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

By Richard Sorabji

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

The Roman orator and writer on philosophy Cicero in 45 BCE, translated the Greek word oikeiōsis by the Latin name commendatio, in the following passage of his De Finibus (On Ends) about the different conceptions of different philosophers concerning what humans should aim at in life.[1]

[The Stoics] think it important to be understood that it is
arranged by nature that children are loved by their parents and it is
as something following on this beginning that we trace the common
sociability of the human race. This should be understood first from
the configuration and the members of our bodies, which themselves
make clear that the scheme for procreation is a possession we
derive from nature. But it would not be consistent for nature to wish
for procreation and not make provision for the offspring to be loved.
Indeed, even in animals the force of nature can be seen. When we
see the labour involved in their gestation and upbringing, we seem
to hear the voice of nature itself. So as it is clearly by nature that we
shrink from pain, so it is apparent that we are impelled by nature
itself to love those whom we have procreated. From this is born the
result that the communal affiliation (commendatio) of humans with
humans should be natural and that one human, from the very fact
of being human, should (oporteat) be seen by another human as not
alien.

Cicero’s account here is not merely descriptive, but prescriptive. He speaks at the end of affiliation for humans as mandatory, (‘should’, oporteat), and Hierocles does so more frequently. He speaks of the treatment due to people (deousan khresin), of a recommendation (hupothēkē) as to how one should (pōs khrē) behave to relatives. He uses khrē again to say that one should give more honour to the father, more love to the mother, and three times uses the imperative word-ending –teon, as in pōs khrēsteon (how one should treat), timēteon (one must honour), spoudastea (we must make an effort). He goes on to add that it is fitting (prepei) to give more love to the mother’s relatives, more honour to the father’s.  

Cicero De Finibus (as above) at 3.19.62-3, applies oikeiōsis to animals, insofar as they go through the early stages of affiliation or attachment to their bodily parts, without which they could not achieve self-preservation. But Hierocles’ treatise Elements of Ethics brings in animals far more extensively.[2] Here too, as their means to self-preservation, animals are extensively described as experiencing oikeiōsis towards their own bodily constitution.

To return to the evidence of fellow feeling in the context of the current COVID pandemic, I doubt if it has been produced by the thought processes recommended in the ancient Greek doctrine of oikeiōsis, and it did not need to be. It might be wondered whether the complex thought processes of oikeiōsis would ever really be useful. But I think the thought practices of oikeiōsis could still have been useful at an earlier phase, when laws were being passed that might have protected people better during the pandemic: – laws about job security, disparities of income, minimum wage, health coverage, vacation meals for poor school children, prompt delivery of benefits for those badly off, adequate payment for invalids unable to work, attention to the living and working conditions of black and minority ethnic groups, who were to be attacked most by the pandemic. Problems in delivery of such services are accentuated during a pandemic in ways that may be hard to foresee. The conscious practice of attention to outer circles required by oikeiōsis, might well, I believe, help legislators in their task of providing in advance for a mixture of normal and abnormal circumstances.


[1] Cicero, De Finibus 3.19.62-3.

[2] Hierocles, Elements of Ethics VI. 51-2, VII.4, text and translation in Ilaria Ramelli, David Konstan, Hierocles the Stoic, pp. 16-25.


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