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Stoicism and Compassion: A False Dichotomy


A couple summers ago, I was reading Marcus AureliusMeditations on a plane ride back from Africa. I usually carry it with me, especially when I’m traveling.

“What are you reading?” said the man next to me, who was flipping through a glossy Esquire, or something like that.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius,” I responded.

“Oh, that’s neat.  Do you like it?  I’m not really into all that meditation stuff.”

I explained that it was a notebook of the Roman emperor’s personal reflections, as well as a foundational stoic text.

“Stoicism, huh? Isn’t that like being very shut-off, emotionally?”  He pointed to the cover, boasting a marble statue of Marcus Aurelius. “I don’t think I could be like that. Hell, I don’t think I would want to.  I got too much heart.”

“Too much heart?”

“Yeah… I’m just a pretty caring person. I wouldn’t want to change that about myself.”

I felt a pang of defensiveness. It’s times like this when I remind myself of a quote from Marcus Aurelius: “I, then, can neither be harmed by these people, nor become angry with one who is akin to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together, like feet, hands, eyelids, or the two rows of teeth in our upper and lower jaws.  To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature; and to be angry with another person and turn away from him is surely to work against him” (2.1).

So, rather than become irritated and ignore him for the rest of the flight, I proceeded to flip through the book, marking every passage that had to do with empathy, respect, altruism, compassion, responding to others, accepting others, and serving others.  

An hour later, he had taken out his phone and ordered a copy of Meditations for himself.  

Although stoicism is having a cultural resurgence of sorts, there are some popular misconceptions that cling to its public image. I was recently listening to a podcast and heard of someone who is reportedly struggling to find a balance between Stoicism and compassion, as if the two were mutually exclusive.

I was confused. Yet I know others who share this viewpoint.

Stoicism is often considered to be unfeeling and cold, or lacking sensitivity and compassion toward humanity in some way. If you look up synonyms for “stoic,” you will find apathetic, detached, indifferent, and uncaring.  Like my fellow passenger pointing to the book cover, it is falsely believed that stoicism leads one to be, well, like a statue.

Despite Stoicism’s recent popularity, some may continue to find it inaccessible—a framework reserved for football coaches, military generals, or entrepreneurs.   Of course, many of these ideas are endorsed by those who have not actually read any stoic texts, but I believe this may be a symptom, rather than a cause.

Perhaps it is their misunderstanding that keeps them from learning about Stoicism in the first place. Perhaps it is the failure to recognize that Stoicism is ultimately about joy.  The joy that comes from living a good life.

I would add that this joy comes not from short-term pleasures or long-term denial, but from living a life of virtue. As we shall see, at the foundation of such virtue is love for our fellow human being and contribution to the benefit of humanity.  

This is Stoic Compassion.

1) Interconnectedness


“Constantly think of the universe as a single living being, comprised of a single substance and a single soul; and how all things issue into the single perception of this being, and how it accomplishes all things through a single impulse; and how all things work together to cause all that comes to be, and how intricate and densely woven is the fabric formed by their interweaving” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.40


Cultivating this sort of worldview is fundamental to compassion, as it fosters a sense of connection with our fellow human beings.  It helps us realize that we are a part of a larger entity and compels us to act accordingly.

In fact, just feeling like a “part” of the collective is not quite enough for Marcus Aurelius.  He states, “Just as with the limbs of the body in individual organisms, rational beings likewise in their separate bodies are constituted to work together in concert.  The thought of this will strike you more forcibly if you say to yourself again and again, ‘I am a limb (melos) of the common body formed by all rational beings.’  If, however, by changing a single letter, you call yourself a part (meros), you have not learned to love your fellows with all your heart, nor do you yet rejoice in doing good for its own sake; for you are still doing it simply as a duty, and not yet in the conviction that you are thus doing good to yourself” (7.13).

This idea of humanity and, more broadly, the universe as a living entity in which all things are interconnected is just one of the similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism.  Nonetheless, Buddhism is often thought of as peaceful, compassionate, and liberating in a way that Stoicism is not.

Stoicism further advocates for the expansion of the self, in which we not only understand, but feel a sense of kinship with all living things. This stoic concept, in which we expand our sense of self to encompass others, is called Oikeiôsis. Such a state, similar to the Buddhist concept Mettā, is further seen as a fundamental truth that should guide all of our actions.  In On Ends, Cicero discusses the importance of human unity, further explaining that the love parents have for their children can be widened to encompass the entire human race.  This is undoubtedly a state that would foster understanding and warmth toward others, leading us to practice kindness, benevolence, courtesy, and respect in all that we do.

Marcus Aurelius suggests that we recognize ourselves as a limb of a larger body and use this realization as a compass to guide our actions: “Since you yourself are one of the parts that serve to perfect a social system, let your every action contribute to the perfecting of social life” (9.23).

He warns us of what will happen if we lose sight of this aim, writing, “Any action of yours, then, which has no reference, whether direct or indirect, to these social ends, tears your life apart, prevents it from being at one and creates division, as does the cities in a state who for his own part cuts himself off from the concord of his fellows” (9.23).

This isolation and fragmentation to which he points is evident throughout humanity.  It continues to result in division that creates detrimental consequences for human beings as well as the world we inhabit.  The human race often thinks of itself as somehow separate from the rest of the living world, leading to exploitation and environmental destruction and for the sake of material benefit and political gain.  

Furthermore, humanity itself is fragmented and divided.  It would seem that many of us have lost sight of the similarities among human beings.  The core commonalities that underlie all of the surface differences. On an individual level, isolation from humanity paves the way for emotional distress and wrongful action.  Recognizing our interconnectedness with one another is crucial to virtuous action.  It is crucial to a good life.   

Stoicism prompts us to acknowledge our nature as social beings, but such awareness is not enough.  We must shape our conduct accordingly, bringing us to our next point.


2) Social Duty


“For as these were made to perform a particular function, and, by performing it according to their own constitution, gain in full what is due to them, so likewise, a human being is formed by nature to benefit others, and, when he has performed some benevolent action or accomplished anything else that contributes to the common good, he has done what he was constituted for, and has what is properly his.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.42


Stoicism advises us to be altruistic, acting in the service of others without desire for personal gain, recognition, or praise.  It’s about doing it naturally, since we were indeed designed for it by nature. It is our function to benefit the species into which we were born.

“What brings no benefit to the hive brings none to the bee” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.54

As William B. Irvine writes in A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, “To fulfill my social duty—to do my duty to my kind—I must feel a concern for all mankind.  I must remember that we humans were created for one another, that we were born, says Marcus, to work together the way our hands or eyelids do.  Therefore, in all I do, I must have as my goal ‘the service and harmony of all.’  More precisely, ‘I am bound to do good to my fellow-creatures and bear with them’” (p.129).

This idea of being “bound” to other people in some sort of social “duty” may seem daunting to some. It may conjure up a sort of obligatory distaste that some of us will find to be a problem. It may even seem opposite to the natural brand of compassion that flows from the feeling of oneness previously discussed.  But it is precisely that interconnectedness on which this social duty is based.

Duty, in this case, simply means responsibility to contribute to the greater good. This responsibility helps us navigate the waters when responding to difficult people in an understanding and tranquil manner.  While we may often be tempted to avoid such individuals, Stoicism reminds us that to do so is to go against our nature.  We must find ways to work with them.

Anyone who meaningfully serves human beings understands that it is not always pleasant.  It can be extremely difficult at times. Understanding our efforts as a duty helps us to follow through when things get tough—to withstand the trials that come with helping others through life’s most distressing hardships.

Even so, perhaps we have an irrational aversion to duty.  Like a toddler being told to clean up his toys.  Perhaps we just want to do what we want, when we want.  But this is hardly the recipe for a good life. Stoicism warns us against aimlessly chasing our desires and pleasures, instead guiding us toward finding ultimate joy in self-mastery and contribution.  

There is certainly joy in carrying out our duty to humanity.  I’ve found that the times I’ve been the happiest have not been when I was most comfortable.  They haven’t been when I was on the beach sipping mudslides.  In fact, many of them have been when I was rather uncomfortable… They’ve been when I was volunteering at a psychiatric hospital in Poland without knowing a word of the language.  They’ve been when I was in the mold-infested basements of Mississippi helping families rebuild their homes after Hurricane Katrina.  They’ve been when I was feeding people with Cerebral Palsy or helping them use the restroom.  These times were not marked by ease or comfort, but by a deep sense of joy that comes from contributing to humanity in a meaningful way.

Marcus Aurelius tells us that we should give to others like the vine gives grapes or the bee makes honey.  That is, we should serve other people without seeking the admiration or sympathy of others.  The reward is deeper than such trivial applause. The reward is not praise.

“To the contrary, the reward for doing one’s social duty, Marcus says, is something far better than thanks, admiration, or sympathy… an important part of our function, as we have seen, is to work with and for our fellow men.  Marcus therefore concludes that doing his social duty will give him the best chance at having a good life”  (Irvine, p. 132)

According to Stoicism, serving others and contributing to humanity are essential ingredients to a good life.

Throughout your day, let this powerful, yet simple affirmation be your guide: “For all that I do, whether on my own or assisted by another, should be directed to this single end, the common benefit and harmony.” (Aurelius, 7.5)

Imagine if we all lived in such a manner.


3) Empathy


In addition to the conceptual notions of unity and social duty on a large-scale, Stoicism promotes empathy and understanding in our interpersonal relationships. Of chief importance is the ability to listen to others in a way that acknowledges their own values, beliefs, and autonomy.

Marcus Aurelius writes, “Acquire the habit of attending carefully to what is being said by another, and of entering, so far as possible, into the mind of the speaker” (6.53).

Such is the power of empathy, or the ability to deeply understand and feel the experience of another human being. By entering the mind of the speaker, you practice a crucial skill that is beneficial to all human relationships. 

“In conversation, one should attend closely to what is being said, and with regard to every impulse attend to what arises from it; in the latter case, to see from the first what end it has in view, and in the former, to keep careful watch on what people are meaning to say” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.4

While many are just waiting for their turn to talk, the stoic considers not only the words being said, but the thoughts and emotions from which they surface.  This is the art of listening, which fosters understanding and connection between ourselves and others.

When faced with people who have behaved unjustly or wrongly in some way, Marcus Aurelius has more advice. “No soul,” he writes, “is willingly deprived of the truth; and the same applies to justice too, and temperance, and benevolence, and everything of the kind.  It is most necessary that you should constantly keep this in mind, for you will then be gentler towards everyone” (7.63).  

Stoicism once more advises us to turn attention to our own conduct and internal experience, rather than dwelling on the actions of others, over which we have no control. If others behave unjustly, it is either unintentional or they must harness some anger toward humanity. It’s important for us not to feel the same animosity toward them as they feel toward others.  As Epictetus would advise, the best revenge against others is not to be like them.

So let us preserve our tranquility, even throughout the turbulences of human interactions and interpersonal relationships.  Doing so will help us better perform our social duties toward others while remembering the stoic truth that our power lies not in the situations we experience, but in our responses to them.


4) Self-Transformation


Stoicism focuses on organizing our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in a manner that cultivates tranquility. Therefore, the compassion that Stoicism promotes is not primarily concerned with issues of social justice and systemic change, but instead focuses on personal transformation.

The idea is that personal change can be a vehicle for change on a larger scale.  Through our own development, we can be conduits for the greater good.

“The Stoics believed in social reform, but they also believed in personal transformation.  More precisely, they thought the first step in transforming a society into one in which people live a good life is to teach people how to make their happiness depend as little as possible on their external circumstances.  The Stoics would add that if we fail to transform ourselves, then no matter how much we transform the society in which we live, we are unlikely to have a good life” – William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, p. 221.  

How vastly our compulsive and destructive patterns of consumption would reduce if more of us realized that our happiness depends so little on external circumstances.  

The Stoics placed importance on internal change, rather than external change.  It takes some people a lifetime to realize that external conditions, such as material success or romantic relationships, rarely create the internal change they seek.  It often leads them to simply act out the same problematic behaviors in different surroundings.  

It may be argued that these insights come from a place of privilege.  Let us not forget that Seneca was exiled and Epictetus was a slave.  Even in material wealth, the Stoics voluntarily relinquished it all to practice misfortune. These teachings come not from a place of fortune, but from an unwillingness to be a victim of fortune.  Not from a life of ease, but a life of overcoming hardship.

Unless we learn to be satisfied with little, more will rarely make a difference. External change is secondary to internal change, always. The Stoics knew this.

Stoicism is about pursuing your own improvement.  According to its teachings, however, your own benefit is inseparable from the benefit of others.

“One cannot pursue one’s own highest good without at the same time necessarily promoting the good of others.  A life based on narrow self-interest cannot be esteemed by any honorable measurement.  Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings.  Our human contract is not with the few people with whom our affairs are most immediately intertwined, nor to the prominent, rich, or well educated, but to all our human brethren.” – Epictetus, The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness, p. 95

While the focus on self may appear, well, selfish, remember that the Stoics advise us to transcend our personal desires in order to serve our fellow humans.  The stoic brand of selfishness is hardly selfish at all.

The Stoics were not ego-driven.  They did not inflate their sense of self-importance.  Contrarily, they often reminded themselves of how insignificant they were.  That their lives were short and their deeds would soon be forgotten.  They constantly reflected on the impermanence of all things. They knew that life was much larger than themselves.

It is precisely these realizations that compelled the Stoics to live a good life.

That is, a life of virtue in the service of others.

Be Still.

Written by Zack Paul, Creator of The Still Flame

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