From Vol. 6, Issue 2, February 2024
A friend of mine wanted to know more about Stoicism. So I gave him my book Unshakable Freedom, which is a primer on Stoicism. A few days later, I ran into him. He said he read the book and found it useful but wasn’t quite sure he agreed with everything Stoicism says. I was curious to know which part he didn’t agree with. He said,
“Stoicism says you should not worry about things you can do nothing about. I don’t agree with that. We have to care even if we can do nothing about it.”
I have heard others say similar things about Stoicism. It seems somehow irresponsible not to worry about things even if you can do nothing about them. How can you not be upset if your friend is dying of cancer? How can you not be upset if thousands of people die of hunger, even though you could not prevent it? Isn’t it callous not to be upset about these things? I can understand that because I feel the same way sometimes. It raises the question whether Stoics care at all about what happens outside of them.
A superficial understanding of Stoicism definitely would lead one to believe that Stoicism doesn’t really care for others because Stoicism teaches us to ignore things that are beyond our control – and others are beyond our control. While this is true, it is also true that the Stoics considered themselves as a part of the cosmos. What affects others affects us as well.
So we do what we can to be compassionate and helpful. But we also keep in mind that how it turns out is not under our control.
You may see people who are distraught and in tears because they had to part with their child or lost some material possession. [...] However, be careful not to show disdain for their grief. Show them sympathy, use comforting words, and even share their misery outwardly. But make sure that you do not inwardly grieve with them. - Epictetus, Encheiridion, 16.
The Stoics believed that it is quite natural to be upset about things like your friend’s illness or other people’s suffering. What they do ask us is to spend time on things under our control for better outcomes.
Caring for others is not a new or revisionist idea in Stoicism. Stoics have always considered themselves as an integral part of the universe or the cosmos (hence the term cosmopolitans). So what affects the cosmos (things that affect everything outside of us) affects us as well. To quote Marcus Aurelius,
We are parts of a community. What is not good for the hive is not good for the bee. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.54
Hierocles, who lived at around the same time as Marcus Aurelius, formalized the idea and said that our concern which starts with ourselves should extend to include our family, neighbours, friends, and society. (See the chart on page 3, courtesy of Kai Whiting, aka Stoic Kai.)
In his article, Tanner Campbell presents a new version of this which he calls The Pyramid of Concern and expands on the theme proposed by Hierocles.
Karen Duffy takes issue with the persistent myth that we Stoics suppress our emotions and are impaired in our ability to feel and express love. Drawing from her own life experience she concludes that Stoic caring isn’t about feeling the feelings, it’s about using the feelings to spur us to action rather than letting them be an impediment to action.
John Kuna points out that when Stoics look at a situation, they don’t merely think to themselves, “how can I navigate this with grace?” They also think, “how can I do the appropriate thing?” While the appropriate thing to do is to be compassionate and do what we can to care, we should also be cautious and make sure that we don’t get caught up in other peoples’s turmoil.
However, striking a balance between the “cold” approach and the “over-caring” approach is not that simple. But we need to seek this middle ground, says Brandon Tumblin. He illustrates his point from his own personal experience.
Taking a slightly different perspective, Piotr Stankewicz tries to find the middle ground between caring for oneself and caring for others and concludes that Stoic care is “the subtle art of commitment and care for what is within our power.”
Harald Kavli makes some interesting observations about caring. He says to be truly caring, we need to first work on ourselves: “When we do work on ourselves and try to rid ourselves of faulty judgments, tendencies to anger and so on, we are at the very same time making ourselves better friends, colleagues, and citizens of the cosmopolis. By recognizing our own faults, we can also become more patient with the faults of others, which in turn makes it easier to bring them into the circle of our concern. It is simply much harder to care for someone when you cannot look past their faults and thereby end up dismissing them as not worthy of your time, but the recognition of your own shortcomings makes it easier to put up with others.” This is a very important point. True compassion for others comes from understanding our own limitations.
After reading what our contributors have to say about caring, I feel that while superficial caring is easy and meaningless, true caring involves understanding our faults and limitations, understanding the difference between what we can control and what we cannot, striking a balance between “over-caring” and being cold, and using our feelings not as impediments to action but something to spur us to action. And there is more to the Circle of Concern when we make it into a Pyramid of Concern. These articles made me think more about Stoic concern.
It is easy to say that we care but when it comes to actual caring, things can get complicated.
I hope you find the issue helpful in your effort to be a caring Stoic.