Expanding Our Circle
Live Like a Stoic
Reflect often on the interconnection of all things in the universe and their relationship to each other. All things are in a sense interwoven with each other, and all things are for that reason dear to each other.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.38
A further reason to consider the perspective of nature as a whole is that it directs our attention to the lives of others. The Stoics agree with Aristotle that human beings are both rational and social by nature: “the rational,” Marcus states, “is also at once the social” (Meditations 10.2). But at the same time the Stoics depart from Aristotle by holding that our social nature requires attending to the good of all humankind. The Stoics accordingly put forward one of the first cosmopolitan outlooks in antiquity in identifying themselves as “citizens of the world.” Since every human being by nature possesses the same kind of faculty of choice, they argue, every human being deserves our care. Indeed, Marcus regards even the most hardened wrongdoer as akin to him:
I have recognized the nature of the good and seen that it is the right, and the nature of the bad and seen that it is the wrong, and the nature of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that he is related to me, not because he has the same blood or seed, but because he shares in the same mind and portion of divinity. . . . We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work against each other is contrary to nature; and resentment and rejection count as working against someone.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.1
The Stoic philosopher Hierocles develops this cosmopolitan outlook famously with the image of a series of concentric circles. In the innermost circle, he asks us to imagine our affinity for ourselves and our own self-preservation. Then as we grow and mature and align ourselves with various familial and social groups, our circles of affinity naturally expand outward to include family members and people in diverse communities until finally, in the most distant circle, we find humankind in general. The goal, Hierocles maintains, is to gather all these circles into a central point by treating anyone on the outermost circle as we would someone on the innermost circle, viewing our personal well-being as continuous with the well-being of humanity. Some Modern Stoics go even a step further in extending concern to the entire natural world, including all non-human life. Such a view is not too far removed from the sentiment expressed by Marcus in today’s morning quote.
Your task for today, your last day of living like a Stoic, is to develop your natural affinity for all humankind. This will consist of three steps:
- Identify some people in your innermost circle. These could be family members and close friends.
- Identify some people in your outer circles and consider how you treat them differently from those in your innermost circle. These could be distant relatives, acquaintances, former friends, or random strangers. Give yourself a hard test case here and include a person in this group whom you find especially dislikable.
- Reach out to the people in your outermost circle and treat them kindly and with concern. See whether you can attend to them and their needs just as you attend to those in your innermost circle.
As you carry out these steps, try to regard even strangers and people you dislike as your kin, and recall Marcus’ advice that to bear hostility toward others is “contrary to nature.” Bear in mind, too, the following words from Seneca: “Wherever there is a human being, there exists an opportunity for an act of kindness” (“On the Happy Life,” §24).