One of the aspects of Stoicism is the belief that people are meant to work together. People are prone to develop community for mutual support. In other words people are of one universal mind to make collective progress.
The sun appears to be poured down and indeed is poured in every direction but not poured out. For this pouring is extension, and so its beams are called rays from their being extended. Now you may see what kind of thing a ray is by observing the sun’s light streaming through a chink into a darkened room. For it is stretched in a straight line, and rests so to speak upon any solid body that meets it and cuts off the flow of air beyond. It rests there and does not glide off or fall. The pouring and diffusion of the understanding then should be similar, in no way a pouring out, but an extension, and it should not rest forcibly or violently on obstacles that meet it nor yet fall down, but stand still and illuminate the object that receives it; for that which does not reflect it will rob itself of the light. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8.57.
One example in the ancient world could be the distribution of grain to the populace of the Roman Empire. This is also referred to as the Cura Annonae. It may seem like a romanticized effort of goodwill for the masses. But there was a practical and political aspect as well.
It’s the rule of nature that an increase in population leads to a rise in demand for foodstuffs. In the most historical periods in the city of Rome i.e., the Roman Republic and the Empire, the city’s population increased drastically to around one million people in the 2nd century AD. Population growth pushed the rural production to the limit, and they were no longer able to meet the demand for food in the city.
To protect its citizens from starvation, the Roman government intervened to distribute free and subsidized food to its population. The government’s mission to protect its population from starvation was described by the term Cura Annonae an Italian word that translates to “care for grains” in English. The term Cura Annonae had a religious attachment coined and developed in honor of a Roman god Annona. Through regular and predictable grain supply, the Roman leadership maintained tranquility to its restive urban population.
The common form of grain was the durum wheat, which was mainly shipped from the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, Egypt, and countries in North Africa such as Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. With the inclusion of Egypt into the Roman Empire under the rule of Emperor Augustus (27BCE-14CE), Egypt became the main supply of grains to Rome.
The grains were then moved by sea across the Mediterranean Sea, which needed careful and well-laid logistics. The shipment process required hundreds of ships, some huge and extensive for collecting many sacks of grains and distributing them inside Rome. On arrival to Rome, the grains were ground and made into bread, which by then was the most crucial element in the Roman diet. Rome highly depended on the swift arrival of the imported grains, and for that reason, whoever led the supply of grains from Egypt, North Africa, and islands of Sardinia and Sicily had a considerable amount of control over the city of Rome.
A large fleet of Seaworth ships was required to deliver grains from the nearby Sardinia and Sicily islands, more distanced North Africa, and much further Egypt. The distance between the endpoint (Rome) and the three sources is considerably big, which made it cheaper to transport grains from one end of the Mediterranean to the other by ship rather than transport it by land.
To protect the grain ships from piracy, they were escorted by the Roman navy who, besides performing anti-piracy duties, stole considerable portions of the grain imports. Hundreds and in some instances, thousands of ships were required to transport the grains to Rome. The Roman government encouraged the building of large ships for the grain transport where some of the ships could carry up to 350 tons of grains or more. The transportation across the Mediterranean presented several challenges in that the grains had to be kept off moisture to prevent sprouting and infestations by pests. Wet grains could also sink the ship, something that was inevitable because the ships were entirely sailed by sails making them vulnerable to storms. In a nutshell, the voyages from Egypt and the other sources were significantly dangerous.
On arrival to Rome, the distribution of the grains was mainly done in the free markets. Prices were extremely hiked, and traders could count on making profits. Some grains were, however, sold at the market rate. The individuals who received the grains took them to the many small mills in the city to have it grounded into flour. The flour was then either baked at home, communal ovens, or in the numerous bakeries in the city districts.
The hiking of grains prices led to serious political consequences. The poorer in society were forced to survive on one dole of grains per month. Also, the grains were often sold to people who didn’t qualify, which greatly agitated the populace. In response, the populace conducted demonstrations and riots, which impacted the stability of the Roman government. The prices of grains became even further unaffordable when the Roman province of Sicily revolted repeatedly. Later, Roman Emperors would, however, dedicate their leadership to lowering the grain prices to feed the populace. Lowering the grain prices became part of the political platform, and leaders fighting for office used it to win the masses. The political use of the grain supply, together with the gladiator games, gave rise to the saying “Bread and Circuses.” This is as if the Romans only lived on free bread and entertainment!
When considering the universal mind through Stoicism, it is important to understand a practical aspect and the idealized outlook. Having worked in Social Service programs for nearly 30 years I have seen both sides.
In today’s environment with the Coronavirus, unemployment has been extended and distributed due to the Coronavirus. There is the practical side where people need benefits with mass layoffs. But there is a realistic aspect where paying for this may take years after Covid 19 has been dealt with.
To truly reach a universal mind of Stoic principles a genuine effort of cooperation and mutual support. Although based on religious principles Cura Annonae reflected this. But ulterior motives and insincere efforts will only make this concept fall short of what it can truly accomplish for people as a whole.