Oikeiosis is a strange Greek word that has an even stranger (and to us, rather vague) meaning, and yet it was once central to Stoic thought and doctrine. When it is mentioned in modern Stoic writing, it has to be extensively glossed, since we have no true equivalent concepts in modern Western society. Translators have used words such as affinity, familiarization, appropriation, endearment, or perceiving something as one’s own, but none of these come close to capturing its full meaning. However, I believe oikeiosis can play an important role in Stoic parenting, so let’s take some time to explore what it is and how we can use it in our lives today.
Oikeiosis involves maturing as a person, and learning that you are not the only thing that matters in the universe. Do you remember the concentric circles of Hierocles, which describe the levels of awareness and concern that each person must learn? Everyone starts by caring for and trying to protect their own small body and ego, and then they learn to care about their close family members, then friends and neighbors, then ethnic or national compatriots, then (hopefully) all of humankind. Hierocles’ writings, and especially this visual of the concentric circles, are often used to describe Stoic cosmopolitanism and the ideal of compassionate care and belonging for the whole world. Cosmopolitanism is, of course, an important part of Stoic theory (and was actually quite radical in the ancient world!).
But there is also another side of oikeiosis. It is not just about learning to love the whole world, but also learning to draw things near to your heart that may not at first glance seem beneficial or even natural. I like the way Massimo Pigliucci puts it near the end of How to Be a Stoic: “The idea is that we begin life with only instinctual behaviors, some of which are rather selfish, just like the father’s ‘natural’ reaction to his daughter’s pain. Once we enter the age of reason in mid-childhood, however, we begin to be able to reflect on things and to separate natural from good when necessary” (pp. 189-190). The example he is referring to, of course, is the famous dialogue from Epictetus’ Discourse 1.11, in which a father claims to be acting out of love by running away from his seriously ill daughter’s bedside. Epictetus systematically breaks down the father’s reasoning and shows him that what seemed “natural” and “done out of love” was actually selfish and cowardly. Perhaps it was instinctual for the man to leave his daughter in the care of others, so he didn’t have to personally watch her suffer, but that does not mean it was right. He clearly had not completed the process of oikeiosis–although which one of us can claim to be fully developed in this way?
According to the oldest Stoic teachings, all animals (and maybe even plants) have an instinct for self-preservation, and this is what human infants are born with, as well. As we mature and make progress toward virtue, we use our reason to overcome this basic self-preservation instinct when necessary. (Greg Sadler has some interesting information about this in his post What Does “In Accordance with Nature” Mean?) Yes, that often involves expanding our sense of affinity for others as depicted in the concentric circles model, so that we fulfill our social duties and try to accomplish the Stoic ideals of justice.
But it also requires internalizing our understanding of the world through a Stoic lens. So I think that not only do Hierocles’ circles radiate outward, but they also gather inward: you must overcome your instinct for narrow self-preservation, but you must also internalize the ways of the universe as your own. In other words, not only do you push your own small ego out toward the world, but you bring the world into your own small ego. Only in this way can you become a fully developed person. So you can see why oikeiosis is, in fact, central to Stoicism. It draws on all three disciplines (desire, action, and assent) and develops temperance and courage as well as justice.
So enough with theory–what are we supposed to do with oikeiosis? As parents, we need it on two levels: first, to continue our own development as Stoics, and second, as an excellent metaphor for how we raise our children. We are on a continual mission to bring our thoughts and habits in line with a wise understanding of the world. That means constantly keeping our true priorities in our minds as we interact with our children, so that we focus on what is both truly important and truly under our control. It also means trying to bring about oikeiosis in our children, if possible, by providing them with good instruction and a good role model (yourself). As always, you cannot force your children to become something they are not destined to become, but you can certainly try to lay the groundwork for their development into excellent people.
Oikeiosis is a gradual process, and you can’t expect your kids to understand concepts that they are not developmentally ready for. But as I’ve stressed throughout this blog, I do believe you can start explicitly working with even very young children on moral development. Not just forming good habits, but also explicitly talking about moral reasoning and linking actions back to core principles. Obviously, a four-year-old (or a fourteen-year-old) is not rational in the same way that a forty-year-old is rational. But just because a child has not reached the so-called age of reason does not mean that she is not capable of any reason. I actually think that children are much more morally astute than adults give them credit for, and with some training and encouragement, they can make great progress in moral reasoning.
Keeping the oikeiosis model in my mind as I interact with my children helps me visualize how I am helping them to grow and mature as virtuous little people. Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius both use the ripening fruit analogy to describe a wise person maturing over a lifetime, and I think it is particularly apt when thinking of oikeiosis. Just as a peach grows from the inside out but ripens from the outside in, children need parental care but also interactions with the world in order to gain wisdom. Fortunately, Stoicism already has just the right concept to explain this lifelong process of using reason to overcome purely instinctual behavior. Now we just have to learn to apply it.