This short explainer will provide you with a straightforward understanding of what oikeiôsis is and how you can use it to guide your Stoic practice.
Definition Of Stoic Oikeiôsis
Oikeiôsis is one of the more advanced terms in Stoicism and refers to the process of becoming aware of what truly belongs to us and what does not.
The term oikeiôsis is derived from the Greek word oikos, which is the word for household, house, or family.
Oikeiôsis in practical terms means the recognition of something as one’s own, or belonging to oneself.
It is also variously translated as “appropriation”, “orientation,” “familiarization,” “affinity,” or “affiliation.”
What the Stoics Said
The concept of Stoic oikeiôsis traces right back to the founder of the philosophy, Zeno of Citium. The Stoic philosopher Hierocles, meanwhile, saw it as the basis for all animal impulses as well as human ethical action.
This distinction between the oikeiôsis of every animal and the oikeiôsis of human beings (as rational and social animals) is an important one as it highlights two different “stages” of oikeiôsis.
The Stoics said that every animal has oikeiôsis in relation to itself.
In other words, every animal has a natural preference for what is good for itself. And in this way, the animal appropriates itself to itself; an example of this is the lifelong instinct for self-preservation.
In this initial stage of perception, an animal is only aware of their bodies and sensations as “belonging to itself.” This self-awareness is continuous as well as dependent on the perception of external objects.
“An animal, when it has received the first perception of itself, immediately becomes its own and familiar to itself and to its constitution”Hierocles, Hierocles the Stoic: Elements of Ethics 1.6.50
For human beings, oikeiôsis extends beyond oneself to other human beings. While human infants will start life with the same oikeiôsis of their own bodies as animals, their constitution evolves as they mature.
As our human capacity for reason emerges, so too does the scope of our oikeiôsis. This means we become aware of our social responsibilities and duties toward other human beings.
What “belongs to us”, therefore, isn’t just ourselves and our own preservation but also that of others. To illustrate this using the word oikos, from which oikeiôsis is derived, we can think of other people as part of our own “household.”
To show how humans can stretch their oikeiôsis towards other human beings, Hierocles developed a concept now known as the circles of concern. The circles indicate where our concern should begin (with ourselves) and where it should extend to (all humanity).
Hierocles also argued for a “contraction of circles.” His intention was that we increase our affinity with all of mankind by reducing the distance between the circles.
In his Discourses, Epictetus also addresses the dual responsibility of caring for oneself while also caring for others:
“This isn’t selfishness; the creature in question was born like this. It does everything for itself. Even the sun does everything for itself, and so, for that matter, does Zeus himself. But sometimes Zeus wishes to be ‘the Bringer of Rain,’ ‘the Fruitful,’ and ‘Father of Gods and Men,’ and you can see that he can’t perform these functions and deserve these titles unless he makes some contribution to the common good. And (without going into details) he equipped the rational creature with a nature which is such that its own particular goods are unattainable unless it makes some beneficial contribution to the common good. In which case, doing everything for oneself isn’t selfish. Anyway, do you seriously expect someone to neglect himself and his own interest? In that case, how could all living creatures share the same fundamental drive; namely, appropriation to themselves?Epictetus, Discourses 1.19
What Oikeiôsis Means for Us
Oikeiôsis for us then, as rational human beings, can help us foster an attitude of cosmopolitanism by being civic-minded and contributing to healthy community life. The virtue of Justice provides guidance in these acts by encouraging things like fairness, kindness, teamwork, and leadership.