Care For Ourselves, Others, And Our World – Can Stoicism Help Us Hold These Together? by Christopher Gill

Only connect… – E. M. Forster


In this discussion, I explore three kinds of care: care for ourselves, for each other, and for our world or environment. Many of us can see that each of these types of care have a moral claim on us and merit our attention. But being aware of this and also being conscious of other kinds of demand on our time and energy can induce a sense of moral panic – how can I, genuinely and seriously, express these kinds of care without being pulled in competing directions?

So my question is this: can Stoic ideas and practice help us to hold these claims together and to convert this sense of moral panic into a more constructive and coherent patterns of objectives and motives? My answer is ‘yes’, very much so. Stoicism was famous in antiquity for what is sometimes called ‘joined-up thinking’ and for giving a unified and connected account of the whole body of knowledge as understood by them. Stoic ethics also advocated what you might call ‘joined-up living’, that is, acting in a way that gives our lives coherence and focus. Indeed, the goal of human life was sometimes defined by Zeno, founder of Stoicism, simply as ‘consistency’, though it was also defined in more complex terms.

This unifying and integrating quality applies to Stoic thinking about care. In ancient Stoic writings the first two ideas, care for yourself and care for others, have a prominent place. They form part of their thinking about ethical development, especially the theory of development as ‘appropriation’ (oikeiosis). As well as emphasising the importance of both kinds of care, taken separately, the Stoics also discussed how they should be integrated with each other, a question which is closely linked with their theory of virtue, another central topic in Stoic ethics.

The third idea, care for the natural world as a whole, does not play an important role in ancient Stoic thought for a very good reason, explained later; much more prominent is the idea that nature cares for us, that is, for human beings and other forms of life and natural entities. However, the natural world is closely linked by ancient Stoics with human ethics, including the themes of care for ourselves and others. And we, modern thinkers, can use these links to reconstruct what would be a reasonable Stoic response to the modern problem of breakdown in environmental stability and balance. So I think these three types of care can be formulated in terms of Stoic ideas in a powerful and instructive way. The Stoic framework of thought can also help us to see how these different kinds of claim can be coherently integrated in our thinking and lives and thus how a potential feeling of moral panic can be converted into a sense of purpose and constructive action.

Care For Ourselves And Others

I start by discussing care for ourselves and others and the relationship between these two kinds of care. The ancient Stoics saw these two forms of care as basic motives in-built in all human beings. In fact, they saw them as in-built in all animals. The most obvious manifestation is, regarding care of oneself, the instinctive motive of self-preservation, and, regarding care of others, the instinctive desire for sexual intercourse, procreation and care of one’s offspring. These instincts are shared by human beings and other animals; but in human beings these motives develop in more complex ways that reflect our distinctive character as both rational and sociable. This process of development forms part of the important Stoic theory of ‘appropriation’ (oikeiosis) discussed shortly.

In thinking about these Stoic ideas, it’s tempting to identify these two motives with the familiar modern distinction between egoism (or selfishness) and altruism (unselfish generosity), that is, between a bad or at least primitive motive and a good, ethically developed, one. And if we do make this identification, this brings up the problem I am raising here, how do we hold these two motives together? – since they seem to point in quite different, and competing, directions. But identifying these two Stoic motives with egoism and altruism is a mistake. The Stoic motives are seen as universal, in-built features of human psychology; in themselves, they are neither good nor bad. They only become good or bad in the course of human development; and both care for oneself and care for others have good, as well as bad, forms of development.

What are the good forms of development of these two motives? There is a helpful discussion of both forms of care in Book 3 of Cicero’s On Ends (on aims or goals in life) (chapters 16-22, and 62-8). Care of oneself (3.16-22) starts with the primitive instinct of self-preservation, and then, as human beings develop rationality, this becomes the desire to acquire the things that make up a normal human life, what the ancient Stoics call ‘natural things’ or ‘preferred indifferents’. These are things such as health, property, having a family, and being respected by other people. Human rationality is naturally expressed in ‘selecting’ between these natural things. And if ethical development goes well, we select in a way that reflects the best possible features of a human life; that is, we select in a way that expresses the virtues.

We express the four cardinal virtues (wisdom, courage, justice and moderation or self-control) that, taken together cover the four main areas of human experience. Also – and this is a crucial and much-stressed point in Stoicism – we come to recognise that what really matters in human life, what makes a life a good one, is not just selecting or obtaining the natural things, but doing so virtuously, wisely, courageously, justly, moderately. As the Stoics put it, virtue (and not the natural things) is the only good and living virtuously the only proper overall goal of a human life.

There’s a lot one could say about this aspect of Stoic thinking on development; but I just highlight one point. Developing care of oneself in this way should not be seen as a form of selfishness or egoism: that is, something that is ethically inferior or bad. On the contrary, caring for yourself properly (your health, your property, your family and social respect) is a way in which you can progress towards the best possible human life, one shaped by the exercise of the virtues. So Stoic self-care consists in caring for yourself in a way that enables you to make this progress, which culminates in caring for yourself as a rational and sociable agent and living a life shaped by the virtues. However, to make full sense of this aspect of development we need to take it in conjunction with the second strand of appropriation, care of others.

Cicero, in On Ends 3.62-8, gives a separate account of care of others in its basic and developed forms. For human beings and other animals, the basic form of this care is the instinctive desire for sex, procreation and care of offspring. But in human beings, care for others is a broader and more pervasive motive, expressed in various forms, including involvement in family life and in different types of community. Also, the Stoics, unusually in the ancient world, believed that human beings have a natural disposition to care for other humans in general and to regard them as part of a world-wide family or citizen group. So the developed forms of this motive can include any and all of these forms of care. On this form of care, there is, again, just one point I want to underline. Caring for others in Stoic terms is not ‘altruism’ in a modern sense, if this is taken to be a motive that is inherently good. The various forms of caring for others that the Stoics discuss may or may not be ethically good. Caring for others (family, friends, fellow-citizens, refugees, human beings in general) is only good if the caring is shaped by the exercise of the virtues (wisdom, courage, justice and moderation), which are forms of expertise in leading the best possible human life. So some forms of care for others can be bad, if they are based on ethical mistakes or confusion.

There is a further implication of this point. Although Cicero, in On Ends 3, discusses care of oneself and others separately, we need to take both accounts together, to form a complete picture of Stoic thinking on ethical development. Care for others (the second strand of appropriation) is only expressed properly if we incorporate the process of learning about the crucial importance of living virtuously (the first strand of appropriation, on care of oneself). Also, there is no way in which we can learn what it means to live virtuously, unless we also incorporate forms of caring for others as well as oneself: how can we make sense of the virtue of justice, for instance, purely in terms of care of oneself? In other words, care of oneself and care of others are inevitably intertwined in a human life, and the proper ethical development of these two forms of care are also intertwined. And in Cicero’s On Duties or On Obligations, these two motives are presented in interconnected form, as I bring out shortly.

What is the relevance of these points for the role of Stoicism in helping us hold together different moral claims on us? First of all, in the Stoic framework, caring for yourself and for others are not, in themselves, competing or antagonistic claims, in the way that egoism and altruism are. On the contrary, caring for yourself and for others, in their developed form, are interdependent, and require each other for completeness. What holds them together is the exercise of the virtues. Both care for oneself and care for others need to be expressed in a way that involves the virtues, as a matched set, that is, wisdom, courage, justice and moderation and their many subdivisions.

These connections, between care of oneself and others and between both kinds of care and developing the virtues, underlie the version of Stoic ethics we find in Cicero’s On Duties (or On Obligations), especially Book 1. This work, which is more practically oriented than Cicero’s On Ends, is potentially more helpful as a guide to putting these Stoic ideas into practice. I just pick out three points in this work, the last of which may be especially helpful for Stoic practice.

At the start of Book 1 (11-15), Cicero presents the two basic human motives, care for oneself and others, as fully intertwined, and as forming the psychological basis for the development of the four cardinal virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation) (1.11-15)

Secondly, throughout Book 1, Cicero discusses each of the four virtues and discusses the kind of actions associated with each virtue, using this discussion as a mode of Stoic guidance on decision-making. A striking feature of his account is that he describes each virtue in a two-fold way, first giving the standard Stoic definition of each virtue and then highlighting a second strand of the virtue, which expresses an active desire to benefit other people or society in general. For example, courage (described by Cicero as magnanimity) is defined both as emotional resilience in facing danger and also as being positively motivated towards socially beneficial objectives (1.66). Justice is analysed as giving each person her due and also as being actively motivated by generosity or liberality towards other people (1.20, 22, 42). Moderation is presented as effective management of one’s emotions and desires and also as respect and consideration in our treatment of other people (1.101-3, 97-9).

Wisdom is discussed twice: first in terms of the desire for knowledge and secondly in terms of the use of knowledge to benefit other people (1.13-14, 153-7). We can link this two-fold analysis with the Stoic stress on the primary motivational role of care for oneself and others. Developing the virtues as initially defined expresses the desire to care for oneself in the sense of living the best possible human life, one shaped by the virtues as forms of understanding. And developing the virtues in the second sense expresses the desire to care for others in the best possible way, and to do so in a way that is intertwined with the best possible form of care for oneself. The combination of the two helps us to work towards what I called earlier ‘joined-up living’, or consistency, which is one way of formulating the Stoic conception of happiness or the goal of life.

Thirdly, in discussing how to develop the virtue of moderation, Cicero suggests that we should think of ourselves as having four roles (personae) in life and work towards achieving consistency between them (1.107-21). One role is a general human one, as a creature that is rational and sociable and capable of developing the virtues. The second role is unique to each of us as individuals, consisting in our distinctive talents and inclinations. The third role is our own current social situation, and the fourth one is the pathway we have set for ourselves, our career or chosen life-pattern. We have the best chance of achieving consistency in life (‘joined-up living’) if we aim at making decisions which are compatible with playing all these four roles. This idea, the four-role theory, is a highly suggestive one for practical decision-making in several areas. It is also one that can help us to bring together the developed expression of care of oneself and others. The first role, covering the virtues, involves both forms of care. And the other three roles, in different ways, take account of our special individual features while also referring to our involvement in social relationships and communities. So the four roles express in another way the interplay between these two kinds of care while the combination of them helps us to hold these two kinds of care together.

Care For Our World

The third kind of care is care for our world or environment. I assume that for any reasonably informed and thoughtful person in the modern world, it is obvious that being environmentally responsible constitutes another substantial moral claim. However, this can easily present itself as yet another moral claim we need to meet and can contribute to what I described earlier as a kind of moral panic. I’ve suggested that Stoicism can help to supply a framework for helping us to combine and synthesise the claims of care for ourselves and others and offer an alternative to the standard modern antithesis between egoism and altruism. Can Stoicism also help us to respond to the claim of environmental responsibility, and do so in a way that can be integrated with meeting those of care for ourselves and others?

I think the answer to this question is ‘yes’, though this is in some ways surprising. The ancient Stoics did not have to confront the environmental crisis that we are facing. They did not face the looming threat of global warming and climate breakdown, of which we are already seeing clear indications in every part of the world. Nor did they live in a world where the domination of human beings had already produced a massive loss of other kinds of animal and living things, as it has done for us. Similarly, they were not living with the knowledge that these environmental disasters, which threaten the future of humanity, are themselves the direct consequence of human action since the Industrial Revolution and are especially the result of carbon emissions from our use of fossil fuels. Given this major difference between the Stoic worldview and our own situation, why should we think Stoicism can help us to incorporate this further moral claim alongside others?

There are several reasons for believing that Stoicism can be helpful in this respect. These reasons centre on Stoic thinking about nature and about the relationship between the natural world and human virtue and happiness. For one thing, the ancient Stoics saw the natural world as being of inherent value, and not valuable only because of its usefulness to human beings. They also saw the natural world, the cosmos, as the highest embodiment of structure, order, and wholeness, in a way that contributes to making it inherently valuable. These ideas are most evident in their writings on theology, which formed part of ‘physics’ or natural philosophy.  A particularly useful work on this subject is Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, Book 2. Modern environmental ethics can be based on a wide variety of arguments and theoretical positions. But the idea that the natural world is of inherent value, apart from its value to human beings, is prominent in much modern environmental ethics. The Stoic worldview offers a powerful statement of this idea. It also gives eloquent expression to the idea that the natural world constitutes a kind of coherent order and system; in this way, Stoicism underlines the extent to which climate breakdown and global warming represent the collapse of the natural order. Of course, the Stoic worldview is, in itself, outdated by modern scientific standards. But it can nonetheless offer a visionary picture of what is valuable in the natural world and what is threatened by environmental disaster.

What about care for the environment and natural world for its own sake, as distinct from caring for the environment for the sake of human beings (ourselves and others) – is this an idea that Stoicism can help us to formulate? We do not find this idea in quite this form in ancient Stoic writings on the natural world and ethics. Much more prominent is the idea that nature as a whole (providential nature, also seen as a kind of embodied divinity) cares for human beings, and for all other aspects of nature, including other animals, plants and the elements such as air and sea, and enables them to exist and flourish (Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, 2.73-168). However, as just stressed, human beings in the modern world have gained a mastery over the natural world which is radically different from anything known in antiquity; and so the idea of human beings caring for our world makes much more sense now than it could have done for them.

Also, ancient Stoicism provides certain ideas which can help us, moderns, to formulate the idea of care for our world. The Stoics stressed that human beings are distinctively rational and that this rationality enables humans to exercise a degree of mastery within the natural world. As just noted, they also emphasised that the natural world has its own value and goodness, and that it represents a model of coherence, of structure, order and wholeness. Hence, on Stoic grounds, we can form the idea that we should use our distinctive human rationality not only in caring for ourselves and others but also for the natural world of which we form an integral part and which has its own value and goodness, and in this way internalising or reciprocating the care which nature as a whole has for us. In particular, we can and should do everything we can to undo the damage to the natural order we have produced by human action.

The ancient Stoics also maintained that virtue and happiness depend not just on ‘harmonising’ ourselves with the best qualities of human nature but also with those of the natural universe as a whole, that is, order, coherence, and providential care for everything within nature (Diogenes Laertius 7.88-9). Modern scholars have debated about precisely what this Stoic idea means and whether it is one we can now accept from a contemporary standpoint. But the point that human happiness is, in part at least, a matter of living in harmony with the natural world – rather than in damaging disharmony with it, as much human life is at present – is another potentially powerful and visionary idea for modern environmental thought.

Stoicism offers in these respects strong support for those who advocate giving a very high priority to environmental considerations in public and private decision-making, and a much higher priority than most individuals, organisations and governments currently give to this.  However, this raises again the problem of integrating our moral claims, and the danger of seeing environmental responsibility as yet another claim, and one we may feel we cannot meet alongside existing ones. Can Stoicism help with this problem?

I think Stoicism can help in several ways. As already suggested, Stoicism helps us to recognise that there are valid ways of expressing both care of oneself and care of others, and of reconciling or combining these types of care. Correspondingly, we can see environmental responsibility not so much as a separate and additional claim but rather as another way of expressing care for ourselves and others in a valid way. As the effects of global warming become ever more evident, as they certainly were this summer in many parts of the world, we can increasingly recognise that environmental responsibility and trying to lead a sustainable life need to form an integral and important part of our lives. Living sustainably should be regarded as a normal part of taking care of ourselves in the practical sense of supporting our health, property and wellbeing, that is what the Stoics call the ‘natural things’ towards which human beings are naturally drawn. Also living sustainably should form an integral part of taking care of ourselves in a deeper sense, that of leading the best possible human life, one shaped by the virtues.

In addition, living sustainably should form an integral part of taking care of others, including our children and grandchildren (though global warming is no longer a problem lying in the distant future). Here too, as often elsewhere, the Stoic idea of the kinship or fellow-citizenship of all human beings can play an important role. We need to be aware that our actions, and those of the communities of which we form a part, have an impact not just on ourselves but also on others directly affected by the carbon emissions and other types of environmental damage we produce. This is a case where a single action or type of action (living in an environmentally sustainable way) can serve both as a way of caring for ourselves and others and also for our world.

Another kind of connection lies in acting in line with the virtues; in Stoic terms, this forms the crucial link between proper or valid care for ourselves and care for others and the same goes for care for the natural environment. The idea of virtue is more commonly associated with actions affecting others (or ourselves); but, in the modern situation especially, it makes sense to extend our thinking about virtue to our relationship with, and care for, nature as a whole or at least those parts of nature which we can affect in a positive way.

In Stoic thinking about virtue, there is one theme that is especially helpful for this purpose. Although the four cardinal virtues cover different broad areas of human experience, the ancient Stoics believed that any given virtuous act involves the exercise of all four virtues, in varying degrees. This is their theory of the unity or interdependence of the virtues. This theory applies to all aspects of human life; but I think it has a special value in defining the different, but related, qualities involved in choosing to act in an environmentally sustainable way. Take, for instance, the decision to give up a minibreak vacation in an attractive but distant location, involving long flights, use of large purpose-built hotels in remote settings, and other activities with a significant carbon footprint. The alternative might be, for instance, taking an outdoors holiday in countryside in your own region. Making this environmentally better choice can be understood as involving all four areas of virtue. It involves wisdom in reaching a well-grounded decision, and courage in standing up for your principles (perhaps in the face of the disappointment of family or friends). It also involves justice in taking account of the environmental impact of your action, something which affects human beings in general. It also involves moderation or self-control in giving up something often seen as pleasurable. There are, of course, various possible ways of thinking about the virtues in connection with environmental action. But the Stoic approach, in terms of the unity of the virtues, brings out in another way their stress on joined-up thinking and joined-up living, and on holding together the various factors and qualities that are of most genuine value in our lives. This approach also shows how living sustainably enables us to combine the objectives of caring for ourselves, others and our world in a coherent and considered way.

I close this talk by considering the environmental implications of a Stoic ethical idea noted earlier, the theory of the four roles or personae. Supposing that we have decided that environmental factors should play a bigger part in our decision-making than before, how should we put this into practice; more precisely, how do we set about doing so in a way that respects the other ethical priorities we have? The four-roles theory can help here. Let’s suppose that the first role (our common human one) consists in exercising virtue in an environmentally sustainable form (as just illustrated). The next thing is to take account of the other three roles (our individual character and talents), our specific social situation, our deliberately chosen career or life-path and work towards consistency between all four roles. Taking all these factors into account, some people will aim at exercising environmental virtue by political activism of some kind, for instance, joining the Green party, or taking part in public protests against corporate or government inaction on climate change. Others will do so by discussing this question frankly with their family or friends. Others may simply build environmental considerations into their decision-making on each occasion, alongside (or interlocked with) their existing ethical aspirations and objectives.  The four-role theory, like other aspects of Stoic ethics, does not claim to offer a single answer to moral dilemmas or a precisely formulated set of moral rules. What it offers is a framework for giving our lives coherence and focus and helping us to integrate powerful and well-judged objectives such as exercising care for ourselves, others and our world.

Further Reading

  • Cicero, On Moral Ends, ed. J. Annas, trans. R. Woolf (Cambridge, 2001)
  • Cicero, On Duties, ed. M. Griffin, trans. E. M. Atkins (Cambridge, 1991)
  • Cicero, On Obligations, trans. P. G. Walsh (Oxford, 2000)
  • Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, trans. P. G. Walsh (Oxford, 1998)

On Stoic ethics (including the theory of ‘appropriation’, oikeiosis) and physics (philosophy of nature):

  • Christopher Gill, ‘Stoic Ethical Theory: How Much is Enough?’, Symposion 9.1 (2022), 31-49
  • Also Learning to Live Naturally: Stoic Ethics and its Modern Significance (Oxford, due out November 2022), chs. 4 and 8.
  • Brad Inwood, Stoicism, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2018), chs. 4-5
  • John Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley, 2006), chs. 4-5

On Stoicism and the environment:

  • Kai Whiting (and others), ‘The Environmental Battle Hymn of the Stoic God’, Symposion 9.1
  • See also ‘Modern Stoicism’, articles, under ‘environment’. ‘sustainability’
  • Stephen M. Gardiner and Allen Thompson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Ethics (Oxford, 2017), especially Part 2 (‘Subjects of Value’)

You may also enjoy the video featuring Chris Gill on the Aurelius Foundation’s “Seminars” page.

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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