In this article, I will consider two forms of compassion in Stoic philosophy: primal connection and social connection. Once we are familiar with these terms, we will see why compassion is important in our lives.
In Stoic philosophy, compassion was considered one of the most important practical activities. As a result, Stoics felt the need to be compassionate towards others, for the betterment of themselves and their peers. To understand the foundation for this importance, we will look at two types of compassion: primal connection and social connection.
To begin, we must note that Stoics considered themselves to be the citizens of the cosmos. Stoic proclaimed that his country is not Greece, or Rome, but the universe and that as a result, he feels at home anywhere he goes. They felt connected to the grander world and their own human nature that lies beyond the boundaries of a common social life.
“Constantly think of the universe as a single living being, comprised of a single substance and a single soul; and how all things issue into the single perception of this being, and how it accomplishes all things through a single impulse; and how all things work together to cause all that comes to be, and how intricate and densely woven is the fabric formed by their interweaving”Marcus Aurelius
Such a cosmopolitan worldview is very important, because it allows us to look at the whole (the universe) from the perspective of the part (ourselves), which is interconnected with other parts. It is important to note that these “parts” are not mechanical, although every one of them fulfills its duty in some form. Rather, these parts are organic, as Marcus Aurelius explained:
“Just as with the limbs of the body in individual organisms, rational beings likewise in their separate bodies are constituted to work together in concert. The thought of this will strike you more forcibly if you say to yourself again and again, ‘I am a limb (melos) of the common body formed by all rational beings.’ If, however, by changing a single letter, you call yourself a part (meros), you have not learned to love your fellows with all your heart, nor do you yet rejoice in doing good for its own sake; for you are still doing it simply as a duty, and not yet in the conviction that you are thus doing good to yourself”Marcus Aurelius
The bond that Marcus Aurelius speaks of is more primal than social. In social gatherings, there is a common goal that will call on us to fulfill some task. As opposed to this common goal, there is a primal bond that is deeper and it refers to the common nature of every human being that inhabits the Earth. Through this bond, we form one body as rational beings.
Social Connection and the Altruistic Bond
When our mind comes of age, we learn that in our (human) world there are things we can’t find in the natural world, such as justice, injustice, fortune, misfortune, humility, jealousy, and many others. We are bound by a social contract and we have laws that protect our rights. Still, our behavior is not dictated by our laws, but by an unwritten social nature. Kindness, for example, is not prescribed by the law.
“Wherever there is a human being there is an opportunity for kindness”Seneca
We should be able to show kindness to others, even if there is no personal, material gain in it for us. The same goes for any other form of love and compassion.
“For as these were made to perform a particular function, and, by performing it according to their own constitution, gain in full what is due to them, so likewise, a human being is formed by nature to benefit others, and, when he has performed some benevolent action or accomplished anything else that contributes to the common good, he has done what he was constituted for, and has what is properly his.”
“What brings no benefit to the hive brings none to the bee”Marcus Aurelius
I would like to call this bond an altruistic bond, in contrast to our primal bond. If we take in mind the first primal connection, it seems natural that true goodness will emerge from a true character. The altruistic deed is the one that can bring the most happiness, because it is focused on the whole and the common good. As such, compassion for our fellow humans is key. If we turn away from others, we turn away from our own potential for altruism and happiness.