I presented a talk at Stoicon 2021 examining the strong foundations of altruistic care in Stoicism. This is a crucial topic for us to discuss as a Stoic community for several reasons. First, over the centuries this aspect of Stoicism has often been misunderstood. There’s a lingering stereotype out there that Stoics don’t care about anything, including other people. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth! That stony-faced, emotionless caricature is an unfortunate misinterpretation of Stoicism, so it’s important that we help correct that misunderstanding.
The second reason is that care is an important topic in itself and a significant part of Stoic philosophy. As we’ll see, it goes straight to the heart of Stoic ideas on virtue, happiness, and ethics.
To get us started, let’s look briefly at a quote from Marcus Aurelius, which illustrates the deep, rich nature of Stoic care. Throughout the Meditations, Marcus talks a lot about other people: about love, the common good, being patient and kind with people. This was obviously as hard for him as it is for us today, and in the Meditations he’s constantly reminding himself to work toward this goal. So Marcus says:
Love these people among whom your lot has fallen, but love them in all sincerity. (Meditations, 6.39)
One reason I love this particular quote so much is that it is very specific. You’ll notice Marcus is not talking about some kind of abstract or theoretical love here. He says, “Love these people among whom your lot has fallen,” the people that you happen to be with in your life. Maybe you didn’t choose to be with some of these people, and maybe you wouldn’t choose to be with them if you had a choice. But you are with them, so it’s up to you to make the best of that situation and love them in all sincerity.
Sincerity is the second part of the quote that’s really key. It’s not about doing your duty grudgingly, grumbling under your breath about people you don’t really like. Love them in all sincerity. We have to get that sincere, authentic love in there. This is really hard to do, as everybody knows, so in order to figure out how to do this, we’re going back to the basics. Let’s look at the nature of human flourishing.
How Do We Become Happy?
The reason we are practicing Stoicism—or at least the reason I’m practicing Stoicism, and I’m guessing it’s the reason you are too—is that we all want to live a good life. We want to be happy, we want to live a meaningful life, and Stoicism helps us figure out how to do that. Stoic ethics and Stoic care is not about sacrificing your own happiness for the sake of others. On the contrary, we become happy by caring for others, so we actually enhance our own happiness at the same time that we care for others.
How do we do that? It all goes back to the ancient Greek conception of happiness, eudaimonia, which is quite different from what people usually mean by happiness today. These days people might say things like, “I’m eating ice cream, therefore I’m happy” or, “I’m so happy because I just got a new car.” But the kind of happiness brought about by ice cream or new cars is external, and that means it can be taken away. If the new car or the ice cream disappears, then so does our happiness. That’s not what we want, is it?
If we are going to become truly happy, in a deep and meaningful way, we need our happiness to be internal. This long-lasting, rich, steady happiness is what results when we reach our potential as a human. Eudaimonic happiness, in the Stoic sense, only occurs when we perfect or complete our human nature. It’s a side effect of achieving human excellence.
Cleanthes, the second head of the Greek Stoa, illustrated this idea of perfecting our human nature when he said:
All human beings have from nature inclinations toward virtue and are like half lines of iambic verse; if they remain incomplete they are base but if they are completed they are virtuous. (Stobaeus, Anthology, 5b8)
What Cleanthes is saying here is that each one of us is like an unfinished poem. Think about your favorite poem, or maybe your favorite song. Someone is playing the song and they stop right before the conclusion, right before that last line. How do you feel? Like something is missing, right? Your ear is longing to complete the song. We naturally want the song to reach full completion and a harmonious resolution.
Cleanthes says this is what each one of us is like. Our human nature has given us inclinations toward virtue, which is really just human excellence. This is our genetic endowment and we’re all longing to fulfill this potential; anything short of completion leaves us wanting more. Remember, this is about becoming more human, not becoming inhuman. We’re not trying to get rid of our emotions or turn into a robot or anything like that. We want to perfect our human nature, and when we do this, we will become happy.
What Does It Mean to Be Human?
In order to perfect or complete our humanity, we need to have a pretty good understanding of human nature. So we should probably ask ourselves: what does it mean to be human? There are many different ways you could answer this question, but one way the ancient Stoics answered it—and the one we’re focusing on today—is to compare humans to other sorts of things in the world. The Stoics looked at other natural phenomena, such as plants and animals, and asked how humans differ from these other things. If we can identify special characteristics that belong only to humans, we might have a good idea of what our nature is. As Musonius Rufus put it:
The nature of each creature determines the virtue characteristic of it. (Lecture 17.1)
To start with a simple example, we could look at a creature like a bee and see what features and behaviors are characteristic of bees. Bees do things like gather pollen, make honey, and communicate the location of pollinating flowers to other bees. You’re not going to say a bee is fulfilling its bee-ish nature if it doesn’t help the other bees in the hive, or if it refuses to gather pollen or make honey. Such a cantankerous bee would probably not survive long in the hive if it kept refusing to cooperate with the other bees!
This is a simplified comparison, obviously, but we can apply the same idea to ourselves. If you’re looking at humans you could say that the defining features of humanity—what sets us apart from other creatures and makes us who we are—are two characteristics in particular: our intelligence and our sociability.
Intelligence is clearly a big component of being human. We now know that our intelligence is similar to other animals in some ways, but you could say humans are on the extreme end of a continuum of animal intelligence. This extreme intelligence is definitely one thing that sets us apart from other creatures. We love solving problems, we have an ability to imagine things that aren’t there, we can think about what other people are thinking. We have this very strong rational capacity and reasoning ability. We need to use these abilities well if we’re going to flourish as excellent humans.
Related to that is our desire for truth. This is something that doesn’t get talked about very often, but it’s actually extremely important when you stop to think about it. Everybody likes to be right about things. We like to understand, we like to know things. Think about how you feel if you realize you’ve been tricked, or if someone has pulled the wool over your eyes. We all hate that feeling. We have a natural desire for truth and understanding, so much so that we even create puzzles and riddles for ourselves just so we can have the pleasure of figuring out the answer.
Another defining feature of humanity is our social gregariousness. Humans always live in groups, from families to tribes to communities to nations. We perish when we’re alone, and this is especially evident when you think about children. Human infants are born completely helpless and have the longest childhood in the animal kingdom. That makes human children very dependent on their caregivers.
Adult humans, in their turn, often act as caregivers, so we are provided with a natural instinct to care for children. If we didn’t have such a strong caring instinct, we probably wouldn’t be willing to put in all the work it takes to raise a child: getting up in the middle of the night, picking up dirty socks off the floor, and all the other things parents do for their kids. We are made so that we do care about our children. If we didn’t, our species wouldn’t be here at all.
It’s particularly interesting to me that contemporary evolutionary psychology suggests that our intelligence and our sociability evolved in tandem; we became so intelligent because we are so social. It’s kind of a virtuous cycle, with our intelligence and sociability reinforcing each other, and as a result these are really strong inherent attributes of humans. So if we want to be good humans, our task is to exemplify excellence in these areas.
I know that sounds very demanding, and of course what we’re talking about here is ideal human nature. The Stoics weren’t sampling people off the street and asking, “Okay, what do you think it means to be happy?” They weren’t interested in averages; they were looking at the ideal. We already know what’s like to be ordinary because that’s where we’re all starting. But we don’t want to have an ordinary level of happiness, which isn’t really that happy. We want to strive for extraordinary happiness. And in order to do that, we need to strive for excellence.
What About the Dichotomy of Control?
At this point some of you might be wondering about the dichotomy of control. The dichotomy of control, in its simplified version, says we shouldn’t worry about things that are outside of our control. Instead, we should focus on what’s within our control: our motivations, opinions, desires, aversions, and actions. This is very true, and it’s a very good rule of thumb for a Stoic. But there is a risk of misunderstanding it when it’s oversimplified, so I just want to point out that we are not supposed to stop caring about others because of the dichotomy of control. We are only supposed to stop letting our happiness depend on other people.
This is a significant distinction. Once you realize that your happiness is internal—it depends only on your character and fulfilling your human nature—you understand that you can still care about people without letting your happiness depend on them. Your happiness doesn’t depend on what other people are doing, whether they give you the social approval that you might be craving or whether they give you that promotion you want or whether you get a certain number of likes on social media. None of that matters for your happiness. Your happiness depends on your internal character, and your ability to care is part of your character. It’s internal to you. You care about others no matter what they are doing. That ability is part of who you are.
I would suggest, as you’re thinking about the dichotomy of control and caring for other people, that you break it down into these two questions:
- Does my good (my happiness) depend on other people? > No
- Is it appropriate for me to care about other people? > Yes
In other words, you might say, “Does my good—my happiness, what’s good for me—depend on other people?” For a Stoic the answer is always going to be, “No, it doesn’t.” Your happiness doesn’t depend on what’s going on out there or what anyone else is doing.
But there’s another question we can ask: “Is it appropriate for me to care about other people?” And the answer to that is, “Yes, it is appropriate,” because you are a human. Caring for others is part of your nature and you find your flourishing and happiness that way. As Marcus Aurelius puts it:
A human being finds his delight in doing what is proper to a human being; and what is proper to him is to show good will to his own kind. (Meditations, 8.26)
We derive our happiness just by doing what’s proper or appropriate for a human. Given our nature, what is appropriate is for us to care and show goodwill to others.
Our Goal: Caring Wisely
Once we know that we are supposed to care, then we need to think about how to do it wisely. This completely changes our relationship to other people. We care about them, but we need to figure out how to do it wisely without letting our happiness depend on them. In other words, we need to perfect our care for them.
To see what this would look like, the ancient Stoics looked to the ideal of the sage, or the perfectly wise person. Most of us would say that sages probably don’t exist in real life, and none of us are going to become sages anytime soon. But we can still think about our ideals. We still need a guide to help us work toward the right direction as we try to live a meaningful life.
The sage—someone with perfected judgment—would also have perfected emotions. Remember, we’re not talking about getting rid of all our emotions. We do want to get rid of the passions, or negative emotions, and that comes from developing good judgment about what’s important in life. Some examples that the ancient Stoics gave of these perfected emotions are good intent, which would be wishing for good things for someone else’s sake; goodwill; welcoming; and cherishing. These are extremely positive other-oriented emotions. Caring about other people for their sake and continuously wishing them good things. Constant cheerfulness and joy. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
Only the Wise Can Love
Epictetus describes this ideal of wise care in one of my favorite discourses, 2.22. Picture Epictetus in his classroom, lecturing to his students and some community members who have stopped by to listen. He starts the lecture with this really provocative statement: it is to the wise alone that the power to love belongs. Another way of saying this is only the wise can love.
As you might expect, someone in the audience pipes up and says, “Wait a minute. That’s not true. I’m not wise but I still love my child.” This gives Epictetus the opportunity to explain that until you have perfected your judgment, you don’t truly love someone. Here’s the reason:
As a general rule—and one should have no illusions on the matter—there is nothing that a living creature is more strongly attached to than its own benefit. (Discourses, 2.22, 15)
If you place your benefit anywhere external to you—whether that’s in pursuing riches or fame or power, or if you think your good lies in another person and they don’t return your affection —you’re going to be unhappy because these are things you don’t control. Those things are bound to disappoint you in some way, and your happiness will suffer.
In addition, if you believe your happiness depends on externals, you might trample on other people in order to get those externals. We are all motivated to pursue what we think is good for us. If you truly believe that your good lies in money or fame or similar things, then you’re going to do whatever it takes to get them, potentially including hurting others.
If you want to be happy and love truly, then you need to realize that your good is internal. It’s in your character. When you understand that, you will find your flourishing. As Epictetus says: If I am where my moral self is, in that case alone will I be the friend, the son, the father, [the mother, the sister] that I ought to be. For then it will benefit me to preserve my trustworthiness, my sense of shame, my patience, my temperance, my cooperativeness, and to maintain good relations with others. (Discourses, 2.22, 20)
When you recognize that your good is your character, then you can give that that altruistic love without expecting anything in return. You have the joy of giving love that’s independent of whether someone returns your affections or whether that person passes away or whatever the circumstances of your life are. If you are where your moral self is, then you can truly love.
The point I’d like to emphasize here is that, by fulfilling our human nature, we actually benefit ourselves when we love others. As we learn to care wisely, we are fulfilling our human capacity for love and care. We become happier when we become more virtuous. So we’re benefiting ourselves and we’re also benefiting other people by offering them goodwill and acting justly towards them.
I really love it when Stoicism converges with wisdom from other traditions or from scientific research. I want to cite a quote from Matthieu Ricard, who is a Buddhist monk and translator for the Dalai Lama. He has been called “the happiest man alive” due to his participation in some neuroscience studies that looked at his brain activity as he was meditating on compassion and altruistic love.
In Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Matthieu Ricard says: “On the level of lived experience”—again, we’re not talking just about theory here, this is practical, lived experience—”altruistic love is accompanied by a profound feeling of fullness” (p. 81). Here we go again with this sense of fullness, of completion, of perfection. “And it is also the state of mind that activates the most brain areas linked to the positive emotions. Altruistic love is the most positive of all the positive emotions.”
That’s pretty amazing and it just reinforces this idea that we’ve been talking about: we become happy when we fulfill our human potential for caring about other people. So I hope you have a strong motivation now to think about love and care from a Stoic perspective.
On the Path to Caring Wisely
Now, it’s one thing to want to care wisely, and it’s another to actually do it. We all know that, in reality, this is really hard to do! I, for one, need all the help I can get, and I imagine most of you do too. Stoicism is full of ideas, advice, and techniques for caring about others, and I would recommend that you start out by reading Marcus Aurelius. Throughout his Meditations he talks a lot about his relationship to other people, and he uses specific techniques to encourage himself to care wisely.
But all the ancient Stoics talk about this, so here I’m pulling out three ideas from three different Stoics. I think these are really helpful and might be good to get you started.
Think of every interaction with others as meaningful. This is especially hard to do in the 21st century because we have so many interactions with so many people on a daily basis. Maybe you’re commuting to work and you see hundreds of people, their faces passing you in a blur. In normal times we’re bombarded by interactions with people. We risk not seeing them as human anymore because we’re just not thinking about it.
And yet we need to think about it. Seneca tells us:
Let this verse be in your heart and in your mouth: I am a human being; I regard nothing human as foreign to me. (Letters on Ethics, 95.53)
This is a very simple verse you can carry in your mind all day. Anytime you have an interaction with someone else, whether it’s a stranger (maybe you’re checking out at the supermarket) or whether it’s with your best friend or a family member, remember this verse. “I am a human being; I regard nothing human as foreign to me.”
That person that you just had a brief interaction with—they’re a person too. Behind their face is a human understanding and feelings. This is especially difficult to do online. When we’re online we might not even see faces, we usually just read words. (Sometimes online we are interacting with bots or programs, but most of the time it is a person that you’re interacting with.) So remind yourself to treat them like a human being.
Seneca also tells us we are linked in human companionship to every other person. We want to treat others like people who deserve our respect, even if they’ve done something unkind, even if they’ve done something you disagree with, even if they have different political opinions than you. Still treat them respectfully because they are a person.
Don’t expect other people to make you happy. We’ve talked about this quite a lot already, but I’d just like to emphasize that this even applies when you’re doing something nice for other people. Let’s say you do something nice for someone else; you do the right thing because it makes you happy to do so, not because you expect a reward from it, not because you expect recognition or appreciation. Most of the time you’re not going to get the recognition you think you deserve. Often people won’t even realize you’ve done something nice for them. But Marcus Aurelius tells us:
When you have done a good turn, what more do you want? Is it not enough that in doing this, you have acted according to your own nature, that you should go on to seek a reward for it? It’s just as if the eye sought compensation for seeing, or the feet for walking. (Meditations, 9.42)
You do what you think is right and it brings you delight because it is an expression of your fullest humanity. That’s where you find your happiness.
Remember what’s important in life. It’s all about developing good judgment. Epictetus says:
Whoever among you sincerely wants to be friend to another…should eradicate [bad] judgments, and despise them, and banish them from his mind. (Discourses, 2.22, 34)
So far we’ve talked mainly about one slice of Stoicism—ethics—but it’s also important to bring in logic and physics as you cultivate your character. In other words, your relationship with yourself with your own inner discourse (logic) and with the wider world (physics). Developing good judgment is part of a whole package of seeing the world clearly. We want to always have these Stoic ideas on our lips and in our minds so that we can develop that good judgment at every moment.
These are just three ideas that I hope can get you started caring about others in a wise and Stoic way. Remember, it’s a lifelong journey, so don’t get frustrated with yourself if you find this difficult or if you mess up sometimes. Keep reminding yourself why you are on this journey (to find happiness and inner peace) and where your strength comes from (your human nature). We may never reach perfection, but we will definitely make progress toward our goal.
Brittany Polat writes about Stoic psychology, development, and motivation at Living in Agreement. She is co-organizer and co-host of the upcoming Stoicon-x Women conference. You can also find and follow her on Twitter.