From the Stoic Week Handbook:
Today’s Lunchtime Exercise: Philanthropy
So far we have focused mainly on the individual. Today we move on to think more about our relationships with other people. The Stoics were early advocates of the idea of cosmopolitanism – we are all fellow citizens of a single universal community, united by our shared nature. The Stoics also place great importance on “natural affection” of the kind of loving attitude that they believed we instinctively feel toward our own offspring, sexual partners, and perhaps other members of our family. Although some people mistakenly believe the Stoics were unemotional, like Mr. Spock from Star Trek, they actually rejected this interpretation themselves and frequently denied that they were advocating being insensitive, like someone having a heart of iron or stone. Instead of eliminating emotions entirely, the Stoics wanted to transform our natural sense of affection, in the light of reason and virtue. Marcus Aurelius neatly summed up the ideal when he praised his own Stoic teacher, Sextus of Chaeronea, as providing him with a living role-model who was “full of love yet free from [irrational] passions”. This Stoic view of love appears to have several implications:
1. Stoics should, as Epictetus says, love others as though they could be taken from us at any moment, i.e., without any trace of clinging attachment, because their presence in our lives is ultimately not “up to us” but lies partly in the hands of fate. (Epictetus notoriously advises his students to kiss their loved ones goodnight while telling themselves silently that they may die at any moment - notice that means still behaving affectionately toward them, though.)
2. We should desire only to love others, while accepting that it is ultimately “indifferent” whether they reciprocate, as again, this is not “up to us” but to them. (Hence, the Stoics foreshadow Christians in loving even their enemies, wishing them to become friends and live harmoniously in the world, fate permitting.) However, Epictetus also encouraged his students to place the 'good' in their relationships with others. Your brother might not be 'good' (you can't control your brother), but your attitude toward your brother is something in which you can place the 'good', so that you always aim to act well in the relationship.
3. To love others is to wish them to flourish and for Stoics that means ultimately to attain virtue, rather than health, wealth, or reputation – so our love for others is a wish for them to become virtuous and enlightened. (For this reason, incidentally, Zeno and his followers, like Socrates, dedicated their lives to teaching philosophy to others and training them in the virtues.)
4. As others are external to us, though, we can only “prefer” that they flourish, while accepting their imperfection, folly, and vice, as inevitable and beyond our direct control – with the Stoic “reserve clause”, in other words. (It was often observed, for example, that even Socrates, despite being a man of exemplary wisdom and virtue according to the Stoics, nevertheless had wayward followers and children.)
5. We should not discriminate between others, but should aspire to expand our sense of natural affection to encompass the rest of humanity, an attitude sometimes called Stoic “philanthropy” or love of mankind. Marcus Aurelius constantly reminds himself, for example, to love mankind and accept their imperfections with Stoic indifference. Marcus himself was often specifically praised for his "philanthropic" character as emperor of Rome.
Hierocles, a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, described the Stoic view that we live as though enclosed in a series of concentric circles, representing progressively more distance from our true selves.
Hierocles said that Stoics should attempt to “draw the circles somehow toward the centre”. He explained that, “The right point will be reached if, through our own initiative, we reduce the distance of the relationship with each person.”
He even suggests verbal techniques such as calling one’s cousins “brother”, and one’s uncles and aunts “father” or “mother”. (Think of the way some people use the word "brother" to describe close friends or comrades, even today.) Elsewhere, he says that we should view our actual brothers as if they were parts of our own body, like our own hands and feet. The saying of Zeno, that a friend is “another self” (alter ego), also depicts this shift in perspective, taking others one stage deeper into the circle of natural affection and personal affinity. One benefit of doing this, as Seneca argued, is that by expanding love to encompass as many others as possible, through philanthropy, we actually learn to love in a more natural and rational manner, without over-attachment to any individual that we love. Indeed, he goes so far as to say: “he who has not been able to love more than one, did not even love that one much” (Letters 63.11). The Sage is not obsessed with anyone, in part, because she loves everyone as much as she is able and does so while accepting that they are changeable and that one day they will die.
The following contemplative visualisation or meditation technique is loosely based on Hierocles’ comments about enlarging our sense of affection towards others:
1. Close your eyes and take a few moments to relax and focus your attention on the things you're about to visualise.
2. Picture a circle of light surrounding your body and take a few moments to imagine that it symbolises a growing sense of affection toward your own true nature as a rational animal, capable of wisdom and virtue, the chief good in life.
3. Now imagine that circle is expanding to encompass members of your family, or others who are very close to you, whom you now project an attitude of family affection toward, as if they were somehow parts of your own body.
4. Next, imagine that circle expanding to encompass people you encounter in daily life, perhaps colleagues you work alongside, and project natural affection toward them, as if they were members of your own family.
5. Again, let the circle expand further to include everyone in the country where you live, imagining that your affection is spreading out toward them also, insofar as they are rational animals akin to you.
6. Imagine the circle now growing to envelop the entire world and the whole human race as one, allowing this philosophical and philanthropic attitude affection to encompass every other member of the human race.