Circles of concern

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The ancient Stoics visualized human relationships as a set of concentric circles. Based on the teachings of Stoicism’s founder, Zeno of Citium, and later Panaetius of Rhodes, these circles were formally depicted by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ contemporary Hierocles.

Hierocles held that a Stoic’s relationship with others starts with the circle of the “self” and then expands into a successive set that encompasses “family,” “friends,” “community,” and “all humanity.” In 2018, Kai Whiting, Leonidas Konstantakos, Angeles Carrasco and Luis Gabriel Carmona Aparicio, added an additional circle to Hiercoles set to reflect modern scientific understandings of the environment and to reiterate the Stoic call to “live according to Nature”.

Source: Adapted from Whiting and Konstantakos (2021)

How do the Circles of Concern Work?

Stoics should aim to draw the circles of concern inward. In this conscious act, we bring the whole of humanity closer to our sense of self until we are able to recognize ourselves in all of humanity and all of humanity in ourselves. This does not mean to say that Stoics are called to treat everyone in exactly the same way, as if all people were identical in their beliefs, behaviors, interests, and expectations. It would certainly be inappropriate (and unwise) to treat our spouse in the same way we treat our best friend’s spouse or our own kids like a stranger’s kids.

The Circles of Concern and the Human Community

Being fair (and kind) requires that we treat people as fellow world inhabitants – giving each one of them their due, as our social position and relationship dictates. It also means recognizing that countries are imaginary (not to mention arbitrary) lines drawn across land and nationalities are, at least in some ways, mere labels. Of course, different countries have different cultures and governments, but as Hierocles might have said, a virtuous person understands that everyone, no matter where and how they live, is part of the world community.

As we contract our circles of concern inward — for example, by treating cousins like siblings, and fellow citizens like cousins, and so on — we would, in many respects, be inclined to treat recent immigrants and foreign visitors as fellow nationals! This Stoic practice thus provides a sharp contrast to the placing of people we don’t know (or don’t like) in boxes, a quick sorting method that all too often categorizes rather than humanizes people.

The Key Message

The conceptualization of the Stoic circles of concern expresses two key convictions within Stoicism. First, we humans naturally feel a more direct or pressing connection with some people (such as family and friends) than we do with others. Second, all human beings belong to a single world community (a state that the ancient Greeks referred to as a cosmopolis) and therefore everyone should be able to participate as world citizens, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, country of origin, or bank balance.

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius alludes to this cosmopolitan ideal when he writes, in what is now known as Meditations 11.8, that “a man separates himself from his neighbor by his own hatred or rejection, not realizing that he has thereby severed himself from the wider society of fellow citizens”.

This article was based on an excerpt found in Kai Whiting and Leonidas Kontantakos’ Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In, published by New World Library.

About the author

Kai Whiting

1 comment

  • Hi,

    Great article, really liked it!
    Short and clear.
    This part attracted my attention the most:
    This Stoic practice thus provides a sharp contrast to the placing of people we don’t know (or don’t like) in boxes, a quick sorting method that all too often categorizes rather than humanizes people.

    Thanks!