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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Stoic Compassion

Oikeiôsis is growing our sense of 'self'
outward in concentric rings to include
others. (cc) Kathleen Tyler Conklin
Can a practitioner of Stoic philosophy be compassionate?

The ancient Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism is something I refer to a great deal in my articles and essays. It is a major influence in the 'tossed salad' that is my own life philosophy. Stoicism is not quite the emotionless Vulcan philosophy of Star Trek's Mr. Spock, but elements of it can be found in the fictional Jedi philosophy of the Star Wars films. It advocates eradication of harmful feelings. These can include some varieties of both painful and pleasurable but ultimately harmful passions. This is accomplished through practice over time to: focus on what we control, pursuit of a kind of non-attachment, and living virtuously.

So, it may seem an oxymoron to use the phrase Stoic Compassion - even to many avid and accomplished students of Stoicism. Some even say flatly that Stoics do not practice compassion.

However, in an excellent example from an authoritative Stoic source, the Roman Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus advises brotherly love and forgiveness. It is not all emotion and feeling which is forbidden to the Stoic, as there are appropriate feelings. These feelings can properly motivate the Stoic to act on behalf of himself provided these choices are not evil. Along with this, Stoicism has a concept called oikeiôsis a practice/principle by which we seek to expand our sense of self to encompass others. Thus, there is sound Stoic reasoning which supports "feeling for others as we feel for ourselves, with motivation to act accordingly" - a reasonable definition of compassion.

The Buddhists, who have similar concepts of concern for others without attachment, and a shared historic influence with the Stoics, often use the English word "compassion" although it is an imperfect translation. The choice to use "compassion" as a translation for Buddhist Karuna or Metta is as close as using the word for Stoic oikeiôsis. Surely there are differences between loving kindness and the attachments implied in the common usage of the word "compassion". But it would be misleading to say "Buddhists don't believe in compassion" simply because many Westerners practice compassion (and thus describe it) in non-Buddhist ways. The same applies to Stoic Compassion.

Stoics do practice compassion, and their very focus on virtue must include it. But that doesn't absolve the student of Stoicism from the need to investigate more precisely what Stoic Compassion is, how it differs from common understandings of compassion, and how it is to be practiced.

This has been a brief summary of a more detailed and slightly more technical essay I have recently written, called Compassion & Stoic Philosophy, now available on my website, The Humanist Contemplative. I hope those interested in reading it will find it useful.

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