In this article for Philosophy Now I discuss the many uses of Plato’s myths, such as the Myth of Aristophanes, Myth of Atlantis, and Myth of Er.
The World’s First Humanists
What we can still learn from Stoic cosmopolitanism.
The world during the Late Roman Republic had never been more cosmopolitan, owing in no small part to the influence of the Stoics.
Stoics such as Panaetius, who shuttled back and forth from Athens to Rome, Rutilius, who stood up for the inhabitants of Asia against his own countrymen, and the Syrian Posidonius, who moved from Athens to Rhodes to start a school that became the empire’s stopping place, were not Greeks or Romans so much as World Citizens.
The supranationalism of the Stoics went all the way back, at least, to Diogenes the Cynic (d. 323 BCE), who, upon being asked where he came from, declared, “I am a citizen of the world [Greek, cosmopolites],” a radical claim at the time and the first recorded use of the term “cosmopolitan.”
“The eagle,” said the Stoic teacher Musonius, quoting Euripides, “can fly through all the air, and a noble man has all the earth as his fatherland.” The wise can make themselves at home anywhere, so that exile, to them, is not the punishment that it may seem. Indeed, one of several advantages of exile is that we are not dragged into political service by a country that only seems ours, or bothered by people who only seem to be our friends, or waylaid by petty relatives. Rutilius flourished so fulsomely in exile that he refused Sulla’s invitation to return to Rome.
Even Marcus Aurelius, as emperor, did not think of himself as merely Roman: “My city and state are Rome… But as a human being? The world. So for me, ‘good’ can only mean what’s good for both communities.”
Why Egoism Is Self-Defeating
Stoic cosmopolitanism is rooted in the belief that all human beings form part of the same organism and that this organism, like each of its parts, is shot through with God. Some people indeed behave like cancers, but even they, if only they knew it, are doing the work of God. Just as our eyes, ears, and teeth each have a role to play in our body, so we, too, each have a role to play in society, even if it is only to serve as a warning to others.
“Kindly remember,” said Seneca, “that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.”
To live selfishly is fundamentally self-defeating. To feel alive and happy, we need to have a sense of working with others, for others–because, like ants and bees, that is the kind of creature that we are. If we do not contribute to our community, we will feel disconnected and depressed. In a word, we will feel dead–and, in truth, might as well be.
Whatever good we do, said the emperor Marcus, we should do it quietly, without expecting anything in return, “as simply as a horse runs, or a bee makes honey, or a vine bears grapes season after season without thinking of the grapes it has borne.” Our reward will be our own, and much greater than any wealth or honour that might or might not be bestowed upon us: to lead and to have led a good life, to do and to have done what we were born to do.
Of course, human beings are not nearly as dependable as ants and bees. Some people will go rogue. They will behave badly or hide away at home. So much is to be expected and has been woven into the fabric of the world. To get angry or upset about it will only make matters worse, sometimes much worse.
We might even look upon bad behaviour as an opportunity. One day, a rascal who had injured Lycurgus’ eye was sent to him for punishment. But instead of having him whipped, Lycurgus [the legendary lawgiver of Sparta] educated him and then took him to the theatre. As the Spartans looked on in amazement, Lycurgus declared, “The person I received from you was unruly and violent. I return him to you a good man and proper citizen.”
Why Education Is Better Than Punishment
Socrates, the grandfather of the Stoics, famously said that people only do wrong because, in the moment, they think it is the right thing to do. At his trial, he argued that if he did corrupt the youth as charged, he must have done so unintentionally since he had always known that corrupting the youth, or indeed anyone, would have amounted to injuring himself. Therefore, if he did corrupt the youth, the city and its jurors would do better to educate rather than punish him.
In our dealings with other people, it is helpful to remember that, in their minds, they are only doing what they think is right or best. They, like us, are functioning at the limit of their understanding, because that is all that we can do, no more and (significantly) no less.
Sometimes, education is impractical or impossible. But even if we have to punish people, it should never be for revenge but only ever to improve behaviour. In an apocryphal story, Plato once began to strike a slave before suddenly staying his hand. When, hours later, a student came upon him still in this same awkward posture, he said, “I am punishing an angry man.” In a similar story, an angry Plato asked his nephew Speussipus to whip a disobedient slave on his behalf, explaining that a slave should not be in the control of one who is not even in control of himself.
If, for all our philosophy, we are still bent on revenge, we need not dirty our hands but simply leave it to fate and fortune, which tend to the side of the good. Death, if nothing before that, will answer to our grievances, and bury our enemies in the dust of their own insignificance.
Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.
Nietzsche and the Stoics on Eternal Return
Nietzsche’s thought experiment to determine our own greatness.
Possibly under the influence of Plato, who was himself influenced by Pythagoras, the Stoics held that the universe undergoes cycles, being periodically destroyed in a great conflagration [Greek, ekpyrosis] and then reborn, ad infinitum.
Because God, being perfectly rational, is bound to make the same choices, each cosmic cycle plays out similarly or even identically, so that the world as we know it, with us in it, existed in the previous cycle and will recur in the next.
In around 200 CE, the philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias wrote: “[Chrysippus and the Stoics] hold that after the conflagration all the same things come to be again in the world numerically, so that even the same peculiarly qualified individual as before exists and comes to be again in the world…”
In his Letters, the Roman Stoic Seneca (d. 65 CE) tells Lucilius: “Things that vanish from our sight are merely stored away in the natural world: they cease to be, but they do not perish… the day will come again that will return us to the light. It is a day that many would refuse, except that we forget everything before returning.”
This concept of eternal recurrence, or eternal return, is even echoed in the Bible:
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after (Ecclesiastes 1:9-11).
In the City of God Against the Pagans (426 CE), St. Augustine seeks to deny that these and other such verses refer to eternal return. If “the wicked walk in a circle,” says Augustine, “this is not because their life is to recur by means of these circles, which these philosophers imagine, but because the path in which their false doctrine now runs is circuitous.”
In the 19th century, Nietzsche used eternal return as a thought experiment, as perhaps the Stoics had done, to determine the degree to which our individual will is aligned with the will of the world.
How, asks Nietzsche, would we feel if a daemon visited us one night and told us that we will have to live out our life over and over again? Would we feel joy, or desperation?
In the chapter of Ecce Homo (1908) entitled, Why I Am so Clever, Nietzsche says, “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati [love of fate]: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it … but love it.”
In his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Albert Camus compares the human condition to the plight of Sisyphus, the mythical king of Ephyra who was punished for resisting the gods by being made to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again. Camus concludes, “The struggle to the top is itself enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Even in a state of utter hopelessness, Sisyphus can still be happy. Indeed, he is happy precisely because he is in a state of utter hopelessness, because in recognizing and accepting the hopelessness of his condition, he at the same time transcends it.
Or, in those wonderful words of Virgil, “The only hope for the doomed is no hope at all.”
Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.
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