In his fascinating biography, The House of Percy, Bertram Wyatt-Brown describes a beautiful scene involving William Alexander Percy, the son of a senator, a poet, and lifelong student of the Stoics. Percy is sitting on a hill looking down into the ruins of an ancient Greek amphitheatre, thinking of Marcus Aurelius.
“Though pagan,” Wyatt-Brown writes, “the Stoics recognized the brotherhood of man. The greatest virtue was helping others for one’s own sake and peace of mind as well as theirs. Justice, goodness of heart, duty, courage, and fidelity to fellow creatures, great and lowly, were abstractions requiring no divine authority to sustain them; they were worth pursuing on their own.”
This observation contains a lot, so it’s worth unpacking. First, it’s clear that this scene is one of those wonderful moments of sympatheia. William, sitting there by himself in nature, is suddenly reminded of his connection to other people and his role in this larger ecosystem that is the world. We need to seek out these moments because they humble and empower us simultaneously. Next, what does he mean by pagan or divine authority? The author is making an important point about Stoicism. Most religions tell us to be good because God said so. Or they tell us not to be bad because God will punish us. Stoicism is different. While not incompatible with religion, it makes a different case for virtue: A person who lives selfishly will not go to hell. They will live in hell. And both these points are related to the final and most important part: We are all connected to each other, and to help others is to help ourselves. We are obligated to serve and to be of service.
The Percys are a great example of a family that did this. Despite being wealthy, they served in politics. Despite being white and from Mississippi, they fought to keep the Klan out of their hometown. When the Flood of 1927 hit, the Percys saved thousands of lives. When William’s cousin died, he adopted his three second cousins. Because the family was duty-bound. Because they believed they were part of a brotherhood of man. Because it was worth doing for its own sake.
And so it goes for us.