Bringing People Closer: Cicero, Hierocles, and Cosmopolitanism
A central ancient Stoic principle is that humans are inherently social or communal. What do they actually mean by this in terms of our day-to-day affairs though? From our present-day perspective such a belief seems to be straightforwardly true in terms of how we cohabit. We have no contrary record after all of a time in which our species entirely or even widely avoided collective habitation and interaction.
Less self-evident however are some of the everyday practices the Stoics identify around how we enact this essential communal nature. It is one thing to forward a general principle regarding our inherently social constitution. Articulating however what this principle practically means in terms of our daily behaviors toward our fellow humans is another matter.
The coming discussion will examine one such practice proposed in ancient Stoicism regarding how we can action our communal nature. It will also raise the associated notion of what this intrinsic social inclination offers regarding our individual welfare. Up for consideration is whether our impetus toward others for the Stoics comes from our intentions to contribute to a harmonious population, or counterintuitively denotes more personally oriented concerns.
A Brief Overview of Our Shared Rationality
Stoic philosophies of all ancient eras forward the characterization of our communal nature. The early Greek Stoicism of Chrysippus is reported to argue that the “gods made us for our own and each other’s sakes” (LS, 329). Epictetus’ Discourses describe how we are designed to “contribute to the common benefit” (E, 1.19,12). This is a point that the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius later develops in his Meditations into the assertion that in being “made in the interest of another” we are “born for community” (M, 5.16).
The condition underpinning this fellowship in the Stoic view is our common rationality. The term “rationality” is prominent in Stoicism. Generally, its definition encompasses for the Stoics how we can use our own mental reasoning to manage how we feel about or respond to what occurs.
When the broader Stoic notion of a “common rationality” arises though, the Stoics are dispersing the site of our rationality beyond our individual mental borders. The Stoic worldview is that we live in a pantheistic universe, where God’s rationality pervades everything within it to varying degrees. This means that God’s rationality is present within the material substance that comprises you and other aspects of the world. For Epictetus, this universally scattered rationality is why the physical world is ordered according to regular patterns such as plants blooming and fruit ripening (E, 1.14,3). God regulates all such things from within such things.
Coupled with this notion of pantheistic reason, the Stoics, like Plato and Aristotle before them, perpetuate the idea of a “ladder of existence”. For the Stoics, this ladder ranks the degree to which worldly creatures embody God’s perfect rationality. Humans are the most rational of animate things and therefore superior to other creatures and things. Epictetus determines that this means non-human animals for example cannot comprehend the world as rationally as we do (E, 1.6,14–20).
As we will soon see in more detail, part of why we are the most rational creatures for the Stoics concerns what they believe is our capacity to recognize in each other a desire for self-preservation. From this awareness between humans, reciprocal bonds and supports with mutual benefits are manifested. A correlation of rationality with sociality duly emerges, evidenced when Marcus proclaims that “rational directly implies social” (M, 10.2).
Rather than keep our attention at the lofty conceptual level of pantheistic rationality though, as indicated in the opening thoughts in this discussion I want to consider how this rational and communal nature actually manifests in our daily practice. What kind of behavior, according to the Stoic view, either exercises or illustrates our default communal mode?
Cicero and Hierocles on Distinguishing the People in Our Lives
One way we can study this is through a well-known idea forwarded by the 2nd century Stoic, Hierocles. Our record of Hierocles’ work is often fragmented, and largely conveyed via the ancient compiler Stobaeus. In one such work titled “On Marriage,” Hierocles directly perpetuates the general Stoic mandate that humanity in its entirety “is naturally disposed to community” (H, 73). It is in another of his essays though, “How Should One Behave toward One’s Relatives?”, that his position on our communal orientations speaks directly to our everyday interpersonal modes.
Hierocles here asks us to categorically distinguish the people we know well, the people we know less well, and the people we do not know at all. This requires conceptually placing all such people in increasingly distanced, concentric circles. The smaller circles in the center contain the people with whom we are most familiar or close (firstly immediate family, then extended family, then friends, and so on). As the circles become increasingly larger and further distanced from our center, so they come to represent people comprising our wider communities or “tribes,” then people from the same country, all eventually to be encompassed by the circle of the “entire race of human beings” (H, 91).
This kind of categorization is not exclusive to Hierocles. Cicero provides a similar account in his On Duties. Cicero is not himself a Stoic. A connection with Stoicism is nevertheless explicit in this work when Cicero declares that much of it follows the Stoics, in particular a preceding text of the same name by the Stoic, Panaetius of Rhodes (C1, 1.6–7).
It is in On Duties that Cicero presents the fundamental notion of the “fellowship of the entire human race” (C1, 1.50). Cicero elaborates on this concept by firstly emphasizing the importance of our closest relations. His discussion even suggests that the universal fellowship between all humans and our common bonding will be “best preserved if the closer someone is to you the more kindness you confer upon” them (C1, 1.50). The bonding between us all marks the extremity of a cascading structure that moves from “the most widespread fellowship existing among men with all others” (C1, 1.51) to:
“… a closer one of the same race, tribe and tongue, through which men are bound strongly to one another. More intimate still is that of the same city, as citizens have many things that are shared with one another … A tie narrower still is that of the fellowship between relations: moving from that vast fellowship of the human race we end up with a confined and limited one” (C1, 1.53–1.54).
While similar to Hierocles’ model in categorizing degrees of fellowship, the subtle differences between the actual categories of Cicero’s and Hierocles’ respective accounts are evident. Later Cicero will in fact add to his structural representation the qualification that our relationship with our nation state is most important, in that of “all fellowships none is more serious, and none dearer, than that of each of us with the republic” (C1, 1.57). Cicero then supersedes this with another level that also includes the gods in the categorical structure, describing how “duties are owed first to the immortal gods, secondly to one’s country, thirdly to one’s parents and then down the scale to others” (C1, 1.160).
The emphasis in Cicero’s discussion is thus not simply the differences in our relations to others but also the structural ordering of our assigned duties or responsibilities to each category of others. Given our inherent bond nevertheless with all humans, Cicero is receptive to how our relative duties with different categories of people will often need to be circumstantially re-hierarchized. For example, a fellow citizen such as a neighbor might at some point require our assistance sooner than a family member. In recognizing the mutual bonds between all humans we can rationalize and prioritize our fellowship with someone not directly related to us before seemingly more immediate blood-bonds (C1, 1.59). Due to the universal nature of human fellowship, we will probably in certain circumstances need to lend our support “even to a stranger” (C1, 1.51).
Cicero’s evaluation of our duties to those outside our most inner circles is thus clear. Evidencing Cicero’s Stoic influences, this notion strikes at the heart of what within Stoicism we know as cosmopolitanism — the belief that every human is part of the one community. Such cosmopolitan responsibilities are taken in a very specific direction in Hierocles’ Stoicism.
Bringing People Closer from Our Outside Circles
Hierocles like Cicero is working with the idea that we live according to “unequal” relations between the people in our various circles:
“… each of us, most generally, is circumscribed as though by many circles, some smaller, some larger, some surrounding others, some surrounded, according to their different and unequal relations to one another” (H, 91).
Rudimentarily, Hierocles here refers to how our surrounding circles compare with each other and therefore differentially co-relate. Given that these relations are defined by the degrees of association we have with people in any particular circle, however, this notion of unequal relations also incorporates more involved considerations of what constitutes the proper way to function with the people of each circle.
Themes around “proper function” manifest in Stoicism via the first head of the school, Zeno of Citium. Diogenes Laërtius is one source in this regard when presenting Zeno’s conception of kathēkonta (LS, 360), which seemingly refers to all the acts and functions properly befitting our nature. To be virtuous, and therefore living in accordance with this nature is to enact kathēkonta appropriately and consistently. Doing this can lead to becoming wise.
Consistent with Stoic principles regarding practical action, Hierocles conceives of these circles and the associated kathēkonta as structures via which we can exercise our affinities with our fellow humans. Proper function here does not mean maintaining a distance from people we do not know well or who come from different social classes because that has been normalized over time “as proper” behavior. By instead engendering closer relations with people from whom we are relatively detached we can properly enact our rationally cosmopolitan nature/function.
This might involve inviting into our lives complete “strangers” as well as people we know but not very well (H, 89). Ideally, for Hierocles, our relations with people in the outer circles, literally the entirety of humanity at the most extreme point, should approach the attachments of our interactions with people in our inner circles. This contraction of our outer circles into the realm of the inner circles will duly enact the universal sense of community embedded within the Stoic cosmopolitan perspective.
Of course, Hierocles’ instruction that we should interact with “strangers” in the same way that we do with our closest family members is counterintuitive to how we usually live. Thankfully, he is not insensitive to this peculiarity. Hierocles knows that it is not going to be easy to “assimilate” more closely into our lives the people that we do not know. Likewise, he recognizes that we will have to seriously change our mentality in which “a greater distance in respect to blood will subtract something of goodwill” (H, 93).
Nevertheless, Hierocles believes that this is achievable. A strategy he details accordingly, is to begin by treating our less immediate family members as though they were immediate family members. This requires us to start calling our cousins “brothers,” our uncles “fathers,” and our aunts “mothers” (H, 93). Presumably, once we have the hang of this we can invite strangers more warmly into our lives.
What can we make of this advisory? The intention is comprehensible. We should remove or reduce the distance between ourselves and others, so that such relations are more similar to our closest family intimacies. A comparable practice indeed already occurs in many present-day cultures. In Chinese Mandarin, for example, the word for “aunt” is “ayi” and is regularly used with non-family members. Likewise, in the Philippines, the definition for “tita” has been extended from one’s blood-related aunt to include female friends, co-workers, and others. Across numerous cultures, the term “brother” also has various ancient and contemporary applications that declare allegiances with people who are not blood-siblings.
Aside from these kinds of conditional consistencies, however, questions linger regarding how practically applicable this feature of Stoicism would be to our daily lives. Would calling our uncle “father” for example actually reconfigure our relations with this non-immediate family member to be something closer to what we share with our actual parent?
Commentators such as Julia Annas strongly doubt it. In The Morality of Happiness, Annas articulates that what might in fact inversely and problematically result, is a universal “partiality” where our feelings for both our actual and our newly-titled parents become diminished (A, 268–69). Aristotle’s Politics II has argued similarly on this kind of point. In responding to Plato’s ideas in Republic, Aristotle asserts that spreading our sense of immediate family does not create a bigger family, but instead has the potential to thin out our overall family feeling (A2).
Hierocles is aware of this threat. He advises accordingly not to draw in people distanced from ourselves at the expense of the intimacies of our inner circles. We might note similarities here with Cicero’s earlier-reviewed caution regarding ensuring that our “closest” bonds are secured. The Hieroclean view is that it would be:
“… madness … to wish to be joined with those who bear no affection toward us … [while] … neglecting those who are at hand and have been bestowed upon us by nature” (H, 91).
Hierocles is therefore not suggesting we recklessly invite the entire world, including those who are cold to us, into our homes and lives. Certainly, on the one hand, in his essay “Siblings” he forwards a position which matches the Socratic mantra that it is virtuous to make friends out of people who do you a disservice. Nevertheless, his guiding belief is that our daily roles in a Stoic cosmopolitanism must be ordered by our rational nature and discrimination.
Not only are our communal instincts generally ordered by our rational nature for Hierocles, but rationality is also a practical orientation with the world via which any specific interpersonal distances are broken down. See, for instance, where he states that “reason is a great aid, which appropriates strangers and those wholly unrelated to us by blood and provides us with an abundance of allies” (H, 89). It is from this central role of reason that we get to the heart of our own relationship with our concentric circles for Hierocles.
Relate to Others as We Do With Ourselves
In Hierocles’ view, we should exercise our communal nature with others because we already share a rationality with them. When Hierocles asks us to reduce the distance between ourselves and others, he is therefore demanding that we look within ourselves as much as he is impelling us to venture out and contract the social circles that radiate externally around us.
For the Stoics, this concurrent “self and others” perspective speaks to the mutual conditions underpinning our individual self-preservation. Self-preservation plays a significant role in themes around Stoic fellowship. Indeed, these two elements — self-preservation and fellowship — operate together under the Stoic principle oikeiôsis, which refers, among other things, to a belonging.
While heavily fragmented, in his work The Element of Ethics, Hierocles introduces how a concern about the “preservation of its own constitution” pervades all animals including humans (H, 25). Initially, this is a somewhat individualizing mode inaugurated by us in response to our first perception of our distinction from the rest of the world:
“… an animal, when it has received the first perception of itself, immediately becomes its own and familiar to itself and to its constitution” (H, 19).
Cicero’s account in On the Ends of Good and Evil posits equally that every “creature loves itself, and from the moment of birth strives to secure its own preservation … the earliest impulse bestowed on it by nature” (C2, 5.9,24). What we all have in common for both Hierocles and Cicero, is therefore a primary inclination toward our own well-being.
After this initial focus on the self, as we as animals grow, our awareness of our environment and those caring for us develops. This awareness encompasses immediate family members such as parents, then gradually spreads to a wider network of people with whom we recognize less-direct but nevertheless natural affinities.
From this stage, we progressively view ourselves as “akin” to all other humans. Our sense of self-belonging and drive for self-preservation duly expands to a feeling of belonging to other humans and indeed being invested in their preservation. Because our fellow humans have developed through the same process, a “bond of mutual aid” permeates the whole human species (C2, 3.19,63).
This communal process is thus grounded in a self-preserving inclination that we each embody. Such an inclination steers us toward what benefits us, and away from what harms us. As our self-preserving awareness matures for Hierocles, we develop the recognition that we are a “sociable animal” which by nature benefits from, or is in “need of others” (H, 29).
Both Hierocles’ conception, and Cicero’s often dialogical account, of our most inner circles reveal the role of self-preserving rationalizations in our fellowship with other humans. For Hierocles in particular, however, because of these rational conditions, we must appreciate that our closest relationship (our most contracted circle) is with our “own mind” (H, 91).
If our primary relation is with our rational self, then producing the closest relations possible with our fellow humans requires matching this intimacy we have with the self. Hierocles’ cosmopolitanism is not simply oriented toward the goal of a bigger localized community for any of us. Neither is its intention straightforwardly to generate or construct a culture of altruistic selflessness via which a harmonious society might subsequently emerge. Hierocles rather highlights our universal attachment to all rational beings that we should already feel and that already exists.
In order to emphasize the inescapable reality of this universal fellowship, Hierocles posits the shared origins of all humans. During an essay appropriately titled “Parents,” Hierocles declares that our various mothers and fathers are terrestrial “images” of a singular and divine parent that we all share, “Zeus” (H, 83).
Given this understanding of our common origin, when Hierocles orders us to impart a close familial warmth to people in our outer circles, it is not a directive to generously extend ourselves to an entirely alienated stranger. There is instead already a universal human kinship, which destabilizes the possibility of anyone being a complete stranger to us. This all-encompassing communion furthermore counters the perceived estranging effect of geographical detachment, where we are, for Hierocles, “a great benefit to one another even if the distance is enormous” (H, 89). Hierocles’ contraction of our circles wants to make this existing universal fellowship overt, rather than presenting itself as an exercise that constructs such a fellowship in a world from which it was absent.
A — Annas, Julia. 1993. The Morality of Happiness. New York: Oxford University Press.
A2 — Aristotle. 1995. Politics. Books I and II. Translated by Trevor Saunders. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
C1 — Cicero, Marcus Tullius. 1991. De Officiis (On Duties). Edited by M. Griffin and E. Atkins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
C2 — Cicero, Marcus Tullius. 1914. De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (On the Ends of Good and Evil). Translated by Harris Rackham. London: William Heinemann. New York: The Macmillan Company.
E — Epictetus. 2014. Discourses, Fragments, and Handbook. Translated by Robin Hard. Introduction and Notes by Christopher Gill. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
H — Hierocles. 2009. Hierocles the Stoic: Elements of Ethics, Fragments, and Excerpts. Edited by Ilaria Ramelli. Translated by Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.
LS — Long, Anthony, and Sedley, David (editors and translators). 1987. The Hellenistic Philosophers: Volume 1: Translations of the Principal Sources, with Philosophical Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
M — Marcus Aurelius. 1964. Meditations. Translated by Maxwell Staniforth. London: Penguin Books.