From Vol. 5, Issue 11, November 2023
The responsibilty to be strong
Newcomers to Stoicism are generally drawn to the philosophy for its unbelievably practical wisdom. For example, one can open Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and find practical wisdom on any page! This gives the impression of a “self-help” philosophy, and, though Stoicism could be considered self-help, it is not solely self-help.
The Stoic journey should lead towards the Stoic idea of the circles of concern, the cosmopolitan idea, and so on. This is when the Stoic comes to understand that the philosophy is fundamentally about community with the world around you.
Gone is the division between “us” and “them” and arrives the understanding that we are part of a greater whole. In other words, we are all a part of the same environment. But how does this reconcile with the self-help aspect of Stoicism? And how do we go about prioritizing our own flourishing with those around us?
On the eudaimonic state
Eudaimonia is a state of flourishing that an individual feels. In Stoic philosophy, it is achieved through virtue. Virtue, of course, is an action, and so we could deem a virtuous person as one who has habits which contribute positively to the world. What becomes clear is that Eudaimonia comes from within. No external can give it to you. By extension, you, as an external to others, cannot give Eudaimonia to others.
Externals: A false dichotomy?
Above is a simplified way of thinking about our relationships with externals, but it is still far from complete. Although the Stoics are correct in their notion of the dichotomy of control, there is a deeper understanding here.
Earlier in the article, I mentioned that Stoics must consider themselves part of a greater whole. That greater whole is the environment, which is technically an external. Therefore, although it is still true that externals are not “up to us”, because we are a part of that external environment, it isn’t as clear-cut as some may consider.
To illustrate this point, let’s consider an example. If you join a weightlifting gym, you will find yourself somewhere on the spectrum of strength relative to the other gym-goers. There will be an “average strength” based on everyone in the gym, and you will have your own “personal strength”. Your own personal strength is up to you (with the obvious caveat that much in athletic training isn’t truly up to you), while everyone else’s is not up to you.
However, if your personal strength increases, it will increase the gym’s average strength. Also, the fact that you are becoming stronger will influence others to work harder. Hence, not only do you have a direct impact on the average, but you raise the gym’s standard by having a higher personal standard.
In sum: is the environment’s condition up to you? No, but the fact that we are a part of the environment means that we do contribute a small portion of “direction” in the external.
The Stoic’s responsibility
I’ll state again that Stoicism does include self-help, but it is far deeper than that. There is a fundamental responsibility that we have to the greater whole, but what does that truly mean given the complexities explained above?
This is where the Stoic circles of concern come into play. In the center of the circles is the self. Yes: self-preservation of character is vital for the Stoic, but it’s not the only circle. Above this is one’s family, then community, countrymen, and all of humanity.
Hence, Stoics act in a virtuous way which is fundamentally the best for them as an individual because it offers them Eudaimonia. At the same time, virtuous action is the best for one’s family, and the community, and the country, and the world. The action that aligns all these circles of concern is defined as the Stoic action.
The responsibility to Self
As the self is the smallest yet most important circle of concern, it is the Stoic’s utmost responsibility to self-preserve their character. In other words, take care of yourself! Make yourself strong! When this is achieved, all other circles of concern will benefit from your actions. You will find those closest to you called to their best. You will demand the best for them, as you’ve demanded the best for yourself.
In doing so, you raise the standard in a similar way that one does in a gym: you bring forth your best, and in doing so, you make the overall gym stronger and urge others to do the same, making a stronger world.
Years ago, I wrote the following lines in my journal, and I think they are worth sharing to end this article:
Become Strong, first, to lift yourself up, and second, to lift others up.
Brandon is most well-known for his podcast, The Strong Stoic Podcast, where he discusses philosophical ideas both solo and with guests. He also coaches individuals to help them be their best selves, writes articles, plays music, manages projects, and several other things.