Aug 18, 2017

Stoicism, Kindness, and Small Gestures

Earlier this week, one of our dogs made the day - if only for a brief moment - of a young man who seemed quite down.  Amica is friendly with strangers by temperament, particularly so when she has a ball in her mouth, so when she saw a young man in an X-man t-shirt approaching sadly from the apartment building across the street, she greeted him as soon as he was close.  Tail wagging, she went right for him, and shoved her ball into his leg.  He reached out tentatively to pet her - she's a big, muscular, energetic dog - and when I said "she's showing off her ball to you," his face brightened, he smiled, petted her briefly, and strode off visibly changed in his body language.

That brought home to me important but often overlooked aspect of Stoic moral theory.  When you read the classic authors - Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius - you'll see a good bit of advice that one ought to display attitudes of kindness, friendliness, and cheerfulness towards others.  Is this merely about being "nice," observing social conventions, getting along and fitting in?   For classical Stoicism, the answer is No.  When genuine or authentic, such attitudes, feelings, and actions actually comprise an integral part of virtue or moral goodness.

I was particularly reminded of a discussion by an earlier writer, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was not himself a member of the Stoic school, but who admired and appreciated many of their doctrines.  His book, On Duties, presents Stoic moral theory systematically and in great detail.  In his discussion of the virtues - morally good states of character a person ought to develop and act in accordance with - he sets alongside justice a disposition we can call "kindness,"  "benevolence," or "charity" (he uses the terms benevolentia and beneficientia, "willing good" and "doing good" to another).  What my dog did, without giving it a thought, and in an admittedly small way, reflects what the Stoics think we ought to do - how we ought to act - with our fellow human beings.

Why Benevolence Matters To The Stoics

If you've encountered or are attracted to Stoicism - a philosophy that is also a way of life - you undoubtably know about their view that "virtue is the only good" (if you'd like to watch a discussion of that, here's a video).  You probably also know that they distinguished four main or "cardinal" virtues, these being Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Temperance.  So, you might well wonder how kindness or benevolence fits into these scheme (as a side-note, when it comes to Cicero, you might also wonder how the gratitude that he claims to be the "parent" of all the other virtues fits into this scheme as well!)

Is the disposition of kindness towards others something that fits into one of these four main virtues?  The Stoics did traditionally associate a host of other virtues with those cardinal virtues, treating the other virtues as particular modes of the more general cardinal virtues.  So, for example, one of the traits particularly valued in antiquity - generally called "magnanimity" or more literally "great-souledness" (megalopsyukhe) gets placed within the scope of courage.  

As it turns out, in Cicero's On Duties, kindness or beneficence does get placed within one of the four main sorts of virtuous dispositions - one of the four main sources from which moral goodness (honestum) arises or develops.  Following the Stoic Panaetius (and his own views on the matter), Cicero distinguishes these "sources," or general types of virtue, in terms of their functions.  One of these is concerned with the "conservation of organized society, with rendering to each person his or her due, and with the faithful discharge of obligations assumed." Interestingly, this includes justice, but as only one of two "parts" (admittedly, a very important part, "in which is the greatest splendor of virtue").

The other part, just as important, just as definitive as justice - closely connected with it - is benevolence, "which can also be called kindness [benignitatem] or generosity [liberalitatem].  Cicero mentions this early on in book 1 in terms that clearly set this disposition on the same level as "justice"in its narrower, more precise sense, with both of these being part of what we might call "justice" in its broadest, most inclusive sense.  After devoting detailed discussion to justice in the more restricted sense, he provides an equally detailed treatment for benevolence or kindness.

Why is this so centrally important for Stoic Ethics, deserving of the kind of in-depth analysis Cicero - and the Stoic philosophers whose views he summarizes - gives to the topic?  Justice, understood as a virtue, is not identical with justice in its narrower sense - the one we understandably enough tend to have in mind when we hear or use the term.  Our duties and appropriate actions towards others also include kindness, benevolence, generosity.  Those dispositions aren't just something extra or surplus, something nice if it occurs, but not really that important. .  . Instead, they are central to the Stoic life and path.


Going Beyond The Calculus

A good portion of Cicero's discussion of kindness or benevolence is motivated by bringing problems and limits to light.  He tells us, for instance:


Nothing appeals more to the best in human nature than this, but it calls for the exercise of caution in many particulars.

What are some of these particulars that we need to be cognizant of?  He names off a number, each of which is worth thinking through.  We ought, for example, to take care so that the actions that we think are displaying a kindness to someone are not really injuring them, harming their interests, interfering with them, setting them back - and not just that person who is the object of our beneficence, but also others in the situation.

Another issue he brings up - and quite reasonably - is that our kindnesses, and our generosity - needs to be proportioned to the means we possess.  To point this out is really to note that in being just - by being kind - we also need to exercise the virtue of prudence.

A third one is particularly interesting.  Our kindness should be "proportioned to the worthiness of the recipient; for this is the corner-stone of justice; and by the standard of justice all acts of kindness must be measured."  Cicero sets out a number of considerations that he thinks we ought to keep in mind, if we are to attain that proper proportion.  These include the moral character of that person,  that person's attitude towards us, how close our relationship is, any services or benefits that person has provided us, and our "common social ties".

Putting matters that way, it sounds as if Stoic benevolence will be a rather restricted attitude.  We should show kindness to those to whom we are already connected, or to those who have good moral character.  What about complete strangers then?  We don't really have any relationship or history with them.  Maybe we should reserve our benevolence - something going beyond the requirements of strict justice - only for those who do deserve it?

Here is where the Stoic notion of cosmopolitanism plays an important role.  From the Stoic point of view, complete strangers - insofar as they are human beings - are not simply alien to us, unconnected, lacking any demonstrable merit or claim on what benevolence we can afford to show them.  There is, as Cicero points out, a "connection subsisting between all members of the human race".  What is really at the core of this, for him - as for most ancient thinkers - is our common possession of the capacities for reason and for language [ratio et oratio], which take determinate form in a variety of ways.  He mentions "teaching and learning, of communicating, discussing, and reasoning", all of which distinguish us from the other animals.

From this common bond, Cicero argues that we ought to "bestow even upon a stranger what it costs us nothing to give."  I would go a bit further myself, and in an un-Stoic way, erode this rigid distinction between the distinctively human and the animal a bit.  I'd say that at least some other animals do display something like - or at least analogous to - acts and attitudes of kindness or benevolence, whether towards other animals of their kind, non-human animals of other types, or towards human beings.  I'd say that my dog, Amica, managed to do so in cheering up a complete stranger by nuzzling him with her tennis ball.   

A Challenge To Be Kind In Small Things

Small kindnesses cost us relatively little in themselves, and the practicing Stoic will be a person who develops and displays an attitude of benevolence - going beyond strict and often impersonal claims  of justice - towards other people, even towards strangers through determinate actions.  In many cases, it costs nothing to greet someone briefly, to smile, to hold a door or otherwise help someone out.  And so, all things being equal, one ought to be ready and willing to engage in those little benevolent acts.

I do have to admit that there are many cases in which prudence and justice would counsel not engaging in that sort of kindness.  I'd suggest for example, that in an environment where women are routinely and demeaningly told to smile by men - often complete strangers - a Stoic would say that it would be better for her not to smile, to engage in conversation, or other things that reinforce and reward that unjust dynamic.  Another sort of case would be in dealing with the perpetually needy, who take a small kindness by another towards them as an opening to be leveraged open, leading to more and more demands placed upon that person.

It isn't actually Stoic just to go around being nice to everyone indiscriminately. Nor for that matter is it really Stoic just to "endure" in every circumstance, regardless of how badly one is being treated!  Those are, again, cases, where the would-be-Stoic needs to look within to find resources of justice and prudence to rightly evaluate the situation (and quite likely to develop those resources, to work to understand them, and to reply upon others for support and feedback).

Still, setting aside those sorts of exceptions (about which I'm quite willing to write more - or to discuss individually in my tutorial or philosophical counseling sessions), we can say that an integral part of the virtue of justice is kindness or benevolence.  And so, however one might be approaching Stoicism, practicing kindness towards others is part of Stoic ascesis, a term we can translate as "disciplined self-improvement".

So the challenge is this, for you and also for me (I have a long way to go in this respect myself!).  Be like Amica.  When you see someone who could use some cheerfulness, some kindness, a moment of generosity, or even just being treated as if they matter, display some kindness. They needn't be a stranger - quite likely in the course of any given day, you encounter multiple opportunities with people you interact with, live with, work with, or are connected to in some other way.  If you can do so spontaneously, that's great!  If you have to look within yourself to find the resources to do so, and you have to make a deliberate choice, that's also great!