Stoicon Preview: Transformation
At Stoicon 2022 I will be speaking about the lifelong process of oikeiosis: the development toward wisdom and altruistic love that gives rise to human flourishing. We will be looking at this process in the larger context of transformation, which was a key theme for the ancient Stoics. Here's a preview of that talk for all my readers at Living in Agreement. I hope you enjoy! - Brittany
The ancient Stoics were influenced in fascinating ways by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus—so much so that Pierre Hadot calls Stoicism “a fusion of three traditions: the Socratic ethical tradition, the Heraclitean physical and “materialistic” tradition, and the dialectical tradition of the Megareans and of Aristotle.” (The Inner Citadel, p. 73). In fact, the ancient Stoics considered Heraclitus so important that he was sometimes classed as one of the sages (alongside figures like Socrates and Diogenes of Sinope).
Heraclitus, if you recall from Philosophy 101, was the guy who believed that fire is the basic substance of the cosmos. This idea found its way (perhaps via Cleanthes) into the Stoic theory of the periodic conflagration of the universe, when the world would be consumed by fire and reborn exactly the same as before. But more important for us today, he also espoused a doctrine of universal flux, which imprinted itself on the early Stoics and later on the thought of Marcus Aurelius. In Marcus’s Meditations, we see him constantly reflecting on the permanent condition of change in the universe. For instance:
I am composed of the formal and the material; and neither of these will perish into nothingness, just as neither arose from nothingness. Thus every part of me will be appointed by change to a new position as some part of the universe, and that again will be changed to form another part of the universe, and so on to infinity. It was through a similar process of change that I too came to exist, and my parents before me, and so again to infinity in the other direction. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.12)
Is one afraid of change? Why, what can come about without change? And what is nearer and dearer to universal nature? Can you yourself take a hot bath unless the firewood suffers change? Can you be nourished unless your food suffers change? Can anything else of value be accomplished without change? And do you not see, then, that change in yourself is of a similar nature, and similarly necessary to universal nature? (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.18)
For Marcus, change is not something to be rejected or feared, but a natural part of life to be welcomed. Some changes, like aging and death, we may not want to face, but we can find comfort in the fact that they are an all-encompassing aspect of nature. Epictetus, too, leans into this idea of change as a natural process that humans have no choice but to accept:
But would you describe any word to me as ill-omened if it refers to something that follows the course of nature? Say that it is also of bad omen for ears of corn to be harvested, because that signifies the destruction of the corn. Say that it is ill-omened, too, for leaves to fall, and for a fresh fig to turn into a dried one, and for grapes to turn into raisins. For all these things involve a change from a preceding state to a new and different one; it's not a matter of destruction, but of ordered management and administration. Traveling abroad is like that: a change, and a small change; death is like that: a bigger change from what presently is, not into what is not, but rather into what presently is not. (Discourses, 3.24, 93)
When we align ourselves with nature, Marcus and Epictetus remind us, we align ourselves with “this unending flux of substance and time” (Meditations, 5.10). We are subject to the same natural processes as everything around us.
Change takes place not just on a cosmic scale, but on a human scale too. As an element of nature, human development is part of the ongoing natural cycle of transformation. We are born as helpless infants, we mature into curious children and capable adolescents, then we take our place in adult society with considerable powers of agency and rationality. When we reach the period of decline and eventually death, this is a change no different in kind from birth and childhood. Our maturity and dissolution are an inevitable part of our humanity.
In fact, I would say that the Stoic ethical theory of oikeiosis ties into the Stoic physical theory of universal transformation. Here is Seneca stating the point quite clearly:
The stages of life are different—infancy, childhood, youth, and maturity. Yet I, who have been a baby, a boy, and a youth, remain the same person. So, although each thing's constitution changes, it is attached to its constitution in the same way. My natural attachment is not to the boy or the youth or the mature man but to myself. Therefore a baby is attached to its own constitution, the one it has as a baby, and not to the one it will have as a youth. Even though it will later mature into a greater condition, that does not imply that the condition in which it is born is not also in accordance with nature. (Letters on Ethics, 121.16)
Although each person remains the same entity throughout the lifespan, we are so thoroughly transformed as to be almost unrecognizable from one phase to the next. In this passage Seneca is emphasizing that nature has made each creature attached to itself, from infancy onward, and that basic commitment remains unchanged over a lifetime. Even though we undergo huge changes, our commitment to our self as a living creature stays constant. We are fundamentally different, yet we are fundamentally the same. It all sounds very Heraclitean.
But this natural process of transformation has huge implications for our moral lives. While a young child cannot be expected to value excellence of character over getting a cookie, this is exactly what is expected of a mature adult. With experience and maturity, we learn that our true good lies in living with virtue, not in acquiring material possessions or in merely staying alive. Our commitment to ourselves changes over time. From simple self-preservation to a complex moral understanding, we develop our full human potential for virtue. This process is called oikeiosis, or sometimes “personal oikeiosis.”
At the same time, humans are born with an instinct toward social affection, which also develops over the lifespan. As children, we are primed for affection toward our caregivers and closest associates, but we eventually learn that we are part of something larger—a family, a community, a town, a nation, and even a world full of people. Our natural affection for those closest to us is expanded into care for all other humans, a process called “social oikeiosis.” By caring for other people, we come to see our own good as closely bound up with theirs.
What’s remarkable is how closely tied together these two strands of development are: from mere self-preservation to wisdom, and from “selfish” social affection to expansive social affection. They are so close, in fact, I would say they eventually merge into one. If you’re developing properly, you realize virtue and caring for others are the same thing. As Marcus Aurelius (10.2) says, “Every rational being, by virtue of its rationality, is also a social being.”
You might think that’s a very high expectation to rest on a naturally occurring process—how does all this happen “naturally”? It all goes back to that human superpower, rationality. We are equipped by nature with all the skills and capacities needed to fulfill this transformation. Our rationality facilitates the process of intellectual and moral development. So let’s look in detail at what’s so special about human rationality.
Rationality is that special suite of cognitive skills unique to homo sapiens, like abstract representation, linguistic communication, cooperative problem solving, and what psychologist Michael Tomasello calls “collective intentionality.” Human rationality, scientists now believe, evolved in a context in which cooperation meant the difference between life and death. Our ancestors were forced to work together to stay alive. The most collaborative individuals were the most successful at surviving and reproducing, giving rise to the incredibly smart and social species we are today. As Tomasello describes it:
It is possible to characterize what happened with these early humans as just the emergence of some new skills, and that is certainly true. But these were not just any skills. These were skills that created a new kind of agent, one in which two distinct individuals, in a sense, perceived and understood the world together while still not losing their own individual perspectives. This created for early humans what we may call perspectival cognitive representations. Whereas great apes could abstract common features across exemplars and form an abstract representation of a set of entities, early humans could not only do this but also see the same entity from different perspectives, under different descriptions (for example, as stick and as tool), both at the same time. This form of cognitive representation is responsible for much of the remarkable flexibility and power of human conceptual activity. (Becoming Human, loc. 354)
It is this distinctive human ability to change perspectives and share intentions—to see things in new ways—that led to our special cognitive capacities. We began to bind together as a group in ways our primate cousins do not. (As Tomasello puts it, “Apes have very sophisticated cognitive and social skills, just not human ones” .) Some of these uniquely human skills include:
joint attention, perspective-taking, cooperative/referential gestures, conventional linguistic communication, role reversal imitation, conformity, instructed (pedagogical) learning, recursive thinking, cooperative problem solving, coordinated decision-making, dual-level collaboration, joint commitment, paternalistic helping, a sense of fairness and justice, second-personal protest, enforcing and creating social norms, active impression management, a sense of shame and guilt, and a conception of moral identity. (Tomasello, Becoming Human, loc. 6337)
As you can see, some of our most advanced intelligences result from our need to look inside the minds of others, form plans together, and collaborate as a unit rather than as competitive individuals or even as cooperative pairs. It was our need to function as a group that spurred our cognitive and social development. Our rationality is our sociability, and vice versa. There is no separation.
The ancient Stoics understood this long before anyone ever dreamed of evolutionary psychology. Their theory of oikeiosis incorporates these insights into the standard developmental trajectory. Human infants start life with a few very important instincts—to seek food and security, to interact with caregivers—but as a child grows up her rational faculties enable her to start making choices. She is no longer driven purely by instinct, but by reason and reflection. The older she gets, and the more her powers of reason develop, the more agency she has to choose her responses to the world. Thus we find Epictetus explicitly linking our rationality to our sociability in the form of judgments:
Whoever among you sincerely wants to be friend to another, or to win the friendship of another, should thus eradicate these [bad] judgments, 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, gentle, forbearing, and kind with regard to one who is unlike him, as likewise to one who is ignorant and falls into error on matters of the highest importance; and he will never be harsh with anyone because he fully understands the saying of Plato, that ‘no mind is ever willingly deprived of the truth.’ (Discourses, 2.22, 34-36)
Our rationality enables us to understand, to reflect, and to seek specific types of interactions with other people. We can always choose not to complete our development as rational, caring members of a community and society. Some people remain self-centered or narrowly focused on their own friends, while neglecting other people. But if we use our full powers of rationality to truly understand our own nature, we’ll see that we’re much better off aligning ourselves with the greater good. We feel good when we help others. It’s baked into our DNA.
Inner Transformation Toward Rational Care
The ancient Stoics believed all normally functioning people possess human rationality, but some people misuse it. They don’t take care of their impressions, and therefore they hold false beliefs and make bad decisions. But if we educate ourselves properly, we can make good use of our impressions and make progress toward wisdom and eudaimonia. We all have the capacity to develop rational care, but some of us choose not to fulfill that capacity. To put it in 21st-century terms:
In complex human competencies, maturation never supplies anything like a finished product, as it can do (to a first approximation) in very basic behavioral skills such as breathing and swallowing. In all of the cases that concern us here, then, what matures is a capacity, a readiness to go forward under certain conditions. Actually going forward requires exercising that capacity and experiencing the results. (Tomasello, Becoming Human, loc. 661)
Our goal, then, is to cultivate our capacity for rational care—that special blend of rationality and sociability that enables “collective intentionality” and goodwill. This means:
Making good judgments about what is important in life (being a good person over acquiring external “goods”).
Caring wisely for other people (loving people without staking our happiness on their actions).
Seeing our personal flourishing as linked to the flourishing of our family, friends, community, country, and planet.
Bringing care into every part of our life, with no segmentation between work, home, and anywhere else. We are the same (rational, caring) person wherever we are in the world.
Caring for others not as the result of fleeting emotions or desires (infatuation, lust, pity, empathy) but of rational responses to circumstances.
Having an orientation of openness and goodwill toward others.
Maintaining a spirit of openness toward other people, not being closed off or overly judgmental.
The process of inner transformation that naturally occurs throughout our lifetime is really a process of learning to care rationally about ourselves and other people. We are all equipped with basic human instincts for rationality and sociability. But whether we transform our pre-rational instincts into true rational care depends on our choices, our values, and the character we create for ourselves.
References and Further Reading
Hadot, P. (2001). The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Harvard University Press:
Long, A.A. (1996). "Heraclitus and Stoicism. In Stoic Studies, University of California Press:
Berkeley, CA (pp. 35-57).
Tomasello, M. (2019). Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny. Belknap Press: Cambridge, MA.