Why We Are Born to Be Ethical

Ancient philosophers like Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and Plato taught that nature was permeated by harmony and intelligence. And by carefully observing biological organisms, we can see intelligence everywhere in the living world. For example, if you cut your hand, your body knows how to heal itself. And if you cut off the head of a flatworm, the flatworm knows how to grow a new head. As Epicharmos of Kos said, “All living things are intelligent.”

For the Stoics, in addition to this kind of unconscious bodily intelligence (or logos) in living organisms, we human beings possess another kind of logos: conscious rationality, which allows us to reason and to make rational judgments. And because of this spark of reason, which makes us human and connects us together into one global community, the Stoics spoke of the cosmopolis — the “world-city” that we all inhabit as rational beings.

The most beautiful writer on the Stoic cosmopolis is Marcus Aurelius. And Marcus states, to really understand our own nature, we must understand the nature of the world from which we have emerged. As he writes,

Without an understanding of the nature of the universe, a man cannot know where he is; without an understanding of its purpose, he cannot know what he is, nor what the universe itself is. Let either of these discoveries be hid from him, and he will not be able so much as to give a reason for his own existence (8.52).

As Marcus wrote,

Always think of the universe as one living organism, with a single substance and a single soul; and observe how all things are submitted to the single perceptivity of this one whole, all are moved by its single impulse, and all play their part in the causation of every event that happens (4.40).

In an organism, all the individual parts exist, not to go off in their own direction, but work to for the benefit of the whole. Because we are part of one organism, Marcus writes, “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” (2.1).

Seneca, writing about the same thing, uses an even more beautiful image. He writes,

The 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. . . . Let us hold things in common, as we are born for the common good. Our companionship is just like a stone arch, which would collapse without the stones’ mutual support to hold it up (Letters 95.52–53).

As Marcus Aurelius writes in a passage reminiscent of modern ecological thought, “All things are interwoven with one another; a sacred bond unites them; there is scarcely one thing that is isolated from one another. Everything is coordinated, everything works together in giving form to the one universe” (7.9).

Because we’re woven into the warp and woof of the cosmic tapestry, each person is implicated in ever-widening circles and ever-larger wholes. To use modern scientific language, an individual is rooted in human community, human community is rooted in the greater community of the biosphere, the biosphere is rooted in the living dynamics of the solar system, and the solar system is rooted in the great community of the Milky Way Galaxy. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “the intelligence of the universe is social” and the world is “that supreme City in which all other cities are as households.” Marcus writes, “The chief good of a rational being is fellowship with his neighbors,” and as a part of the world fabric we help to create the social whole; therefore, our actions should help to complete the life of society. But as Marcus Aurelius points out, we are not merely “parts” of the whole but “limbs” of the universe. If we think of ourselves only as parts, we act only out of “bare duty” and not out of “love from the heart of mankind” (7.13). And because of its emphasis on the universal fellowship of humanity, Stoicism not only inspired Roman statesmen like Marcus Aurelius, but provided the foundation for the early Christian idea of “the brotherhood of humanity.”

And what we can see from all of this is that, according to the Stoics, we are really born to be ethical. Because we’re parts of humanity—and united by kinship and by universal reason—like the parts of an organism, we’re designed to serve and benefit the whole, or the world community. So in addition to being united by love, kinship, and friendship, we’re also united by mind and reason, and all these factors combined are responsible for our philanthropic spirit, and they’re responsible for many of the greatest human achievements.

This guest post by David Fideler is an excerpt from a talk that he gave at Stoicon 2019 in Athens, “The Stoic Cosmopolis: Why We Are Born to Be Ethical.”

 

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