On Will Johncock’s Beyond the Individual: Stoic Philosophy on Community and Connection (2023)
After around a decade of unlooked-for popular growth, it may no longer be too soon to say that we could be approaching “peak Stoic.” The reader in search of practical guidebooks on “how to live like a Stoic” is faced with an embarrassment of riches. These texts generally emphasize the psychological and psychosocial benefits one can get from learning some basic tenets of Stoic ethics, as well as some key exercises: the dichotomy of control, negative visualization (or the premeditation of adversities), the analysis of emotions as contestable judgments, the clarification of values, morning meditations, and the evening examination of conscience. It would be interesting to know the demographic spread of people within the growing Stoic communities globally, but they span from tech entrepreneurs (a cohort in which Stoicism of a particular flavor has flourished) through to parents and people in all kinds of professions: all looking for life advice of different, but convergent kinds. Inevitably, such a popular uptake of an ancient philosophy raises important questions surrounding whether the Stoicism that people are buying and practicing today is something new, relative to the ancient originals. Are we only sampling different parts or aspects of a philosophy which, in the ancient world, survived in a continuous tradition for at least 500 years, and which we know took in sophisticated treatments of logic, and a fully-fledged pantheistic view of the physics of the universe? And if we are, so what? Why shouldn’t we select? Does it matter, or is it a case of letting a thousand flowers bloom?
These debates, especially surrounding the relevance (or not) of the ancient Stoics’ ideas about physics for those interested in the philosophy as a way of life, have bubbled along for as long as “modern Stoicism” has been developing. And this bubbling along, I suspect, is a healthy thing, not least since it seems clear that in the ancient Stoic school, certainly after the first generations, different positions emerged on issues like moral psychology (is the soul unitary or not?), as well as ethics (is it ever OK to conceal relevant information from someone, who could use it to make the best decisions?) and even politics (if private property is not natural, but conventional, does that mean that prior possession creates a binding claim or not?).
Moreover, even if we confine ourselves to our key sources concerning Stoic ethics, there is a key tension which Australian writer, Will Johncock, identifies and responds to in his Beyond the Individual: Stoic Philosophy on Community and Connection, a new book on Stoicism which stands out from almost any other on the market today. If we start with Epictetus’ Manual, and the dichotomy of control, we get one image of Stoicism: let’s call it “second person” (and in a more or less imperative voice). If there are things outside of “your” control (and that is almost everything, as the writer Kurt Vonnegut once joked), you should not let them preoccupy or distress you. Instead, redirect your mental energies to what you can directly or potentially change. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, in which he almost everywhere addresses himself in the second person, also belongs in this broadly “self-help”, second-person presentation of Stoicism. In reading the philosopher-emperor enjoining himself, we can each identify with him, and follow Marcus’ advice to take better control of what depends upon us, as well as the other points which he stresses (see later).
However, if we go to a text like Cicero’s De Finibus, book III, in which Cicero puts into the mouth of Cato the Younger a classical exposition of the Stoic view on “the ends of life”, then a different, let’s call it “third-person” picture of Stoicism and its ethics emerges. If Epictetus’ sometimes edgy exhortations are like a kind of therapeutic hospital or boxing ring, in Cicero’s classic account of Stoic ethics, we are instead invited to hear an almost scientific, objective description of how human beings, like other animals, are adapted to their environment, but how, in contrast to other animals, humans develop differently, due to their possession of logos or ratio. So, for humans, the ends of life will differ, involving a rational awareness of the order of the whole universe, and tailoring our individual behaviors to a sense of our place within that whole.
It is not that these two “sides” or “presentations” of Stoicism are wholly divergent. The best life in both presentations of Stoicism converges around core ideas about “living in harmony with nature”, which means cultivating the virtues of courage, justice, wisdom, and moderation, and achieving a greater level of serenity and inner freedom. But the kind of “third person presentation” we get via Cicero’s Cato in De Finibus, which we also find expressed in many of the fragments which survive from the original or Hellenistic Stoics (in doxographic collections, principally, by Stobaeus and Diogenes Laertius), can seem to have a very different focus than what we find in Epictetus, Marcus, and even Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius. You won’t find De Finibus on many physical or virtual “self-help” shelves, just as it doesn’t feature strongly in many of the Stoic “how to” books now available.
There is also however a question about the substantive picture of human nature that emerges very strongly from these more third-person approaches to Stoic ethics. As Johncock notes, it is possible to read Epictetus and imagine that Stoicism is a highly individualistic philosophy, in the sense that it is about “getting your **ff together” and stopping blaming others. We probably all worry more than we need to about what others think of us, including many people who proclaim that they don’t care about this at all. Many of us spend too much time gossiping on- and offline about others, “gatherin’ the dirt” or indulging our emotions, from envy and outrage to fear and sanctimony. We probably all worry about future events, which may not even occur, more than we rationally might, and ruminate over past things that can no longer be changed. Many of us respond emotionally to events, then shape what we say and do more around our emotions, than the things as they are, out there, in the shared world. Stoicism allows us to draw some lines between “I” and other, mine and not-mine, and respond more calmly, wisely or skillfully.
If you start with a text like Cicero’s De Finibus, however—and Johncock also cites the Hellenistic sources, Plutarch on Chrysippus, and the works of Hierocles, which each concur—there can be no question about it: whilst Stoicism contains many resources for self-improvement, Seneca was nevertheless not talking idly when he proclaimed it to be the most sociable of the ancient philosophies. “No one can have a happy life if they look only to themselves”, Seneca writes in Letters to Lucilius 48, 2, “for neither good times nor bad affect just one of us” (at 122). But how can this be? How can one and the same philosophy ask us to look first to what we can control, and at the same time stress that we are thoroughly social creatures, whose flourishing is conditioned by our connections with others, shaped by what we have in common with other people, and oriented towards a happiness which can only be complete when it is shared?
It is this question, I think a vital question, that is the subject of Johncock’s Beyond the Individual: Stoic Philosophy on Community and Connection (see chapter 1). Given the present state of Stoic receptions, the book’s first task is to establish that, in contrast to widespread understandings, ancient Stoicism was not a form of proto-modern individualism. It was a philosophy whose image of human nature deeply contests such forms of individualism—that is, philosophies which suggest that human beings either just are, and/or ought to be, wholly self-sufficient, the authors of their own destinies, whose pursuit of self-fulfillment is carried out in an external and social world which is wholly indifferent, or even hostile to them, and in which they should accordingly feel no guilt or shame about putting themselves first. This first theoretical task is pursued in the book’s first four chapters, in which Johncock examines in depth the Stoic view of our minds, then our bodies, and then the Stoic conception that a person’s care for others is interconnected with, indeed, perhaps ultimately identifiable with, true care for themselves.
The book’s second task moves from theory to practice. This is to suggest that getting right the Stoic, theoretical understanding of the trans- or supra-individualistic nature of humans matters, in terms of the Stoicism we practice, and its prospects of delivering lasting well-being. As Johncock has explained in a piece on the book for Stoicism Today:
My purpose in … this book is not to negate self-help characterizations and individual-oriented applications of Stoicism … 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.
The practical task of the book is ventured in the final two chapters, on Stoic education and happiness respectively. We can read these chapters, with profit, in connection with some of the concerns raised by Nancy Sherman, Donald Robertson and others, about small “s” “stoicism”, which is associated with “toughening up” and “the stiff upper lip” idea of life, as against Stoicism with a big “S”, which is a significantly different, less school-masterly prospect.
As a needed corrective and challenge to the more individualistic splicings of practical Stoicism that can be found out there, Johncock’s book deserves a wide readership and lively debate. The text is densely referenced and argued, and should be read on its own terms by interested readers, so in what remains here, I will summarize what I take to be the central contention of the book, before proposing some critical prompts for debate.
For the Stoics, because human beings are rational animals, we each are participants in two forms of community much larger than our own egos. The first is the social community, but this also means in Stoicism, which is a universalistic philosophy, the entire community of human beings—not simply those who live in our postcode, share our natural language, skin color, passports, etc. The second larger community is the community of all things, animate and inanimate, in the Kosmos or “universe” itself. Our reason involves the human capacity to speak and to give reasons for our actions, but also our capacity to reflect upon our motives for acting, so we can even override some of our first impulses, if we deem them inappropriate or otherwise unwise. But our reason (logos, ratio) is also, for the Stoics, a part within each of us as individuals which is “beyond the individual”, per Johncock’s title. Here, his reading of Stoicism closely echoes that of Pierre Hadot and Christopher Gill. When we use the laws of language, these laws are not products of our ego, but our communities; when we use the laws of semantics, logic, these laws are not products of our ego, and even of our linguistic community. Rather, this logos which governs the connections between ideas for the Stoics is, within each of us, a small portion or fragment of the larger Logos, which is the ordering principle of the universe. Our little part or meros of this Logos has been gifted or bequeathed to our care, by nature or Zeus, for the span of our lives. “There is something shared between our mind and an entire universe, and therefore between our minds and other humans’ minds,” as Johncock says (49). When we reason well as individuals, the connections between our ideas mirror the connections between things and causes in the world out there. Since other humans have the same logos in them, and share a world structured by the same cosmic Logos, our ideas will tend to harmonize with theirs, when we are “being reasonable”. When we reason badly, our logos gets out of synch with the cosmic logos, with the results that we believe things or events that don’t exist or won’t happen, and because of this, sooner or later, we will expose ourselves to disappointments and forms of distress. Our ideas will also tend to disagree with those of others, certainly those others’ whose reason is more truly harmonizing with the larger Logos of things than our own. We will therefore be like a branch cut from a tree, as Marcus Aurelius somewhere says, a kind of cosmic alien or outcast, wishing emptily that things were not as they are.
In more technical terms, as Johncock examines, for the Stoics, our rational minds have a common source or “condition” in a Logos which is at once cosmic and communal, “beyond the individual”. Stressing the interconnections, many Stoic texts will even describe the entire cosmos as a “common fellowship” or universal city, a kosmopolis. This is not to suggest that humans are identical to animals, with whom we share this cosmopolis, but who do not have the logos which is distinct to humans (of all species on this earth, as far as we know). All animals, including humans, have a natural impulse (hormê) towards self-preservation and the preservation of offspring. But humans, unlike other animals, can from a certain age (around 14, puberty) make their reason “supervene” on the impulses of self-preservation. Just because we can each live our lives in pursuit of our own animal pleasures, we also can choose not to. And there are for the Stoics very good reasons for the latter choice, starting from a recognition of everything we owe to others, like with our parents (whom Johncock notes the Stoics compare to Zeus, for their children), and proceeding to a conscious, reflective recognition of everything we share with other human beings, as reflective, rational beings.
It is on this basis that we do indeed find, even in Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius (the principal authors of the second-person, self-help presentation of Stoicism), myriad prescriptive statements which suggest that the pursuit of the good life for human beings involves the cultivation of that part within each of us which transcends our little egos (however shiny they can become, in material goods, beauty, fame, riches, etc.). For Epictetus, he of the dichotomy of control, a Stoic nevertheless “never acts in their own interest or thinks of themselves alone … but all of [their] actions aim at nothing except contributing to the common good” (Discourses II, 10, 4, at 18). Once needless fears and worries about others’ actions and how we appear to them have been swept away, it is clear, what Epictetus thinks should take the place of this “bad” form of sociality is not an asocial, “I am a rock, I am an island” kind of rugged individualism, but a “good” sociality. This good, Stoic sociality is a matter of keeping reflectively in mind what the Stoics believe is always true, whether we acknowledge it or not: namely, that even when we are alone, “you carry God [reason, logos] around with you … it is within yourself that you carry him” (Epictetus, Discourses II, 8, 12). But what this means, since this God is reason and is transindividual, is that all of our actions should be oriented not simply to our needs as a pleasure-seeking body, but our roles and responsibilities as a rational human being, living in community with others, in a world characterized by an ever-changing, but rational and even beautiful order.
When we in self-help mode admire Marcus Aurelius’ famous opening to Meditations II, that is, as an exemplar of negative visualization, Johncock’s book points out that it is nevertheless to himself as a social being, who shares both mind and the world with others, that Marcus is addressing his preparation for the day:
Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet to-day inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill. But I, because I have seen that the nature of good is the right, and of ill the wrong, and that the nature of the man himself who does wrong is akin to my own (not of the same blood and seed, but partaking with me in mind, that is in a portion of divinity), I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. To work against one another therefore is to oppose Nature, and to be vexed with another or to turn away from him is to tend to antagonism. (Meds. II, 1 [my italics])
Indeed, the need for a Stoic, as a Stoic, to prioritize justice and service to the human community over self is such a recurring theme in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, that it is remarkable that this central preoccupation of the philosopher-emperor is not discussed more than it is. (See, for just some of the examples, Meditations I, 17, 5; II, 1, 4; IV, 3, 4; IV, 29, 2; IV, 33, 3; VI, 7; VII, 5, 2; VII, 13; VII, 55; VIII, 2; IX, 6; XI, 18, 1-2; XII, 20 …) As Marcus underscores:
Each of your actions which is not related either distantly or immediately to an end which serves the common good tears life apart, and prevents it from being one. It is a seditious act, as when, within a nation, someone separates his party from the concordant union of all citizens (Meds. IX, 23, 2).
In such declarations, as Johncock’s book stresses, readers are certainly a long way from any single-minded focus on helping oneself, independently of concerns for anyone else—after all, why should I care if they can’t look after themselves? Indeed, as Johncock’s last chapter in Beyond the Individual shows, happiness is conceived by the Stoics as a shared state, one which “supervenes” on individuals, from a larger common source: once more, the Logos, in which we participate (156). And of course, Stoic happiness resides, by famous definition, in “living in harmony (homologoumenos, with the same logos as) with nature”, a nature shared both with others, and ultimately, the Whole of which we are each passing parts (156).
I promised above some more critical remarks, as prompts for debate. (The task of a reviewer always seems a bit churlish, given this expectation that for all the things good or exemplary in a work, the reviewer must show their mettle by nevertheless dwelling on things they found deficient … But here goes.) It is always worthwhile, when making a philosophical claim, to imagine your worst adversary, and ask yourself whether your argument could convince even these folk, the least generous sceptics. I myself believe Johncock makes an overwhelming, unimpeachable, almost-impeccably documented case, that if “Stoicism” means the fullest, most accurate representation of what the ancient sources called “Stoic” say, then his presentation of their ethics and its ontological bases in Beyond the Individual is correct. But the critical, perhaps unfair questions would be these: is there anything in these demonstrations that the ancient Stoics believed individual happiness was only fully achievable by way of prioritizing a sense of human community, perhaps in all of our actions, which could convince an egoist, or even someone whose view of Stoicism is that it is an individualistic self-help philosophy for toughing it out in an alien and hostile world? If we remind such an egoist that they would never have made it to adulthood, let alone to the career success they covet as a highest good, without the aid of countless others, can’t the egoist always say: “so what?” If we point out the common features an egoist shares with others—our shared reason, our shared finitude, our shared world—can’t this egoist always say: “what is that to me and my purposes?” And one step along (if they have a philosophy major), can’t the same kind of egoist also say: “just because it is truly the case that I owe even my individual accomplishment to the support of myriad others, that doesn’t tell me anything about how I ought to behave, does it?” And if the egoist lives in a world in which they are saturated, as we all are, with shallow images of what happiness looks like, but which involve always standing out from the crowd, even making others envious, can any philosophical argument be enough to sway them away from today’s default societal individualism, which seems indeed to have even made its way into some developments of Modern Stoicism, especially in the tech-world?
Ultimately, I believe the strongest Stoic argument here, which is one which readers will find in Johncock’s Beyond the Individual, is the contention that people who turn their back on their responsibilities and duties to others will ultimately find their own lives more or less empty and unconnected: gilded, perhaps, but hollow, like an over-ripe apple. It is not possible to be truly happy, “in spite of” other people, the Stoics maintain. And when such folks come to this recognition, at that moment, it can then become possible to convert them to a more Stoic, trans-individualistic view of the world, like at those moments in Plato’s dialogues when the interlocutor realizes: “wow, I really have been holding onto confused and contradictory ideas …” At such moments, these hypothetical people could certainly do worse than be handed a copy of Will Johncock’s Beyond the Individual: Stoic Philosophy on Community and Connection.
Matthew Sharpe teaches philosophy in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of Stoicism, Bullying, and Beyond and coauthor of Philosophy as a Way of Life: History, Dimensions, Directions. His website is https://matthewsharpe.podia.com/, and his blog, on Stoicism, philosophy, and psychological subjects is Castalian Stream – Medium.