ἐπιμέλεια ἑαυτὸν


There’s been a trend with many some modern Stoic writers, and with commenters and various blogs and groups, that the main focus of ancient philosophy, specifically of Stoicism, can be shifted from virtue and wisdom, to Justice. I’ve even seen it explicitly stated that we can get rid of the other three cardinal virtues and focus solely on Justice.

This is a strange perspective, one couched in the typical morality of the modern world, and I think that you’ll see that it is not based in the Stoic school. If we look at Stoic thought and exercises we will see that we have two tools for acting justly in the world: οἰκείωσις, and using social roles as a way to determine appropriate actions.

However, we have many exercises, tools, and prescriptions for, as Hadot calls them, spiritual exercises. All of these amount to ἐπιμέλεια ἑαυτὸν, or as Foucault translates as “care of the self.” This disparity alone should tell us that the place of importance is shifted in one direction.  Indeed, those outward actions, of roles/duties are merely descriptors of things the Sage does.  It’s just a nice benefit to virtue, not the end of it.

It should be a non-controversial statement, that Stoics are more concerned with the intent of the thing, then the consequences of a thing. The Dichotomy of Control clearly is a tool allowing us, nay, mandating us to pick and choose between what is up to us and what is not up to us. The consequences of our actions in a cosmos which is rigorously, mechanistically, causally controlled and Providentially ordered is clearly not up to us. The internal project, the intent, the work of the προαίρεσις is. Our social roles are not goods in and of themselves. Our duties are not goods. They are expressions of the good which is within, of virtue. Stoic ethics/morality is self-centered. By this, I mean focused on the self. From Socrates, through the Cynics, to the Stoics and beyond the focus has been on the inward turning of the individual.

Epictetus orders us to “turn back to yourselves” (ἐπιστρέψατε αὐτοὶ) (Disc. III.23.39). Marcus reminds himself to “turn your thoughts on yourself”(εἰς ἑαυτὸν ἐπιστρέφου) (Meditations IX.42).  We see this sort of language over and over again in the Stoic canon.

Rather, then seeing Stoicism as one more branding for popular social action or someone’s political agenda; we should look at it, as the Ancients did.  We should see it as an order for care of the self: to work on ourselves, to secure individual virtue. This trend has existed throughout Western Civilization, even though it is almost always subsumed by collectivist structures. For example, we see it in Christianity, we have both the good works mandate, and the admonition to remove the plank from our own eyes, before touching the speck in our neighbors. So too do we see Stoicism. The commandment of γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know thyself), is sometimes reorganized as ‘recognize thy self,’ (Scalenghe) and is a reminder to realign ourselves to the rational divinity of the soul. We are instructed to seek personal virtue and through that we benefit others. So while we bring people one Circle closer in Hierocles’ ordering of the cosmos, we are still ever working on ourselves and to better ourselves.

The call of ancient philosophy is not one of  “come as you are,”  but to recognize your own nature, change what needs to be changed about you, and strive towards the human excellence that you were formed by nature to be worthy of possessing.  The cost may be high, however.  It may be our current way of life, our livelihood, our beliefs, and more besides.  This facet is entirely lost in modern, academic philosophy where the only thing required to learn a specific set of patterns to get closer to truth.  The Ancients require that you change, not merely learn.  The call, then, of the Stoics is while we have duties and obligation in the world polis, the primary focus is on progressing toward virtue. It’s important not to lose sight of that amidst worldly concerns.

Stoicism tells us to work on ourselves to make a difference in our community. Rather than giving the community a partisan, a voter, or one more outraged and offended voice, it is within our power to give them a good person, a good family member, a good citizen.

Your virtue is the best thing you can do for your community.

5 thoughts on “ἐπιμέλεια ἑαυτὸν

  1. I’d be interested to learn where some of these claims are being made that “the main focus of ancient philosophy, specifically of Stoicism, can be shifted from virtue and wisdom, to Justice.”
    I can’t say that I’ve seen more than a very few people self-identifying as “Stoics” saying anything close to that. I do see some tendencies along those lines with people on the left who want to identify Stoicism with contemporary notions of social justice, but even they tend to still talk about courage and wisdom. I also see some on the right who similarly try to reduce the Stoic virtues to courage and perhaps temperance.
    So, I’m not sure where to find these “many modern Stoic writers”. Some examples would be very helpful.

    • I’m including blogers and folks who wrote in groups on Facebook, not just book-sellers.

      It’s a claim I’ve seen in Donald Robertson’s group from a member, as well as similar sentiments in the Stoics for Justice group.

      It’s certainly not a majority perspective, I didn’t intend to inlmply that if I did.

      It’s just a trend which I think is counter to the writings of the classical Stoics.

      By the by, I enjoy your videos and website, Greg. Thanks for your work.

  2. I may be one of those “various bloggers” you have in mind ;), though I certainly don’t believe Justice can be separated from the other three virtues. For my part, I can say that I write often about Justice and activism only because A) it’s a huge, never-ending sandbox for virtuous habit-formation, B) I see it as something that is often overlooked in other conversations about Stoicism, and because C) I think it’s important to combat Stoicism’s reputation for quietism.

    Somewhere in there, I think I probably disagree with you on how much positive impact we can have on our community by focusing on the “care of the self.” Political structures are as important (in terms of consequences) as the personal integrity of citizens.

    But since developing a Prudent investigation into social issues and an active sense of Justice can be treated as part of that self care, I imagine our difference in opinion is ultimately fairly minor!

  3. I agree with Scott and Greg. I never saw examples of people suggesting to disregard the other 3 virtues. Also I think that being socially involved gives tests to ourselves to keep true to the Stoic values.

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