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From Vol. 5, Issue 3, March 2023

Why be citizens of the world?

Practicing Stoicism || SHARON LEBELL

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The call to be a citizen of the world is a foundational value infusing the history of Western moral philosophy. Diogenes, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, among others, stressed the importance of seeing the world as a unity and viewing ourselves as cosmopolitans. Cosmopolitanism is an antidote to the dangerous and stultifying effects of provincial thinking.

What does it mean to view ourselves as citizens of the world?

What does it mean for us in the 21st century to view ourselves as citizens of the world, and why would we want to do that? When I was in grammar school students not only received grades in academics, but were also given marks in citizenship. I remember being confused about the meaning of citizenship. I guessed it had something to do with good behaviour and saluting the flag. I added voting to the mix when I got older. Still later on, I mistakenly conflated citizenship with a kind of nationalism. Many adults continue to hold views of citizenship that are similarly nebulous or misguided, especially those who have become politically cynical.

Several of my friends and associates are civically-engaged, but even among this group, I don’t recognize too many people who view citizenship as a fundamental part of their personal identity. Before considering citizenship and what citizenship asks of us, most of us think of ourselves as parents, as members of a certain religion, as players of particular sports or musical instruments, as members of a profession, or as a lover of a particular pastime. We in North America, especially those of us who have never served in the military, tend to elevate our rights as citizens over our responsibilities as such. And the wider embracing idea of being a citizen of the world easily becomes merely abstract or daunting as a burden.

Not just a Stoic concept

When the ancient Stoics surveyed the human landscape, they wisely observed the ever present conflicting claims of individualism and altruism animating us as individuals and as societies. The image of the citizen of the world was not introduced or espoused by the Stoics casually, but rather as a supremely necessary way to harmonize those seemingly contradictory impulses. There is, I think, genius in this.

Within each of us, the voice of the individual bellows the loudest, touting its needs, wants, and preferences. Everything in our immediate individual sensory experience reinforces the deep belief that we are the absolute center of the universe, the most important story going on in the whole world.

Consequently, how easy it is to mistakenly draw the conclusion that our feelings, our inconveniences, our pain, our anger, our boredom, our longings, and our triumphs matter more than those of other people’s? Sadly, we know all too many people in our personal lives and in the public eye who barrel through existence with such solipsistic assumptions, disregarding the damaging effects they have on all whom they encounter.

Checking our desperate selfcenteredness

To view oneself as a citizen of the world is more than a check on the evils of desperate self-centeredness. A citizen is, after all, not merely an inhabitant of a location or state. A citizen sees herself as a stake-holder, as someone who proudly shapes, co-creates, and upholds the principles, laws, values, and rituals that are intended to enrich everyone.

A world-citizen is propelled by humility, because he knows that his own sympathies and antipathies are hardly universal, but idiosyncratic, and that while there are countless others who see the world differently from himself, they are just as deserving of the same regard, dignity, and opportunity as he wishes for himself and his own family and tribe.

A crucial source of inner wisdom

The cosmopolitan uses his or her reason and actions for the discernment of the largest moral interests of humanity. The global citizen recognizes that in working for the better of all, we become better as individual souls, and the best for all is always in sight. By seeking to be citizens of the world, we free ourselves from the tyranny of self-involvement. This is a crucial source of inner freedom and the contented ease that comes from knowing you are an essential part of something at once worthy and greater than yourself.

Sharon Lebell is a founding member of the Walled Garden Philosophical Society https:// and the author of The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness