Stoic cosmopolitanism and the problem of unmet friends

FEB_AE_drinkA few months ago I met Eric Brown, a scholar in ancient philosophy, and particularly Stoicism, at Washington University in St. Louis. Eric was giving a talk at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where I work. He was kind enough to share with me the handout for his lecture, as well as a fuller paper on the same topic, which is soon to be published as part of a collection of essay on the topic of Aristotle on Friendship. (Yes, we all know Aristotle wasn’t a Stoic. But Stoics had interesting things to say about friendship.)

Let me set out the issue quoting the beginning of Eric’s paper’s abstract: “According to Greek commonplaces, well articulated by Aristotle, fellow-citizens of a good polis are friends (philoi) and friends are face-to-face acquaintances. But this raises a problem for the Stoic insistence that the cosmos has a better claim to be called a polis than any extant community. Are Stoic cosmopolitans friends?”

So, the problem facing Eric is this: according to Stoic doctrine, the cosmos is a good polis, and fellow citizens in a polis are friends. But to be a friend, one needs to be acquainted with the other, and as the polis becomes larger and larger it eventually gets to the point where it is simply not possible for everyone to be acquainted with everyone else (i.e., there is a limit to just how large a polis can actually be).

If the above is the case, it looks like the Stoics are either uttering a metaphor that is devoid of practical import, or they are blatantly flouting the common sense notion of friendship. (Well, they were philosophers, who are no strangers to flouting common sense notions…)

Here are some interesting quotes handed out by Eric at his talk (full references upon request), to give his audience a sense of what we know about this from the primary sources:

“[The Stoics say] that concord is knowledge of common goods; that is why the excellent all enjoy concord with each other by agreeing on the matters of life” (Stobaeus)

“Just as the laws put the safety of all before the safety of individuals, so a good man, who is wise and obeys laws and is not ignorant of his civic duty, consults the advantage of all more than that of any one person or himself.” (Cicero)

“Zeno the Stoic, who gets this from Plato, who got it from a foreign philosophy, says that all good persons are friends with each other.” (Clement)

“How much better are the Stoics, whom you censure: they think that the wise are friends with the wise even if they are strangers, for nothing is more lovable than virtue and we will esteem the man who has attained it wherever on earth he lives.” (Cicero)

“They say that all goods are common to the excellent, and in accordance with this, when someone benefits a neighbor, he also benefits himself.” (Stobaeus)

“One who benefits someone also benefits oneself, and one who harms someone also harms oneself.” (Stobaeus)

Eric’s take (again summarized in the abstract of his forthcoming paper) is that “the Stoics avoid contradicting themselves by denying that friends have to be face-to-face acquaintances, and they avoid outraging common sense by fitting their account of cosmopolitans to the beliefs that drive the ordinary thought that friends should be face-to-face acquaintances. In fact, I argue, the Stoic account of cosmopolitan friendship is more plausible than Aristotle’s own problematic notion of philanthropia.”

I will hopefully be able to eventually update this entry as soon as Eric’s paper will actually be out.

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