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Stoic Views of Care: An Invitation

By Michael Barr

Michael Barr is Professor in Philosophy as a Way of Life at Newcastle University in the UK though his background is highly eclectic. Trained in politics, theology, and philosophy, he has he taught ESL in China, Egypt and the US and has published on the sociology of health and illness, Chinese politics, environmental politics, bioethics, biosecurity, and pedagogical methods.

Stoic care is largely defined by two intertwined themes: rationality and sociability. We care for ourselves as rational beings and in the process we exercise our understanding of the virtues. But of course we do this in a communal setting. We are inevitably social animals and we cannot live virtuously if we don’t also care for others. In this way the care of the self and the care of others are linked though the idea of Providential care – in the idea that nature places within us the instinct and the rational capacity to care and to do so through a virtuous life, lived in relationship.

Stoicism’s understanding of care gives us a rational framework in which to ground our response to others, and to nature, in a widening circle of care. As many have noted, there is also a cognitive dimension to Stoicism. That is, our emotional responses reflect underlying beliefs and assumptions, and we are challenged to reject beliefs which cause emotional problems. Thus, self-management, or self-care, is based on a cognitive understanding of how emotion and desire impact our actions.

And yet we all know that caring is a deeply emotional undertaking. We can see this from blog entries on Stoicare and we know it from our own experience. This doesn’t mean Stoic forms of care are misplaced in any way. The rational basis for care and its emphasis on cognitive empathy are all valuable resources. But while caring is a nature act, it is also deeply affective.

By this I mean that the act of caring entails feelings and emotions that are materialized and situated through the body. This can easily be seen in terms of self-care as our bodies alert us to our vulnerabilities and help us decide which aspects of our lives need attention. We can also see it in the negotiation of boundaries around bodily integrity with those whom we care for.

So how do Stoics experience care? We really don’t know for there is very little – in fact, almost no – qualitative data on Stoicism today. To help address this gap, I am conducting a project to better understand the views and experiences of Stoics. In part, the study explores how people use Stoic philosophy and principles as part of their caring practices – whether it be towards themselves, other people, animal companions, or the wider environment.

How, for example, does Stoicism help participants maintain resilience in the face of daily pressures? How do Stoics’ experiences of care – as practiced today – reflect or challenge Stoic philosophy? How do carers integrate Stoicism into other systems of belief about themselves and their responsibilities? What are Stoics’ experiences of how their practice helps them link their values to their actions?

The main part of the project involves open ended interviews with members of the general public who have attended Stoic events and/or self-identify as Stoics. I will follow up a first round of interviews with more in-depth discussions with a few participants to better understand in detail the role Stoicism plays in giving meaning to a significant life events.

I invite readers to contact me if they would like to participate in the project. It would involve an hour-long interview online and would provide much needed data on how Stoicism is actually practiced today – for we can only know more about Stoicare in action by talking to people! All interviewees’ names will be anonymised and findings will be presented at Stoic events and published in popular and academic articles. Interviewees will also receive a £10 e-voucher in recognition of their time.

If you are interested in participating in this project, please contact me for more information here.