Our look at happiness through philosophy has led us to spend a lot of time with the ancient Stoic philosophers and today will be no different.
However, today we’re visiting a topic that is widely covered in all sorts of philosophies and even (or especially) religions.
Today’s topic is the idea that we are all connected, so we must lead with love and be kind to others.
One of the main sources of Stoic philosophy that we have is a book called Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.
Aurelius had access to the best teachers in the world as he was the most powerful man in the world – the emperor of Rome. His book, Meditations, was never intended to be published as a book. Instead, it was simply a journal that Aurelius wrote for himself to keep his Stoic lessons in mind.
Because of this we have a really interesting look into what the Emperor wanted to remind himself and how his thought process worked. On the other hand, it was specifically written for an audience of one and some of the lessons are less straightforward than they could be.
On the topic of the interconnectedness of people, Aurelius had this to tell himself:
“Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe. For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other – for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.”
An Inescapable Network of Mutuality
If Aurelius’s explanation is a bit abstract for you, there are plenty of others that espouse similar ideas that we can turn to.
One particularly well-said version of this idea can be found in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s The Man Who Was a Fool sermon:
“All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
Lead With Love
So what does this mean?
The fact that we are all interconnected means that we need always to lead with love. If we want there to be more love and goodness in the world, then we need to supply it.
In Seneca’s Moral Letters he quotes an earlier Stoic philosopher saying “I can teach you a love potion made without any drugs, herbs, or special spell – if you would be loved, love.” The only way for there to be more love in the world is if we create it.
For a more modern take we can turn again to King:
“When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: ‘Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God.”
Turning Away from Revenge
Even when others act in hatred or anger, we cannot respond in kind. Our interconnectedness means that in the same way that more love helps us all, more hate hurts us all. Even if it is only our own anger directed outward, it still hurts ourselves.
“The person who does wrong, does wrong to themselves. The unjust person is unjust to themselves – making themselves evil,” according to Aurelius
When we are wronged, our instinct is to respond in kind. We want revenge. But in an interconnected world, revenge doesn’t help. In fact, Seneca tells us that the anger fueling our revenge will last longer than the hurt that we are avenging.
“How much better to heal than seek revenge from injury. Vengeance wastes a lot of time and exposes you to many more injuries than the first that sparked it. Anger always outlasts hurt. Best to take the opposite course.”
Marcus Aurelius is more succinct in his version of this sentiment:
“The best way to avenge yourself is to not be like that.”
Cut Off the Chain of Hate
Instead of looking at the pain that we directly cause ourselves by enacting our revenge, King looks more to the interconnectedness of people. His essential message is that somebody needs to break the chain of anger and hatred, so we should each make our own stand.
“The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.”
Responding to hate with hate only leads to more hate in the world. If we want to see more love in the world we need to start a new chain and project love outwards.
A Fountain of Goodness Ever Ready
None of this is easy, of course.
The idea of responding to hate with love is a great sentiment, but is really hard in practice.
That said, practice makes perfect, and we can build this habit over time just like every other habit. Seneca tells us that “Wherever there is a human being, we have an opportunity for kindness.” Every interaction with another person is a chance to become a better person, to increase love in the world, and to fight our harmful instincts.
And when you feel like you can’t do anymore? The Stoics have advice for that, too.
“Dig deep within yourself, for there is a fountain of goodness ever ready to flow if you will keep digging.”
Join the Conversation!
Do you have any tips for leading with love? Avoiding the temptation to seek revenge? Responding to hate with love? Let us know in the comments!