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From Vol. 4, Issue 3, March 2022

Stoic self-sufficiency vs. kindness


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Stoics believe that one needs nothing outside of oneself to be happy and fulfilled. The moment we say we need something outside of ourselves to be happy – be it wealth, health, power, relationship or whatever – we become immediately dependent on others, on our circumstances, or on some external event happening in a way we would like.  For Stoics, such conditional freedom won’t do. Stoic freedom is absolute and absolute freedom cannot possibly depend on others or on our circumstances. What does Stoic freedom look like then?

According to Epictetus, a Stoic is

Someone who is sick and yet happy; in danger and yet happy; dying and yet happy; condemned to exile and yet happy; lost his reputation and yet happy. - Epictetus, Discourses 2.19.

A Stoic is happy when ill, when in danger, when exiled, when she loses her reputation, and even when facing death. A Stoic is free. Nothing external can stop a Stoic. This is true Stoic freedom.

In an interview, Tony Robbins asked the freshly released Nelson Mandela how he survived under the miserable conditions he had to endure. Mandela rose from his chair and responded, “I didn’t survive. I prepared.” A perfect Stoic response. External conditions are of no concern to someone who is internally free.

This total self-sufficiency of the Stoic is sometimes misinterpreted to imply that a Stoic doesn’t care for anyone except for himself. Stoic self-sufficiency is distorted to mean that Stoicism is an ultra-masculine philosophy and a Stoic is someone who doesn’t have to care for others. This version of Stoicism is practiced and promoted by some.

But Stoic self-sufficiency is not a challenge to others. While Stoics could be happy with having nothing if that is what fate presents to them, they are not indifferent to others. Stoics firmly believe they are part of a larger whole – the humanity and the cosmos itself. They work for the well-being of others and are kind to everyone.

You will be in a condition to be a friend to others. You will have a frank and open relationship with like-minded people. With people not like you, you will be patient, gentle, kind, and forgiving… You will be harsh with no one. - Epictetus, Discourses 2.22

Similar sentiments were expressed by Marcus Aurelius as well.

Others may stand in your way when you follow the path of reason, but they won’t be able to stop you from taking sound action. Don’t let them stop you from being kind to them. Be on guard on both matters – not only in being steady in judgment and action but in being kind to those who stand in your way or cause you trouble otherwise. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.9.

Both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius emphasize the importance to being kind, not only to those with whom we get along, but to those who disagree with us, obstruct us, and unkind to us.

Stoic self-sufficiency is the source of absolute and unconditional freedom. But the Stoics do not use that freedom to establish their superiority over others. Rather a Stoic sees self-sufficiency as the source of strength. It is rooted in the cosmos, the reality we live in. We are self-sufficient and yet a part of a larger whole. We can be happy on our own but we thrive when we see ourselves as part of the ever-evolving cosmos.

Stoic self-sufficiency is an expression of Stoic freedom. Stoic kindness is an expression of Stoic cosmopolitanism. They are complementary and interwoven into the fabric of Stoicism.

Chuck Chakrapani, Editor