The Stoic Love of Community
Matt Van Natta
Did you know that the Stoic view of humanity is one of love, compassion, and concern? It is. However, if you missed this fact, I wouldn’t be surprised. The common conception of the ‘stoic’ individual doesn’t immediately bring to mind an enthusiastic and engaged community member. Even as Stoicism has surged in popularity, much of the conversation has remained focused on the philosophy’s psychological tool kit without going on to address the wider Stoic view of the world. This is unfortunate. Stoic psychology is a powerful system that can build mindfulness and resilience into its practitioners. Such inner strength is helpful for everyone, but it becomes admirable when applied to the real problems of the world. One of my favorite descriptions of Stoicism well-lived comes from Seneca. He writes,
‘No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good. The goal which it assigns to us is to be useful, to help others, and to take care, not only of ourselves, but of everyone in general and of each one in particular’ (On Clemency 3.3).
What a vibrant description! The philosophy to which Seneca had devoted himself did not encourage detachment. The Stoicism he had learned and lived was deeply engaged with world. It was, and continues to be, a philosophy of community. Its goal is to bring the best out of Stoics so they, in turn, can give their best to the people around them. These community-embracing Stoics are not the aloof men and women of popular conception. They are the friends, neighbors, and citizens who take up the hard work of life because they are not concerned with the obstacles in their way.
As an example of this community focus, let’s look at the Stoic concept of oikeiôsis. A lot of meaning is packed into that odd word which makes it difficult to translate, but words like affinity, affiliation, and endearment cover many of its facets. Stoicism claims that humans have a natural affinity for one another. This natural affection begins as love of the self, but quickly grows to encompass our caregivers and close family. In the Stoic view, the wise will work to expand this endearment until it covers each and every person. The clearest example of this is given by Hierocles, a Stoic contemporary of Marcus Aurelius. Hierocles spoke of a series of expanding circles. The first circle is our individual self, the next is our family, then our local community, our nation, and lastly the whole of humanity. As we grow our Stoic oikeiôsis, we are required to bring people from the outer circles into nearer ones. We challenge our perception of humankind until we can say that all people are our sisters and brothers. The expected outcome is that all our actions will consider their needs of others as equal to our own.
Stoicism interacts with the outmost circle, the whole of humankind, through the lens of cosmopolitanism. The ancient Stoics referred to themselves as citizens of the world. To them, all the barriers to human cooperation whether political, economic, or social were irrational constructs. At our human best, we are capable of working with anyone because, as Marcus Aurelius reminds himself, “…we were born into this world to work together like the feet, hands, eyelids, or upper and lower rows of teeth” (Meditations 2.1). This body-focused imagery is found throughout Stoic teaching. Humans are treated as part of a single organism, wherein our individual selves are best served by taking into account everyone’s needs. The teacher Epictetus actually combines the concept of citizenship with this body imagery:
“What then does the character of a citizen promise? To hold nothing as profitable to himself; to deliberate about nothing as if we were detached from the community, but to act as the hand or foot would do, if they had reason and understood the constitution of nature, for they would never put themselves in motion nor desire anything, otherwise than with reference to the whole” (Discourses 2.10).
This outlook explains why so many ancient Stoics were bold political animals. Did they separate events into what they could and could not control? Yes. Did they consider the actions of others and the happenings of life as indifferent to their purpose? Again, yes. How did they use the freedom they found through disregarding the external obstacles of life? Stoic freedom was fuel for brave actions taken in the name of what was just.
Marcus Aurelius said to, “let your impulse to act and your action have as their goal the service of the human community, because that, for you, is in conformity with your nature” (Meditations 9.31). What does it mean for us, as modern Stoics, to serve the human community? I don’t believe there is any one clear answer. The world is complex, and we all inhabit unique spaces and have individual strengths and shortcomings. Some of us may have the wherewithal to engage in higher level politics. Some of us may be interested in making our neighborhood school a better place. Personally, I try to serve my community during disasters large and small through the Red Cross. I’m guessing that all of us are aware of inequities and imperfections worth addressing in our communities. As Stoics, we have the fortitude to act courageously on behalf of others. We should use that strength.
Of course, modern politics seems to be built on division and strife. Even something as simple as improving a local park is guaranteed to rile up passions and conflict. How are we supposed to go out and fight for justice while remaining our serene stoic selves? By practicing Stoicism! In particular, we can use the Stoic reserve clause to maintain our tranquility during long term projects. The reserve clause is the Stoic habit of saying that we will do this or that, “fate permitting.” It’s a constant reminder that our actions are up to us, but the outcomes are outside of our control. As Seneca says, “In short, the wise man looks to the purpose of all actions, not their consequences; beginnings are in our power but Fortune judges the outcome, and I do not grant her a verdict upon me” (Letters, 14). This is an outlook that encourages Stoics to think big. Does something in your neighborhood need to change? Go change it. Will you succeed? Who knows? Do your best work and be satisfied in doing it. ‘Don’t wait for Plato’s Republic! Rather, be content if one tiny thing makes some progress, and reflect on the fact that what results from this tiny thing is no tiny thing at all!’ (Meditations, 9.29).
Stoicism is community focused. Stoic mental practices were developed to free us to thrive in the face of the world as it is. The freedom we gain, in turn, allows us to act with conviction. We may not all change the world, but we can each find our one tiny thing. Many people, doing many tiny things, can add up to something big. Even if it doesn’t, at least we were able to practice our Stoicism. That in itself is worth doing.
Author’s note: This short overview of community focused Stoic principles is just a taste. For a more detailed survey, I suggest Donald Robertson’s “Stoicism and the Art of Happiness,” which provided many of the above Stoic quotes. The chapters entitled ‘Love, Friendship, and the Ideal Sage’ and ‘The Discipline of Action’ are particularly focused on these issues. If you desire detailed scholarship you might also read “The Inner Citadel” by Pierre Hadot. His discussion of The Discipline of Action is illuminating.
Matt Van Natta is a practicing Stoic who blogs at: immoderatestoic.com. He is also a husband, a father, and an emergency management professional. Stoicism serves him well in each of those roles.