CURF Introduction: Ancient Philosophy and Cosmopolitanism in the Modern World

I have always had an interest in ancient philosophy since high school, but it was my research mentor’s, Dr. Whiting’s, class on Aristotle that truly cemented my desire to engage with ancient philosophy more deeply. Aristotle’s virtue ethics has particularly caught my attention, and my fascination with it has only deepened over time. In his virtue ethics, Aristotle places eudaimonia (which is often translated as happiness) as the end goal of all human life and claims that all actions are done for its sake. One of the more troubling readings I came across argued that Aristotle’s conception of happiness is hopelessly egocentric – we only do virtuous actions for the sake of our eudaimonia, not for the well-being of others. The ultimate question this presents is, how exactly can we pursue the good of the other for the other’s sake? Aristotle’s account of friendship muddles the ethical waters even more by saying that we see our friends as an extension of ourselves. At the end of all this, Aristotle appears to give two potential answers: extension and identification.

By extension, I mean that in the case of friends, we see our friends as literal extensions of ourselves– there is no distinction between I and you. In this sense, we can take Aristotle’s characterization of friendship at face value. I ultimately have the exact same egotistical reasons to care for my friend as I do myself. Identification, in contrast, calls us to understand and view others as we do ourselves in a more impartial way. People are different (they are distinct entities), but they are all different in kind. There is something within me that is present in everyone else that give me reason to have ethical concern for both myself and others. What is even more striking about the problem of genuine concern for others is that these same solutions are repeated throughout ancient philosophy.

The Stoics present a different formulation of the problem than Aristotle, but that formulation rests upon the same principles. Hierocles (one of the more influential Stoics) proposes that all human beings are centered within a set of concentric circles. Of course, the central circle includes you, but the next circle represents your family, the third your friends, the fourth your fellow citizens, and so on until the last circle encompasses all of humanity. Rather than asking how we view our standing in relation to our friends, Hierocles ask of us to consider how exactly we incorporate all of these circles into one – how do we see all of humanity as appropriate ourselves? Here, we see the Stoic notion of oikeiosis (often translated as appropriation) and the solutions to the problem at hand are the same as in the case of Aristotle: extension or identification. If you aren’t convinced of how essential the problem of expansion of ethical concern is to ancient philosophy, you can look further to Plato’s republic and his notion of oikeiosis in the ideal city.  Still, there are problems with both accounts of ethical concern.

If we are to accept the extensionist reading, then we run into some troubling questions of egoism and ethnocentrism. Take, for example, the case of mothers and their children. Under the extensionist account, a mother would be perfectly justified in being overbearing, in having complete say in her child’s life; furthermore, a mother would have no reason to care for the children of other mothers because their children are not a direct extension of herself and are not like her. This egoistic logic can be extended to various ethnicities and nationalities. A further question that could be raised is, does extension even address the problem of concern for the other as other? If I see others as merely an extension of myself, then I only care for them insofar as they are me and not insofar as they are distinct beings. Identification, as well, presents some intuitive issues. To return to the case of mothers, it seems ludicrous – if not downright cruel – to claim that a mother has no more reason to care about her child than the child of another, or a person halfway across the globe for that matter. It seems we either run into the problem of ethnocentrism (we can only care about those like us) and a radical form of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism (we ought to have total impartiality and forego all personal loyalties).

I think, however, we thankfully do not need to fall into despair at the prospect of these problems. I do believe that identification comes closest to the heart of the matter and that if we place Aristotle in this “oikeiosis tradition” that spans the breath of ancient philosophy, we can come to a modern cosmopolitanism that provides non-egoistic justification for concern for others, and yet also respects aspects of life in which we intuitively recognize the necessity of impartiality. My desire to recontextualize ancient philosophy is primarily why I wanted to participate in the CURF.

My career goal is to enter academia in a teaching capacity (hence my double major in philosophy and history) and formulate a virtue ethics that fits into our globalized and often disconnected world. People have been disconnected from traditional sources of identity, and yet have not been presented an alternative. I, to my chagrin, find myself tied up in the theoretical side of philosophy most of the time, rarely the practical side. The CURF is founded upon the idea of interdisciplinary research; under this fellowship, I hope to encounter other people who recognize the value of ancient philosophy and have the practical know-how necessary to implement a modern conception of virtue ethics. We seem stuck in between ethnocentrism and a radically impartial cosmopolitanism – let us endeavor to establish a middle ground.

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