Monday, 3 February 2020

Hierocles the Stoic's Concentric Circles of Cosmopolitanism


Hierocles (fl. 2nd century) was a Stoic philosopher (not be be confused with the Alexandrian Neoplatonist). Very little is known about his life. Aulus Gellius mentions him as one of his contemporaries, and describes him as a "grave and holy man." His most famous fragment describes Stoic cosmopolitanism through the use of concentric circles. Hierocles describes individuals as consisting of a series of circles: the first circle is the human mind, next comes the immediate family, followed by the extended family, and then the local community. Next comes the community of neighbouring towns, followed by your country, and finally the entire human race. Our task, according to Hierocles was to draw the circles in towards the centre, transferring people to the inner circles, making all human beings part of our concern

On this notion, see also a passage from Plato, letter 9:

It is indeed one of the sweetest things in life to follow one's own interests, especially when they are such as you have chosen; practically everyone would agree. But this also you must bear in mind, that none of us is born for himself alone; a part of our existence belongs to our country, a part to our parents, a part to our other friends, and a large part is given to the circumstances that command our lives. When our country calls us to public service it would, I think, be unnatural to refuse; especially since this means giving place to unworthy men, who enter public life for motives other than the best (Cooper, John M.; Hutchinson, D.S. (1997). Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett. p. 1671-1672)

How we ought to conduct ourselves towards our kindred

THE consideration of the duties pertaining to [our other] kindred is consequent to the discussion of those that pertain to parents, brothers, wives, and children; for the same things may, in a certain respect, be said of the former as of the latter; and on this account may be concisely explained. For, in short, each of us is, as it were, circumscribed by many circles; some of which are less, but others larger, and some comprehend, but others are comprehended, according to the different and unequal habitudes with respect to each other. For the first, indeed, and most proximate circle is that which every one describes about his own mind as a centre, in which circle the body, and whatever is assumed for the sake of the body, are comprehended. For this is nearly the smallest circle, and almost touches the centre itself. The second from this, and which is at a greater distance from the centre, but comprehends the first circle, is that in which parents, brothers, wife, and children are arranged. The third circle from the centre is that which contains uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers, and the children of brothers and sisters. After this is the circle which comprehends the remaining relatives. Next to this is that which contains the common people, then that which comprehends those of the same tribe, afterwards that which contains the citizens; and then two other circles follow, one being the circle of those that dwell in the vicinity of the city, and the other, of those of the same province. But the outermost and greatest circle, and which comprehends all the other circles, is that of the whole human race.[1]

These things being thus considered, it is the province of him who strives to conduct himself properly in each of these connections to collect, in a certain respect, the circles, as it were, to one centre, and always to endeavour earnestly to transfer himself from the comprehending circles to the several particulars which they comprehend. It pertains, therefore, to the man who is a lover of kindred [to conduct himself in a becoming manner] towards his parents and brothers; also, according to the same analogy, towards the more elderly of his relatives of both sexes, such as grandfathers) uncles and aunts; towards those of the same age with himself, as his cousins; and towards his juniors, as the children of his cousins. Hence we have summarily shown how we ought to conduct ourselves towards our kindred, having before taught how we should act towards ourselves, our parents, and brothers; and besides these, towards our wife and children. To which it must be added, that those who belong to the third circle must be honoured similarly to these; and again, kindred similarly to those that belong to the third circle. For something of benevolence must be taken away from those who are more distant from us by blood; though at the same time we should endeavour that an assimilation may take place between us and them. For this distance will become moderate, if, through the diligent attention which we pay to them, we cut off the length of the habitude towards each individual of these. We have unfolded, therefore, that which is most comprehensive and important in the duties pertaining to kindred. 

It is requisite, likewise, to add a proper measure conformably to the general use of appellations, calling indeed cousins, uncles and aunts, by the name of brothers, fathers and mothers; but of other kindred, to denominate some uncles, others the children of brothers or sisters, and others cousins, according to the difference of age, for the sake of the abundant extension which there is in names. For this mode of appellation will be no obscure indication of our sedulous attention to each of these relatives; and at the same time will incite, and extend us in a greater degree, to the contraction as it were of the above mentioned circles. But as we have proceeded thus far in our discussion, it will not be unseasonable to recall to our memory the distinction with respect to parents, which we before made. For in that place in which we compared mother with father, we said that it was requisite to attribute more of love to a mother, and more of honour to a father; and conformably to this, we shall here add, that it is fit to have more love for those who are connected with us by a maternal alliance, but to pay more honour to those who are related to us by a paternal affinity (Stobaeus, Florilegium, 4.671 ff.)

[1] This admirable passage is so conformable to the following beautiful lines in Pope's Essay on Man, that it is most probably the source from whence they were derived. The lines are these:

"Self love but serves the virtuous mind to wake,
As the small pebble stirs the peaceful lake,
The centre moved, a circle straight succeeds,
Another still, and still another spreads,
Friend, parent, neighbour first it will embrace,
His country next, and next all human race;
Wide and more wide the' o'erflowings of the mind,
Take every creature in of every kind."

In Hierocles, however, the circles are scientifically detailed; but in Pope they are synoptically enumerated. Pope, too, has added another circle to that which is the outermost with Hierocles, viz. the circle which embraces every creature of every kind. But as Hierocles in this fragment is only speaking of our duties to kindred, among which the whole human race is, in a certain respect, included, he had no occasion to introduce another circle, though the Platonic doctrine of benevolence is as widely extended as that of Pope (Ethical fragments of Hierocles, preserved by Stobaeus  (2nd century)  from Political fragments of Archytas and other ancient Pythagoreans, by Thomas Taylor, 1822, pp. 106-111).

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