Marcus Aurelius believed in the power of mankind to unite and band together to build a better world and become more than we ever could be on our own. In this spirit he placed acting in the common good above acting in our own interest, and valued unity over individuality. “A branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree also. So too a man when he is separated from another man has fallen off from the whole social community,” Aurelius wrote in the second century.
His metaphor is looking at the complex way that society exists and the importance understanding the ways in which we are connected. We may feel disjointed and independent of other individuals and groups, but the reality is that we are united in a way where everything flows through all of us to create the society we live in today. He explains that separating ourselves from even one individual is an action that separates us from the entire community. Once we turn one person away from our life, we are insulating ourselves in a more narrowly defined group and building an identity that blocks other people from interacting with us. This limits not just our growth, but the growth of all.
On a societal level this means that anyone who is forgotten and pushed out becomes dead weight on our tree of life, holding down the branches around them. We can look at this metaphor from multiple perspectives and use it to adjust the ways we think about those who are often outcasts within our society. Creating systems that isolate the poor, minorities, and people with criminal backgrounds places an undue burden on those who are still trying to flourish in the community, for they must not only bear their own weight as they grow, but they must also hold up the branches that were cut. Aurelius would argue that society will not grow to its fullest if it were constantly cutting out members on whom it depends. The true test of our society is to find ways to incorporate all without the need for pruning. Leaving out individuals forces them to be carried by others, and it forces others to shoulder more of the burden that could be evened out with greater participation from all.