When I Help You, I Also Help Myself: On Being a Cosmopolitan, by Massimo Pigliucci

Kunyu Quantu, or Map of the World, 1674 by Ferdinand Verbiest. At the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow

One of the axioms of modern morality is that there is an inevitable tension between altruism and selfishness. The more you focus your attention, energy and resources toward your own benefit, the less ‘of course’ you can do for others. As a result, we all strive to find some balance between these two opposing demands, often ending up far short of our ideal, and feeling guilty about it. (Well, some of us feel guilty, at any rate.)

But what if this is in fact a false dichotomy? What if we adopted a different framework, according to which helping ourselves helps humanity at large, and conversely, helping others helps us as well? This is the basic idea behind cosmopolitanism, literally being a citizen of the world, which originated in Ancient Greece and was further developed in Rome. Turns out, ancient Greco-Roman philosophy still has a thing or two to teach us moderns.

The term ‘cosmopolitan’ was associated with the ancient Cynic philosophers, named after a word that didn’t have the modern connotation at all, but rather indicated a group of radicals devoted to challenging society’s norms by living simply, owning no property or housing. One of the schools of Hellenistic philosophy influenced by the Cynics was that of the much more mainstream Stoics (who lived in actual houses, and some – like the Roman Senator Seneca – were even rich). The Stoics developed the idea of cosmopolitanism into a general philosophy that guided their everyday thoughts and actions. As Epictetus, the slave-turned-philosopher of second-century Rome, put it in Discourses: ‘Do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with: “I am Athenian,” or “I am from Corinth,” but always: “I am a citizen of the world.”’ This strikes me as something we ought to remember, internalise, and practise – especially in these times of fear-mongering, xenophobia, Brexit, Trumpism, and nationalistic tribalism.

The Stoic idea was simple and elegant: all humans inhabit the same big city, indeed we are so interconnected and interdependent that we are really an extended family, and we ought to act accordingly, for our own sake. The Stoic philosopher Hierocles came up with the image of a number of concentric circles of concern: at the centre of the smaller, inner circle, is you. Right outside is the circle of your family. Outside that is the one comprising your friends. The next circle over is that of your fellow citizens (ie, in the literal sense of those inhabiting the same city), then that of your countrymen, and finally humanity at large.

A modern philosopher such as Peter Singer talks of expanding the circles, meaning that we should aim at enlarging our concerns to encompass more and more people, thus overcoming our natural selfishness. Hierocles, in contrast, thought that we should aim at contracting the circles, bringing other people closer to us because we realise that they are our own kin. The closer we get them to us, the more the self/other dichotomy dissolves, and the more our interests align with those of our community. Indeed, Hierocles went so far as to instruct his students to address strangers as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ (or, depending on their age, as ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’), in an early form of cognitive therapy aiming at restructuring the very way we think about others – and consequently the way we act toward them.

In his Meditations, the emperor Marcus Aurelius, also a Stoic, summarised the idea of cosmopolitanism and our duty to others in the form of a logical sequence: ‘If the intellectual part is common to all men, so is reason, in respect of which we are rational beings: if this is so, common also is the reason that commands us what to do, and what not to do; if this is so, there is a common law also; if this is so, we are fellow-citizens; if this is so, we are members of some political community.’

This is what the Stoics captured in one of their fundamental slogans: ‘Live according to nature.’ It doesn’t mean that we should go around naked, hugging trees in the forest, but rather that we should examine human nature and live according to it. And human nature is fundamentally that of a social being capable of reason. (Notice that I said capable of reason, some of us employ such capacity more often or more keenly than others…) It follows that living according to, or in harmony with, nature, means doing our part to use reason to improve society. Whenever we do so, we at the same time make things better for us (because social beings thrive in a functional and just society) as well as for others. Which means that the modern self/other dichotomy is far too simplistic, and in fact misleading, because it artificially pits the interests of the individual against those of society. Of course, there will always be specific cases where we have to choose between the immediate interests of, say, our children and those of strangers. But keeping in mind that in the long run our children will thrive in a flourishing society helps to shift our way of thinking from treating life as a zero-sum game to seeing it as a cooperative one.

Stoic cosmopolitanism should not be taken to imply that the ideal human society resembles a beehive, where individuality is subsumed for the benefit of the group. On the contrary, the Stoics were keen defenders of human freedom and very much valued the independence of individual agents. But they thought that the freedom to pursue our individual goals, to flourish in our own way, is predicated on the existence of a society of similarly free individuals. And such society is possible only if we realise that our collective interests are broadly aligned. We might be from Athens or Corinth (or the United States or Mexico) as an accident of birth, but in a deeper sense we are all members of the same global polis. We would be well advised to start acting like it.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at City College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His latest book is How to Be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living, 2017. He lives in New York. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily express those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Seneca to Lucilius: On Old Age, by Massimo Pigliucci

portrait-of-seneca-after-the-antique-the-pseudo-seneca-by-lucas-vorsterman-public-domain-via-wikimedia-commonsThis is the 12th letter to Lucilius, in the translation by Richard Mott Gummere published in the Delphi Classics edition of Seneca’s Complete Works, and it deals with an issue that an increasing number of people in the first world of today have to deal with: old age.

Seneca begins by recalling a recent visit to one of his country houses, during which he complained to one of his employees that too much money was being spent to keep it up. But his bailiff protested that the house was getting old, and the repairs were therefore entirely warranted. So Seneca writes to Lucilius: “And this was the house which grew under my own hands! What has the future in store for me, if stones of my own age are already crumbling?” (XII.1)

He then argues that there is much to be cherished in that stage of his life that the bailiff’s unchallengeable argument suddenly made him appreciate:

“Let us cherish and love old age; for it is full of pleasure if one knows how to use it. Fruits are most welcome when almost over; youth is most charming at its close; the last drink delights the toper, the glass which souses him and puts the finishing touch on his drunkenness. Each pleasure reserves to the end the greatest delights which it contains. Life is most delightful when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the abrupt decline.” (XII, 4-5)

Notice the awareness of a coming “abrupt decline,” which Seneca is not foolish enough to argue will make for an enjoyable part of his life, should he live long enough (as it turns out, he didn’t). While not expressly mentioned here, this was the reason why the Stoics — including both Seneca and Epictetus, not to mention Zeno — thought that the wise man should make an exit, take “the open door,” as Epictetus memorably put it, when the appropriate time had come, no a moment sooner, but also not a moment later.

So what should be the wise person’s attitude toward old age? Seneca puts it very vividly to Lucilius:

“Let us go to our sleep with joy and gladness; let us say: I have lived; the course which Fortune set for me is finished. And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension. When a man has said: ‘I have lived!’, every morning he arises he receives a bonus.” (XII.9)

I am often struck by Seneca’s language, and this is one of many instances. “I have lived!, every morning I arise I receive a bonus.” Indeed.

As he frequently does in the early letters, Seneca parts from his friend with a “gift,” a meaningful quotation from another author, which in this case is: “It is wrong to live under constraint; but no man is constrained to live under constraint” (XII.10), another, more direct, reference to suicide to be chosen under certain circumstances.

The twist is that the above saying is from none other than Epicurus, the chief rival of the Stoic school at the time. Seneca, then, imagines Lucilius protesting: “‘Epicurus,’ you reply, ‘uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?’ Any truth, I maintain, is my own property.” (XII.11)

Again, a beautiful turn of phrase, and an example of real wisdom: it doesn’t matter where the truth comes from, once discovered, it is our collective property.

~ This piece was originally published at How to Be a Stoic on September 15, 2016

~ Massimo Pigliucci is K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York and member of the faculty at CUNY’s Graduate Center. Massimo has a background in evolutionary biology and philosophy of science. His most recent book, co-edited with Maarten Boudry, is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!