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  • Brittany

The Three Relationships

When you think about your relationships, what comes to mind? Probably your connections to the people closest to you, like your friends and family members. You probably characterize your relationships with these people as good or bad, close or distant, smooth or rough. But for Stoics, these are not the only relationships that matter in life. We have equally important relationships with ourselves and with the world in general. This is how Marcus Aurelius describes our three primary relationships:

We have three relationships: the first to the vessel that encloses us [ourselves], the second to the divine cause, the source of all that befalls every being [the universe], and the third to those who live alongside us [other people]. (Meditations, 8.27)

Let’s think about how we can update these three relationships for Stoicism in the 21st century.

Your Relationship with Yourself

Your primary relationship—the one closest to you and the one you will maintain your whole life—is to yourself. This corresponds to the Stoic study of logic, which includes how ideas fit together, how to tell truth from falsehood, the meaning of words and sentences. It’s basically the study of rationality and our capacity for reasoning.

Our relationship with ourselves is mediated by (what we today call) our inner discourse. In other words, the way we talk to ourselves—that voice in our heads—determines how we think. Do you allow yourself to be angered or upset by every passing thought, or do you rationally decide to disregard some unhelpful thoughts? Do you train your mind to focus on what is noble and excellent in human nature, or do you allow yourself to fixate on the things that are going wrong?

For Stoics, our ability to identify and control our impressions is an important component of our relationship with ourselves. While animals and small children may simply react to whatever happens around them, as rational adults we are capable of stepping back to look at our thoughts, then choosing which ones are accurate. Epictetus gives some vivid examples of how we can actually distance ourselves from our thoughts (impressions):

For just as Socrates used to say that we shouldn't live an unexamined life, we shouldn't accept any impression without subjecting it to examination, but should say to it, "Wait, let me see who you are, and where you've come from"--just as night watchmen say: "Show me your mark of identification." - Do you have that mark from nature that every impression must have if it is to be accepted?” (Discourses, 3.12, 14-15)

If you muster these thoughts against it, you'll overpower your impression and not be swept away by it. But first of all, don't allow yourself to be dazed by the rapidity of the impact, but say, "Wait a while for me, my impression, let me see what you are and what you're an impression of; let me test you out." And then don't allow it to lead you on by making you a picture of all that may follow, or else it will take possession of you and conduct you wherever it wants. But rather, introduce some fine and noble impression in place of it, and cast out this impure one. (Discourses, 2.18, 23-25)

By training ourselves to carefully examine our impressions and accept only those that accurately represent reality, we ensure we draw closer to a true understanding of the world. And truth is really important. The Stoics believed that humans have a natural disposition to seek the truth. We all hate being lied to or deceived, and it is only ignorance that leads us to fall into mental errors. So this process of educating ourselves to assent only to true impressions is very important. And as Epictetus’s teacher Musonius Rufus memorably said, “Thoughtlessness is very close to insanity” (Lectures, 20, 4).

Your Relationship with the Universe

Our relationship with the universe is complicated. Marcus Aurelius, following other Stoics like Epictetus, believed that the world was composed of a divine substance, which was benevolently and rationally structured to the benefit of humanity. That’s why he considered his second relationship to be with “the divine cause,” and that’s also why ancient Stoics called nature God and Zeus. While I certainly respect those ancient beliefs, we don’t need to maintain these beliefs in our relationship with the world today. Let me explain why.

In ancient times, philosophy was basically the study of the whole universe. It included what we would today call science—biology, zoology, anatomy, astronomy, physics, optics, geology, etc.—as well as the study of the origins of the universe (cosmology). Given the limited scope of scientific inquiry at the time, this made sense. A reasonably educated person could learn everything important in all these fields.

Today, however, our scientific knowledge has advanced to the point where most people can’t even master the basics of one scientific field, much less all of them. In the 21st century it isn’t necessary—and it doesn’t make sense—to try to learn everything about everything. We have separate fields of inquiry for these hard sciences, including the origin and composition of the universe. We don’t need philosophy to include anatomy or astronomy. We don’t need philosophy to explain what the universe is made of. We just need philosophy to tell us how we should relate to the universe (regardless of what it’s made of).

So while the ancients expected philosophy to explain everything about nature (Seneca even wrote a work called Natural Questions on earthquakes, wind, and meteors), today we expect philosophy to do something different. We don’t need information about nature, but we do need to understand our relationship to nature. This is a completely different thing. No matter what the universe is made of, we need to know how to interact with it appropriately and effectively. We are switching from an information-based model of Physics (which is what this field was called in ancient times) to a relationship-based model.

For this reason, theological beliefs don’t even enter the picture in this humanist version of Stoicism. People might hold various religious or non-religious beliefs, or they might prefer the ancient Stoic account of the origin and substance of the world. Humanist Stoicism can accommodate all those beliefs because we are only interested in the relationship of person to environment. We take “what exists” as our starting point, and instead of asking, “Why does it exist?” or “What created it?” or "What's it made out of?" we ask “How should I feel and act toward it?”

So in a very essential way, this second relationship is truly about our relationship with the universe. And Stoicism still has plenty to say on this topic. We should treat the universe with great respect, and we should accept that we have limited power to change it. We should admire its beauty and rein in our own hubris, given that we are just a tiny part of the bigger picture. We should align ourselves with Nature, not because of a divine will but because we are part of Nature, and it is so much more powerful than we are. If we recognize this we will be happy, and we’ll also be able to realistically work within the constraints of the world. If we don’t adapt ourselves to the way of the world, we’ll be miserable and ineffective. That’s just the way things are.

You might wonder if, by re-drawing the lines of Stoic physics, I am changing Stoicism in a way that renders it no longer Stoic. Well, of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I don’t think so. Even in ancient times there were many different ways of defining the three disciplines (see Seneca, Letter 89, 9; Cicero, On Duties 2.18; Epictetus 3.2). In this updated version of our relationship with the world, we leave room for the essential components: wonder, awe, reverence, respect, appreciation, and a sense of love and duty toward the natural world.

Your Relationship with Other People

The ancient Stoics are very clear that we are to regard other humans as members of our extended family. We treat them with justice, kindness, and patience, and we care for them as we care for ourselves. As Seneca says:

The very first thing philosophy promises is fellow feeling, a sense of togetherness among human beings. (Moral Letters, 5.4)

No one can live a happy life if he only looks to himself, turning everything to his own advantage. If you want to live for yourself, you must live for another; it holds that there is a common law of humankind." (Moral Letters, 48.2)

And according to Epictetus, one of the happy outcomes of impression management (i.e., a good relationship with ourselves) is good relationships with other people:

Whoever among you who sincerely wants to be friend to another, or to win the friendship of another, should thus eradicate [bad] judgments, and despise them, and banish them from his mind. And when he has done so he will, in the first place, be free from self-reproach, and inner conflict, and instability of mind, and self-torment; and furthermore, in his relations with others, he will always be frank and open with one who is like himself, and will be tolerant, and gentle, and forbearing, and kind, with regard to one who is unlike him, as likewise to one who is ignorant and falls into error on the matters of the highest importance. (Discourses, 2.22)


Keeping our three relationships in mind can help us deal with challenges that arise in our daily lives. When facing a challenge, you might stop and ask yourself which relationship this impacts: yourself, the universe, or other people? (And it might impact more than one!) This will help you determine how to address the problem.

  • If it impacts your relationship with yourself, you can work on dealing with your impressions or otherwise investigating whether your inner discourse accurately reflects reality.

  • If it impacts your relationship with the world, think about whether you need to be more respectful toward the awesome entirety of the universe, aligning your wishes with the way things really are.

  • And if it impacts your relationship with other people, think about whether you are treating others respectfully, or whether you perhaps have unrealistic expectations of them.

This is exactly what Marcus Aurelius is doing throughout the Meditations. So if you need more inspiration, go back to the Meditations--it won't take you long to find it!

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