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From Vol. 5, Issue 11, November 2023

What we owe others, what we owe ourselves

Practicing Stoicism || JOHN KUNA

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Nowadays, we live in an Individualist’s world. We live in homes or apartments designed for the single family or individual. We have apps that offer us contactless food delivery. We drive personal vehicles to get from A to B. We’re raised being told that we have to do what’s best for ourselves. That we have to live our best life. Our society is predicated on the assumption that the individual is of higher moral worth than the whole. And for many, our practice of Stoicism is predicated on that assumption.

To an extent, this makes sense. We are a product of our time, why should we expect anyone to be anything other than Individualist when it’s a philosophy ingrained so deeply that it’s in the substratum of our society – not even discussed, but rather presumed.

But human beings aren’t solitary creatures. We have always been social creatures. No man is an island unto himself. From the clothes you wear to the water you drink to the food you eat and the roof you rest your head under, you rely on others for everything. We have always relied on others. Sure, a particularly rugged and capable individual can survive on their own in the wilderness. But that’s not life. That’s just survival; a constant struggle to stay alive in a world that makes it so very difficult for any one person alone.

Pursuing the common good

Humanity developed a communal and cooperative tendency over hundreds of thousands of years so that we could avoid that constant struggle. So that rather than surviving, we could thrive – together. The Stoics of yore knew this. They knew we were all connected. And they were also prescient enough to recognize that all people have two innate drives: selfpreservation and social belonging. Everything we do as Stoics is intended to bring us closer to others while also bettering ourselves.

Regard what Seneca said in his Moral Letters to Lucillius,

Nature brought us to birth as kin, since it generated us all from the same materials and for the same purposes, endowing us with affection for one another and making us companionable. Nature established fairness and justice. According to nature’s dispensation, it is worse to harm than to be harmed. On the basis of nature’s command, let our hands be available to help whenever necessary. Let this verse be in your heart and in your mouth: I am a human being, I regard nothing human as foreign to me. Let us hold things in common, as we are born for the common - Seneca, Moral Letters 95.

The common good. Not what’s good for ourselves. Not what’s good for others alone. What’s good for us all. Pursuing the common good is the deepest responsibility for any person. However, the way we pursue that common good… that is up to us individually.

Living according to Nature

The Stoics advise us to live according to Nature. But what does that even mean? Well, for the Stoics, it really meant three things. We can easily break it down like this:

Cosmic Nature: Embracing reality for what it is, accepting that the Logos has put us on an emergent path that we can only respond to;

Human Nature: Embody those traits which universally lead to human thriving; and Individual Nature: Elevate your talents and affinities to a level of excellence, for the common good.

Finding our place in the cosmos

Stoicism is not and never has been about self-actualization alone. It has always been about finding our place in the cosmos and among our peers. It has been about pursuing personal excellence, yes; but doing so to be better members of the human species and the cosmos as a whole. That is because the Stoics contended that we are all simply various manifestations of the same stuff. Nowadays, physicists like to say "we're all made of stardust." Well, the Stoics weren't far off from that in their time. They thought that we were all made of the same base component of matter, which they called ousia. And they also thought that we were all connected by a universal, logical pattern that they called the Logos. This pattern gives shape to all things, and imbues us with our capacity for reason. The Stoics advise us to embrace that, and to remember that we are not our petty squabbles about things which have naught to do with human flourishing.

Stoics in every era strived to be the best versions of themselves – so they could better the lives of others. Some of them fell short of their goals. Some died upholding their principles. But that striving for a better life for not just themselves, but humanity and the cosmos at large is what Stoicism is all about.

John Kuna is a Stoic prokopton, writer, and dog lover. He likes digging deep into Stoic theory, but also writing accessible and inspiring Stoic content.