From Vol. 6, Issue 2, February 2024
When to let go
Stoicism is not an individualist philosophy. It is not about achieving personal calm or peace or happiness. Those things come as byproducts of living a good life and being a good person – the true underlying goals of Stoicism. We cannot become good people on our own. That process is an endeavour that only has context or meaning when in the company of others. What is the point of moral perfection if never applied to practical matters? It is like a horse who knows what it is to run, but has never galloped in all its life. Stoicism is and always has been a moral philosophy that demands its practitioners engage meaningfully and virtuously with their community. Stoicism is and always has been a philosophy about caring for others and caring for yourself.
Oikeiôsis: A central stoic pillar
Oikeiôsis is a rather simple concept. It depicts the rational and moral progression of a person as they mature over time. As infants, we care only for ourselves. As we grow into children, we begin to care for our parents and those immediately necessary to our survival. Getting older, we develop friendships with and care for our peers. And as we reach adulthood, we develop the capacity to care for and empathize with all sorts of people – even those across oceans and continents whom we have not met and may never meet. The Stoics take that natural progression of human maturity and layer virtue on top. Hierocles developed the “Circles of Concern” to demonstrate this point.
As Stoics, we begin with ourselves but work to grow our concerns beyond ourselves so that we care for the wellbeing of those around us, our peers, our fellow citizens, and eventually the whole of humanity. It demonstrates that our individual behaviour is always contextualized by how we treat others. It demonstrates that Stoicism is a philosophy dedicated to living well as a purposeful member of humanity.
When a Stoic looks 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?” When a person is wounded, the appropriate thing is to help treat the wound. When a person is angry, the appropriate thing is to soothe them, to help them calm down. When a person is grieving, the appropriate thing is to help them process that sadness. However, we have to recognize that sometimes the best thing we can do for a person, for ourselves, and for others who depend on us is to let go.
The limits of care
You can easily look at the concept of oikeiôsis and become quickly disoriented and overwhelmed by its implications. Imagine seriously thinking about balancing each and every one of your actions against the concerns of an entire species, or even an entire planet. While our actions may have ripple effects that impact things beyond our comprehension, we have to recognize that there are inherent limits to how much we can reasonably consider and how much we simply have to accept.
Moral burnout is real. Nurses and doctors during the global pandemic felt it. They cared so much for their patients over such a long and stressful period of time that it led them to total exhaustion. As a result, the medical field is struggling to staff up. We can feel it in our own lives, too. We can care for our aging and mentally deteriorating parents or grandparents, growing ever more distressed at the fact that the person we once looked up to is no longer behind those eyes. We can help navigate a crisis, but walk away unable to care for ourselves or others for whom we are responsible.
Sometimes, we have to recognize our limits and have to protect ourselves. Not because Stoicism is an individualist philosophy about calm, but because we have to recognize that we have a finite amount of attention we can pay to something before our other duties begin to suffer for it. We have to remind ourselves not to be lost in the other person’s turmoil, lest that turmoil seep into our own minds. Epictetus reminds us of this:
When you see a man weeping in sorrow at the loss of a child or his property… do not be unwilling to comfort him or even lament alongside him. But, take care that you do not lament internally also.- Epictetus, Encheiridion, 16.
Remember this as you continue to care for others. We can do anything, but we cannot do everything. At some point, we have to know when to walk away or how to limit the amount someone’s suffering affects ourselves. So, take care of others. But take care of yourself, too.
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.