The Stoics on the Community of Humankind

Perspectives: The Stoics on the Community of Humankind

Much of Stoic philosophy stemmed from the simple observation that each of us is a part of the human race.  From this accurate, so often considered naïve, fact, they argued that each of us had a role to play in contributing to the common good of our own species. For nature wants all things to continue, and each species is to work together to that end.

Now whilst, the Stoics observed, ants or bees naturally work together, the human being, whose mind is subject to all kinds of prejudiced conditioning from his or her own individual society, has to use his reason to pierce through that conditioning in order to understand the way things are, i.e. the aforementioned fact that each of us is a part of a species whose wellbeing we value, and to base his or her action on this fact. For that reason, they developed the metaphor of the human race as a ‘body’. Thus, as all the limbs contribute to the health of our body, so too does each human, like a limb, contribute to the body of humanity. The fact that this was setting the bar high was never to be taken as a deterrent, and especially so if you really did want to follow nature’s way. And as you too are a part of nature, a Stoic would say, why wouldn’t you want to do this?

The Stoic position, presented just in outline here, has, of course, and still does have its critics. One obvious criticism: aren’t we really going to prefer our own interests over those of humanity in general? Surely that is what human ‘nature’ is really like? Here is Epictetus’ response, in which he reconciles action for our own interest with action for the benefit of others:

 ‘…such is the nature of the animal man; everything that he does is for himself. Why, even the sun does everything for its own sake, and, for that matter, so does Zeus himself. But when Zeus wishes to be “Rain-bringer”, and ‘Fruit-giver”, and ‘Father of men and of gods”, you can see for yourself that he cannot achieve these works, or win these appellations, unless he proves himself useful to the common interest; and in general he has so constituted the nature of the rational animal man, that he can attain nothing of his own proper good unless he contributes something to the common interest. Hence it follows that it can no longer be unsocial for a man to do everything for his own sake.’

The key phrase is that each human being, for the Stoics, is so set up that he or she cannot achieve what is really good for them without necessarily contributing to the common good. What, then, is really good for us? The Stoic answer was the life of virtue, for which they posited many reasons.  For one, such action leads to internal harmony, and thus to the distinctive marks of nature’s way: absence of negative emotions (apatheia), a good flow of life (eurhoia), and happiness (eudaimonia). More importantly, such action must necessarily contribute to the good of others, which thereby also contributes to nature’s plan for our welfare as a species. This is inbuilt in the very rationality of the universe: when Zeus wants to be the one who brings forth fruit, his status in this regard is automatically good for all of us. So too when we really want to be a good human being (or try to be one), the resulting action will be a source for good. Thus, concern for others underpins Epictetus’  claim that: it can no longer be unsocial for a man to do everything for his own sake.

The task for the Stoic, then, was to live the aspiration to contribute to the common good, and for our belief-sets to be based completely on the implications of understanding oneself to be a civis mundi, or citizen of the world. In practice this meant, as Epictetus puts it:

‘To treat nothing as a matter of private profit, nor to plan about anything as though a detached unit, but to act like the foot or the hand, which, if they had the faculty of reason and understood the constitution of nature, would never exercise choice or desire in any other way but by reference to the whole.’

And the reason for the importance of this in Stoic thought is precisely from observation of what happens when human beings follow the opposite, i.e. when their belief sets about what it means to be a part of the human species are poorly founded. When this is the case, Epictetus argues, bad things befall humanity. He said:

‘…such are the pitfalls that come to mankind, this is why there exists the siege of cities and their destruction, whenever correct belief-sets are destroyed. It is then that women are taken into captivity, then that children are enslaved and the men themselves slaughtered – are these things not bad?’

For the Stoic, these things are indeed bad: bad for the parts of nature and for it as a whole. Needless to say, this open, big-picture view the Stoics held of humanity, both for the generation during which one lived, and, the Stoics maintained, for all future generations, clashes strongly with the narrow mindset of the warlord or tyrant, a mindset which is a constant source of threat in our own world today.

But our world has had better leaders. Consider the reflection of a true philosopher king and Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, to himself upon rising:

 ‘Whenever, as the sun rises, you feel unwilling to get up, have this thought ready to hand:

 “I rise to do the work of a human being”

 Why feel any resentment, when I am rising to do that for which I was born, for which I was brought into the world? Or was I made instead just to lie under these bedclothes, all warm and comfortable? “Well it is pleasurable to do so!” But were you born for pleasure? Look at it this way: were you born for passivity or to be a man of action? Can you not see that even the shrubs, sparrows, ants, spiders and bees all do their bit, their part in making up the smooth functioning of the universe? So why don’t you do your bit too, and perform the role of a human being?’

What would our own world give to have such a leader as this humble Roman emperor? For, in our world, the consequences of correct belief-sets destroyed are catastrophic. And how, one wonders, would an inhumane tyrant intent on warfare understand what it means to ‘perform the role of a human being’?  Perhaps it would be better to ask: how could he?

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4 thoughts on “The Stoics on the Community of Humankind”

  1. Hmmm. I’m finding Stoicism interesting, especially for facing problems that threaten all of humanity; but did not Marcus Aurelius spend a lot of time sacking cities? He seems not to be in harmony with Epictetus on this point.

    1. So far haven’t read about sackings by Marcus Aurelius himself (correct me if I’m wrong). He spent years defending the Roman empire against invading Germanic tribes.

  2. I’m currently reading ‘The Path to Hope’ by Stéphane Hessel, in which the late German-French activist writes about a similar mindset of interconnectedness – though inspired by Buddhism. This way of thinking should in my opinion be promoted as it is an alternative for nihilistic individualism and also a philosophical base for environmentalism. I strongly recommend this book by Hessel, as he demonstrates how western and eastern philosohies can be reconciled, and indirectly a similarity between Stoicism and Buddhism.

    1. Many thanks StoicSteve for pointing out similarities with Hessel. I think you are also right that interconnectedness, as presented in certain strands of Buddhism, gives a cogent philosophical base for environmentalism, and maybe that inferring a Stoic position for the same, could contribute more than usefully to the debate. In fact, it would probably be interesting to consider what the Stoics might have said on a whole range of contemporary issues.