Oikeiôsis and the Circles of Concern
Oikeiôsis, which can be translated as ‘appropriation’, is the idea that, in common with other animals, as we grow in awareness, we extend our concept of ‘self’ to include first our care-givers, and then other beings similar to us. We appropriate them into our sense of self and begin to have concern for them. The Stoics’ ethical application of this insight is that we should increase the extent of our Oikeiôsis. The aim is to reduce, as far as is practicable, the gap between the concern that we show for ‘self’ and the concern that we show for the various categories of ‘other’.
Oikeiôsis was represented by Hierocles as a series of concentric circles, often now referred to as the Circles of Concern, with the Mind/Self at the centre, and the series of outer circles containing categories of people at increasing distance from the self. Hierocles’ idea is that we should strive to draw each circle closer to the centre, treating members of a given circle like members of the immediate inward circle. For example, one should treat parents like one’s own body, and treat uncles and aunts like parents, and so on. By drawing the circles towards the centre, we aim to increase the concern that we show for all of humankind.
The idea is not, however, to treat everybody the same. People are still in the relative circles. This is a key distinction drawn by Hierocles. We should, though, treat the members of each circle better than would otherwise be the case. We ought to treat others as we would wish to be treated in their position, in accordance with the four Stoic virtues (Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, Justice). In this way, we can deal justly with anybody because he/she is in at least the outer circle, a member of the human race.
Updating The Model to Tackle 21st Century Problems
Hierocles’ Circles of Concern model is deeply rooted in the cultural, ontological and epistemological norms of his time and place. The Greco-Roman world was fundamentally sexist. Slavery was an accepted part of society. People were very teleologically minded. They were extremely anthropomorphic and anthropocentric in their outlook. All non-human life and the planet itself were considered to exist to serve human needs. Science, as we understand it, did not exist. There was no Theory of Big Bang, no Theory of Evolution, no archaeological and anthropological body of knowledge to show that human agricultural civilisation had not always been as it was. Humans were far less numerous and had much less impact upon the planet. The very idea that humans were not the centre of the cosmos, and that we might indeed be a dangerous evolutionary mutation, would have been inconceivable. Although in many ways we are no wiser than the ancients, we are heirs to tremendous scientific and cultural advances, and it is incumbent upon us not to squander them.
To retain the relevance of Oikeiôsis to our lives, we must address the flaws and limitations of how we present it to ourselves. We experience our lives, and therefore base our decisions upon, the narratives that we tell ourselves. If we wish to change our everyday reality, and the disastrous impact that we are having on the planet, we must change our stories, and a fit for purpose model of Oikeiôsis is a major component in such a shift of experience. The need for a persuasive doctrine of compassion has never been more urgent.
Some writers on Stoicism, such as Kai Whiting, Leonidas Konstantakos, and Chris Gill, are proposing the addition of one or more outer circles to represent other animals, the environment, and the whole cosmos, but I don’t think this proposal goes far enough. I see four problems that limit the contemporary usefulness of Hierocles’ visual representation of Oikeiôsis, and I wish to propose a different model of Oikeiôsis.
The four problems I see are:
- Independent ‘Self’
- Human Exclusivity
The most obvious problem is that the categories of people used by Hierocles are outdated. He was writing to an audience of people like himself, citizens of a city-state. Our society is no longer structured in the same way. Modern civilisation is incredibly complex both technologically and politically, with a tiny and shrinking percentage of people having any significant wealth or political influence, an understanding of society, or even a sense of a stake in society. We increasingly feel alienated from the human world around us, and people have largely retreated into consumerism and special interest groups.
There is, however, a greater problem with constructing any categories at all. My use of the word ‘constructing’ is deliberate. Categories are not out there in the world waiting to be discovered, we actively construct them to help us label and manipulate the world in our conscious mind. Pertinent to the task at hand, that of updating the Circles of Concern model, is that when we draw lines between things, we set up tensions and assign values. We create in-groups and out-groups. This leads to prejudice and discrimination, and to the unspeakable horrors of the 20th century. We find, though, that real people don’t fit neatly into boxes like that, and we generate conflicts of emotions caused by complex intergroup relationships.
Our largest in-group is homo sapiens. The Stoics take rationality to be the scale upon which we can assign value. The more rational the creature, the higher its value. This places intelligent humans at the top, and dumb rocks at the bottom. The choice, though, of rationality as the salient spectrum of ontology is entirely arbitrary. We have no legitimate reasons for assigning relative values to anything. Biologists are increasingly finding that distinctions between species are no more than collections of shared attributes in signature combinations, rather than identifiable unique attributes, and this applies equally to any attribute that may once have been considered uniquely human. It is also now known that only about 10% of the cells in our bodies are distinctly human cells, so, we can no longer even see our bodies as uniquely our own. We find that the whole idea of categorising for the purpose of assigning differing levels of compassion is problematic. It reflects neither the way reality works, nor our lived experience.
There are metaphysical and scientific problems with finding the ‘mind/self’ as a separate entity. You simply can’t have a ‘self’ without an ‘other’, the two go together like front and back. If you have seemingly two things that are mutually dependent, they are really one thing. We are tiny parts of the planet that have learnt to move around. We have evolved some effective survival tricks, such as conscious intelligence, which have allowed us to spread over the face of the earth, but we are inextricably interwoven with the whole of existence. Our unconscious intelligence, which is really that of the cosmos, dwarves our limited conscious intellects. Without the intelligence inherent in the cosmos, we would not be here at all. The ‘self’ is a locus of experience. It is 100% relational/behavioural. The independent ‘self’ is a fiction.
Neuroscience has shown that our senses are discriminatory in nature. They function by excluding almost all the information encountered by the body. Our overall being responds to all this cosmic energy, but our conscious mind cannot. Our mind is presented with a delayed, and edited, selection of interpreted impressions, and this is our stream of experience. We live in a highly selective narrative of slightly past information. The idea that there is an essential ‘self’ trapped in the body, which controls it like the driver of a car, is false. Again, we see that the independent ‘self’ is an illusion.
Modern science is unable to find base ‘matter’. Every time it reaches something that it considers indivisible, it develops a thinner, sharper blade and opens up further depths of investigation. It finds only pulsing energy. Science is an increasingly precise description of forms and behaviour, and makes increasingly accurate predictions, but it does not truly explain anything. All change, all cause, takes place in the off-beats, and therefore away from the realm of phenomena. Our instruments are in the realm of phenomena, of effects, and only register the on-beats, as does our sensory and cognitive apparatus. Our experience is an illusory narrative composed from these selected on-beats. It’s like a spot the difference puzzle, moment-to-moment, that produces the illusion of movement, which we never really see ‘happening’ because there is no solid ‘self’ existing outside of the energy pulse to witness it. So, we see that there is no way to arrive at an independent ‘self’. We are localised, semi-permanent patterns of disturbance in a unified energy field.
Hierocles’ model abruptly ends with a final circle representing our own species. This is an arbitrary and mistaken place to cease our compassion for others. As I showed in the section on Categorisation, we are not special and there is no legitimate system of ‘value’ within which we can grant ourselves a special privilege. The earth is geological, and the whole cosmos is an energy field, but life is an emergent property of that field and that geology. Those dumb rocks that you see are capable of generating humans. We are, to repeat the point, inseparable from the whole cosmos.
The Stoics did not have the Theories of Big Bang and of Evolution, but we do. Although we can’t fully understand them at a fundamental level, and they may yet be refined or replaced by future science, we should consider their implications for the Circles of Concern being limited to homo sapiens. The Big Bang did not end – we are at the leading edge of it. No currently living species is the direct ancestor of another – every species of life is at the cutting edge of evolution, is another method of keeping alive that initial spark of life that emerged however many millions of years ago. It is not justifiable to claim that we are in any way special. Every species is a marvel, and we should respect and treasure it.
If we leave aside short-term fluctuations arising from noxious political systems and harmful ideologies, the tendency of civilisation has been to move from less to more tolerant. We are moving towards less sexism, racism, ageism and disability discrimination. We have made large strides towards the abolition of slavery, fox hunting, dog fights and bull fights. I have no doubt that future generations of humans, assuming there are any, will look back with disbelief on industrial animal agriculture, horse racing and all kinds of hunting. Speciesism will perhaps be the next –ism to be dealt with.
Epictetus’ role ethics exhort us to forget the other party’s behaviour and focus on our own. When we apply this to our place in the world, it can be re-stated as ‘Ask not what Nature can do for you, but what you can do for Nature.’ We ought to set aside all motivations based on what we can get out of Nature. That is precisely the thinking that has led us to the verge of ecological collapse. Rather, we ought to perform our unique role in the biosphere for the benefit of Nature as a whole. This will inevitably lead to rewards for us, but that should not be our primary motivation. We have become a malign presence on this planet, and that is all the more shameful because of the tremendous capacity that we have, due to our ingenuity for technical solutions, to be an overwhelming force for the benefit of Nature and the wonderful variety of life-forms that have evolved.
As discussed in the Categorisation section, the model should not have separate circles. It should be one circle to represent the unified field of existence. There is, however, another reason to remove the concentric element of the model. By placing various categories of people at varying distances from the ‘self’, the intervening circles become obstacles. This does not reflect our lived experience. There are many cases when we privilege the needs of people in one group over those of people in a more central group. For example, a social justice activist might show greater concern for a foreign worker or refugee than for a member of his or her own government. A person in a position of authority might put the needs of the wider community ahead of those of his or her spouse. In other words, concern can skip circles, but the model does not allow for that. The Stoics certainly did recognise the seniority of the outer circle, but the model does not help in that regard.
As discussed in the Independent ‘Self’ section, the model should not posit a fixed, central self. By having a fixed ‘self’ at the centre, towards which we are asked to draw in the other circles, we are perpetuating the fiction of a stable, separable ‘self’. No matter how much we might draw in the circles, the best that we can hope to accomplish is to compress them into a more densely packed set. The model should promote an Oikeiôsis which allows one to truly appropriate the ‘others’, without a false boundary remaining an obstacle.
As discussed in the Human Exclusivity section, the model should not end at humankind. Our lived experience is that animals or plants can skip circles and intrude into the model. Pet owners routinely show more concern for their pets than for strangers. Animal rights protesters sometimes perpetrate physical violence against farmers or animal-testing scientists. Violence can erupt when people attempt to protect trees from developers. Once again, the concentric circles do not reflect lived experience, and neither does the outer circle of the model.
A 21st Century Model
We need a model that respects the unified nature of reality, reflects lived experience, and provides a pragmatic set of principles to which we can adhere. Here are the key features of my proposed model for a reimagined Oikeiôsis:
- There is only one circle to represent all of existence. There are no concentric divisions acting as boundaries to the ‘self’.
- There are no delineated categorisations. Everything (from inorganic forms to bacteria to plants to animals) blends seamlessly around the circle with no boundaries. A complete colour spectrum, filling the circle, with no end and no beginning, represents the inspiring array of forms that we see in the cosmos.
- Humans are included with all animals. We are not given special privilege.
- The model does not begin and end with homo sapiens.
- A central white hole represents an illusory ‘self’. Over time, and in different contexts, the hole can expand or contract at one or more points of its circumference to show an imperfect circle. This represents the varying levels of Oikeiôsis that we are capable of feeling for different forms within the cosmos.
- Our aim should be to shrink the central hole to nothing, leaving an unpunctured spectrum of colour, by feeling Oikeiôsis and expressing compassion for the whole of existence.
The aim here is not to treat everybody and everything the same. You will still have different relationships with your parents, your pets, your garden, your car, wild animals, the forests, and the oceans. The intention is that you might determine in every relationship the appropriate way to act by recognising your ‘self’ in the ‘other’ and treating it with all the respect that you would expect to receive if the roles were reversed. If we all did this, what a difference we would see at a global level.
Ray Pilling stumbled upon Stoicism in 2020, and has spent the past year trying to learn more about it and to incorporate this amazing philosophy into his life. He lives in England, and is especially drawn to the Ethics of Stoicism.