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What Is Sympatheia? (And Why It’s So Damn Important)

Stoic Exercises, Uncategorized, and More

In Book Six of Meditations, Marcus gives himself (and us) a command to keep an important idea in mind. “Meditate often,” he writes, “on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe.” He is speaking of the Stoic concept of Sympatheia, the idea that “all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other.

Why should we think about this? What will it do?

Well according to Marcus, understanding how we are all connected and dependent on each other will prompt us to be good and do good for each other. He almost sounds like a broken record considering how much he repeats it:

“Revere the gods and look after each other.” (6.30)

 

“The universe made rational creatures for the sake of each other, with an eye toward mutual benefit based on true value and never for harm.” (9.1)

 

“Human beings have been made for the sake of one another. Teach them or endure them.” (8.59)

 

“You’ve been made by nature for the purpose of working with others.” (8.12)

This idea of Sympatheia is such an important one because it is so easy to forget. It’s just simpler to think about and care about the people immediately around you. It’s tempting to get consumed by your own problems. It’s natural to assume you have more in common and the same interests as the people who look like you or live like you do. But that is an insidious lie—one responsible for monstrous inhumanity and needless pain.

When other people suffer, we suffer. When the world suffers, we suffer. (What’s bad for the hive is bad for the bee, Marcus said). To the Stoics, we are all part of the same larger organism. We are all unified and share the same substance. We breathe the same air. We share the same hopes and dreams. We are all descended from the same long chain of evolution—and this is true no