Beyond the Individual: Stoic Philosophy on Community and Connection – by Will Johncock

Will Johncock discusses his new book, Beyond the Individual: Stoic Philosophy on Community and Connection, which argues that (i) Stoicism’s core beliefs concern our connections with the world and our fellow humans, and that (ii) what you might interpret to be individualized or personalized about yourself, for the Stoics are instead traces of the world that are shared with and common to everyone.


The benefits for individuals who practice features of Stoic philosophy have in recent years been much publicized. The modern surge in Stoicism’s popularity is, to a significant degree, attributable to this practical aspect of it. As the philosophy is portrayed as an ancient source of personal wellbeing, so the public awareness of it has exploded. Keeping pace with this increased attention is the publication of numerous “how to” guides on Stoicism, many of which direct new devotees on the ways to apply Stoicism’s principles to improve their own welfare. For people experiencing adverse mental or emotional states in particular, the allure is that Stoicism can help them better mentally manage their lives. Stoicism and themes around self-development have accordingly become closely associated…and for good reason. Arguments that Stoic philosophy provides an effective psychological therapy seem to be justified when considering how many people report online that practicing Stoic techniques really does improve how they think and feel about themselves day-to-day.

Many of these engagements with Stoic philosophy begin with, and even revolve around, one of its central ideas. This idea, expressed in various forms depending on which of the ancient school’s thinkers is being cited, posits that you only have control over your internal existence, your mental experiences. Another way to put this is that what happens in the world outside your mind is not up to you. The way the world develops, how people interact with each other, even the way that people treat you, all that happens as it does whether you like it or not. Conversely, what you think about everything that happens, and how you mentally respond to it, is up to you.

The message conveyed here via Stoicism is that personal wellbeing and improved mental health is more likely to ensue if you are conscious of the distinction between what is, versus what is not, up to you. The further suggestion is that you will be living closer to your own nature (and who doesn’t want that?!) if you remain unperturbed by what happens in the world around you. In this mode, Stoicism presents as being a philosophy of personal resilience. If you have any doubt about the current pervasiveness of that correlation, do a quick Google search to see how intimately Stoicism and notions of individual resilience are mutually associated.

The recent re-invigoration of Stoicism is unquestionably related to this appeal to individuals who seek tools to target and develop their psychological strength and clarity. The way that the philosophy has been positioned as an aid to personal inner prosperity has timed perfectly with our era’s growing awareness of mental health imperatives. Via Stoicism, philosophy seems to have become more practical and relevant than it ever has, which for someone like myself with three decades of experience with classical philosophy is quite a novelty.

I have, however, also been perplexed watching this develop over the last few years, given that my familiarity with Stoicism is of a philosophy that is preoccupied with shared benefits and universal perspectives, rather than hyper-individualized outcomes or aspirations. Hadn’t the Stoics asserted, after all, that when discussing ourselves we always, always, had to firstly be conscious of our roles in relation to an entire world system? Didn’t Epictetus explicitly demand that we should never target prosperities for an individual self alone, for that would irrationally suggest our separation from the fellowships and responsibilities that we naturally owed each other? Indeed had I been mistaken, or wasn’t Marcus Aurelius’ position that the pasts and futures of every single one of us has already been determined in common by a world of causes beyond our control,1 meaning that we are consequently “enmeshed” together as he says, rather than independent and self-serving creatures? The more I reflected on the difference between this Stoicism I knew, and the Stoicism I was seeing being popularly discussed, the more I became concerned about how the individual and the personal had become the dominant sites of attention for current Stoicism.

My purpose in addressing this concern with this book is not to negate self-help characterizations and individual-oriented applications of Stoicism. As I have already noted, these works do genuinely assist people, and very quickly too. I am worried though, that if people encounter the philosophy in a way that centers it around the existence and prosperity of the individual, over time the well-being that the Stoics intended from the philosophy becomes compromised. If someone reads an account of Stoicism that over-emphatically distinguishes an internally resilient individual mind/self, from the external world around them, in the long term this could even hurt rather than help them. Where people come to the philosophy seeking ways in which to manage their mental and emotional health, however find a version of the philosophy that installs sharp divisions between their internal self and the external world, greater feelings of anxiety and alienation could manifest than they experienced before even encountering Stoicism.

At its core Stoicism is instead a philosophy about how open we are to an whole world. It cannot, and should not, be reduced to themes of resiliently protecting and closing off an individual’s psychological states from that world. As I explain in the book:


If the first Stoic instruction you receive is to emphatically distinguish your own mind’s “turf” from everything else, a tense border is surely mentally constructed between yourself and the rest of the world. When this world is the very uncontrollable entity and anxiety-inducing threat that has brought someone to Stoic philosophy in the first place, it is possible that such an approach would enlarge rather than alleviate their anxiety by increasing feelings of alienation. By instead engaging Stoicism as a philosophy that is firstly and primarily teaching us about how we are inherently bound to each other and to an entire world, so we will differently appraise the intersection between Stoic philosophy and our psychologies.


My motivation with this book is not to portray any current work as incorrect. Rather, I have written Beyond the Individual to complement existing works, and to balance modern Stoic libraries, by focusing on what I argue are the philosophy’s most important commitments. Those commitments are to think of ourselves as (i) traces or parts of a physical world in which we are embedded (rather than from which we are internally/mentally separated), and as (ii) sharing kindred and communal relations, responsibilities and duties, with our fellow humans.

This study does not preclude recognition of the personal improvements and benefits that are possible through Stoicism. By presenting, however, the Stoic position that everything which is individualized or personalized is simply a component or piece of a greater system (the world), this book attends to the universal and common preconditions for everything that is individual or personal about each of us. A consistent message that Beyond the Individual raises from the Stoics is that it is only by thinking and acting with the consciousness that you are a mere part of a whole system, and by directing your thoughts and actions toward a kinship with other people because we all share this same nature, that well-being for you as an individual results.

The book’s discussion of such points is designed to be suitable for general and academic readers. It involves all ancient eras of the Stoics, contemporaries of the Stoics such as Cicero and Galen, comparisons with Presocratic, Platonic, and Aristotelian positions, and modern Stoic debates. With the ancient Stoics themselves. we find accounts such as that of Epictetus, for whom a Stoic “never acts in their own interest or thinks of themselves alone, but…all its actions and desires aim at nothing except contributing to the common good” (Epictetus, Discourses, 2.10.4).. It is also necessary to observe how Marcus Aurelius posits that we deny our rational nature, “our common nature,” if we become preoccupied with our own existence and “flee from the reason that governs our social life” (Meditations, 4.29). We see this sentiment also presented in Seneca’s Stoicism, where there is said to exist:


…a community of interest between us in everything. We have neither successes nor setbacks as individuals; our lives have a common end. No one can lead a happy life if he thinks only of himself and turns everything to his own purposes. You should live for the other person if you wish to live for yourself.

Letters from a Stoic, 48,1–6.


The Stoics’ emphasis on our social or communal orientations and obligations represents an important distinction that the book extensively discusses. Here I study how in one regard, the Stoics warn us about the gossipy, status-driven, trends and occurrences of social life. The Stoics say these kinds of social phenomena typically distract us from our real nature. In another regard though, for the Stoics our real nature absolutely is that we are primarily social, communal, kindred beings.

This latter endorsement of our social nature derives from a belief that permeates all generations of the ancient school. That belief is that we each share the same origin, the same heritage, the same lineage, because we are each a fragment of the same physical entity; the world or the universe itself. We can identify a version of this belief in the first formalized thoughts of the school, where Zeno, in the process of contradicting Plato by arguing that everything that exists is bodied, posits that humans and the world are all comprised of a common substance.2 This belief takes different forms throughout the Greek and Roman eras, finally manifesting in Marcus Aurelius’ sense of ourselves as perpetually changing traces of a singular worldly body, in which “every part of me will be appointed by change to a new position as some part of the universe, and that again will be changed to form another part of the universe, and so on to infinity.” (Meditations, 5.13)

We, as individual bodies, are inextricably intertwined with each other and with the universe as parts of a single body. With these characteristics we receive one insight into what the Stoics actually mean when they describe us as social. Because of our inherent or default shared constitution, being social does not simply refer to conventional definitions of spending time fraternizing with others, but as I explain:


…the fundamental feature of a social or communal nature for the Stoics instead refers to how, when you think and act, you do so with an awareness that you are part of and constituted by a greater whole. This requires an appreciation that everything about us that appears to be “individual” or “personal,” instead borrows from and shares in something that is dispersed beyond ourselves and is common to all.


Beyond the Individual explores how this view is the precondition for all understandings of the self in Stoicism. Even the mind, the feature of ourselves that is conventionally portrayed in individualized terms, is shown to have a common origin, a shared constitution, and to function in collaboration with a world and other minds.

There are numerous versions of this point from the Stoics. As a brief survey, via Cicero we learn that for the early heads of the Stoic school, Zeno and Chrysippus, the world has an order and an arrangement (On the Nature of the Gods, 2.14-22). Our minds, when functioning rationally, arrange thoughts in ordered ways because they have inherited that capacity from the world. Our mind’s rationality, its orderliness, is said to be a trace of the world’s rational order. The mind is duly portrayed as implicated with, rather than resiliently closed off from, the world. The Stoic view that our rational mind, our internal self, is intertwined with the orderly arranged world, is observed by example by Epictetus:

If plants and our bodies are so intimately linked to the world and its rhythms, won’t the same be true of our minds – only more so? (Discourses 1.14.5)

As the book works through further ideas from Posidonius (via Galen and Cicero) and Marcus Aurelius, the argument develops that our mind is our access to a common source of rationality, and that is true for all humans. We are all accessing the same mind, we are all integrated with the same worldly order. Once again we find Marcus Aurelius eloquently summarizing the Stoic position, that because “your own mind” and every “human mind” is a “kindred mind,” (Meditations, 9.22) when you think you do not do so independently nor without others.

If our internality (our minds) and our physicality (our bodies) are traces of a world, then two key aspects by which we each define ourselves as individuals are in fact interwoven with and defined by what is not restricted to our individual self. This interconnected nature means we must be careful when describing the world as “beyond” in relation to us, because as I reflect for the Stoics:


This is a counterintuitive sense of “beyond.” It does not refer to a world that is external to or outside us, but rather designates a world that is the source, spark, and constitution of our own internality.


By dedicating each chapter to a study of an aspect of the self that might otherwise seem to define us as separate individuals – our mind, body, self-preserving instinct, knowledge, and happiness – Beyond the Individual explores how everything about each of us for the Stoics is actually shared and common to everyone. A Stoic accordingly thinks and acts as an expression of a world and as a part of communities, rather than entirely independently or for themselves alone. Stoicism’s understanding of each of us as implicated in and responsible for each other, rather than as individually self-determining entities, is intended to be the book’s driving message:


…if when thinking and acting we exclusively or predominantly hold a consciousness or anticipation of personal benefits, needs, adversities, goals, problems, or outcomes, we have missed not only the Stoic point but also the real advantages that Stoicism provides. An overly individualistic perspective might sound practical in terms of self-development, however we cannot define it as Stoic. We will consider whether instead, every thought or action only occurs in accordance with our Stoic nature if it is engaging with communal and universal commitments.


(Beyond the Individual: Stoic Philosophy on Community and Connection is out March 2023 through Pickwick Publications (an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers).



1. See where Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.26, describes how “all that happens to you…was ordained for you from the beginning and spun to be your fate.”

2. Calcidius in Long, A.A., and Sedley, D., The Hellenistic Philosophers: Volume 1, 44D, taken from SVF, 1.88.


Will Johncock is the author of the books Stoic Philosophy and Social Theory (2020), and Naturally Late: Synchronization in Socially Constructed Times (2019). He has taught at UNSW Sydney and the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. For more information and contact details:

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