From Vol. 5, Issue 11, November 2023
Responsibility to ourselves
Stoicism is very clear on this. We are totally – and only – responsible and accountable for what we think and how we act. These are our own. No one can compel us to act and think in any particular way. It is our choice. Our happiness and freedom depend on our thinking and the choices we make. So if you feel unfree, if you feel unhappy, no one but you is responsible. No one else can make us unhappy. No one else makes us unfree. Only we can do it ourselves.
Anytime we complain that someone else made us unhappy, someone else is holding us down, we are giving up our responsibility. We pretend we have no choice. But Stoicism teaches us that all we have is the ability to make choices. Our choices can help us or harm us. Nothing else can.
Since Stoicism holds that we cannot be harmed or helped by others, it follows that others cannot be harmed or helped by us as well. As Epictetus says,
You are released from all accountability to your parents, brothers, property, life, and death. What are you accountable for then? Only for things under your power, and the proper use of impressions. Why are you then worried about things not under your power? You are simply creating problems for yourself. - Epictetus, Discourses 2.12.
With this very clear statement, Epictetus confirms that we are not accountable for the happiness of others – not because we do not or should not care, but because it is not within our power to do so.
Responsibility to others
If no one can be harmed or helped by us, do we, as Stoics, have any responsibity to others?
Interestingly enough, Epictetus says that we do have a responsibility to our families, to society, and to the world at large. We are not accountable for others’ happiness, but we have the responsibility to others, because we have control over our actions.
You will try to help others to overcome their grief as far as you are able, but not totally. Otherwise you will be fighting against nature, opposing it, and fighting against the way the universe works. The penalty for this will not be paid by your children’s children, but by you personally, day and night; you’ll be startled out of your dreams, when you are disturbed, fearing every message, when your peace of mind depends on the letters of others. - Epictetus, Discourses 3.12
Responsibility vs. accountability
This creates a paradox. On the one hand, we are accountable and responsible only for our happiness and freedom and yet responsible to do our best when others are concerned. One way to reconcile this paradox is to view responsibility as doing what is under our control. For example,
- We cannot stop someone else’s grief – this is not under our control. But we can offer some comfort with words and acts of kindness – this is under our control.
- We cannot clean up the environment – this is not under our control. But we can stop polluting it – this is under our control.
- We cannot stop the anger in this world– this is not under our control. But we can become less angry – this is under our control.
- We cannot stop others from grieving. This is not under our power. But we can offer consolation to them. This is under our power.
The question still remains, “Why should we care when we are not accountable for others? Why should I even bother if I cannot make a difference (as the above examples show)?”
The first question was answered by the the Stoic philosopher, Hierocles. Human beings are a part of the cosmos and so we are all cosmopolitans. The universe is a part of the cosmos, the world is a part of the universe. your country is a part of the world, and your city is a part of the country, your society is part of the city, your family is a part of your society, and you are a part of your family.
In this framework, if you harm your family, you are harming yourself. When you harm your city, you are harming your society which harms your family and that harms you. This way any external harm you do harms you. Conversely, any good you can do to your city trickles back to you. By being responsible to things outside of you, you indirectly help yourself. When we harm or help something we are a part of, we harm or help ourselves.
What is not good for the beehive is not good for the bee. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.54
Even if your part in these things is trivial, it does form a link in the causal chain of events.
No individual raindrop ever considers itself responsible for the flood. - Anonymous
Torrential rain that creates a flood is made up of tiny individual rain drops.
Stoicism views our entire life (as well as the life of the universe) as a series of causes and effects. Many causes that are individually tiny, when joined together with many other tiny causes can cause a big effect.
Our responsibility to our family, society, city, country, and universe is often referred to as our “duty.” Taking responsibility for things outside of one’s sphere of control or doing one’s “duty” is the result of Stoic virtues.
The most important difference is we take responsibiity and accountability for what is under our control. For what is outside of us we have the responsibiity to act but not accountability for how it turns out. So, a Stoic takes it upon themselves to save a drowning person, save the environment, help others in need and so on. But if the person still drowns, if the enviroment is still polluted, and if others are not helped in spite of the efforts, it is no concern of the Stoic. They have done all that is in their power.
A Stoic may be accountable only for their thinking and their actions. But their responsibility goes far beyond their accountability and extends to the well-being of the entire world, starting with themselves and their family. A Stoic does not confuse responsibility to act virtuously with accountability for results.