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14 May 2022

Why Stoicism isn’t just about you

It is often seen as an individualistic philosophy but its techniques are really about pursuing the common good.

By Nancy Sherman

If you call someone a Stoic, you probably mean that they have buttoned-up emotions, or can keep calm in the face of adversity, or cultivate resilience through inner strength. To be a Stoic is to be self-reliant.

If you call someone a modern Stoic, then you probably have in mind someone who goes to Stoicism for meditative practices or “lifehacks” for self-growth and improvement. Stoicism helps turn obstacles into opportunities. It’s a philosophy of empowerment.

Either way, you’re likely to think that Stoicism is a philosophy of the self; it’s about self-control or self-development. The good self may not fully retreat to the inner citadel, but it certainly recedes from the social world.

Is this the full legacy of ancient Stoicism? Not at all. The classic texts of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca tell a different story.

Take, for example, Marcus’s Meditations. Marcus is writing to himself, at nightfall, on the battlefield during the Germanic campaigns (172-180 CE). As a military leader, reflecting on the day, he knows intimately that an army’s strength depends on the coordinated movements of a cadre and the grit sustained not just by individual will, but by common purpose and mutual support.

This view is rooted in his Stoicism: we are parts of a larger whole, a shared humanity in an ordered cosmos that unites humans and the gods. Our fulfilment, as individual selves, depends on that collaboration. We have to work together “like feet or hands or eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth”. We have to strive to be in sync.

With the detritus of the battlefield still fresh in his mind, the anatomical metaphor for social collaboration becomes more visceral. Picture a dismembered hand and head lying apart from the rest of the human body. That’s what “man makes of himself… when he cuts himself off from society”. Body parts can’t function separated from the organic whole to which they belong, just as we can’t thrive isolated from the political and social whole of which we are a part.

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To be “at home” in the world, a stock Stoic phrase, is to be a citizen of the cosmos, not bound by the borders of a polis, as Aristotle had argued. We are global citizens, on the Stoic view, cosmopolitans, a term coined by a colourful predecessor of the Stoics, Diogenes the Cynic. When asked where he was from, Diogenes replied: from everywhere and nowhere, “a world citizen”.

The founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, develops the idea in his Republic, of which only fragments remain. But Marcus, no doubt, was telegraphing the notion when he writes we are “woven together” by a “common bond”, “scarcely one thing foreign to another”. That bond, in the Stoic view, is our shared reason.

Shared reason involves collectively following the laws that govern the moral commonwealth as a cosmopolitan community. The Stoics never explicitly articulated these laws in the way later moral philosophers would. But the idea is that through cultivated attitudes and choices, we learn to act in law-abiding ways that facilitate a global community. Meditative exercises train us to rein in our ego, rage and privilege, and to curb acquisitive desires or fears of what is foreign so that we can cooperate with others and become world citizens.

In the Roman Stoic period, Stoic ethics was a popular, accessible philosophy of self- and social governance that was both exhortative and practical. Marcus is meditating to humble himself and beseech himself to treat all others, in virtue of their shared humanity, in a “sociable” and “generous” manner. In short, a benevolent, good will is part of being at home in an ordered moral realm and a broader social world.

Hierocles, a lesser-known second-century Roman Stoic philosopher, offers a concrete exercise for widening our circles of social concern. Draw concentric rings around the self as a centre-point. Make the inner circles kith and kin then, beyond that, fellow tribesmen, then one’s local community and citizens of one’s country, until finally one reaches the outermost circle, the whole of humanity. Your job, Hierocles writes, is to shrink the space between the circles, “zealously transferring” those on the outer rings to the inner ones.

Yet this social thread in Stoic philosophy runs counter to the popular image of the Stoic as self-reliant and detached. Granted, the Stoics at times encourage that reading in their notion that “external” goods – such as health, friendships and family – are “indifferents”. But this Stoic term of art doesn’t mean “indifference”. It signals that there is a class of goods distinct from the most stable and genuine good – the inner good of virtue. “Indifferents” are lesser goods because, ultimately, we have less control over them than we do the cultivation of virtue. Loved ones may succumb to sickness, our own health may be fragile, friendships may fade.

We need Stoic virtue precisely to better face this uncertainty and vulnerability. Stoic meditative practices prepare us for disappointment. They teach that we should “pre-rehearse” evils or bad outcomes, so that we are not blindsided. We should “dwell in the future”, as Cicero puts it, and contemplate our mortality, as Seneca urges. These are ways to gain a sense of control in a world where we know we don’t have full control. They are ways of trying to find equanimity. But that’s not the same thing as detachment or acquiescence. Or indifference.

The Stoics offer other techniques for wise deliberation in the social world. In fact, what is often missed when Stoicism is presented as self-help is that the very tools that can put a buffer between the outer world and our experience of it are the same ones that can help us change that outer world for the better – for example, by helping us to slow down impulsive thinking that can cloud our judgement.

Seneca puts it this way: we are wired to respond to threat or harm with lightning-quick reactions, so need to train ourselves to better assess what we see and feel. Fear and anger too often “outleap reason”, he says. Seneca prefigures Daniel Kahneman’s contrast between “thinking fast” and “thinking slow”, with the latter a form of monitored attention that can help prevent thought and emotion from running amok.

These are techniques for changing the world by changing how we see and react to it. If, in the tradition of the ancient Stoics, we are committed to controlling our anger or finding serenity through mental discipline, it is not in order to promote a me protected from the outer world and engagement in the community. It is in order to live virtuously and cooperatively, with goodwill towards others.

None of this is to suggest that the Stoics bequeath a theory of social change. That comes much later in the history of Western philosophy. But following the tradition of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics conceive of virtue as never just about me, and my temperance or control. It is about us and committing to the project of our common good.

Nancy Sherman is University Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. She is the author of Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience (OUP).

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Wendland is Vision Fellow in Public Philosophy at King’s College, London and a Senior Research Fellow at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.

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