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Oikeiosis – Stoic Ethics and the Unbreakable Connection Between Self-Interest and the Interests of Others


By: Stephen Hanselman

The Seeds Of Virtue

For perception is the origin of all appropriation (oikeiosis) and alienation (allotriosis), and Zeno and his followers assert that oikeiosis (appropriation, or alliance) is the principle of justice. –Porphyry, On the Abstinence from Animal Food, 3.190

Porphyry, the great Neoplatonic philosopher writing toward the end of the third century with the benefit of hindsight, believed that the Stoics had anchored their ethical system in justice. But what’s interesting about the development of Stoic ethical theory is that while it ultimately claims an unbreakable connection between the interests of others and our own interests, their theory actually begins with self-interest.

The Stoics, like other ancient schools of philosophy, turned to the cradle when seeking to establish the will of nature and find a grounding for ethics, believing as Cicero wrote in On Ends (5.55) that “Nature reveals her plan most clearly in childhood.”

Zeno himself taught that we were born with twin natures and that it was by keeping our individual nature (idios ten anthropinen=daimon) in harmony with the universal, or common, nature (ten koinen phusin, DL 7.89) that we would find a happy, virtuous life. Cicero’s Academica (2.131) says that Zeno believed virtue was an instinct or a capacity “that is derived by nature’s recommendation”—meaning it is implanted in us by nature and that we use our reason to develop it in our activities.

Zeno’s student Cleanthes also wrote about these implanted seeds of virtue. Unlike Zeno and those who came after him, Cleanthes was the first to center the soul in the mind and not the heart. Cleanthes saw a universe whose primary law was that of justice (see his Hymn to Zeus), that is, the proper apportionment of things by nature. He believed that while our inborn capacities give us the start we need, we don’t arrive in this world fully formed. These seeds of virtue along with our reason are the tools necessary for our development as human beings. That work is our purpose in life. To get there, Cleanthes said we should focus on our common, or universal nature.

The Foundation of Stoic Ethics

To explain this natural path of development better, the Stoics turned to their notion of oikeiosis, which they developed as the foundation of their thinking about ethics.

The term is very difficult to translate as it carries a wealth of meaning, grounded in the idea of encountering what is foreign to us and determining whether it is worthy of appropriating or making our own, or whether it will harm us and should be rejected. What things properly belong to us as human beings? What is fitting (oikeios) for us to do as human beings? What is of proper concern to us, and what is not? What kind of things should we become familiar with and welcome into our home (oikos)? What kind of things should we reject for the harm they might bring, whether immediately or over time?

For the Stoics, oikeiosis was the inborn capacity, rooted in our self-perception and self-interest in preserving our constitution and promoting its growth, that was the anchor of all ethical development.

The great scholar Ilaria Ramelli notes that “the idea of oikeiosis…date[s] back in all likelihood all the way to Zeno and without any doubt at all to Chrysippus.” The early Stoic view leaned hard on grounding ethics in self-perception and self-preservation—the ability to apprehend what is choice-worthy in terms of our health and growth and what is not. We learn through experience what is worth appropriating and making our own and what is not. Our senses are the first place we engage this capacity of oikeiosis, beginning in self-consciousness—the power to know what is a worthy focus of self-concern and what ultimately is worth making our own.

Diogenes Laertius tells us that Chrysippus first fully outlined the teaching:

They say that an animal’s first impulse is to preserve itself, because nature from the start makes the animal attached to itself, as Chrysippus states in the first book of his work On Goals, where he says that for every animal the first thing that belongs to it is its own constitution and its consciousness thereof. For it is not likely that nature would estrange the animal from itself, nor that she would create it and then neither estrange it from itself nor make it attached to itself. Accordingly, we are left to conclude that nature, in constituting the animal, made the animal attached to itself; for in this way it repels what is harmful and pursues what is appropriate. (DL 7.85)

The Role of Reason

Unlike the Epicurean use of cradle arguments grounded in the senses and feelings of pleasure, the Stoics argued (in the next passage, DL 7.86) that it’s not feelings and pleasure that control our primary impulses but reason—and because of this, reason, like a craftsman, overrides impulse. Sometimes what feels good leads to bad results. What we feel is good for us often isn’t. Reason alone allows us to keep our individual nature (what’s good for me) and universal nature (what’s good for my kind) in harmony.

Growing Out of Self-Interest

As we grow, our experience moves beyond the simple biological imperative of survival and we find that our growth is tied up in our relationships with family and others. Insofar as we are rational and social beings, the Stoics therefore also stressed another pole of oikeiosis that was an equally important part of our ethical development—and it had to do with recognizing how the concerns of others are also part of our natural growth via alliance. By Cicero’s time, he was convinced that this Stoic idea of oikeiosis was the proper beginning place of ethics (On Ends, 3.16).

Given this emphasis on the two poles (self/other) of oikeiosis, Plutarch tells us that Chrysippus argued in his book On Justice that parental love is implanted by nature and is itself one of the cornerstones of justice (Plutarch, Stoic Self-Contradictions, 1038B). Plutarch records that for Chrysippus oikeiosis is a perception (aesthesis) and grasp (antilepsis) of what is appropriate (oikeion). Our ability to discern through reason and experience what’s a suitable object of concern is fundamental. Moving from self-concern to concern for the other and apportioning our resources and care is the root from which our true ethical development springs.

As parents, we naturally care for our children as we would ourselves. This impulse, guided by reason, causes us to take time and attention from ourselves and our own interests to ensure that our children’s needs are met (Cicero, On Ends, 3.62). As children, we recognize this other-concern in our parents as something essential for our well-being. As we grow, we are all moving from the seeds of virtue and an innate disposition to choose what enhances our constitution towards ever more fully ethical behavior. Galen and Posidonius also preserve evidence of Chrysippus’ teaching on the topic, which held that our implanted preconceptions (emphutoi prolepseis) encompass both what is just (dikaion) and good (agathon).

Seneca would later reflect in his 121st letter on the development of Stoic teaching about oikeiosis, beginning with “the first equipment nature conferred”:

This art is innate, not learned. That is why no animal has more learning than another. You will see that spiders’ webs are all the same, and that in a hive all the angles of a honeycomb are equal. Whatever training imparts is variable and uneven; capacities that come from nature are distributed equally. Nature has conferred nothing beyond the instinct to preserve oneself and a facility in doing so, which is why animals begin to learn at the moment they begin to live. And it is not surprising that they are born with exactly the abilities without which their birth would be fruitless. This is the first equipment nature conferred on them for their continuing existence—attachment to self and love of self. They would not have the power to survive unless they desired to do so. This desire just by itself was not enough to help them, but without it nothing else would have done so. In no animal will you find a low regard for self, or even a neglect of self. Mute creatures, though dull-witted in other respects, are clever at living. You will see that creatures which are useless to others are not deficient when it comes to themselves. Seneca, Moral Letters, 121.23-24

Our Inborn Capability

Humans aren’t born with ethical preconceptions fully formed, but only with the inborn capability to form them, which is the power of oikeiosis. So, while Stoic ethics begin in self-interest, they culminate in navigating the interests and concerns of others. As we grow, we become more adept at crafting our impulses so that we can maintain the vital connection between self-concern and the concerns of others. Just as we naturally work for our own survival and to avoid our demise, so we learn over time that in our interactions with others we must also promote what benefits them so that their ruin doesn’t become our own. When it comes to family, friends, and our social relations, we learn there are duties to act appropriately. Diogenes Laertius tells us that Zeno was the first to develop the concept of duty (kathekon), or what is incumbent upon us in our dealings with others.

Gisela Striker, in her excellent essay Following Nature (in Essays on Hellenistic Epistemology and Ethics; Cambridge University Press, 1996),  makes a very important suggestion of a staged process of oikeiosis that is being worked out by the Stoics where we as ethical subjects learn to move from valuing self-preservation, through an enlightened form of self-love, to a more encompassing pursuit of order and harmony with others. This was a process of increasing rational forms of motivation, which some later Stoics like Posidonius still thought had gaps. Striker writes, “What one learns by experience about human nature is set out in a theory of natural concern (oikeiosis), which provides the theoretical background for the Stoic teaching about appropriate action (kathekonta).”

The Breakthroughs of Stoic Ethics

Chrysippus had used the love of parents for their children as the basis of linking to the wider concern for others. As Tad Brennan has written, Chrysippus also developed a “no-shoving” principle of ethical behavior that held we should never strive for something that is attained by pushing another away unfairly. After Chrysippus, Antipater developed these notions of doing no harm and the importance of mutual interest and cooperation in his teachings on marriage, family, and business dealings—all ground-breaking developments in the Stoic school. His student Panaetius would further develop these ideas in his four-fold role ethics that would expand from Zeno’s twin natures (individual and universal), adding to Zeno’s two roles–one which we have by virtue of our unique daimon and the other because of our shared universal nature—two more sets of roles: those that we have by virtue of our birth and social setting, and those that arise because of particular decisions and commitments we have made. These additional roles added force to the social pole of oikeiosis.

Another of Chrysippus’s ethical breakthroughs was to develop the Stoic idea of sympatheia, built on Zeno’s belief that we all belong to one common community, which encourages us to meditate on the interconnectedness of all persons and our shared citizenship in the cosmos. Building from Chrysippus and Zeno, Posidonius took this idea even further. He saw the entire cosmos as a sentient, living being in which all things are interconnected (sympatheia). We are all tied together in cosmic sympathy, Posidonius believed, and none of us are entirely self-sufficient or autonomous. Each of us has been given a role in this large body—one of us is a finger, another a skin cell, another a liver—and we exist in collaboration and tension with each other. It was God, he thought, that ran through this organism as pneuma—a kind of soul of the universe. In this vision, to harm another would be simply to harm yourself.

By the time of Seneca, Stoic ethical teaching has fully embraced this move from self-interest to the common good. As he writes in his 95th letter (quoting Terence in bold):

This universe that you see, containing the human and the divine, is a unity; we are the limbs of a mighty body. Nature brought us to birth as kin, since it generated us all from the same materials and for the same purposes, endowing us with affection for one another and making us companionable. Nature established fairness and justice. According to nature’s dispensation, it is worse to harm than to be harmed. On the basis of nature’s command, let our hands be available to help whenever necessary. Let this verse be in your heart and in your mouth: I am a human being, I regard nothing human as foreign to me. Let us hold things in common, as we are born for the common good. Our companionship is just like an arch, which would collapse without the stones’ mutual support to hold it up.Seneca, Moral Letters, 95.52-3

Later, in the 120th letter, Seneca makes the case that as we develop, we learn by experience and analogical reasoning to develop the seeds of the knowledge of virtue into something that can be emulated and practiced (120.4-5).

Nature gives of the seeds of this ethical knowledge, but not the knowledge itself. We have to work to gain it. Morality and character are something we must constantly work on.

Social Harmony

Stoic oikeiosis is no longer simply appropriating for the self what its constitution requires for physical survival, but now includes the radical concept of making the unfamiliar concern of others familiar. The old Stoic interior sense of appropriation is now fully expanded to embrace the concerns and interests of others. As we saw beginning to develop at the very center of the business ethics debates between Diogenes and Antipater preserved by Cicero, oikeiosis is now fully developed as a principle of justice. Arius Didymus, writing at the time of the rise of the emperor Augustus, had taught that “justice is the knowledge of apportioning each person and situation what is due.”

As Ilaria Ramelli notes, this line of development from Antipater to Panaetius, and after them to Musonius Rufus and Hierocles, was a process of softening the apatheia of the Old Stoa toward indifferent things so that we can pursue interpersonal imperatives that combine not only getting what we need for our own survival, but giving full importance to bringing others closer to ourselves and to their own prospering.

Writing about the time of the birth of Marcus Aurelius, Hierocles treats at length the subjects introduced by Antipater and Musonius Rufus—marriage, family, and household management. Like Musonius, he believes that women have the same natural capacities as men and holds the bond of marriage to be a vehicle for “a life of shared harmony and the joint pursuit of virtue” (Ramelli, lvii). Stoic ethical teaching is aimed now at social harmony, beginning with the fundamental unit of the household. It gave the Stoics great clout in Roman society.

Hierocles’ Circles

For Antipater, Musonius, Epictetus and Hierocles, the Stoic will show their sagacity in how well they marry, bring up children, engage as a citizen, and in how well they will be able to draw ever-widening circles of people into their concerns. Hierocles’ Circles was the picture that great Stoic used to teach oikeiosis. We should always seek to draw the further circles toward ourselves, treating family as we would ourselves, friends as family, neighbors as friends, citizens as neighbors, and ultimately foreigners as fellow citizens.

It’s a big lesson we can bring home today, too. Along with his picture of the circles, Hierocles left us this beautiful summary of oikeiosis, one of the best in all of Stoicism:

“Hence, nature has, as though it were not ignorant of why it creates us, nicely brought each of us into the world with, in a way, an ally. Thus, no one is alone, or born from an oak or a rock, but rather from parents and with brothers and relatives and other members of the household. Reason, too, is a great aid, which appropriates strangers and those wholly unrelated to us by blood and provides us with an abundance of allies. For this reason, we are eager by nature to win over and make a friend of everyone. Thus, that act is the most complete kind of madness: to wish to be joined with those who bear no affection toward us by nature and deliberately, to the greatest extent possible, to confer family bond on them, but to neglect those helpers and caretakers who are at hand and have been bestowed upon us by nature, such as it happens that our brothers are.”

Oikeiosis is a beautiful madness indeed—it’s all about the family we choose and how wide we let those circles go without neglecting what’s close at hand. That’s a definition of justice we could use today when we have broken the connection between our self-interest and the interests of others. We could all stand a little Stoic “housekeeping” to make room for others.

By: Stephen Hanselman, co-author of The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living and Lives of the Stoics, which is now available everywhere books are sold!