In the year 64, the Stoic philosopher Seneca gave thought to companionship.
His opponents, the Epicureans, argued that individuals desired friends for utilitarian reasons, “to have someone to be at their bedside during illness or to help them out of trouble or incarceration.
” But, Seneca knew differently. An educated soul sought friends “for the opportunity to be by the side of a sick person, or to set someone free who is being held captive by hostile forces.”
Kindness was a man’s obligation as well as his pleasure: “Nobody can live a happy life if they are only looking out for themselves. If you want to make your own life meaningful, live it for others.”
The need for connection to other people was a fundamental part of ancient Stoic thought, which emphasized oikei osis or the attachment of self to others
. Stoics were largely independent, but their self-reliance was rooted in their understanding of a collective, communal self. According to Stoic belief, rationality was a divine principle that manifested itself in the soul of every human being
. John Donne later wrote that no one is an island; we all belong to the “community of reason” and have a shared humanity. Marcus Aurelius further stated that the world is one big “single city” where citizens are bound by reason and have a mutual affection for each other.
Though not everyone shared the same view on communalism, Epicureans certainly did not. They depicted humanity not as a single entity, but as an amalgamation of separate individuals, all chasing their own desires and pleasures.
The Stoics, while recognizing the presence of self-love, believed it to be an expression of a primary self-attachment. According to Aristotle, friendship was a form of self-love extended to others.
The Stoics elaborated on this, saying that the self was the focal point of a series of concentric circles of oikeiosis, the closest circles being comprised of family members, followed by friends and neighbors, and expanding outward to encompass all of humanity.
The amount of attachment felt at each level was a matter of debate. Aristotle himself described affection for all humankind as “diffuse” and “watery”.
Some Stoics agreed, saying that the bonds grew stronger the closer the connection, with parents and children having the tightest connection, while goodwill to strangers was more of a duty than an emotion.
Cicero, while not a Stoic, was heavily influenced by Stoicism and wrote in his work De ofﬁciis that it was natural to feel more kindly toward one’s family than anyone else. Still, in other places, he argued for warm relationships throughout society, and cautioned people who cared more for their fellow citizens than for foreigners, as this would “tear apart the fellowship that unites mankind”.
Marcus Aurelius proclaimed that the true enjoyment of a man comes from doing the things he was made to do, like showing goodwill toward other people.
The Stoics viewed oikeiosis, or the natural affection directed toward others, as a source of contentment that complemented the harmony of nature.
They looked upon kindness as a force of happiness that could grow the soul. Epicureans similarly agreed, as Epicurus wrote of the pleasure that friendship brings to the world.
Post-Augustinian Christianity caused a decrease in exuberant pro-kindness sentiments.
The unfortunate association of kindness with self-sacrifice left it vulnerable to criticism from philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, who were quick to point out that self-sacrifice was rarely practiced, even by its most devoted supporters.
On the other hand, Pagan kindness had no obligation to self-sacrifice. Enlightenment pagans like David Hume and Adam Smith highlighted the enjoyment derived from being kind, due to the natural tendency of humans to be social.
People are kind not because they are commanded to, but because it allows them to experience their full humanity. Loving one another was seen as a wonderful way to express our humanity, not a Christian mandate.
The transition from pagan society to Christianity was a vital development in the history of benevolence.
Benevolence in pagan society was surrounded by the longstanding divisions between free and enslaved individuals, the wealthy and destitute, men and women, citizens and outsiders.
Although a few Stoics questioned these distinctions, they were mostly accepted, and only those that showed reason, wealth, and a place in civilized society were thought of as truly human.
Ancient thought had a hint of a more inclusive definition of humanness, but the impact of Christianity on kindness was immense; it became available to everyone, even women (although on different terms). Consequently, kindness became widespread, the accepted form of relating among all people.
The progression of Christianity from a Jewish denomination to a universal faith was highlighted by a strong emphasis on benevolence.
Utilizing the Greek term for love, agape, Christian instructors defined it as a heavenly love that, radiating from heaven into the human spirit, illuminated the soul with caritas. The commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” held a significant moral value.
When somebody asked Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?
“, He answered with a parable about an Israelite who, after being attacked by thieves and left wounded on the roadside, was neglected by all passers-by, including some other Israelites, before eventually a Samaritan took mercy on him and aided him with utmost generosity.
Since Israelites and Samaritans were traditional adversaries. T
he story of the Good Samaritan became and still remains the iconic illustration of Christian compassion, of sympathies that transcend ethnic boundaries and religious divisions to make all people acquaintances and neighbors.
By universalizing kindness, Christianity established its reputation as a worldwide faith, a concept that St. Augustine brought to a peak in his City of God (a.d. 426) by advocating for a “Holy charity” that would encompass “the whole world
non-believers and sinners alike: “A man’s friends are [all] with whom [he] is linked by membership of the human society.”
Jesus’ criticisms of wealth and privilege often posed a challenge to established orders. Christianity, since its inception, has had to confront the potentially revolutionary implications of caritas.
With the rise of the Church’s power, tensions mounted. Many individuals, including the Cathars of medieval France, the Anabaptist rebels of sixteenth-century Munster, and the Diggers of Cromwellian England, sought to construct a world of loving brotherhood.
Unfortunately, these movements were frequently suppressed and campaigns against heretics and non-believers were often sponsored.
Gerrard Winstanley, the Digger leader, bemoaned the “selfish imaginations” of those who sought to “teach and rule over” others after his own home was attacked in 1649.
The clash between these ideas posed a great conundrum for Christianity. As the prophet of love, Jesus preached about a world filled with caritas.
However, there were many debates regarding what this meant for human nature.
Was it something humans were naturally capable of, or something only God could provide? The parable of the Good Samaritan seemed to suggest that kindness was a natural trait, and some early Christian thinkers agreed.
But St. Augustine and other Church Fathers denied this, believing that mankind had lost their capability for natural goodness due to the Fall. According to them, man was only capable of caritas with divine intervention, and would otherwise be selfish and corrupt.
Augustine connected caritas with the transcendence of the self.
Without suppression and sacrifice, he argued, interaction between people was likely to be vicious and animal-like – a perspective that became even more dismal in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation.
Martin Luther portrayed human nature as “wholly spoiled and perverted” due to original sin, and the corruption of Catholic priests served as evidence of how quickly individuals could be lured away from real faith by grandeur and power until they sank into total wickedness.
John Calvin, Luther’s adherent, had an even more pessimistic view of man, referring to them as a “satanic creature” and a “vile polluted lump of earth” with only selfish and corrupt intentions. Rousseau, a philosopher, lived in Calvinist Geneva as a child and later wrote that the Christian preacher demonstrated that, despite this dark outlook on human nature, it was still possible to love such a creature.
We tend to think of all people as wicked, believing that associating with them will lead us to damnation.
It is strange, however, that the same person who paints such a dire picture of mankind then commands us to love our neighbors, this whole group of whom we were just warned against.
It was widely believed that all men, regardless of their virtuous pretensions, would be subjected to burning. However, it was thought that those chosen by God would be spared this judgment.
Even those who were chosen were encouraged to be weary of their peers and their moral capabilities. This idea has been passed down and is still present as right-wing Protestants continue to show animosity towards liberals and secularists.
The Protestant Reformation resulted in kindness falling from its prime spot in Christian morality. Protestant charity was structured and limited, and it rarely showed the kind of generosity we know today.
Max Weber’s research showed how well Protestant people could do in business, but the commercial attitude was not very giving.
The religious conﬂicts of the seventeenth century did not help the Christian image of brotherly love.
A wave of secularization swept across Europe and human nature started to cut its ties with religion. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was published right after the English Puritan revolution, and it was a reflection of the civil conﬂicts that had occurred.
The book depicted the world as a place full of ruthless people competing for riches, honour and power, in what Hobbes called a “warre of alle against alle.”
Hobbes was a declared materialist, and he argued that human beings are not wayward souls, but pleasure-seeking machines, driven only by self-interest and an insatiable desire for power.
He responded to critics who believed his vision was unethical and not Christian, with the firm rebuttal that mankind must be taken as it is, and that there is no point in arguing against human nature.
Hobbes transformed self-interest and aggression from moral faults into psychological realities.
The Epicureans in France propagated similar ideas and their collective impact was enormous.
Despite the fact that Enlightenment thinkers throughout Europe were repelled by Hobbes’s cynicism and pessimism, most of them acknowledged his hedonistic presumptions.
Those who backed the commercial system, such as the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, accepted individual pleasure-seeking while denying that it led to social clashes.
Smith perceived the great benefit of capitalism to be that it changes individual desires into public gain.
His “hidden hand” theory suggested that, despite the fact that the businessman, worker, and buyer all had their respective motives, they consequently contributed to each other’s welfare and to the general prosperity.
Smith mentioned in Wealth of Nations (1776) that it is not out of benevolence that we expect dinner, but rather out of their consideration of their own interests, and it is their combined self-love that ensures the nation its meals.
It is for this reason that it was dubbed “sweet commerce” and is viewed as naturally beneficent.
During the Enlightenment, self-love was accepted while selfishness was not. It was argued that joy should never be at the expense of anyone else.
Responding to these ideas, many Anglicans denied the concept of original sin and argued that caritas (love of others) is a natural inclination that brings joy
. One writer of the time stated that “there is none [action] which gives a good man a greater pleasure than acts of kindness or charity”
. Moral philosophers then declared this caritas to be an instinct similar to the other senses. Lord Shaftesbury labeled it benevolence and the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson believed it was a primitive instinct which surpassed the pleasures of self-love.
Hutcheson concluded that “to be kind is the greatest measure of human happiness”.
In the eighteenth century, unease about the negative effects of capitalist development sparked a surge in the popularity of the idea of natural kindness.
This was seen as a possible way to bring people back together, as the world grew more competitive and profit-driven.
There were still plenty of people who believed in psychological egoism, yet there was also a growing number of “benevolists” who had a strong sense of social affection and philanthropy.
This led to a wave of humanitarian activism, tackling issues like slavery and child neglect that had been largely overlooked or accepted before.
Those who championed this cause left an influential legacy, yet it was also met with some ridicule.
Satirists mocked those who professed to be full of empathy and compassion, yet failed to back up their words in action. William Blake summed up this hypocrisy in his poem “The Human Abstract”.
It would be unthinkable
To not have someone who is impoverished,
And Compassion would be meaningless
If everyone was as fortunate as us.
Were the skeptics of Hobbesian thought justified to see all acts of benevolence as merely selfishness hiding in plain sight?
The Enlightenment presented a dilemma that was central to the Western perspective on human nature. In the past, and even during the Enlightenment, kindness was viewed as the answer to the issue of other people. It was believed that self and other were distinct, and that through kindness, the self would adjust its interests to benefit the other, and thus foster goodwill and fellowship. But kindness as a personal quality was limited by its connection to the ego.
Thomas Carlyle described this as an “overwhelming, frothy ocean-tide of benevolent sentimentality.”
There was, however, another Enlightenment vision of kindness which circumvented these issues.
This concept perceived the self not as isolated, but as socially formed because of its sympathetic connections to others.
This view of kindness originated with a group of Scottish philosophers, particularly David Hume and Adam Smith, and especially Jean-Jacques Rousseau, often known as the “wild man of the Enlightenment.”
Today, the term “sympathy” typically implies feeling pity or compassion for someone, however in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it had a broader definition, meaning a mutual sharing of feelings between people.
In contrast to egoists like Hobbes who thought of individuals as self-contained and benevolists like Lord Shaftesbury who saw them as linked through affect, sympathy theorists argued that people were connected in their emotional life and, in this way, kindness was made possible.
David Hume compared the transmission of feelings between people to the vibration of an string instrument in his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40).
Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) further explained that when someone projects themselves into another person’s emotional world,
Tthey become “the same person” and that sympathetic feelings are not selfish in nature. Smith believed those who thought otherwise were simply misinformed about human nature.
Rousseau was the most influential Enlightenment thinker in terms of his sophisticated development of a psychology of kindness based on a wide-ranging self that identified with the well-being of others.
It was believed that a lack of sympathy for one’s peers was a sign of inhumanity, and so sympathy became a defining characteristic of humanity.
Rousseau’s character doesn’t lend itself to being seen as a kindly figure. He was known for being cantankerous and isolated, and famously described himself as “everything to himself” and that he was “less curious about what doesn’t touch him”.
However, this personal absorption actually gave him a deep interest in his inner life that resulted in insightful revelations. His reactions to the smallest of experiences, and those he encountered, were intensely examined for the meanings and subtle implications. He didn’t let any relationship–not even his own–go unchecked.
Pain was the driving force behind Rousseau’s actions. He found that other individuals were often an enigma to him and, in his Confessions (1782-89) he depicted himself as one whose strong feelings made him very susceptible to cruelty or aloofness.
Freud said many years later, “We are never so helpless against suffering as when we love.” Rousseau was the first to analyze this vulnerability that he felt so strongly.
He said, “All of my hardship comes from my need to attach my heart… It is only when I am by myself that I am my own master.
” At the end of his life, after facing years of misery and disappointment, he saw seclusion as his only option, even though this was not a joyful decision since human contentment is essentially social: “One can never be able to enjoy oneself without the help of another.”
In June, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC will be publishing On Kindness, a book written by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor. This work is protected by copyright law and all rights are reserved to the authors.
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