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You're listening to the Stoic Solutions Podcast - practical wisdom for everyday life.

I'm Justin Vacula

and this is episode 59 – Responsibilities to Society and Other Beings – a bonus episode this week
brought to you by a generous donation from a Patreon supporter amidst upcoming episodes with
special guest interviews.

Visit my website at where you can connect with me on social media; find
past episodes on many podcast platforms; and join my Discord chat server for interactive discussion.
Support my work by becoming a donor through Patreon or Paypal to access special rewards including
the ability to have upcoming guests answer your questions, custom podcast episodes, and personalized
one-on-one discussions. Share, comment, like, subscribe, and leave reviews to help support my efforts.
Email me with your thoughts – justinvacula at

If you'd like me to discuss a topic, make a $10 or more monthly contribution today as I approach
episode 60 and am working towards a goal of $300 per month for a steady stream of two episodes per

Miss anonymous asks, “What responsibilities, if any, do we have to other people and our society in
general? What about altruism and self-sacrifice?” Thanks for your support Miss Anonymous.

Ancient Stoic writers and modern thinkers influenced by Stoicism talk about cosmopolitanism, an
attitude of belonging to a worldwide community, seeing oneself as a part of a connected whole.
Epictetus, in book one chapter nine of his Discourses, encourages us to model Socrates and call
ourselves citizens of the universe rather than identify with, as he says, “a corner on which your
paltry body was thrown.”

Massimo Pigliucci and Kai Whiting, past podcast guests in episodes 48, 55, and 56, talk about
circles of concern – expanding our priorities beyond the self to family, fellow citizens, countrymen,
humankind, animals, and the environment. We're to be mindful of the impact our actions have and
embrace our nature as a social animal realizing the benefits connections with others can bring
while also being careful or prudent in our choices.

Stoics focus on the practical nature of their philosophy and lament knowledge merely for its own
sake encouraging people to apply wisdom, share it with the world, and be active in society to
make a positive difference. We can use our skills, whatever they may be, to help ourselves and
others to a reasonable degree. One's choice of action, well, it's difficult for me to suggest what
people ought to do on a person-to-person basis because I don't know their time constraints, skills,
or life people can take a life inventory and think about how to optimize their time to
achieve a sense of fulfillment in exercising virtue to help others rather than squandering their time,
participating in toil, and being isolated from the world. One can even find meaning in their work as
I talk about in episode 24.

Some may think marriage or raising kids is a societal duty, but this is not the path for everyone
and may take away from contentment and helping society as I discussed in episode 57 discussing
Men Going Their Own Way. Women, too, may walk away from what we may deem societal
pressures and men of course are rejecting the common traditionalist exhortation to 'man up' and
instead will forge their own paths. People ask, “What's in it for me,” recognize many potential
pitfalls, and don't want to take on risk for the sake of risk when the reward is not present and/or
seems extremely improbable. We're to be prudent in our decisions and not, as Epictetus says,
gamble in matters of greatest important, take careful consideration before rushing into potential
ruin. Perhaps that woman becoming pregnant simply can't afford the time off from work, medical
costs, and doesn't have a good partner who can offer support, she can make an informed
responsible choice to be child-free and contribute to society in a more prudent fashion.

Taking on too much self-sacrifice, being wholly altruistic can we say, may not be prudent.
Donating so much to charity that you can't afford, volunteering too much of your time, and taking
on too much responsibility can lead to self-harm and burnout which may diminish your
effectiveness and even harm others. Balance, again, a central theme in Stoicism, is called for.

Epictetus, in chapter two book one of his Discourses, encourages us to use our skills well being
mindful of our strengths taking time to build mastery and not be in over our heads. He says, “Is it
not clear that the possession of these powers is at the same time accompanied by an awareness
of them also? But neither a bull nor a noble-spirited man comes to be what he is all at once: he
must undertake hard winter training, and prepare himself, and not propel himself rashly into what
is not appropriate to him.”

On taking action in the world, a contrast to being withdrawn from society, Epictetus offers
explanation in book one chapter 29 of his Discourses, “If you did not learn these things to
demonstrate them in practice, why did you learn them at all?” We can seek challenges, ways to
apply ourselves in society rather then simply waiting for opportunities to present themselves.
Epictetus says, in the same chapter, “Must I sit wasting my life in a corner when I might be
crowned at Olympia?” Clearly no, we're to engage with the world. In book two chapter nine of his
Discourses, Epictetus says, “philosophers urge us not to be contented with mere learning, but to
add to practice also, and then to training.” Here, we can see more talk about how learning and
attaining knowledge is not enough for a good life, that we're to be engaged with others, with
society, and be continually improving for personal and societal benefit.

In chapter one book three his Discourses, Epictetus talks of personal neglect and inaction
harming society, being a betrayal of our role as a human being, a brother to others. He casts
Socrates as a role model, someone who sought to improve society with questioning, persuasion,
and sharing of virtue. People saw him as being a bad citizen neglecting himself, but Socrates
thought otherwise – he thought of himself as caring for mankind by speaking the truth even when
others were unwilling to change or were perecutory. Indeed, one way of helping others is by being
a good role model, setting a good example with your words, your works, and your profession.
Epictetus, in book three chapter four of his Discourses alerts us to the fact that others will imitate
us and people commonly imitate crowds even when poor behavior is on display. We're to be
mindful of our actions so as to not lead others astray. He says, “You ought to know then, that
when you enter the theater, you enter as a pattern and example to others, as to how they should
behave there […] for if you act as the masses do, you put yourself on their level.” We should set
high standards for ourselves and not sink to base behaviors others may display. Children
especially will learn from us and model behavior whether they realize it or not.

Book three chapter 13 presents a question some may see as a contradiction in Stoicism – how
are we to be self-sufficient yet still seek companionship with others? Stoics talk about the fragility
of life, how externals – other people, other things, outside our control – are inevitably liable to
change and destruction. We can be aided by externals, prefer to have them, but not be overly
reliant to the point of being unable to function without help. Without externals, we should be able
to be content with an attitude of acceptance and gratitude being able to brave the most dire of
circumstances. We then can benefit from association with others, with society, and still be self-
sufficient – a sense of interdependence can be had. In helping others, we can help ourselves and
others can help us. We can have a balance, moderation, in supports we have from externals and
beware the fate of the character in the classic Dolly Parton song 'Jolene' who says, “My
happiness depends on you.” Epictetus says, “human being are sociable by nature and are fond of
their kind and enjoy associating with one another [they] cannot, then, conceive of the manner of
life of one who lives completely alone. We ought, nevertheless, to prepare ourselves for this also,
to be capable of being self-sufficient and bearing our own company.” Here, we can also see
loneliness as an inevitable and even positive thing to be content with our own time and see
benefits in it for people won't always be around to support us – see episode 46 for more on
loneliness. Again, we're to be careful too about our associations, especially who we let into our
close circles as Epictetus notes in book three chapter 16, “Since then, the danger is so great,
caution must be used in entering into these familiarities with laymen; remembering it is impossible
to rub against a person who is covered with soot without getting some of the soot on oneself.”

What about concern for animals? There's quite a good deal of discussion concerning plant-based
lifestyles refraining from consumption of any animal products in Stoic circles and even mentions of
not eating animals in the works of Seneca and Musionis Rufus. See episodes 30 and 7 in which I
discuss health and a plant-based diet. I want to limit the amount of harm I inflict in my life and can
make very easy adjustments to reduce consumption of animal products to close to zero while still
having a healthy and frugal lifestyle by adding supplements, protein powder, meal replacement
drinks, cooking my own food, and making substitutions.

A recent article in The Guardian titled 'Avoiding meat and dairy is single biggest way to reduce
your impact on Earth' is yet another nail in the coffin concerning the sustainability of a diet
including animal products especially including factory farming, slaughterhouses, and inhumane
practices. Maybe some exceptional circumstances exist which lead some to require animal
products, but even then they can reduce harm and impact rather than, as I often hear, zombie-like
exhortations of “the food tastes so good” as people wharf down french fries, cheeseburgers,
cheesesteaks while healthcare costs and the epidemic of obesity rises in America. Removing
animals products has an incidental or, in many cases, intentional benefit of a healthier lifestyle. If
one can make simple efforts to reduce harm in the area of eating, why not do so for personal
health, animals, and the environment? Here, we can take on some level of self-sacrifice and have
discipline to benefit society. How about more mutual benefits?

In his letter 'On the Fellowship of Wise Men,' Seneca talks about social and personal benefits which
come with good deeds. He writes, “Good men are mutually helpful, for each gives practice to the
other's virtues and thus maintains wisdom at the proper level. Each needs someone with whom he may
make comparisons and investigations. Skilled wrestlers are kept up to the mark by practice, a musician
is stirred to action by one of equal proficiency.” He continues on this theme of mutual benefit,
“Helping, however, really means prompting the soul in accordance with nature, both by the prompter's
excellence and by the excellence of him who is thus prompted. And this cannot take place without
advantage to the helper also. For in training the excellence of another, a man must necessarily train his

To recap, we can see ourselves as beings part of a greater whole concerned with having a positive
impact on society being mindful of the consequences of our actions. We're to take action in society for
both the benefit our ourselves and others rather than being withdrawn from the world or learning for
learning's sake – we're to apply our knowledge and skills. There are many paths to befitting others – we
can question certain paths and make prudent decisions. Recognize that others, especially children, will
model our behavior, so be a good role model while in society. Consider not only humans, but also
animal welfare and in doing so have better health and participate in less harm to animals and the
environment. Be careful with whom you associate. Select good friends and benefit from your
interactions with others.
Once again, thanks to the support on Patreon from Miss Anonymous which inspired this bonus episode.
Thanks too to other supporters and fans of my work.


Visit my website at where you can connect with me on social

media; find past episodes on many podcast platforms; and join my Discord chat server for
interactive discussion. Support my work by becoming a donor through Patreon or Paypal to
access special rewards including the ability to have upcoming guests answer your questions,
custom podcast episodes, and personalized one-on-one discussions. Share, comment, like,
subscribe, and leave reviews to help support my efforts. Email me with your thoughts –
justinvacula at

Podcast music, used with permission, is brought to you by Phil Giordana's symphonic metal
group Fairyland from their album 'Score to a New Beginning.' Audio edits are brought to you
by John Bartmann.