Repost: The Stoics on the Community of Humankind by Patrick Ussher

This the last of our posts this weekend revisiting some earlier posts on the blog which its new readers (after Stoic Week 2013) might have missed. In this post, Patrick Ussher explores the Stoic ‘community of humankind ideal’…

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?

7 thoughts on Repost: The Stoics on the Community of Humankind by Patrick Ussher

  1. Nigel Glassborow says:

    With part of Stoicism Today’s aim appearing to be to try to improve on CBT, these latest posts do highlight what it is that Stoicism offers that possibly CBT does not.
    CBT offers examination and understanding of one’s thoughts and emotions, but does it offer any idea about what one does with one’s newly framed thoughts and one’s ‘tamed’ emotions?
    If the purpose is to provide a ‘therapy’ based on Stoicism or a ‘new improved’ CBT, will the Stoic ideas for using one’s improved thinking processes be part of the ingredients that go to make up the ‘medicine’? Or will the therapists, wanting to earn a living providing the new ‘therapy’, be offering their clients a reinvented wheel without any guidance as to how it can be used to help the cart to move.
    Clear thinking is of no more use than misguided thinking, if it has no purpose. CBT may help a person to see a situation more clearly and to ‘distance’ themselves from an emotion or anxiety, but having so distanced themselves, then what do they do with their lives?
    Stoicism offers purpose to the life seen more clearly and that is, in part, selfishness through selflessness. Stoicism offers reason for the life seen more clearly, and that is that we are all part of the one ‘consciousness’, the Divine Fire’, and as such that our purpose is to fulfil the various roles we have been given in life to the best of our ability and so to serve the whole with honour and virtue. We do not need to understand the ‘will’ of the whole but we do need to get on and fulfil the duties that our roles in life demand.
    The good button maker in the upholstery factory is not concerned with what suite the buttons are destined for, which shop it is going to be delivered to or if the company will sell it. Their only concern is that they make sufficient buttons of the correct colour and that they are made well so that the whole suite will not be returned because they have failed in their duty.
    If people want to improve on CBT then let them start teaching of duty, honour and virtue. Let them form a cosmological view that sees each individual as part of a greater conscious whole. Let them teach that the individual Self is just part of the greater Self.
    If it is felt that this is all a step too far there will be no improvement on CBT. Everyone who wants to make a living out of Stoicism will end up with yet another fad ‘therapy’ that will be a watered down version of the real thing. It will be yet another ‘healing’ that never heals, designed to ensure that the ‘client’ keeps having to come back for more ‘sessions’ when they yet again lose their way.
    If you want a ‘system’ that works you need to take on board a cosmology that acknowledges a Cosmos wide spectrum of ‘consciousness’ that gives purpose to life; the principles of duty, honour and virtue; and a degree of faith and love through which a person can experience the oneness of the Whole.
    CBT offers only one wheel. Stoicism offers the whole cart so that the individual may complete their journey without the need for a ‘therapist’.

  2. Angela Gilmour says:

    How wonderful to have a leader like, Marcus Aurelius, today the world would not be in the state of conflict it is today. Even in this country at the next election for me it will be a case of picking the best of a bad lot! All I can do as part of the community of the world is to live mindfully sharing my good fortune and happiness with my neighbours both near and far. By living simply so we may simply live in harmony with man, nature and the earth. I try to give thanks, reflect and resolve to take action to be more mindful each day and this seems to bring me happiness and peace.

  3. It strikes me that the political philosophy of the Stoics is a fruitful area for further reflection after reading Patrick’s contribution. It is much needed as the debate sometimes gets polarised between individualism versus communitarianism.

  4. Hubert Eerdekens says:

    I am new at this site. I would like to ask a question: does nature really wants something. I am enclined to say no. Perhaps I do not understand Stoic philosophy, but in my opinion nature does what it does and does not want anything at all.
    Please apologize me for my English, my native language is Dutch.

    • Nigel Glassborow says:

      Stoicism sees the whole Cosmos as ‘conscious’. What ‘nature wants’ is open to contemplation, but it is the same as asking what we want of an individual blood cell within our body. What is the common interest of both the individual and any individual blood cell – it is that the blood cell gets on and performs its role as it is meant to do. By its very nature the blood cell will die and be replaced by new cells. however the aim of the blood cell while it lives is to ensure that it performs its tasks so ensuring the wellbeing of the whole individual. But does the blood cell need to know what the individual wants in order to get on and fulfil its role?
      This is why we are encouraged to live according to Phusis (conscious Nature).
      Understanding that we are sparks of the Divine Fire, the whole of which we are a part, is crucial to understanding all the other aspects of Stoicism. It explains why the Stoic follows a selfish course through life by being selfless.

      • Hubert Eerdekens says:

        Thank you very much, Nigel, for answering my question and for giving me valuable advice and information. You are helping a 69 years old man in understanding Stoic philosophy. Thanks again.

  5. Dan Chalykoff says:

    Hello Fellow Seekers,
    Excellent initial post by Patrick re: Marcus A.; thank you for that and for the provocative posts that followed.
    I will add that more than knowledge of the cosmos and nature is required of healthful therapy. I believe that once one’s thinking is righted, one’s values have to be listened for and understood. Or maybe those two happen in a different order, but that’s not as important as the identification and pursuit of both. Is it not the effective deployment of well understood values that makes a life worth living? That allows for full individuation?
    Secondly, in answer to one of the heaviest questions I’ve read, posted by Hubert, “Does nature want anything?” some lines from Dylan Thomas that have been of regular assistance in answering this question, at least to my satisfaction:
    The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
    Drives my green age…
    The force that drives the water through the rocks
    Drives my red blood…
    Thanks, all. Very helpful.

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