement in family, friendship and communal or political life. The other is coming to recognise that all human beings, as rational animals who share this capacity for ethical development, are like brothers and sisters to us, or like fellow-citizens in a world-community. (LS 57F = Cicero, On Ends 3.62-8, On Duties 1.12, 50-3.)
This view of human development raises two important questions. In social development, how should we interpret the relationship between local and universal involvement? More broadly, how should we interpret the relationship between the two strands in development, between development in moral understanding and development in social involvement? These are quite challenging questions and ones not addressed directly in surviving Stoic theoretical writings; but there is much Stoic material relevant to them, especially in Stoic writers on practical ethics such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.
I take first the question of the relationship between the two aspects of social development. Should we suppose that, as we develop ethically, we are meant to stop caring about our family and friends and care only about humanity in general, or at least to draw no ethical distinction between the two groups of people? I am pretty sure this is not what the Stoics have in mind. Stoic writings sometimes talk about extending outwards the circles of our concern from family to humankind (LS 57 G) – but this makes no sense unless we still have a special concern for our family and friends. Stoic teachers also suggest that we should use the idea of the brotherhood of humankind as a way of guiding and regulating our more local relationships. If we are inclined to become angry and irritated at others’ wrongdoing or to cheat or short-change other people in our financial and business life, we should check this inclination by reminding ourselves that they are our brothers and sisters in humankind (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.1, Cicero, On Duties 3.21, 3.50-7, esp. 52, 53.) So the Stoic view is that we should try to develop both kinds of relationships, with family, friends and community, and with humanity in general (including specific people falling outside our local circle) and do so in a sustained and deeply thought-out way. Also, we should use both kinds of relationship to inform and enrich each other. This seems to me very valuable advice in the modern world where we are often trying to juggle and make sense of the interplay between local and global relationships.
What about the question of the relationship between the two strands in ethical development – the social strand and the development of moral understanding? I think the same general principle holds good. These two strands are not meant to be quite distinct and separate, as though you could carry through one kind of development but not the other. Rather, the idea is that they are interconnected and contribute significantly to each other. Take first development in moral understanding. Although this is something that each of us must undertake for ourselves (and so it falls ‘within our power’), it is hard, or even impossible, to imagine how we could do this without social involvement, and without also developing in our social relations. This applies especially to virtues that are clearly social in character, such as courage and justice, but in different ways to all the virtues. We develop our understanding of the virtues by observing, and interacting with, other people who seem to embody the virtues in their lives – Marcus writes powerfully about this in Book 1 of his Meditations. Also, family and communal life are contexts in which we begin to learn, by our own actions and feelings, what it means to try at least to embody the virtues ourselves. On the other side, our social involvement will only form a proper part of our ethical development if we bring to bear in this context our growing understanding of what is truly valuable in human life.
This is all a bit abstract so let’s try to make it more specific (these examples allude to, or adapt, some striking passages in Epictetus’ Discourses, 1.11 and 3.3.5-10). Let’s imagine an aspiring Stoic father (or mother) with a very sick child. Will he or she stay by the bedside and do all he can to make the child better – or will he think that health is only of secondary value (compared with virtue) and so it doesn’t much matter whether he stays by the bedside or not? Of course, he or she will stay by the bedside and do all they can for the child. He will do that because health is something we are all naturally inclined to promote, in the Stoic theory of value; and he will do it because it is the appropriate thing to do as a way of trying to express virtue. This is a rather straightforward case, so let’s imagine something slightly more complex, a father or mother with a rather older or adult son or daughter. Suppose it becomes clear that the son values the relationship between them only in terms of the external goods he gets from the relationship – money or status, for instance. What does the aspiring Stoic father do now? He needs to change the way he acts towards the son, and to try to get his son to change the way he thinks about what is valuable. This may lead to conflict; but the conflict is unavoidable if the father is to act according to his own developing moral understanding and if he is to try to develop his son’s understanding also. And, on a Stoic view, the greatest benefit that any person can confer on another is to encourage their development of virtue and so their movement towards happiness.
What then of the criticism of Stoic ethics I mentioned earlier – that the Stoics advocate ‘detachment’ from other people? I hope it is becoming clear that this criticism is misplaced; but let’s take a moment to consider a point which has led especially to this criticism – Stoic acceptance of the prospect of death, including the death of those close to us. Consider this passage from Epictetus:
… whenever you take delight in anything, call to mind the opposite impression; what harm is there in your saying beneath your breath as you’re kissing your child, ‘Tomorrow you’ll die’? Or similarly to your friend, ‘Tomorrow, you’ll go abroad, or I will, and we’ll never see one another again.’ (Epictetus, Discourses 3.24.88; see also Handbook 3.)
Epictetus knows his advice is shocking – he calls it ‘ill-omened’ (Discourses 3.24.89); but what underlies this advice if it is not, as the critics of Stoicism think, advocacy of detachment from other people? Partly, this is an example of ‘preparation for adversity’, a theme prominent in Stoic advice for facing death (Cicero, Tusculans 3.28-31, 52). Epictetus reminds his listeners of something that is indeed a fact – though one we mostly prefer to ignore – that death is just as much a part of our life-cycle as birth (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.4, also 4.23, 12.31-6). It follows that, in any close relationship, such as a family or friendship, one partner will inevitably die before the other. Also, Epictetus assumes the Stoic framework of value, according to which our death – or that of someone close to us – is not the worst thing that can happen to us. The worst thing (in Stoic theory, the only really ‘bad’ thing) would be that we – or the other person – should become utterly corrupt morally, say, a mass murderer or a master criminal (On the Stoic theory of value, see LS 58, 60). Epictetus is assuming the general point I made earlier: that we should bring to bear on our social relationships our developing moral understanding, our grasp of what is and is not most valuable in life, given our human existence as integral parts of the natural universe, which includes death as well as birth. Of course, it is hard for us in such situations to apply this principle consistently, as the Stoics are well aware. But this does not mean the principle itself is not well-grounded. And what is involved is not a policy of detachment but an attempt to develop towards wisdom while being profoundly involved in human relationships.
On Stoic thinking on social relationships and on the relationship between development in ethical understanding and developing the way we conduct social relationships, see the introductions to the Oxford World Classic translations of Epictetus, Discourses, xiv-xvi, Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, xvi-iii, xix-xx, and the introduction to C. Gill, Marcus Aurelius: Meditations Books 1-6, translated with introduction and commentary (Oxford, 2013), xxxiv-xlix. See also, especially on Roman Stoicism, G. Reydams-Schils, The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility and Affection, Chicago, 2005, esp. chs. 2, 4-5.
Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism.