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An application of social oikeiōsis (affiliation) to other humans in time of pandemic: Part One

By Richard Sorabji

Where I live, people have shown much fellow feeling for each other during the illness of the COVID pandemic that first began to strike the world in late 2019. Even when confined by regulations to their houses except for work and very limited other purposes, they have, for example, delivered extra food to neighbours in need. In some places, however, the pandemic has hit households so hard that they would not be able to give much help, but instead are in need of help themselves. They may have lost their employment and earnings, when the pandemic made it impossible for their workplaces to continue operating. When, to stop the spread of illness, children’s schools were closed, at least one family member may have had to give up earnings in order to stay at home to look after the children and perhaps to engage in home teaching. Just when earnings were lost, expenses rose with the need to maintain all through the day meals, along with gas, electricity or other types of fuel for temperature control and cooking.

Suddenly, in places like Britain, there was a return to an earlier view of common, everyday illness. The Roman senator and philosopher Seneca the younger (4 BCE-65CE), tutor to the future Roman emperor Nero, said in one of his letters[1] that in every (omnis) illness there is fear of death, pain of the body and interruption of pleasures. This may have come to seem startling in some places now. In Britain for some time, illness has not regularly involved the fear of death. But This is partly because of comparatively recent changes. In the early 1940s, the antibiotic medicines, discovered in the 1930s, had become available in Britain to some, and in 1948 the National Health Service of Britain extended free health care to all. In Britain before that, however, early death of some family member was a common experience in families. The COVID pandemic has brought the fear back.

Ancient Greek philosophy had a theory about how fellow feeling develops or should be developed, and called the process oikeiōsis, a term which has two parts. It is the ending ‘-sis’ which implies a process. The term ‘oikeios’ signifies what is one’s own, or belongs to one. According to the Greek-English lexicon of Liddell, Scott and Jones, it is used especially of belonging to the same household. The ancient Greek term for a house is oikos or oikia. The term oikos is thought to be an etymological ancestor of the English term ‘-wick’ which occurs at the end of such English town names as Warwick and Berwick. For oikeiōsis I shall sometimes use the English translation ‘affiliation’,[2] because that word can be used not only for a relationship, but also for a process of endorsing such a relationship, and it has a verb connected with it, ‘to affiliate’.    Humans can have a sense of something belonging to them not only in relation to other humans, but also in relation to things of other kinds, such as their own bodies. And these relationships can be closer or more distant. Indeed, relationship to one’s own body plays a central role in the theory of oikeiōsis. Some texts speak of a sequence of affiliations of different strength, starting with the strongest, affiliation to one’s body, and only then spreading in different degrees to other humans. They describe concentric circles in which our affiliation with outer circles is weaker than our affiliation with inner ones. But our relation to the circles is not a static one of affiliation from a distance. We are encouraged to pull outer circles inwards towards us. We will look at two such texts in the next two blog entries: The first is a Greek text by the Stoic philosopher, Hierocles of the 2nd century CE, the second is a Latin one from the Roman orator and writer on philosophy Cicero who wrote it in 45 BCE.

Read Part 2.


[1] Seneca, Letter 78, 6-11.

[2] The Latin etymological source of ‘affiliation’ has a meaning entirely different from that of the English, referring to the ancient Roman practice of adopting a son (filius) to safeguard the bequest of property.


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Ancient Philosophy Today: DIALOGOI provides a forum for the mutual engagement between ancient and contemporary philosophy. The journal connects interpretative work in ancient philosophy to current discussions in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, and assesses the continuing relevance of ancient theories to current philosophical interests and debates. Find out how to subscribe, or recommend to your library.

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