'Stoicism and the Environment' by Chris Gill

Stoicism and the Environment

by Christopher Gill
(Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought, University of Exeter)

Sourced here.
Sourced here.


Can Stoic ethical ideas help us respond more effectively to the current environmental crisis, especially global warming, which seems to be largely a product of human action? This suggestion might seem implausible at first sight. The ancient Stoics had no experience of a crisis of this kind; so we cannot refer to their own discussions in the way we can on other topics. However, there are several Stoic ideas we can draw on to inform and deepen our own response to this crisis. My focus is on the ethical framework we should use for this purpose, rather than on the specific practical measures we can take, and on our response as individuals, rather than on government action. But I assume that the ethical framework we apply can help us to determine the specific measures we should take and that our response as individuals underlies what we urge governments to do on our behalf.

Of special value for this purpose is the Stoic ideal of the brotherhood of humankind, and the Stoic beliefs that human beings form an integral part of nature as a whole and that human ethical life should consist in part in bringing our life into harmony with nature. However, to show how these ideas can be useful for this purpose, we need to put them in their context in Stoic ethics. Also, there are some more general features of Stoic ethics that are potentially valuable in this connection.

Thinking about environmentalism in terms of virtue and happiness

The Stoic ethical framework, as in most other ancient philosophical theories, and some modern ones, is couched in terms of virtue and happiness (or ‘flourishing’, eudaimonia); it also gives a central place to development, conceived as a life-long process. The contemporary moral dilemmas generated by the environmental crisis are often formulated in terms of the question where our duty lies or whom (or what) we should benefit above all. Does our duty lie above all in doing what is best for our present way of life (our comfort and convenience and that of our families and businesses, as these currently function)? Or should our overriding duty be to the environment, or the planet, or future generations – actually not much in the future now that the signs of global warming are already obvious? Alternatively, should we benefit ourselves, our families and our businesses by continuing to act in our habitual way or should we modify our lifestyles in ways that will benefit humanity more generally, as well as other animals (now and in the future), by helping to reduce damage to the environment we all share?

However, an alternative (and perhaps compatible) way of framing the dilemma is in terms of virtue and happiness. Arguably, we should see the exercise of the virtues (analysed by the Stoics as subdivisions of wisdom, courage, self-control and justice) as including actions designed to minimise damage to the environment. This involves some extension to the normal way we think about the virtues, since we tend to think about them in terms of our relationship to other human beings. However, the environment crisis has a direct effect on other human beings and on ourselves: global warming carries the threat of massive disruption to existing modes of human life and resources and, in the longer term, to the maintenance of human life at all on earth. So this is a natural extension to the way we should think about what virtuous action involves.

What is the advantage of reflecting on this question in terms of virtue and happiness? One powerful reason for doing is that it can help to promote the motivation to act in an environmentally responsible way and to do so consistently. According to a number of ancient and modern ethical approaches, our happiness or flourishing, as moral agents or human beings, depends on developing and exercising the virtues. Stoicism holds this view in the strongest possible form, maintaining that happiness, or the best human life, consists in developing and exercising the virtues. Things other than virtue, such as health, property and a stable family life, while naturally pursued by human beings, are not integral to our happiness in the same way. So, if we accept that virtuous action includes acting in an environmentally responsible way, we will come to see such action as contributing to our happiness and the best human life. We will not see our situation as one in which we are forced to choose between acting in a way that promotes our own happiness and acting in a way that minimises harm to the environment or which benefits future generations of human beings. This is one advantage of adopting a virtue-ethics approach to this question, and especially of adopting in this context the Stoic view of the relationship between virtue and happiness.

The relevance of the Stoic theory of development to this topic

Stoic thinking on virtue and happiness is closely linked with a well worked-out theory of development (understood as ‘appropriation’ or ‘familiarisation’, oikeiōsis). The Stoics set the bar for virtue, and thus happiness, very high, while still maintaining that all human beings are fundamentally capable of carrying out the developmental process that leads to virtue and happiness. Hence, in Stoic theory, ethical development is seen not just as a phase of human life (a normal part of growing up) but as a potentially life-long process. Put differently, ethical life (or just life, properly lived) is an on-going project of aspiration towards virtue and happiness.

How is the Stoic view of ethical development relevant to the question how we should respond to the environmental crisis? There are several relevant features. One is that, if we accept Stoic ideas about human psychology (though these have often been challenged in ancient and modern times), ethical development carries with it a progressive transformation of emotions and desires. By contrast with Platonic and Aristotelian thinking (and with comparable strands in modern thought), human psychology is seen as functioning in a unified or holistic way, so that changes in belief affect emotions and desires directly without the need for a distinct process of habituation of non-rational parts. On this view, changing our beliefs about what constitutes virtue and happiness brings with it a unified motivational response that shapes our actions directly. Hence, coming to believe that virtuous action (and the happy life) involves acting in an environmentally responsible way carries with it motivational change, which feeds directly into the actions we take.

A second relevant feature of Stoic thinking about development is this. Stoic theory presents the movement towards achieving virtue and happiness as highly demanding (one we are unlikely ever to complete), while stressing that all human beings are fundamentally capable of developing in this way. Also, according to Stoicism, determining the specific actions in which virtue is properly expressed is not straightforward and is not subject to codified, exception-free rules or laws. Rather, a progressive movement towards gaining a better understanding of virtue forms an integral part of the process of ethical development. These features of Stoic thinking are also potentially relevant to our response to the environmental crisis. Although it is sometimes suggested that this crisis can be somehow managed in a relatively effortless way by technological progress, this seems to me largely wishful thinking. It seems much more likely that an effective response to this crisis will involve all of us in substantial changes in lifestyle, affecting how we travel (and how much), how we heat our houses (and how much), what we eat (and how much), and a great deal more. The Stoic view of ethical development as, on the one hand, demanding in its aspirations, and, on the other, requiring us to work out for ourselves the specific actions that virtue involves, thus offers a good general framework for an effective response to the environmental crisis.

The brotherhood of humankind

The Stoic theory of development also provides the framework for the two ideas which are potentially most useful for this question: the idea of the brotherhood of humankind and the belief that nature as a whole provides a moral standard. One of the two principal strands in ethical development is a social one, which takes its start from what Stoics see as a primary animal instinct (parallel to the instinct for self-preservation), namely the desire to benefit others of our kind. The clearest illustration of this instinct is parental love for offspring, which is shared by human and non-human animals. During human development, this is transformed into a more rational and structured pattern of motivation, with two main outcomes. One is reasoned engagement in family and community life, and the other is coming to recognise that all human beings are our brothers or sisters, or our fellow-citizens, in so far as they share this in-built capacity for rational ethical development. These two outcomes are not mutually exclusive (though we need to work out carefully the proper relationship between them). Rather, our commitment to our family and community is conceived as one aspect of the fellowship we have with humanity as a whole.

This idea is potentially valuable for us now as we reflect on the ethical challenges posed by global warming and related environmental problems. On the one hand, it makes good sense for us to work out strategies which can help to maintain the viability of our own families, communities and businesses (although the way these operate may need quite substantial modification, as already noted). On the other hand, our planning needs to take account of the global nature of the problem, and of the fact that decisions taken in any one context have serious implications for others. Also, and crucially, we need to recognise that human beings as such have a legitimate claim on our ethical concern, and not simply those human beings that fall within the current boundaries of our family, community or nation. Otherwise, appeals to act in an environmentally responsible way for the sake of humanity as a whole or for future generations will have little hold on us. Of course, adopting this view is highly demanding, and it still requires us to work out with care the specific actions with follow from it. But, as already stressed, these points are in any case fully recognised by the Stoic ethical framework; and taking effective action in this respect depends on our making ethical progress in general, including gaining a better understanding of what virtue and happiness involve.

Taking nature as a whole as an ethical norm

The second Stoic idea that has special value in this connection is that nature as a whole constitutes an ethical norm for human beings. ‘Naturalism’, in some sense, is a prevalent feature of ancient ethical thought. Aristotle, for instance, in a famous passage (Nicomachean Ethics 1.7), argues that, to understand what constitutes happiness (eudaimonia), it is useful to reflect on what is distinctive of human beings, so that we can define more exactly what counts as human happiness. However, the Stoics go further in this direction than Aristotle, claiming that, in reflecting on virtue and happiness, we should see ourselves not just as part of the human species but of the natural universe as a whole. They also maintain that the natural universe embodies characteristics which we should take as exemplary for our own lives and that we should work towards bringing ourselves into line with these features.

Determining just what the Stoics mean by these claims is not easy and has been much debated by scholars. I offer a possible interpretation, which is designed to show how these ideas can contribute to our efforts to respond properly to the environmental crisis. I think that the Stoics see nature as a whole as exhibiting two main characteristics which are also expressed in human life, at its best. One is order, rationality and structure, and the other is providential care. The Stoics think that nature as a whole embodies order, rationality and structure. They see this as manifested most clearly in the regular patterns of nature (the movements of the planets, cycle of seasons and so on), and in the seamless web of causes and effects that operates throughout the universe. Stoics also see order, rationality and structure as properties of human life at its best. These properties are expressed, for instance, in the virtues (seen by the Stoics as a coherent, interconnected set of qualities) and in the ordered structure of human life and happiness when these are consistently based on the virtues. The Stoics also believe that nature as a whole embodies providential care; this is manifested, for instance, in the fact that certain component parts of nature (human and non-human animals) are instinctively inclined to preserve their own lives and to care for their offspring. The distinctively other-benefiting motives that are characteristic of fully developed human beings (including ethical concern for human beings as such) are seen as an extension of the providential care that is in-built in nature as a whole. Ethical development thus enables human being to embody features that are characteristic of nature as a whole, and also to form a better understanding of those features and to use them as models for shaping their own lives and actions.

These are quite complex ideas and they may seem alien or unconvincing to us today. People may feel that the Stoic view of nature is not compatible with the modern scientific world-view – though that is a large question that would need separate consideration. However, it is worthwhile reflecting on these Stoic ideas to see how much of them we can accept and how far they help us to address the environmental crisis. In the first instance, it is useful to be reminded that human beings form an integral part of nature, even though we often act in the modern world as if we were somehow separate from nature or as if we relate to nature only as its master. It is also helpful to be confronted with the idea that nature as a whole should figure as part of our moral horizon and that morality is not just a matter of our relationship to other human beings. But the potential value of these Stoic ideas may go further, even if we have reservations about the credibility of the Stoic world-view. For instance, we may see the force of the idea that providential care for others is in-built in nature, as manifested, for instance, in the animal (and human) instinct to care for one’s offspring. And we may also accept the idea that ethical development, in its social strand, results in the expression of providential care for others (those who share our lives and also human beings more generally), and that this is an extension of a more general feature of nature. Indeed, we may also take this idea rather further than the Stoics themselves did, though in a direction consistent with their thinking. We may see the exercise of providential care by human beings as something that should be appropriately extended to nature as a whole, taking into account our special natural capacities for rationality, social organisation and technological skill. Regarding the environmental crisis, we have a special reason for doing so since our exercise of providential care is a matter of trying to repair the damage that we have done to the natural environment, above all in generating global warming by human action.

Similarly, we may feel able to accept the Stoic view that virtue and the happiness that depends on virtue constitute a kind of inner rational structure and order. We may also accept that this inner structure is characteristic of human nature at its best and that in this sense it is natural for us to develop this structure. We may also see the force of the idea that for human beings to develop in this way reflects a kind of structure and order in-built in nature as a whole (even if we have reservations about the credibility of this Stoic view in other respects). If, again, we extend this idea further than the Stoics did, though consistently with their approach, we may see this internal moral structure as one that is incomplete and deficient if it leaves out of account the fact that human life is situated within the natural environment as a whole. Virtues, in other words, need to be expressed in actions that affect nature as a whole and not simply those that affect human lives. In this sense, we need to work towards a view of virtue and happiness that is consistent with our understanding of nature as a whole and of our human life as an integral part of nature as a whole.

None of these ideas are easy or straightforward; but then neither is the situation in which we currently find ourselves, as we struggle to get to grips with the enormity of the threat to humanity and nature posed by global warming. My proposal is that there are several Stoic ideas on which we can draw to supplement and deepen our ethical response to this crisis, by adopting or extending Stoic ideas for this purpose.

Background Reading

I am not aware of any previous attempt to apply Stoic ideas to the environmental crisis. I list reading which relates to the various Stoic ideas used here for this purpose. On Stoic ideas about nature as a whole (as ordered and providential), about development, virtue and happiness, emotions and political ideals (including the brotherhood of humankind), see A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987), sections 54, 57, 59 D, 61, 63, 65 and 67 (also Cicero, On Duties 1.11-14 and 53 on development and the brotherhood of humankind). On development and ethical ideals, see C. Gill, The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (Oxford, 2006), pp. 129-66; also on these ideas, and nature as a norm, as understood by Marcus Aurelius, see C. Gill, Marcus Aurelius: Meditations Books 1-6, translated with introduction and commentary (Oxford 2013), pp. xxxiv-xlix, lxiii-lxvii. For an accessible overview of Stoic philosophy, see J. Sellars, Stoicism (Chesham, 2006), esp. chs. 4-5 on Stoic physics and ethics.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism

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3 thoughts on “'Stoicism and the Environment' by Chris Gill”

  1. William Morris writing a century ago: “for this very privilege, which is but the privilege of the robber by force of arms, is just the thing which it is the aim and end of our present organisation to uphold; and all the formidable executive at the back of it–army, police, law courts, presided over by the judge as representing the executive–is directed toward this one end–to take care that the richest shall rule, and shall have full licence to injure the commonwealth to the full extent of its riches.”

    That is almost an echo of Zeno, his politeia. We all know that Kropotkin thought Zeno was the best exponent of anarchism to be found in ancient Greece. I think then that we need to look afresh at Zeno’s anarchism / utopian socialism. I believe that therein may be discovered some possible ways forward out of the current global mess we’ve made for ourselves– a mess we’ve been making apparently since the fourteen hundreds. I’m talking about Capitalism and about greed and profiteering and about all things associated with such. It was inevitable that at some point the poor planet would groan and cry out.

  2. People often treat humanity as something outside of ‘nature.’ Humanity, its creations, and its effects on the natural world are a part of nature, however. If they were not, they would not exist. Cars, factories, the keyboard I’m typing this on must be a part of nature. These things obey the laws of physics, were manufactured using materials sourced from our environment, and are manipulable by most human beings. They are not separate from our environment, but affect our environment, and therefore are a part of it.

    Humans are like any other creature. Our population will increase within our limited environment (planet Earth, for the most part) until we hit the limit of that expansion, followed by a population collapse due to scarcity of food, water and other resources. We are like bacteria in an agar solution in a petri dish. We will grow until we hit the limits, and then our unsustainable population will collapse.

    We won’t prevent such a collapse unless we realize that everything we do is a part of nature. Treating our creations and actions as outside of nature exacerbates the problem: because what we do is outside of nature, it must be considered as an external and unwanted vector, arising from unnatural decisions, rather than as a natural part that could be used to best to preserve or live in harmony with the rest of nature.

    We, unlike other animals, are aware of the impending consequences of our largely unfettered expansion. We may be able to adjust our thinking in order to prevent a disastrous collapse or our environment . Part of this is to consider that all we do, as harmful as it might be, is part of nature, and the causes of such harmful conduct must also be considered as part of nature, and therefore must be part of the solution, as well.

  3. An interesting piece. I would offer the following in support of the ideas:

    ‘Nature has laid on us no stern and difficult law when she tells us that we can live without the marble-cutter and the engineer, that we can clothe ourselves without traffic in silk fabrics, that we can have everything that is indispensable to our use, provided only that we are content with what the earth has placed upon its surface.’ Seneca – XC. On the Part Played by Philosophy in the Progress of Man

    I also would suggest that the Stoics of old would take one look at our current problem and recognise the one major issue. There are too many of us.

    While the Stoics of old looked to how the individual could flourish, they would not understand our current drive to live longer than nature intends regardless of cost and quality of life. They taught us to be ready to embrace death, not to clutter up the world and over populate it. We are faced with a worldwide situation similar to that of the British NHS hospitals – too many people trying to get in through the front door with too many others cluttering up the beds that the new influx needs.

    Just as the hospitals can only cater for so many people, so Mother Earth can only cater for a finite number of humans. Human ingenuity has overcome many of Nature’s methods for culling us and keeping our population to an appropriate level. If we are to live in accord with Nature and not kill the whole Planet we need to address this issue.

    For my part, seeing as how at present the government will not allow me to have assisted suicide when the time comes for me to depart with dignity I have refused to have a pneumonia jab (that would have lasted my lifetime) so that when I am more frail I will have a chance of catching an illness that will dispatch me relatively quickly.

    I would suggest that those who oppose abortion under the banner of ‘A Right to Life’ need also to support ‘A Right to Death’ campaign.