Modern Stoicism and the Stoic worldview
A question sometimes raised is whether being a Modern Stoic requires you to adopt the Stoic worldview as well as Stoic ethical principles. At first sight, this is a rather strange question. Although Stoic ethical ideas can still be valid for us, how can we, realistically, adopt a picture of the world that is so remote from modern scientific thinking? However, those who argue for this position usually have in mind broad features of the Stoic worldview, and not the detailed framework of Stoic physics and cosmology.
What people are considering is whether they can accept the Stoic idea that the world or universe, and the overall sequence of events, has an overall providential purpose or meaning or an in-built order. Also, it is quite often assumed that Stoic ethical principles depend on, or are grounded in, the Stoic worldview. So some people they think that, if you are going to adopt Stoicism in a wholehearted way, this means taking over the Stoic worldview and its role as a basis for ethical principles and practices.
I’ll come back later to the question of whether a Modern Stoic should adopt the Stoic worldview and if so, why. First, however, I discuss the idea that Stoic ethical principles depend on the Stoic worldview. Is it actually the case, as far as we can tell, that the ancient Stoics thought about the relationship between the two areas in this way?
Ancient Stoicism: Ethics and Worldview – Scope for Variation
On this question, I focus on two points. First, it seems that different Stoics took different views on this question and that Stoic ethical ideas could be presented, validly, in different ways, which give varying scope for linkage with the Stoic worldview. Also, although it is sometimes suggested, by modern scholars and in ancient sources, that Stoic ethics ‘depend’ on, or are ‘grounded on’, the Stoic worldview, it is not easy to decide exactly what that means or how far it is true. I take these two points in order.
For many people drawn to Modern Stoicism, the two best-known thinkers are Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Both are centrally concerned with the project of living a life in line with Stoic ethical principles; but they also stress, in slightly different ways, points of connection between ethical ideas and practice and Stoic thinking about god or gods, the universe as a structured whole, and the overall course of events, seen as providentially shaped. So, if your view of Stoicism is based, primarily, on these thinkers, it seems obvious that Stoic ethics and worldview are very closely linked.
It may come as a surprise, then, to find out that Stoic ethics are not always presented in this way. Cicero’s On Duties, for instance, presents a practically oriented version of Stoic ethics – and a highly accessible one – but there is virtually nothing on the Stoic worldview. Cicero was not himself a Stoic thinker, though he is a very important source for ancient Stoic ideas. Cicero tells us that Books 1-2 of On Duties are based on a work on the same subject by Panaetius (c. 185- c. 110 BCE), the last head of the Stoic school in the Hellenistic period, and Book 3, though composed independently, draws on Stoic writings. To judge from Cicero’s version, Panaetius gave a prominent role to the idea of nature in his ethical writing; but it is human nature (usually conceived as characteristically rational and sociable) that he stressed, and not the Stoic worldview.
There are other indications of variation within Stoic writings on this topic. For specialist scholars of Stoicism, the most important sources for Stoic ethics are three ancient summaries of doctrines. Although these come from works of different periods of antiquity, they all seem to be based on the ideas of Chrysippus, the most important and influential Stoic thinker (c. 280-c. 206 BCE). One is by Cicero (On Ends Book 3); another is taken from Stobaeus, a late handbook writer though the summary seems to come from Arius Didymus (late 1st. cent. BCE); the third is by Diogenes Laertius, a late handbook writer (Book 7).
Although all three summaries are generally seen as giving a reliable account of mainstream, Hellenistic, Stoic ethical theory, there are significant variations in the extent to which they stress the linkage between ethical principles and the Stoic worldview. In all three summaries, much of the discussion is presented in purely ethical terms. This point applies to the distinctive Stoic idea that happiness depends on virtue and not on the combination of virtue and other things normally regarded as good (that is, what the Stoics call ‘indifferents’). However, all three summaries also combine discussion of this idea and other ethical topics with references to nature. The summary of Arius Didymus, like Cicero’s On Duties, links these ideas only with human nature and excludes all reference to cosmic nature. The summaries of Cicero (in On Ends 3) and Diogenes Laertius combine discussions that are mainly presented in purely ethical terms with some references to cosmic nature, as I bring out shortly.
What this suggests, I think, is that there was no single, orthodox or authoritative, way of presenting Stoic ethics in this respect. Although there was a wide measure of agreement about the key Stoic ethical doctrines themselves, it was recognized that there could be valid variation in the way and extent to which these were supported by reference to ideas of nature, whether human or cosmic. The mode of presentation we find in Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, in which ethics is consistently and closely linked with cosmic nature, does not reflect the more varied approach to this topic we find in these more technical ancient sources for ethics.
Ethics and Nature: Illustrations of Different Views
Let’s take a closer look at the different ways in which ideas about nature are linked with key Stoic ethical ideas in these ancient summaries of ethical doctrines. As well as illustrating the variety of approach to this topic found in ancient writers, these passages also provide material for considering whether Stoic ethics is grounded on cosmic nature or not. I take three examples: ideas about virtue and happiness, ethical development understood as ‘appropriation’ (oikeiosis), and (referring to a broader set of Stoic writings) resilience in the face of disaster.
As just noted, a key Stoic theme is that happiness is based solely on virtue and not on whether we also have things like health and wealth, or even on the welfare of our friends and family. Happiness, in Stoicism, is often conceived as a natural life or ‘life according to nature’, but this idea can be understood in different ways.
In one ethical summary, that of Arius Didymus, this idea is closely linked with that of human nature, understood as rational and sociable. The underlying point is that if we live a virtuous life, we are therefore living the best possible human life, which is also a happy life, and this holds true even if we have to manage without things like health and wealth (that is, ‘indifferents’).
In another summary, that of Diogenes Laertius, in a passage cited from Chrysippus, the linkage between virtue and happiness is presented in terms of ‘harmonizing oneself’ with Zeus, as the directing agency in the universe (7.87-9). This linkage is not fully explained there; but I think the most plausible interpretation is this. Both virtue and happiness are characterized in Stoic ethics in terms of inner structure, order, coherence and wholeness. These are also seen in Stoic thought as salient characteristics of the universe as a whole, which is seen as shaped by in-built divine agency (or by Zeus). So again, if our lives have these crucial features, we can achieve virtue and thus happiness, based on virtue, even if we have to do without other things conventionally regarded as good and as making for happiness.
A second major ethical theme sometimes linked with human or cosmic nature is that of ethical development understood as appropriation (oikeiōsis). In the summary of Arius Didymus (5b3), and also in Cicero’s On Duties(1.11-15), the development of the four cardinal virtues (wisdom, courage, justice and moderation) is presented as based on the expression of four primary human motives, reflecting different side of human action and experience. These primary motives, and their fully developed form (the four virtues) express human nature as a whole, conceived as both rational and sociable.
Elsewhere, in Diogenes Laertius (7.85) and Cicero, On Ends 3 (3.16, 3.62), appropriation is linked with features reflecting nature in a broader sense. For instance, the two basic motives expressed in appropriation, to care for oneself and to care for others of one’s kind, are viewed as motives common to all animals, including human beings, but expressed in human beings in a rational way. Those motives are also seen as a localized expression of a factor present in the world or universe as a whole, namely providential care for all aspects of nature. Nature’s providential care, which is ‘internalized’ in animal (including human) motivation, ensures that animals care for each other and others of their kind.
Also, in one of the accounts of appropriation (in Cicero, On Ends 3.21), we find again the idea that the achievement of virtue and happiness (seen as the climax of human development) constitutes a kind of inner structure, order or consistency, which is elsewhere seen as a characteristic of the universe as a whole. So on this topic too (appropriation), a distinctive Stoic ethical theme can be presented in terms of either human nature or the larger natural framework
Another, very characteristically Stoic idea is that the achievement of virtue enables us to show resilience and peace of mind in the face of what are normally seen as disasters. This too is a theme that can be linked with the idea of expressing either human or cosmic nature at its best. In Cicero, On Duties 3 (3.99-111), the Roman statesman and general Regulus serves as an exemplar for this response, facing death at the hand of an enemy rather than living a secure and respected life with his family, friends and community. As presented by Cicero, Regulus exemplifies acting according to virtue (courage or ‘magnanimity’ and justice), and showing resilience and equanimity in doing so, even though this deprives him of things normally regarded as good. By implication, at least, he is also achieving the best possible human life, in expressing the virtues and realizing human nature as rational and sociable, an idea prominent in On Duties.
This same response of virtuous resilience is often presented as an ideal and a focus for aspiration by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Here too, the response is based on giving proper value to virtue (as the sole basis for a happy life) even at the loss of things conventionally valued like health and wealth. But the response is also typically associated with cosmic nature instead of (or sometimes as well as) human nature. In Epictetus, for instance, the response is often linked with acting in line with god (or the god inside us) or with the will or plan of Zeus. In Marcus Aurelius, it is often associated with acting in line with nature as a whole, cosmic nature, conceived as providential or ordered, or the overall drift of events within the world or universe. The ideas noted already here, linking the virtuous or happy life with these features of cosmic nature, help to explain this association of ideas.
What About ‘Grounding’?
As noted earlier, it is often supposed that Stoic ethical principles are ‘grounded’ on the Stoic worldview, an idea supported by some ancient evidence. This is a suggestive idea, but there are at least three difficulties with it.
One is the point stressed here: the variations in the way that Stoic ethics are presented. If Stoic ethics were seen as dependent on the Stoic worldview, we would expect this idea to be reflected, consistently, in the ancient presentation of ethics. The variations we find suggest that Stoic ethics were regarded as ideas which could be analysed in their own terms (those of types of value, for instance), or supported by reference to ideas of human nature or cosmic nature, rather than based solely on the Stoic worldview.
Although some ancient evidence appears to state, quite explicitly, that Stoic ethics depend on the Stoic worldview, this evidence is less clear-cut than it seems. The point may be that the worldview is the ‘foundation’ for ethics, or that it is the best ‘starting-point’ or ‘access-point’ for studying ethics; the key term, archē, can mean either. But these two possible meanings carry different implications for the question at issue. Also, in general, the relationship between the three main branches of Stoic knowledge is presented as an equal or reciprocal one. Physics is not typically presented as superior or authoritative over ethics or logic.
The question what it means to ‘ground’ one type of idea on another type is, potentially, quite complex, and different senses have different implications. For instance, the grounding of Stoic ethics might be religious, based on ideas about god; or meta-ethical, based on ideas about the foundation of ethics; or epistemological, based on ideas about different forms or levels of knowledge. Or it might be metaphysical or physical, based on ideas about different types of reality. These different senses of ‘grounding’ carry quite different implications and appeal to quite different factors. I do not think it is obvious in what sense we can say that Stoic ethics are ‘grounded’ in the Stoic worldview.
Overall, I think it is to better to rely on the features of presentation already discussed, showing that Stoic ethics can be presented in different ways, including reference to the Stoic worldview but not excluding other forms of presentation. This suggests that Stoic ethics can be supported or informed by the Stoic worldview but are not (exclusively) dependent on or derived from it.
And Modern Stoicism?
I return now to the questions raised at the start about what it means to be a Modern Stoic. The question is often raised, whether, if you are going to adopt Stoicism in a whole-hearted way, you have to embrace the Stoic worldview as well as ethical principles, and also adopt the idea, often assumed, that Stoic ethics depend on the Stoic worldview. Some modern thinkers, notably Lawrence Becker (A New Stoicism, Princeton, 1998/2017), have argued that, because we cannot now accept the Stoic worldview, we must adopt a ‘new’ or modernized Stoicism, eliminating the worldview. However, if the view presented here is correct, Becker is not so much making a radical break with ancient Stoicism but rather adopting one of the possible ancient approaches. He takes an approach similar to the summary of Arius Didymus, or Cicero’s On Duties, linking ethical principles with a conception of human nature (see Becker’s discussion of ‘following the facts’ of human nature and psychology, ch. 5).
However, some other modern thinkers take a different line, arguing that we should adopt the ancient Stoic line, as they interpret this, of basing ethics on a conception of cosmic nature. Some argue this because they are attracted to the Stoic worldview (as ordered and providential) on religious grounds. Others, notably Kai Whiting, do so because they see Stoic thinking on cosmic nature and ethics as providing support for modern environmental ethics. I agree with him about the idea that Stoic thinking can lend support to modern environmental ethics, because of the Stoic linkage between ethical ideas and worldview. However, I do not think this means that we have to adopt the position that Stoic ethics was based, exclusively, on the Stoic worldview.
For instance, the Stoic worldview provides a basis for the idea that nature (including non-animate things) is of inherent value and not just valuable because of its benefit for human beings, that is, for what is sometimes called an ‘eco-centric’ viewpoint. Also, the Stoic picture of nature as ordered can reinforce modern concerns about climate breakdown by underlining the idea that climate breakdown reflects a state of cosmic dis-orderand one we should make every possible effort to correct. Further, the Stoic linkage between human qualities (virtue and happiness) and cosmic ones can offer support to us in framing an ethical response to the climate crisis. We can conceive virtue (or the creation of order within us) as closely linked with promoting order in the world (or at least with trying to counteract the disorder created by human beings).
However, we can explore all these suggestive Stoic ideas without also maintaining that, in so doing, we are adopting the ancient Stoic view that ethics are grounded on their worldview. We need only assume that Stoic ethical ideas can be closely linked with, and supported by, the Stoic worldview, as well as by their ideas about human nature. I think this view matches best the available evidence about ancient Stoic thought as well as providing a good basis for engagement between modern ethical thinking of various kinds and Stoicism.
For the three ancient summaries of ethical doctrines in translation, see B. Inwood and L. Gerson, The Stoics Reader (Indianapolis, 2008), pp. 113-57. On human nature, typically seen as rational and sociable, linked with the virtue-happiness relationship, and the human motives underlying the virtues, see (Arius Didymus), pp. 125, 126, 132-3. For similar ideas, see Cicero, On Duties 1.11-23, 1.50-3, 3.21-8. On cosmic nature, linked with virtue-happiness, and appropriation, see The Stoics Reader, pp. 113-14, 151-3; also A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987 = LS), sections 57 F, 59 D, 63 C.
For ancient evidence suggesting ethics is grounded on cosmic nature (or takes its ‘starting-point’ from this), see LS 60 A, also Cicero, On Ends 3.73. For evidence on the relationship between the three main branches of knowledge, see LS 26 A-E.
The question whether or not Stoic ethics is based on the Stoic worldview has been much debated by specialist scholars. See, from different standpoints, A. A. Long, Stoic Studies Cambridge, 1996), chs. 6, 8: J. Annas, The Morality of Happiness (Oxford 1993), ch. 5; reviewing the debate, C. Gill, The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (Oxford, 2006), pp. 145-66. See also, on variation within Stoic ethics on this question, J. Annas, ‘Ethics in Stoic Philosophy’, Phronesis 52 (2007), 58-87; B. Inwood, ‘Why Physics?’, in R. Salles (ed.), God and Cosmos in Stoicism (Oxford, 2009), ch. 7. See also M. Schofield, ‘Stoic Ethics, in B. Inwood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (Cambridge, 2003), ch. 9; K. Whiting, and L. Konstantakos, L. (2019), ‘Stoic Theology: Revealing or Redundant?’, Religions 10(3), 193.
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.