Humanism Now
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Humanism Now

Humanism and Widening Circles of Compassion

Photo by Juliana Malta on Unsplash

The Greek Stoic philosopher Hierocles appears to have been the first person to imagine human relationships as circles. He imagined the human place in the cosmos by drawing concentric circles — first, the self. Then the immediate family. Then the extended family. Then the immediate neighborhood. Then citizenship in some nation-state. Then, according to Heirocles, the circle extends to all of humanity. Our work as ethical beings, according to Heirocles, is to pull those on the outer circles into the inner circles. Our job is to widen our circle of compassion.

Embracing those expanding circles, Heirocles claimed, leads to oikeiôsis, a feeling of belonging. For ourselves and others.

Notice that Heirocles is insisting that each of us must first understand and belong to ourselves in a deep way. We must have a realistic understanding of what’s going on in our own heads before any of the other circles will connect in a healthy way. We must be self-aware in the center of the circle. Then the circles can go out.

The cosmos that Heirocles saw human beings occupying was a relatively bounded space, but now . . . well, we know about things such as relativity and the expanding universe. We have a human-made object — Voyager One — that’s now thirteen billion miles out there. That’s one wide circle!

My contention is that what we call Humanism is not about humans anymore. We know there are circles and circles more than Heirocles imagined.

Yes, an ethical citizen of the planet will draw a circle of compassion around all human beings, whatever nation each was born in. But there’s more.

Many people on the planet are now drawing the circle around our fellow animals.

Many are drawing the circle around our environment and the earth’s remaining resources.

A decolonized, cosmopolitan Humanism calls us to widen our circles.

Yet, herein lies a problem: What if the concentric circles don’t keep expanding because of national policy? If you happen to live in the United States, for example, many of your fellow citizens see no need to expand the circles to include other animals, the citizens of other nations, or the planet. Many Americans wish only to be a circle of Americans.

In this way, from a practical viewpoint, the building out of Heirocles’ circles breaks down.

How do we live an ethical life of expanding circles of compassion when a majority of our fellow citizens don’t wish to draw the circle wider?

That’s the question that contemporary Humanists are working hard to answer.


Humanist Assemblies




#Humanism is a grass-roots, global movement of #Freethinkers and free thinkers.

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David Breeden

David Breeden

Poet, Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a Humanist congregation. Amazon author's page

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