What Is a Stoic’s “Social Nature” by Will Johncock

We Are Naturally Social

I originally encountered Stoic philosophy many years ago when majoring in philosophy and sociology as an undergraduate. That I was studying sociology during this period is not irrelevant to my first experiences with Stoicism. This is because what initially caught my attention about the ancient Stoics was their emphasis on our inherently social or communal constitution. I rather hastily registered this principle as similar to modern sociological arguments about how we are each intrinsically shaped by our social environments.

As my familiarity with Stoicism developed over the ensuing weeks I soon realized how wrong this first impression was! Instead I came to grasp the significant differences between the Stoic sense of our essential social nature, and modern claims about how we are contingently constructed by the norms and structures of the societies into which we are born. In the spirit of this refined appreciation, I anticipate that clarifying in this discussion what our social nature means for the Stoics could assist others.

Stoicism’s emphasis on our social or communal predispositions does not inaugurate ancient concerns about social and political life. Turning to Plato’s Symposium as just one example we see that Socrates and the other interlocutors readily explore themes of civic virtue and values. I indeed would argue that the dialogic method via which Socrates generally explores philosophical questions necessarily has interpersonal and social conditions.

It is not uncommon in fact for Plato to describe, sometimes by analogy, individual states in terms of collective states. Take for instance his definition of happiness in the Republic. Individual happiness for Plato comprises the harmonious application of the soul’s various parts/faculties in a way that mirrors an idealized division of functions between classes or groups in a population. Then of course we have a work such as Aristotle’s Politics which considers how a political community relates to the fulfilment of citizens’ natural and virtuous ends.

This inadequately brief summary simply serves to recognize that pre-Stoic thought is rich with inquiries about collective life. Despite this ancient heritage, the Stoics nevertheless uniquely express something essential about our social or communal natures. As noted, this essential social quality will be distinguishable from modern ideas around how we are contextually socialized by the various communities in which we live.

The first point to make regarding our social nature for the Stoics is their belief that we are inherently designed for communal or collective existence. If we begin at ancient Stoicism’s Roman conclusion we find that Marcus Aurelius states plainly in Meditations that when we do “something good or otherwise contributory to the common interest” we have actioned what each of us “was designed for” (9.42,4). Elsewhere he describes this specifically with the term “nature” in that it is in our “nature to perform social acts” (8.12).

The influence of Epictetus is evident here. In his Discourses Epictetus proclaims that God’s design is of humans who “contribute something to the common interest” (1.19,10-19). The message is that our actions invoke a nature that looks beyond our own welfare or priorities to also consider our fellow humans. Because our nature reflects how we are “made in the interest of another” Marcus further grandly declares that we are “born for community” (5.16).

This theme of the welfares of ourselves and others becomes especially prominent when considering our inclinations toward self-preservation. Cicero in his De Officiis (On Duties) recounts how the Stoic follower, Cato the Younger, describes an individual’s self-preserving tendencies as  “identical” to what serves “the whole body politic” (3.6,26). The Stoic assertion is that such self-awareness is not exclusively an individualized prerogative but actually reflects how everyone is “bound to their fellow citizens” (3.6,28).

This is genuinely counterintuitive and requires more explanation. How can our self-preserving tendencies, our looking out for ourselves, reveal an underlying fellowship? A clue presents in Cato’s description of the “bond of mutual aid” (3.19,63). What we learn is that if it is in our human nature to care for another person’s welfare, likewise it is in their human nature to care for ours. Through this reciprocity a communal preservation of the self manifests.

We need to be careful with this sense of self-preservation though. For the Stoics self-preservation does not strictly refer to typical understandings around sustaining physical health and well-being. To self-preserve for the Stoics instead signifies living in accordance with nature. While that nature concerns our communal orientations as we have reviewed, what we are about to see is that such a nature also requires living rationally. It is through this intersection of community and rationality that the Stoic conception of our essentially social nature will diverge from modern impressions of the varied and contingent productions of our socialized selves and states by the societies in which we respectively live.

What Happens Socially Happens Externally

Our nature involves a communal and social existence for the Stoics. Nevertheless the contingent happenings of social life and our consequent socialization by those happenings also comprise much of what is outside our nature in their view. To appreciate this difference we can begin with Epictetus’ well-known distinction in the Enchiridion between what is, versus is not, in our control.

What is in our control for the Stoics is in our nature. Our attitudes and judgements are “within our control” and accordingly are internal to our nature. Such processes depend only on ourselves and so are internal to us. Conversely external features such as our body, our possessions, and socialized phenomena like our reputation are outside our control. Because our body changes, our possessions can be stolen, and we might be undeservedly spoken badly of by others, we have no control over these things. They are therefore outside our nature (1).

Epictetus even advises in the Discourses that if you “enter into social relations” with people who like to “gossip about shared acquaintances” you are vulnerable to harm. The harm eventuates if you become invested in what is beyond your control about such relations, as they externally distance you from your internal nature (3.16,4). Because we cannot control what happens in the external social arena, Epictetus demands that we should be indifferent to much of it. Marcus perpetuates this advisory, instructing in Meditations to “be deaf to gossip” (1.5). We also see in Seneca’s 7th letter “Avoiding the Crowd” the concern that “contact with a crowd is harmful” because of the external ways the many can “contaminate us” (7.2).

Being indifferent to what occurs socially and externally is within our internal control for the Stoics. Indifference does not entirely negate the presence of externalities in our lives. The earlier-raised topic of our health and well-being for example comes under what the Stoics variously categorize as a “preferred indifferent.” We can be physically healthy and even prefer healthiness over unhealthiness without being dependent on healthiness for our sense of internal self and living in accordance with our nature. By not being dependent on external contingencies our indifference accords with what the Stoics refer to as our “rational nature.” It is possibly surprising for the uninitiated reader of Stoicism to learn that within this rationality of our internal self, the essential nature of our communal and social self for the Stoics also operates. Indeed this rationality is the key to understanding our social/communal nature for the Stoics.

A Rational and Universal Community

The Stoics do not restrict their understanding of community to the usual definitions of people living together in the same geographic location, or being connected by shared interests and lifestyles. The Stoic idea of community instead involves something grander. We can begin to comprehend this Stoic community by considering what Stoicism believes we all primarily have in common; the just-discussed rational nature.

This rational nature for the Stoics is a fragment of God’s rationality. We each embody God’s rationality because it permeates the entire universe. To have a rational nature is our default mode and a fundamental Stoic principle. As Diogenes Laërtius reports in his The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, the earliest Greek Stoics such as Chrysippus observe for example a “right reason which pervades everything” (7.53).

The concept of God’s rationality being omnipresent illustrates the Stoic belief in a pantheistic universe. If a divine rationality infuses the entire world furthermore, your internal rationality is in harmony with that world. These pantheistic conditions are why for Chrysippus our rational nature is a “common nature, and also human nature in particular” (7.53). There are equally traces of this impression in Seneca’s 95th letter “The Role of General Principles” when he states that this “universe you see, containing the human and the divine, is a unity” (95.51).

This notion of a universal harmony that is conditioned by a pantheistic rationality contextualizes the earlier discussion about self-preservation. Cato’s description of an impulse toward self-preservation has involved not only individual ends or outcomes, but also communal and mutual ones. Cicero describes in De Officiis (On Duties) howthis self-preserving tendency for the Stoics is “fully rationalized and in harmony with nature” (3.6,20). What we can thus now appreciate via the advent of a pantheistic universe is how this rationalized self-preserving inclination accords both with one’s own natural ends and a nature that is beyond an individual.

This shared rationality is crucial to the Stoics’ broader sense of community. Stobaeus notes the Stoic view that as our nature involves a common rationality, so such rationality underpins how the “virtuous benefit one another.” This translation comes from Anthony Long and David Sedley’s encyclopedic work The Hellenistic Philosophers. Long and Sedley commentate on this point that the “mutual betterment” between individuals arises via a “community of goods” which “belong” to all who live by the common rationality (377).

A possibly concrete direction of the virtuousness involved in our universally rational and social nature presents in Hierocles’ essay “How Should One Behave toward One’s Relatives?” Hierocles describes our interpersonal relations via concentric rings that encircle us. Our closest relations as Stobaeus’ Anthology informs us are for Hierocles in the inner circles. Conversely the outermost circle represents the “entire race of human beings” (4.84.23).

Hierocles notes that a virtuous and “well-tempered’ individual will not be content with this divided and somewhat anti-communal structure though. The Stoic citizen should instead feel a responsibility to bring people from the outer circles in closer. Hierocles bases this order on what he asserts are our rationally communal instincts, stating in his treatise “On Marriage” that “our entire race is naturally disposed to community” (4.67.21). The rational, just, and good response to the distinction between the circles is to reduce the distances between people.

The resulting conception verges on a theory of the oneness of all humanity. Even more spectacularly in terms of arguments around singularity, Marcus’ Meditations defines the universe as “one living creature” (4.40). If the terminology of a “living creature” seems abstract, it can help to appreciate Marcus’ pantheistic view that God’s rationality “activates” the material world (4.40). The world is alive because God’s rationality activates its otherwise material passivity. Given that this active principle (divine rationality) is shared by all things, it is the condition for a universal commonality and community. Pantheistic reason underpins a universal unification in which the “rational directly implies social” (10.2).

The Stoic impression of community therefore requires that what is internal about our individual rationality is also present in the universe around us. A life lived in accordance with nature is a life lived in accordance with the rationality of this universe, where “the nature of the Whole is what my own nature is” (2.9). Having appreciated this common dispersal of individual nature we can now consider how this “Whole” is portrayed not only as a “community” but also in terms of a “city” living.

Cities and Hierarchies

At first glance this ancient conception of our communal nature appears to pair with current human living arrangements when the Stoics discuss it in the context of a “city.” As with Stoic definitions of community, and of self-preservation, however, there is a “rational” condition to the Stoic understanding of the city community. Appreciating this condition requires inviting the second head of the Stoic school, Cleanthes, to the discussion.

Diogenes informs us in his The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers that Cleanthes’ predecessor, Zeno, as well as his successor, Chrysippus, discuss in their respective works titled Republic what it means to live in a city (7.28-7.33). It is through Stobaeus’ account of Cleanthes’ position (as found in Long and Sedley’s aforementioned translations) though that the early Stoic correlation of the city with rationality becomes interpretable:

…a city is a habitable structure, in which people who take refuge have access to the dispensation of justice 

SVF 1.587

What can we interpret here regarding a Stoic connection between rationality and a city community? Firstly, the city “refuge” that Cleanthes describes is a world in which we can live in accordance with our nature. The city is the entire rational universe, evidenced in how Cleanthes and elsewhere Chrysippus both describe it as “administered” by God’s universal reason and perfect justness. While a city community in Stoicism can refer to a metropolis with a precise geography and “habitable structure,” it also denotes a pantheistic universal arena.

Marcus’ Meditations also recognizes this double sense of the city. The notion of a cosmic community of which we are all a part takes on citied themes when he describes how we are each an “inhabitant of this highest City, of which all other cities are mere households” (3.11,2). This highest city is the rational universe itself, the “dear city of Zeus” (4.23).

Modern theories about how our city environments socialize us in variously contingent ways typically reduce our everyday lives to sociologically discoverable, structurally ordered behavioral patterns. Marcus’ sense of the universally interwoven community in which we all exist also involves ordered and patterned descriptions of our behaviors. For the Stoic though this ordering marks a universe’s essential harmony rather than locally contingent constructions:

All things are meshed together, a sacred bond unites them…ordered together in their places they together make up one order of the universe. There is one universe out of all things…one substance, one law, one common reason

Meditations 7.9

Marcus indeed rhetorically questions of anyone who doubts that our co-operatively ordered labors contribute to a universal community, “can you not see plants, birds, ants, spiders, bees all doing their own work, each helping in their own way to order the world?” (5.1,1). The universally collegial orderings among “all things” affirm how for Marcus the entire “universe is a kind of community” (4.3,2).

Despite this unity we must recognize that Marcus’ communal ordering hierarchizes certain creatures. While “all things collaborate in all that happens” (4.40), some things are not as rational as other things. Animate beings (primarily humans) for example are “superior to inanimate” aspects of the universe (5.16). These inferior things are in Marcus’ view “made in the interest of the superior” whereas the superior creatures are made “in the interest of each other” (5.16).

While this might seem like an exclusionary rather than a communal structure it in fact describes the ordered nature of a pantheistic, rationalized world. Every aspect of the world has a collegial role in the overall structure, where “its end lies in that to which its course is directed; and where its end is, there also for each is its benefit and its good” (5.16). Marcus here evidently draws on Epictetus’ similar descriptions of a ladder of existence that is based on different degrees of rationality.

In his Discourses Epictetus states accordingly that “creatures whose constitutions are different have different ends and functions accordingly” (1.6,14-20). It is only a human capacity for example to understand and appreciate God’s works in the world. This nevertheless is just one feature of a “Whole” collective design and order that involves the “universal accommodation of things to one another” (1.6,6).

This discussion has been a clarification of our communal nature for the Stoics. Modern perspectives on the inherently socialized status of the self often point to how the social environments into which we are born determine our social constitutions. For ancient Stoic arguments however there is an essential social nature to each of us that does not depend on, nor is even influenced by, the socialized arenas and arrangements that we each call home.

Will Johncock is the author of Naturally Late: Synchronization in Socially Constructed Times . His next book Stoic Philosophy and Social Theory (out early 2020) compares ancient Stoic philosophy and modern social theory on questions of the relationship between an individual and their collective environment.He has lectured at UNSW Sydney. You can find him on Twitter @willjohncock

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