In Plato’s Parmenides, the characters gather in the house of Pythadorus in the Kerameikos neighborhood of Athens just outside the city walls on the 28th day of the month of Hecatombaion in 450 BCE. The famous Parmenides and his student Zeno, both originally from Ionia (western Turkey), are also there along with an Aristotle of Thorae (in southern Attica), a teenage Socrates, and two others. They are all in Athens for the Panatheneia—the most important festival in ancient Athens.
In Plato’s Timaeus and in his Critias, set exactly twenty-one years after the events of the Parmenides—again, on the 28th day of Hecatombaion—the characters gather in the house of the prestigious Critias (father of Critias “the tyrant”). Timaeus of Locri (in southern Italty) is also there along with Hermocrates of Syracuse, and a Socrates in his forties. They are there for another Panathenaia.
There is also good evidence that most of Plato’s Republic (Books 2-5) was set during the Panathenaia as well. In that dialogue, people from all over Attica, as well as Syracuse and Chalcedon (modern-day Istanbul).
I like to refer to the dramatic details of Plato’s dialogues because I think it gives insight into the lifestyle and personality of Socrates, who has been so important to the Stoics and Stoic philosophy. So why am I mentioning these four dialogues? What insights are they providing? Simply put: Socrates and his peers considered the Panathenaia festival a wonderful opportunity to have challenging discussions, tell fascinating stories, and foster a sense of community.
There are a couple reasons why the festival was fertile for such lively gatherings. First, it was a commemoration of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and so there may have been an expectation of intellectual discussion in addition to the other events of the Panathenaia. Second, the festival was so important that it drew attendees from all over the Mediterranean who brought with them differing worldviews and philosophical perspectives. That’s what creates a healthy community: differing perspectives, an open-mindedness to them, and a flexibility to change your own perspective if there are good reasons to do so.
Today (July 27th) corresponds to the 28th day of Hecatombaion—Panathenaia. So how should we commemorate it? I say we take a day to recognize the importance of what’s happening in those houses in Athens that Plato is dramatizing: cosmopolitanism.
The idea of cosmopolitanism, the view that all people are moral equals insofar as they are all citizens of a “cosmic city,” is as orthodox to Stoicism as any of its ideas. It was adapted from Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic but embraced fully by Zeno as made clear in his Republic, where the citizens of the ideal city—presumably realizing their equal status by virtue of their wisdom—treat each other equally without the need for laws nor social hierarchy. We can’t cite passages from Zeno’s Republic but we can cite the work of later Roman Stoics who preserved the idea of cosmopolitanism in the Stoic tradition.
Let’s embrace the idea that there are two commonwealths (res publicas). The one is vast and truly common to all, and includes the gods as well as mankind; within it, we look neither to this mere corner nor to that, but we measure the boundaries of our state by the sun’s course. The other is the one in which we are enrolled by the circumstances of our birth I mean Athens or Carthage or any other city that belongs not to the whole of mankind but to a particular population. Certain people give devoted service to bothOn Leisure 4.1
“Consider who you are. First of all, a human being (anthrôpos), that is to say, one who has no faculty more authoritative than choice (prohairesis), but subordinates everything else to that, keeping choice itself free from enslavement and subjection. Consider, then, what you’re distinguished from through the possession of reason: you’re distinguished from wild beasts; you’re distinguished from sheep. What is more, you’re a citizen of the world (politês tou kosmou) and a part of it, and moreover no subordinate part, but one of the leading parts in so far as you’re capable of understanding the divine governing order of the world, and of reflecting about all that follows from it. …”Discourses 2.10.1-6
Here’s Marcus Aurelius:
The time you have left is short. Live it as if you were on a mountain. Here or there makes no difference, if wherever you live you take the world as your city (polis). Let men see, let them observe a true man living in accordance with nature. If they cannot bear him, let them kill him – a better fate than a life like theirs.Meditations 10.15; Cf. 2.16, 6.44
The implication here is that you are a “citizen of the world,” a “cosmopolitan,” a “cosmopolite” (my favorite). Your ability to exercise rational choice is your proof of citizenship and nobody can take that away from you (even if they kill you). More importantly, we are fellow citizens, fellow cosmopolites. If I were to recognize this and truly internalize it, I should have the corresponding feelings and I should treat you as I treat anyone with whom I share a strong identity.
Today, Stoic and Stoic-inspired philosophers are trying to preserve the idea of cosmopolitanism. I will cite only one powerful example: Anthony Appiah’s work in which he promotes cosmopolitanism and succinctly defines it as “universality plus difference” (Cosmopolitanism p. 151). Note the need here to not only bring us all together into one universal identity but to also acknowledge and accept the differences between us that maintain that healthy community I described above.
And it all starts with opening a dialogue.
Many of us don’t have the skill (yet) to carry on lively intellectual discussions in the manner of Socrates and Parmenides. So, an easy way we can open dialogues and foster a sense of community and cosmopolitanism is to get together with friends in-person and play games. This is perfect because it discourages folks from looking at their smartphones and excusing themselves from the event, but it still provides the opportunity to talk in a low-pressure, low-stakes environment.
It’s not surprising to learn that Panathenaia was also the time for the “Panathenaic Games” (which seemed much larger and popular than the Olympic Games in the 5th and 4th century BCE). There were not only intellectual discussions, but also physical competitions and contests for plays and poems. So, like our ancient fellow cosmopolites, we can take a day around this time to enjoy some friendly gameplay.
Below, I listed some techniques that you can use to help you maintain equanimity while playing games (some people with competitive streaks might need this more than others!). Just remember that the ultimate goal in every circumstance—yes, even while playing games— is virtue.
- Use a ‘reserve clause’: state a plan and then add “fate willing”—many elements of gameplay, like life, are a matter of chance
- Ask “is this in my power to influence/control?” to your impressions—for example, the impression of how well you’re doing in the game
- Aim for a particular virtue in the face of frustrating situations, always maintaining equanimity throughout (hardships are opportunities)
- Take a ‘depreciation by analysis’ approach as Marcus Aurelius does in his Meditations 6.13: describe things without using value judgments; or, ‘decompose’ them into less value-laden parts
- Take a ‘view from above’— in the grand scheme of things, how significant are your hardships (and boons)?
- Speak little but well with a prosocial intention
More Concrete Advice
- Consider ahead of time how you should approach…
- Uncooperative (slow, naive, distracted) co-players?
- Overly-talkative (annoying, obnoxious, loud) co-players?
- Instigating (boastful, insulting, overly-critical) co-players?
- Confusing/arcane rules?
- A dispreferred draw or dice roll?
- Losing? Wining?
- Before starting the game, settle upon a certain character/disposition that you wish to maintain during gameplay; consult this ideal regularly
- If things are not going your way, acknowledge that there are always opportunities to cultivate good character (virtue)
- During your turn, state what exactly you’d like to do (quietly to yourself or out loud) and then add “fate willing,” “God willing” (inshallah/ojalá), or just “unless something prevents me”
- Regularly acknowledge (quietly or out loud) what is under your influence / up to you and what is not
- Regularly acknowledge (quietly or out loud) what we are doing while playing the game and it’s significant in the grand scheme of things
Regardless of what you decide to do to foster a sense of community and cosmopolitanism, do it prudently, with good spirit and equanimity.