Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 30, 2023, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/stoicism/v-1
Epicurus proposed a method for identifying the genuinely natural human value: consult a new-born baby. Inarticulate infants, and for that matter irrational animals, cannot possibly have been infected yet with the norms of society, and their actions tell us, louder than any words, that their sole motivation is the acquisition of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Stoic ethics responds by adopting the same starting point but questioning the Epicurean analysis of infant behaviour.
The highly influential concept which the Stoics introduced to facilitate their own analysis is oikeiōsis, variously translated as ‘appropriation’, ‘familiarization’, ‘affiliation’ or ‘affinity’. Literally, this is the process of ‘making something one’s own’. An animal’s oikeiōsis is its natural impulse or inclination towards something which it regards as belonging to it.
A creature’s first oikeiōsis, Stoics argue, is towards itself and its own constitution, a priority which it displays by making self-preservation its dominant goal. Far from pursuing pleasure, it courts pain in order to preserve and develop its natural constitution, as when we see a toddler repeatedly fall in striving to walk, and an overturned tortoise struggling to regain its upright position. As the human child develops, its oikeiōsis is extended beyond itself: it treats its parents and siblings as belonging to it, and cares for them accordingly, in much the same way in which it already cares for itself. In due course this same other-concern is extended to cover a wider range of people, albeit in increasingly diluted measure. At an extreme it takes in the entire human race. (For a graphic Stoic elaboration of this idea, see Hierocles.)
Oikeiōsis is a continuum, stretching from the instinctive self-preservation of the new-born infant to the other-regarding conduct which is equally natural in rational adults. Where most ancient ethical systems struggled to explain altruism as an extended form of self-interest, there is no such tension in Stoicism, where others already fall within the ambit of our natural affection in much the same way as we ourselves do. This rationally extended sense of what belongs to us does not yet amount to moral goodness, but it is its indispensable basis. Goodness lies in our understanding and collaborating with the ideally rational world plan. It is no wonder that our natural oikeiōsis towards the rest of the human race should be what grounds the project of completely integrating ourselves into that plan.
Oikeiōsis is an affinity founded on the shared rationality of the entire human race. The doctrine thus helped to foster Stoic cosmopolitanism and other widely admired humanitarian stances (see §18). Seneca (§1), for example, reminded his readers of their moral obligations even to their slaves. Conversely, however, the oikeiōsis doctrine also encouraged a hardening of attitudes to non-rational animals, with which humans were judged to stand in no moral relation at all.
Sedley, David. Oikeiōsis. Stoicism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/stoicism/v-1/sections/oikeiosis.
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