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How To Overcome Selfishness

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Bertrand Russell was no fan of the Stoics. He thought they were cold, hated riches and passion. He thought Seneca and Marcus were hypocrites. But then again he himself was a rather big hypocrite—having had his share of affairs and embarrassing scandals.

Nevertheless, there is a passage from Russell that captures an important Stoic theme: the reduction of our own ego so that we might see where we fit in the larger whole of humanity:

Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.

It should not surprise us that the Stoics were fascinated by the wonders of the universe. Marcus Aurelius himself was particularly fond of using the same river analogy as Bertrand. One of Seneca’s lesser known, but equally passionate, works is titled Natural Questions and it is a multi-volume set on biology and natural phenomenon. As he writes, “I am not unaware, Lucilius, excellent man, of how great is the enterprise whose foundations I am laying in my old age, now that I have decided to traverse the world, to seek out its causes and secrets, and to present them for others to learn about.”

We can be sure that Seneca wasn’t writing this book for money or for fame. He was writing it for the same reason that Marcus was constantly looking out at nature and up to the stars—because it was humbling. Because it was a way to attain the philosophical view that is quite difficult when your nose is in other people’s business or too focused on the concerns of the day.

The idea of sympatheia—which we think is so important we actually made a medallion of it—is the idea that we are all part of a larger whole. It’s simultaneously a reminder of our greatness and our smallness, our insignificance and our essentialness. Everything about today’s culture is at odds with that understanding. Social media. Me-first self-help. Hero worship. The normalization of toxic ego.

You have to fight that. And you fight it by looking to nature, by zooming out your view so it is unable to focus on the tiny, trivial matters before you, by subsuming yourself into something larger, something greater.

The Stoics did it. Bertrand Russell would have been better if he did it more often. And so would all of us.

We think that every leader and citizen should think deeply about this idea of sympatheia. We were made for each other and to serve a common good, as Marcus put it.