Greta Thunberg and Epictetian Communitarian Action by Aldo Dinucci

Greta Thunberg first struck me as an interesting person because when she came on the international scene, she was a 16-year-old being verbally abused by powerful men. According to the education I was given, it is inconceivable to be rude to a child, or an old person, and for this reason I immediately sympathized with her. I then bought her little book published by Penguin. The title struck a chord with me: No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference.

Her book consists of speeches she has given in various places in favor of the environment. I noticed that several of Greta’s messages and her attitude are perfectly in line with Stoic thinking in general and Epictetus in particular. In this short article, I explore some of these aspects, starting with a brief exposition of Stoic and Epictetian principles, followed by some passages from Greta’s book that I think harmonize with what I will call “Epictetian communitarian action”.

Cicero, an eclectic who transmitted to us several reports about Stoic philosophy in Antiquity, informs us that, according to the Stoics, “no one wishes to spend his life in solitude, even with infinity and abundance of pleasures, it is easily understood that we are born for communion, for the congregation and for the natural community”[1] . He adds that the human community has its origin in the affection, created by nature, from parents towards their children.[2]

We must stress that, on the one hand, Stoicism acknowledges that human beings have egoistical impulses, but, on the other hand,  their innate tendency to live in community must be enhanced through the study and the practice of philosophy. Through this exercise, the Stoics think, the awareness about the urgency of acting unselfishly can be enhanced in the human beings. In fact, for the Stoics, since humans are naturally fit for social intercourse, association, and civility,[3] acting in a communitarian way is something that interests them and that selfishness is an illusion.

Epictetus talks about this social character of human beings from a different perspective, in order to explain why human beings, as social animals, can act at times rather selfishly. He puts forward the case that human beings are conceived from two different perspectives, that is to say a double kinship:

[…] Since these two things are mingled in the generation of man, body in common with the animals, and reason and intelligence in common with the gods, many incline to this kinship, which is miserable and mortal; and some few to that which is divine and happy. Since then it is of necessity that every man uses everything according to the opinion which he has about it, those, the few, who think that they are formed for fidelity and modesty […] no mean or ignoble thoughts about themselves […] Through this kinship with the flesh, some of us inclining to it become like wolves, faithless and treacherous and mischievous: some become like lions, savage and bestial and untamed; but the greater part of us become foxes, and other worse animals. For what else is a slanderer and a malignant man than a fox, or some other more wretched and meaner animal?

Epictetus, Discourses 1.3.3-5, 7-8 [4]

For Epictetus, being rational means being aware that you are a part of a greater whole, an individual who is both a local citizen and a world citizen of the Cosmos. He puts forward the case that the human being who leans toward her animal side, that is to say, who acts to fulfill only her personal impulses and desires, losing sight of the social impacts of her actions, loses her moral and rational dimension, because she fails to act ethically.

In other words, in failing to develop her rational and moral character, she is reduced to an irrational animal, who simply seeks the satisfaction of her primary impulses, selfish desires, and sensual appetites. Whilst there is nothing wrong with an animal who is limited in this way, when a human being acts in this way, she does herself a disservice, because she is restricting her personal development and social role.

This idea is further supported by Epictetus’ assertion that acting only to fulfill her own appetites and desires makes the human being disloyal, treacherous, and therefore antisocial, unlike the human being who bends to her rational and moral side, and in doing so becomes trustworthy and dignified and therefore sociable.

While human beings make use of their rational and moral characteristics, they harmonize their egoistical impulses with reason and thus better integrate with the rest of society and the world around them, as Epictetus stresses in his Discourses:

If the things are true which are said by the philosophers about the kinship between God and man, what else remains for men to do than what Socrates did? Never in reply to the question, to what country you belong, say that you are an Athenian or a Corinthian, but that you are a citizen of the world. For why do you say that you are an Athenian, and why do you not say that you belong to the small nook only into which your poor body was cast at birth? […] He then who has observed with intelligence the administration of the world, and has learned that the greatest and supreme and the most comprehensive community is that which is composed of humans and God, and that from God have descended the seeds not only to my father and grandfather, but to all beings which are generated on the earth and are produced, and particularly to rational beings—for these only are by their nature formed to have communion with God, being by means of reason conjoined with him—why should not such a man call himself a citizen of the world, why not a son of God, and why should he be afraid of anything which happens among men?

Epictetus, Discourses 1.9.5

Thus, by leaning towards and valuing rationality, and thereby becoming knowledgeable of the science underlying the Earth of which she is a part, a human being can achieve a communal view of reality, thus finding her place in the Cosmos and seeking in her thoughts and actions what is best for the community in which she lives. Accordingly, for Epictetus, the appropriate action is neither selfless nor selfish, but instead in aiming for the good of the individual and the community as a whole:

This is not a perverse self-regard, for the animal is constituted so as to do all things for itself. For even the sun does all things for itself; nay, even Zeus himself. But when he chooses to be the Giver of rain and the Giver of fruits, and the Father of Gods and humans, you see that he cannot obtain these functions and these names, if he is not useful to man; and, universally, he has made the nature of the rational animal such that it cannot obtain any one of its own proper interests, if it does not contribute something to the common interest.

Discourses 1.19.11-15

It follows that to act anti-socially is to act against human nature because it sabotages an individual’s potential to reach eudaimonia, a Greek term that can be roughly translated to “experience a life worth living”. In Discourses 2.10, and in line with what I have just said, Epictetus notes that she who recognizes herself as an important part of the cosmos treats nothing as a private matter, that is, as something separate from those in her community, but acts “as the hand or foot would do, if they had reason and understood the constitution of nature, for they would never put themselves in motion nor desire anything otherwise than with reference to the whole.”[5]

Thus, we begin to establish that the principles that govern communitarian actions (which aim for the good of the individual and the community) equally support ecological actions (which aim for the good of the individual and the environment, and consequently, once again, the good of the community).

In this sense, a good (virtuous) education should teach individuals that they are an important part of their community. It should emphasize the value of foreseeing the effects of one’s actions in the wider community, to avoid antisocial conduct and to build community. As Epictetus states:

As the proposition it is either day or it is night is of great importance for the disjunctive argument, but for the conjunctive is of no value, so in a banquet to select the larger share is of great value for the body, but for the maintenance of the social feeling is worth nothing. When then you are eating with another, remember to look not only to the value for the body of the things set before you, but also to the value of the behaviour towards the host which ought to be observed.

Epictetus, Enchiridion 36

Similarly, Greta Thunberg expresses an awareness of human nature and the need to acknowledge that rational self-interest aligns with communal interests. She argues that the good of society should not be dictated by what is perceived as “good” by powerful individuals. Greta clearly distinguishes between selfish and antisocial action, which focuses on wealth accumulation, and community focused action, which aims at preserving our world as a suitable place for all living beings.

In her discourse entitled ‘A Strange World’, she notes that we live in a world

where celebrities, film and pop stars who have stood up against all injustices will not stand up for our environment and for climate justice because that would inflict on their right to fly around the world visiting their favorite restaurants, beaches and yoga retreats.[6]

In another discourse, entitled ‘Our House is on Fire’ she follows the same line of thought, reflecting on how the materialistic desires of the privileged few threatens humanity and the world as a whole:

We are about to sacrifice our civilization for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue to make enormous amounts of money. We are about to sacrifice the biosphere so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. But it is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.”[7]

For this reason, Greta urges all people to act for the whole, all of humanity and the planet on which we live – “For the sake of your children, for the sake of your grandchildren. For the sake of life and this beautiful living planet”[8], since our future is up to us.[9]

For Epictetus and for Greta, antisocial agents always act out of ignorance, because they do not fully realize how their actions ultimately worsens the society in which they live to the detriment of their own lives. For instance, the act of using a car instead of using public transport because it makes your life easier, ultimately does nothing to prevent the destruction of Earth and its climate. Greta realizes that the adults she addresses do not seem to be fully aware of this: “Since the climate crisis is a crisis that never once has been treated as a crisis, people are simply not aware of the full consequences from our everyday life”.[10]

For this reason, Greta decided to start a school strike, standing before the Swedish parliament to protest:

When school started in August this year I decided that this was enough. I sat myself down on the ground outside the Swedish parliament. I school-striked for the climate.[11]

From then on she began to experience something common to many who seek to do the right thing: the hatred and misunderstanding of many. She was insulted and slandered by those who felt threatened by her message as she spoke truth to power. And Greta, in line with what Epictetus taught, responded to her aggressors with courage and serenity, staying focused on the urgency of climate breakdown in and the communal effort it will take to save the planet.

To all the politicians that ridicule us on social media, and have named and shamed me so that people tell me that I’m retarded, a bitch and a terrorist, and many other things. To all of you who choose to look the other way every day because you seem more frightened of the changes that can prevent catastrophic climate change than the catastrophic climate change itself. Your silence is almost worst of all. The future of all the coming generations rests on your shoulders.[12]

Greta is well aware that sometimes unpopularity is a price to pay when someone decides to act in a communitarian way. In this sense she mirrors Epictetus’ teaching:

When you have decided that a thing ought to be done and are doing it, never avoid being seen doing it, though the many shall form an unfavourable opinion about it. For if it is not right to do it, avoid doing the thing; but if it is right, why are you afraid of those who shall find fault wrongly?

Epictetus, Enchiridion 35

We have seen that Greta’s actions in many instances align with Stoic and Epictetian wisdom. Even without claiming to be a Stoic, she is a living example of what can done if someone follows ideas like these and achieves an awareness of the need of act in a communitarian way. I think that her example encourages those who aim at following Epictetus to engage with Epictetus’ teachings and to use them to save the planet.

[1] Cicero, On Ends, 3.65.

[2] Cicero, On Ends, 3.19.62.

[3] Cicero, On Ends, 3.19.64.

[4] Cf. Epictetus, Discourses 2.10.13 ss.

[5] Epictetus, Discourses 2.10.4-5 (George Long’s translation).

[6] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 41.

[7] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 20-21.

[8] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 24.

[9] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 27: “But Homo sapiens have not yet failed. Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around. We can still fix this. We still have everything in our own hands.”

[10] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 30.

[11] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 18.

[12] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 10.

Aldo Dinucci is Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the Federal University of Sergipe in Brazil, the Editor in Chief of Προμηθεύς, and has published, among other books, translations from Greek to Portuguese of the Manual of Epictetus and Epictetus Discourses, Book 1 .

2 thoughts on Greta Thunberg and Epictetian Communitarian Action by Aldo Dinucci

  1. Josgandara says:

    Thank you for your article about Greta. She is an amazing selfless human being.

  2. Marcos Silva says:

    Great contribution, Aldo!

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