On Christopher Gill’s ‘Learning To Live Naturally: Stoic Ethics and its Modern Significance’ – by Matthew Sharpe

Christopher Gill’s Learning to Live Naturally (Oxford University Press, 2022)[1] is arguably the most important scholarly book on Stoic ethics which has been written for a generation.  Its scope and its scale are alike imposing. Gill barely slows the pace from his opening pages to his conclusion in this densely argued and researched, nearly-400-page study.  The book has three parts. In part 1, Gill sets out to provide a comprehensive reconstruction of the basic elements of Stoic ethics: starting from the goal, moving through the conception of virtue as an expertise in living well (ch. 1), the relationship of virtues with the ‘indifferents’, both preferred and non-preferred, and Stoic conceptions of practical deliberation (ch. 2), to assessing Stoic claims concerning the putative bases of their ethical claims in a strong account of human and universal nature (ch. 3).  Part 2 is the heart of the book both structurally and substantively.  These chapters see Gill exploring in detail the Stoic theory of oikeiôsis or “appropriation”, its stages, motives, and developments, focusing on what the book stresses are its two complementary strands: those of care of the self and, equally primary, the care for others.  If this were not enough, Part 3 then presents a comprehensive apologia for Stoicism as a form of what is today called “virtue ethics” within academic philosophy (ch. 6).  Validating the work’s subtitle (Stoic Ethics and Its Modern Significance), this defence is carried out in the context of contemporary concerns about the growing global ecological crises, on the one hand, and the growth of forms of modern Stoic “life guidance” outside of academia in the new millennium, on the other (ch. 8, §2).

Part 3 of Learning to Live Naturally in this way brings out most directly what is a structuring feature of the entire book, and arguably the source of its greatest strengths and significance.  This is a dialectical work, in the ancient sense of the term, from dialegesthai, to discuss, dialogue, or debate.  Gill’s book is dialogically constructed, from the opening sections, placing Stoic ethics alongside, and looking at it through the lenses of, competing conceptions of ethics and the good life.  The book also weighs many criticisms, and as many arguable misconceptions, of Stoic ethics and of Stoicism more widely.  Stoic thinking continues, for instance, to face charges which have antecedents going back to antiquity: that its ethical thought is riven with contradictions and empty terminological subtleties (ch. 2-3), and that it valorises a detached, impassive way of life as ideal which is more attractive to stones, statues, or robots than actual, living human beings (ch. 4-5).  Then there are some more modern additions to the anti-Stoic critical vocabulary or palate.  Firstly, the last decades have seen claims that Stoics’ seeming attempts to ground ethics in an account of human nature or wider nature is deeply incoherent, or at least, deeply unattractive (ch. 3).  Secondly, a stream of academic virtue ethics has developed which is based upon modern re-castings of Aristotle’s works, but which very largely seems to have either ignored Stoic claims concerning virtue or have found negatively against Stoicism’s pertinence for scholarly debates today (chapter 6).  At the same time, thirdly, this “virtue ethics”, which was set up as a counter to perceived deficiencies in the approach to modern moral philosophies, has faced recurrent criticisms of its own: notably, that all forms of such “virtue ethics” just must be egoistic, prioritising “my” happiness and flourishing over others’ (ch. 6, §4); and then again, that virtue ethicists aversion to the notion that a moral philosophy could “legislate” practical rules leaves its votaries unable to provide sufficient, robust guidance for right action (ch. 2, §§4-5).

There is not a single one of the preceding debates that Gill’s Learning to Live Naturally does not engage with, survey, and present a defence of Stoic ethics in response to.  The book can therefore serve as a kind of Summa Ethicae Stoicorum, as the great medieval theological Summae looked to encompass all opinions and objections around a particular subject and debate them all.  There is deep value in such an endeavour, given Stoicism’s continuing reemergence into academic and popular awareness.  It is not enough for new Stoics, after all, to be able to preach to the converted.  To convince others, they must be also able to show, as Gill attempts, that Stoic ethical claims are more coherent and persuasive, when rightly understood, than viable, better-known competitors’.  They must endeavour to show, dialectically, how Stoic positions avoid or disambiguate ambiguities that face other positions, introducing distinctions and ideas that allow the ethical field to be better and more coherently conceptually navigated than Aristotelianism, Kantianism, and utilitarianism.

It is also worth underscoring from the start that the picture of Stoicism which emerges from Learning to Live Naturally is a good distance from many popular, and academic, representations of Stoicism.  Since it discolours the field, we mention here particularly the idea of Stoicism as a philosophy whose “care of the self” cultivates a kind of severe insulation of the individual, in search of their own perfection, who looks down with supercilious disdain at others.  As in Gill’s other works, Learning to Live Naturally stresses that Stoic thought on human development stresses two strands of “appropriation” or adaptation, not one (ch. 1, §2, ch. 4).  The first springs from the instinctive impulse placed in us by nature to preserve ourselves: Stoic virtue as care of the self.  But the second, equally primary, although very often missed by interpreters, is the innate impulse we share with another animals to take care of offspring, and then, as rational creatures, for other human beings and wider nature: Stoic virtue as care for others: “Nature’s providential care is exercised in enabling and motivating animals to exercise care on their own behalf and those of others of their kind (at least)” (33).  In this way, also, Gill underscores that Stoicism, like other streams of ancient Greek thought, holds that nature is not wholly a brutal, chaotic, and alien place, from which beleaguered human beings would need to defend ourselves, each alone or as particular peoples, through high-minded self-armament.  Stoic nature is a systematic, ordered whole (ch. 1, §2, ch. 3, §4). Humans may only flourish within it, by harmonising themselves with it.  And that includes the natural community of our fellow human beings (ch. 4, §5).

Any review of a work of such a scale must make selections, omit, or merely hint at many things for interested readers.  This review features first a summary (1) of Gill’s reconstruction of the main positions of Stoic ethics and its bases in appropriation parts 1 and 2 of Learning to Live Naturally.  We will then (2) present an account of Gill’s defence of Stoic ethics, in relation to the more widely-academically-credited Aristotelian approaches to virtue ethics today.  For non-academic readers, this will provide a window into the state of play in academic studies of ethics; for academic readers, it will underscore the cases to be made that Stoicism—until the 19th century more prominent than Platonism and Aristotelianism amongst lettered elites[2]—today again has a very sophisticated claim to our attentions.


  1. Gill on Stoic ethics (Learning to Live Naturally, parts 1 & 2)

Chapter 1 of Learning to Live Naturally examines Stoic conceptions of Stoic ideas on the relationship between virtue and happiness, starting by situating these claims in relationship to the preceding Platonic and Aristotelian models, as well as common Greek opinion or endoxa (ch. 1, §2).  With Socrates and Plato, philosophers challenged the widespread opinion that saw happiness involving primarily the possession and enjoyment of “external”, physical, and social or political goods:

good birth, having many friends, having good friends, having good children, having many children, a good old age, further, the bodily virtues, such as health, beauty, strength, size, competitive power, and reputation, honour, good luck … (Aristotle, Rhetoric I, 5; 1360b14‒23 at 16)

In Socratic dialogues, such as the Euthydemus, virtue and wisdom, as a kind of knowledge of how to live well informing the practice of courage, moderation, and justice is presented as the sole good, in ways which would directly inspire the Stoics (ch. 1, §3).  Aristotle sought a middle path, between the Socratic and ordinary conceptions of flourishing or eudaimonia, arguing that virtue was the primary constituent of happiness, but that happiness also needed to include an “adequate supply” of external things of the kind listed in the preceding quote from the Rhetoric, over a “complete life” (NE I, 10; at 20).  The Stagirite’s ethical texts, as Gill highlights, also introduced a series of “naturalistic” claims about ethics which the Stoics accepted, and which shape contemporary virtue ethics: namely, that happiness consists in the fulfilment of distinctly human capacities, as rational and social beings, “an activity of the psyche according to virtue, or, if there is more than one virtue, the best and most complete (or perfect, teleiotatê) virtue” (Aristotle, NE I, 7; cf. 19-20, esp. 1097b22-1098a18, 266).

Gill’s account of Stoic happiness starts from their naturalistic definitions of the goal (telos) of life as “living according to nature” (ch. 1, §2), in accord with this lineage of thought in which Aristotle also participates.  This is significant, against the background of many more practical appropriations of Stoic thought, which start with the “dichotomy of control” found in Epictetus, in a way which can seem to position the Stoic as on the defensive, in a world in which almost everything is out of their control.  Gill’s more traditional starting point sees him moving, very early on in Learning to Live Naturally, into considering passages suggesting that Stoicism asks us to live in consistency with human and universal or common (koinê) nature, which have been the subject of academic controversy since Julia Annas’ The Morality of Happiness of 1993.[3]  What could it mean to live according to wider nature, after all, and what could accounts of such a nature have to say to deliberations concerning how to live well, for flesh and blood human beings?

Drawing notably on the account of Stoic theology in Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, in chapters 1 (§2) and 3 (esp. §4-5), Gill identifies four attributes of nature which for the Stoics would have ethical resonances: that it is a (1) structured, (2) ordered, (3) whole, in addition (4) characterised by providential care, allowing for the emergence and forms of life of different living beings, including humans (15, 24, 31-33, 42, 47. 51-52, 120 ff.).  So too, the virtuous human life would have order and wholeness, and include within it forms of care for self and others appropriate to our specific human nature and capacities.  This life would, as it were, be its own little cosmos at once mirroring the larger order and expressing in the form of a particular life the universal ordering and providential directions of nature (31-33).

Significantly, in the last chapter of the book, this Stoic basis of “living according to nature” will underlie Gill’s claims that Stoic virtue ethics is better equipped than other contenders to inform reconsiderations of our relationship with non-human nature (ch. 7, §3).  This includes “giving a central place to developing a response to climate breakdown that matches the scale of the problem” (313).  For Gill, Stoic claims concerning the structure, order, wholeness, and providential ordering of nature can help us, in ways that for instance neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics cannot, “to formulate the idea that the natural environment has inherent value and to recognize the connection between order (and breakdown of order) in the natural environment and in human character and understanding” (313).

The other contribution Gill makes to the debates surrounding Stoic appeals to nature, in chapter 3, is of a more analytic kind.  The debates surrounding whether and how Stoicism could meaningfully base its ethics in an account of nature, Gill sees, can be marred by ‘moving goalposts’.  It could seem eidetically clear that all Stoic definitions of the goal of life refer to learning to live naturally: “in harmony” (homologoumenōs) with nature, or by “following” (akoloutheô) nature (DL VII, 87-89).  Yet for Annas, such claims do not justify upholding that Stoic ethics ‘derives’ from, or is built on the “foundation”, of the natural philosophy (physics and theology).  Indeed, she contends, even the Stoic accounts of appropriation central for Gill do not suggest such foundationalism.[4]  John M. Cooper, by contrast, disputes Annas’ position, including concerning appropriation, which he presents as showing Stoic ethics’ naturalistic bases.[5]  In response to such scholarly disputes—which the ancients seem never to have been concerned by—Gill introduces a typology of four different modes in which Stoic ethical claims are presented (ch. 3 §3): type (1) claims, in which ethical claims would solely concern happiness, virtue, the externals, etc.; type (2) accounts, where the same claims are supported by appeals to solely human nature; type (3) accounts, like Cicero’s De Finibus III, where human nature is evoked, in comparison and contrast with the species-natures of other animals; and finally, type (4) accounts, where ethical claims are traced back to claims concerning the providential structure, order, and wholeness of cosmic nature.  This kind of needed analytic typology promises to remove much of the slipperiness that surrounds claims and counterclaims concerning the Stoic ethics’ “dependence” on accounts of nature, of different kinds.  Such claims would need now to be indexed to particular types of ethical account, and many categorical assertions and denials can now be qualified to avoid unnecessary confusions: “not in type (1), but in type (3) accounts, we find …”

Secondly, already in treating of the Stoic goal of living according to nature in chapter 1, Gill introduces what is the heart of his argument, and the dedicated object of the chapters comprising the central part 2.  This is the often-overlooked significance of Stoic accounts of human development, the work of oikeiôsis or “appropriation” (as Gill translates it throughout), in understandings of their ethics.  These accounts are staged pre-eminently in two key texts, Cicero’s On Duties I, 11-15, and On Moral Ends III, 16-22 and 62-68, which it is fair to say amount to golden passages for Gill, at the basis of his understanding of Stoic ethics (ch. 1, §2; ch. 4, §§3-5; ch. 5, §§1-2).  If the final cause or goal of human life is given by nature, in an ideal register, so too the starting points of the ethical life come from nature: “for from nature he has initial impulses for the discovery of what is appropriate [wisdom], for the balancing of the impulses [moderation], for acts of endurance [courage], and for acts of distributing [justice]” (Arius Didymus, Epitome of Stoic Ethics, 5b3).  More than this, these natural “efficient causes” of what will become the life according to virtue include impulses to select things which preserve the individual’s constitution (sustasis) (Cic. De Fin. III, 16-22; ch. 4, §3), and to take care of others, starting from parental love for offspring (Cic. De Fin. III, 62-68, esp. 63-64; ch. 4, §4).  Here is the decisive passage for Gill, the first of two, from Cicero’s Cato in De Finibus:

Again, it is held by the Stoics to be important to understand that nature creates in parents an affection for their children; and parental affection is the source to which we trace the origin of the association of the human race in communities … [I]t could not be consistent that nature should at once intend offspring to be born and make no provision for that offspring when born to be loved and cherished. Even in the lower animals nature’s operation can be clearly discerned; when we observe the labour that they spend on bearing and rearing their young, we seem to be listening to the actual voice of nature. Hence as it is manifest that it is natural for us to shrink from pain, so it is clear that we derive from nature herself the impulse to love those to whom we have given birth.  From this impulse is developed the sense of mutual attraction which unites human beings as such; this also is bestowed by nature. (Cicero, De Fin. III, 62-3)

For Gill, then, it cannot be stressed enough that human beings are both rational and social: “This formula occurs three times in Stobaeus’ summary of Stoic ethics [5b1, 6, 11m]. In Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the combination ‘rational and social’ occurs repeatedly [3.7, 5.16.3–4, 5.29.2, 6.14.2, 6.44.5, 7.68.3, 7.72, 8.2, 10.2.3]. Seneca also presents reason (ratio) and ‘sociability’ or ‘fellowship’ (societas) as distinctively human features [Seneca, On Benefits, 4.18.3].” (28)  The development of virtue then, for human beings as such rational and social animals, involves the emergence in the growing adult of the ability of rational deliberation to “supervene” upon these natural impulses of self- and other-care.  We begin by being instinctively prompted to select things which preserve our constitutions and give pleasure.  As humans, however, we develop the capacity to choose these things “according to nature” consistently, on the basis not solely of the pleasures they yield (cf. 219-221), but of a reasoning sense of their contribution to the larger natural order or whole.  Here’s the second decisive proof text, which Gill again draws from Cicero:

Man’s first attraction is towards the things in accordance with nature; but as soon as he has understanding, or rather become capable of ‘conception’ — in Stoic phraseology ennoia — and has discerned the order and so to speak harmony that governs conduct, he thereupon esteems this harmony far more highly than all the things for which he originally felt an affection, and by exercise of intelligence and reason infers the conclusion that herein resides the Chief Good of man, the thing that is praiseworthy and desirable for its own sake; and that inasmuch as this consists in what the Stoics term homologia and we with your approval may call ‘conformity’​ — inasmuch I say as in this resides that Good which is the End to which all else is a means, moral conduct and Moral Worth itself, which alone is counted as a good, although of subsequent development, … whereas none of the primary objects of nature is desirable for its own sake. (Cicero, De Fin. III, 21)

In stressing these passages in Cicero, and their conforming evidences in the doxographic texts, the picture of the Stoic good life which emerges in Gill’s account of Stoicism is deeply prosocial from the ground up.  To repeat, we are a long way from many more “heroic”, but less caring conceptions of the philosophy that can be found out there in different places.  The Stoic good life involves the fulfilment not simply of our individual, self-preserving and promoting capacities, nor even of our first impulses only to care for those nearest and dearest.  There is also the development and expression of the natural impulses to care for our own kind, reflected in the Stoic virtue of justice: “The mere fact of their common humanity requires that one man should feel another man to be akin to him” (Cicero, De Fin. III, 63).  More than this, given Stoic naturalism:

Human care for oneself and others can be seen as analogous to the providential care of universal nature or god for the whole universe and its parts (as microcosm to macrocosm). Human care can also be conceived in terms of the part-whole relationship, as part of the universal motive of providential care, though a part which has its own distinct integrity and significance, as is brought out in the Stoic accounts of appropriation. Alternatively, care for oneself and others can be seen as that which ‘internalizes’ the motive of providential care expressed in the (outer) relationship between universal nature (or god) and the component parts of the universe. (136)

Against this background, the contours of Gill’s counters to the claims of figures such as Richard Sorabji and Martha Nussbaum, concerning the alleged “detachment” cultivated by Stoicism, will be clear (ch. 5, §3).  Like Gretchen Reydams-Schils in The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection (U. Chicago, 2005), Gill maintains that such claims proceed by sidelining or omitting the Stoic accounts of appropriation or oikeiôsis which are central to his own account.  We need firstly to recall that Stoic apatheia concerning affects like anger or envy is matched by the valorising of three eupatheiai which are held to belong to the sage, as psychological by-products of their virtue: those of joy, wish, and caution (ch. 5, §1).  These eupatheiai, Gill stresses, depend upon that same change in evaluative orientation Cicero identifies in the account of appropriation in De Finibus 20-21: so that the sage values virtue, and the order and harmony which it gives form to, higher than the kinds of externals, such as money, fame, or power, which people ordinarily see as necessary for flourishing (ch. 5, §§1-2).  More than this, the externals which the sage will select, absent exceptional circumstances, will include those conducive to taking care of those close to then, and promoting wider social harmony, rather than their own exemplary self-perfection and -assertion (ch. 5, §2).

But how, against this more prosocial natural background Gill reconstructs for us, do the Stoics claim that virtue or the virtues are the only true good?  Isn’t there a basic tension between this idea that the good life will choose things according to nature, and the famous Stoic devaluation of externals, including others, as “indifferent”?

Gill answers the first question very elegantly that, following Socrates, virtue is the only good because this aretê is conceived by them as an expertise in leading a happy life (Ch. 1, §4).  Without such expertise, accumulating even the largest supply of external goods will not necessarily benefit a person.  For, as Socrates had repeated, they will then not know how to use of enjoy these things well.  Like giving a knife to a child, they may use their wealth or fame badly, in ways that lead to harms to themselves and others.  The kind of Stoic expertise at issue in Stoic phronêsis (wisdom) provides a consistency in choosing things according to our nature—the kinds of externals which generally enable human beings, as the kinds of natural beings we are, to flourish—in such a way that they genuinely benefit us, without fostering forms of vice, such as immoderation in impulses, cowardice before challenges, or injustice towards others.  Linking with the “according to nature” definitions of the goal, only by developing this expertise can a person give the kind of structure, order, and wholeness to their life which would mark its harmony with the wider course of nature.

Discussion of the relationship between virtue, and the distinct value of goodness assigned to it, and the selection of things according to nature, the preferred indifferents, occupies most of Gill’s chapter 2 (“Virtue, Indifferents, and Practical Deliberation”).  Amongst indifferents, many things which most people, and within philosophy, the Aristotelians, take to be “good” (money, fame, health, office) are to be “preferred” for the Stoics.  They have a selective value or axia, insofar as they accord with human nature, providing the preconditions for flourishing or virtuous actions (57, 265).  But there are circumstances wherein pursuing these things will contradict with virtues, like justice or fellowship.  In those circumstances, they should not be chosen.  These things are thus considered by Stoics as less than “good” (25).  This idea implicates the famous Stoic “reserve clause”, by which we are enjoined to seek and avoid external things beyond our control with a sage caution, even those which are naturally preferable.  At issue is the Stoic designation of externals as adiaphora: that is, as not always “making the difference” between our happiness and unhappiness, as Gill happily puts it (53, 61).  It is only virtue, or rather the ways in which we select and avoid externals, and thereby perform what the Stoics call “appropriate actions” (kathêkonta), informed by reason, that can make this difference, leading to fully virtuous deeds (katorthomata) (63; ch. 2 §4).

This is why virtue is qualitatively different from even the most desirable externals, on a Stoic view, as Gill clearly and usefully explains.  According to the Stoics, people are benefited, not by indifferent things themselves, even those which usually afford us pleasure and provide conditions for living well, but “by the right use of indifferents”: how we relate to them, rather than these things themselves (60-61, 65).  It is what we do, not what we have, and what we do with what we have, and why, that makes all the difference.  The virtuous person might hence in many circumstances select the same courses of actions as someone who is unwise.  Their motives and reasons for this choosing will be different.  There are also however some circumstances where they will respond very differently to external adversity than those who take the loss of particular externals as not simply unpreferable, but decisively bad and to be avoided at all costs.

Gill shows that there is hence no inconsistency in the Stoic account of value, and their differentiation between virtue—the expertise and activity of selecting things preferable because in accordance with human nature—and the revaluation of externals, whose possession or enjoyment do not “make the difference” by themselves between an agent’s happiness and unhappiness.

We turn now to the more dialectical aspects of Learning to Live Naturally: that is, Gill’s attempt to defend Stoic ethics by presenting it in critical dialogue with contemporary forms of virtue ethics.


  1. Stoic ethics as virtue ethics (Learning to Live Naturally, part 3)

While there has been an extraordinary efflorescence of writings on Stoic life guidance in the new millennium (which Gill addresses in the culminating chapter 7 §3), and nearly the same period has seen the stabilisation of academic “virtue ethics” as a recognised third paradigm (alongside Kantianism and utilitarianism) in modern moral theory, so far, these two bodies of literature have largely not met.  Non-academic advocates of modern Stoicism may not feel that this is a great loss.  However, the absence of serious academic considerations of Stoic ethics as a definitive ancient “virtue ethics” is its own deficiency and has arguably limited the scope of scholarly debate in the ethical field.  Learning to Live Naturally’s contribution here is a landmark one, as we flagged above.  This is the first book which aims to situate Stoic virtue ethics, alongside or in superiority to Aristotle’s, by extensive engagement with academic authorities in virtue ethics, led by Bernard Williams, Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillipa Foot, and Rosalind Hursthouse.  Gill’s ambition here is impressive.  He attempts first to show how Stoic ideas anticipate modern ideas of virtue ethics, such as Foot’s or Hursthouse’s, and so fit well with their programmatic concerns (ch. 6, §1-2).  Second, he contends that Stoic virtue ethics emerges as decisively superior as a form of ancient virtue ethics with contemporary application, given today’s concerns and understandings (ch. 8, §1).  The Stoic system, whose coherence and interconnectedness so much of the book has again underscored, avoids the tensions which he notes surround Aristotle’s accounts of the virtue-happiness relationship, and the relationship between intellectual and practical virtues.  It also in two ways has wider scope than Aristotle’s: firstly, in not limiting the potential audience for moral education to a small number of Greek aristocratic citizens, surrounded by “natural slaves” (and women, of allegedly defective rational capacities) (308-9); and secondly, in providing a framework, not simply to understand the virtues, but also to provide  precepts—not hard and fast rules—which can inform real-world practical guidance in a more robust way than neo-Aristotelian models (ch. 2, §§3-4; cf. 75-77, 238, 321).

The impulse for contemporary virtue ethics came from criticisms of Kantian and utilitarian moral theory by figures such as Elizabeth Anscombe and Bernard Williams.  To be too brisk, these figures—and many others since, in their wake—broadly charged these moral theories with narrowing the scope of ethics to issues of justice, reducing issues of justice to forms of formulaic, overly-abstract rule-following which does not speak to people’s actual emotions, attachments, and motivations, and in these ways, decontextualising moral deliberation, abstracting it from issues surrounding ethical development, and the complexities of real-world decision-making.  Ancient forms of ethics, led overwhelmingly by the Aristotle of Nicomachean Ethics, books I-IX, were instead reassessed as being far superior, focused as they are on the formation of character, the pursuit of the good life, and a round of virtues including moderation, courage, and wisdom, as well as justice—as well as non-moral virtues like good humour and those involved in the social graces.

If we ask why, when Stoicism is considered at all in many authors working in virtue ethics, it is to be criticised, the answer is that Stoicism is seen, often from some distance, as a kind of proto-Kantianism: overly detached, overly rationalistic, unrealistic on human nature and undesirable as an ethical guide (e.g., Annas, The Morality of Happiness, 171).  Nevertheless, Gill’s account in parts 1 and 2 more than shows readers how none of Philippa Foot’s claims about goodness as arising, for virtue ethics, out of the fulfilment of our specifically human capacities excludes Stoic thinking (285).  When Hursthouse argues that human beings, as social, rational animals, ideally will cultivate the virtues as a means to pursue (1) individual survival and flourishing, (2) the procreation of the species, (3) characteristic freedom from pain and enjoyment and (4) the good functioning of the social group, and ultimately, the wider human species, she may as well have been glossing Cicero’s Cato, in the account of appropriation in Gill’s two golden passages, De Finibus III, 16-22, and III, 60-68 (285-287).

Nevertheless, it is overwhelmingly Aristotle who is elevated in these authors, and Gill raises questions about this selection, amongst the ancients.  He notes that Aristotle’s ethical texts, based on notes seemingly compiled by students, were probably never intended to be wholly systematic (255).  Just so, Aristotle’s account of happiness features a real tension: on the one hand, in ways Stoicism endorses, defining it as an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, whilst on the other hand, in NE I 10, adding that sufficient external goods, over the span of a life, are nevertheless also required, on top of virtue (262-63).  How then can this value for externals, money, health, good birth, reputation, “be integrated or correlated with that of virtue” (71, 268)?  Stoicism avoids this problem by distinguishing such preferred indifferents in value from virtue, which is alone considered sufficient for happiness: it is preferable to have many pleasurable, status-conferring things, so long as they do not compromise virtue, but people can live happily and nobly without them.  A person should not sell their soul, as it were, for any one of them, whereas if such things are accounted “good”—necessary for happiness—the potential for tension and trade-offs with the claims of virtue are far greater in Aristotle than in Stoicism (cf. esp. ch. 1 §3).

In the same kind of way, Gill points out, Stoicism avoids the agonising that has ensued amongst modern commentators about Aristotle’s announcement, in NE X, 7—after a full nine books on practical or civil virtues—that the theoretical life (bios theoretikos) is wholly superior to the active life of the citizen (271-72).  Was this an earlier text, written in his youthful days as a student in Plato’s academy, still under the unworldly sway of his master?  Or are we to suppose that by “theoretical life”, and this entire chapter in which he claims that theoria provides almost divine happiness to those capable of it, that he meant only to tell us—rather clumsily, it would have to be said—that an active life also will include times for contemplative reflection?  This last solution, proposed by commentators such as Rorty and Broadie (cf. 272), Gill points out seem to amount more to “reinterpretation” of Aristotle, to square him with modern expectations, than reflections of Aristotle’s own intended meanings.  For the Stoics, there is no such sharp distinction between theoretical and practical concerns as we find in Aristotle (271-73).  The word they use for wisdom, phronêsis, is not sharply distinguished in their texts from Aristotelian sophia.  Their metaphysical commitments differ from those which underlie Aristotle’s hymn to theoria (as knowledge of changeless things).  And when it comes to the selection of possible ways of life, contemplative, active, or mixed and simply “rational”, they argue for the latter (Diogenes Laertius, Lives VII, 130)—as Gill points out, just what Rorty and Broadie seem to favour, but struggle to place onto the stylus of Aristotle (272-73).

Gill very delicately passes over the potential issues surrounding how we are to square the appropriation by modern liberal thinkers of Aristotelian virtue ethics, given the philosopher’s renowned exclusions of women from full rationality, and acceptance of the idea of natural slaves—both ideas which Stoicism’s commitments to the equal dignity of all human beings, as bearers of rational, social human nature already make aversive.  He notes that Aristotle, like Plato, places great emphasis on childhood ethical training through habituation and modelling; philosophical ethical education, including in the principles of ethical deliberation, and the nature of the virtues, comes much later (310-11).  He notes that one implication of this position is that Aristotle limits the cohorts of peoples who can accordingly aspire to virtue.  Not only do his ethical ideas cleave much more closely to the endoxa of wider Greek society than do the Stoics’.  “The philosopher” also is much more accepting of the limitations in the franchise, even in slave-holding city-state democracies.  Stoicism’s commitment to ethical education and practical philosophical guidance is, in Gill’s view (although this might be qualified) much more singly focused on “adult education” (310-14).  More than this, it holds that all human beings contain the seeds of virtue, in the natural impulses to self- and other-care, and towards the kinds of action-types characterising the virtues: as such, no one of whichever social standing is ever beyond the reach of possible philosophical improvement (312).  But for this reason, too, Stoicism ought to have been receiving a wider hearing amongst liberally minded commentators on virtue ethics than it has hitherto.

What then does Gill say concerning the recurrent criticisms of virtue ethics itself, having advertised Stoicism’s too-often passed-over credentials within this field, namely, that is “foundationally egoistic” (259), and unable to provide the bases for any kind of concrete deliberative advice or counsel? (274-278) For the first charge, Gill draws on his strongly prosocial account of Stoicism, centring on the account of appropriation as involving the development of innate tendencies to care for others, as well as ourselves.  The charge makes more sense against Aristotle, although it also needs qualification, as he supposes that externals, including the wellbeing of family members, are goods, and in his accounts of justice and friendship, there are already strong peripatetic bases to push against the “egoism” charge.  It makes no sense of a philosophy which, as Learning to Live Naturally stresses again and again, accepts an innate human motivation to benefit others being built into human nature as fundamentally as the motive to benefit ourselves (276).

This brings us, last but not least, to the criticism that virtue ethicists’ aversion to Kantian and utilitarian “decision procedures” has led them to adopt philosophies which are so averse to “rules for life”, as to provide little to no practical normative guidance at all (320-22).  Gill doesn’t do this, but he might have appealed to renaissance humanists led by Petrarch, who already made this charge against Aristotle, whilst extolling Stoics like Epictetus, as well as Cicero’s ethical works, precisely for this reason.  Stoicism’s contemporary renaissance as a form of life philosophy, Gill notes (ch. 8 §2), precisely responds to its superior ability over Aristotelianism to provide day to day advice on how to live.  Stoicism is so attractive to so many today, unlike Aristotelianism, whose uptake remains mostly scholarly, since it provides advice which stops short of all-purpose, one-size-fits-all decision procedures, but nevertheless furnishes praecepta (precepts: 78, 86, 319-320), and orienting, applicable ideas like the dichotomy of control, by which they can regulate their attention, emotional responses, words and deeds, and which have been integrated into forms of modern therapeutic psychology.

Gill agrees that Stoicism does not indeed, any more than Aristotle, provide would-be Mosaic “rules for life”, in all its irreducible complexities.  But it goes some way further than the rather vague directives to act according to the virtues, or to model your action on what a virtuous person would do.  By pointing to the four cardinal virtues, it provides models of admirable action types, which students are invited to emulate; by stressing our primary natural motives to care for ourselves, and care for others, in light of a reasoned respect for the greater whole in which we live, it provides further parameters and priorities for ethical decision-making; and in the kind of Stoic theory of four personae which Cicero recounts for us in On Duties, we are also prompted to situate our deliberations in light of our biographical particularities, the kinds of social roles which the Stoic account of duties underscore (77, 238-39, 239-40, 321-22).  As Gill writes:

The general [dimension of this decision-making paradigm], underpinning the whole pattern, is our shared human role as rational and sociable and as capable of expressing the virtues and achieving virtue-based happiness. The other three roles are specific in different ways: they are our individual talents and inclinations or personal style, our given or inherited role in society, and the role or life-project we choose, if we have scope for doing this. Cicero’s guidance focuses on the idea that, in making long-term or short-term decisions, we should aim to achieve consistency between the claims of these four roles, with a view to carrying out actions which are ‘right’, that is in line with the virtues. (321)

Here again, Learning to Live Naturally persuasively contends, the relative marginalisation of Stoic ethics in virtue ethics is shown by Gill to be the more regrettable, and the more in need of reconsideration.


[1] Notes to the text will be given in brackets in the text, in many cases, to the chapter and sections of Gill’s work, as indicated (ch. A, §B).  Otherwise, numerals refer to page numbers.

[2] See for example Matthew Sharpe and Michael Ure, Philosophy as a Way of Life: History, Dimensions, Directions (London: Bloomsbury, 2021)

[3] Julia Annas, Morality of Happiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[4] Annas, The Morality of Happiness, 160-172.

[5] John M. Cooper, “Eudaimonism and the Appeal to Nature in the Morality of Happiness: Comments on Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 55, no. 3 (1995): 587-598.

Associate Professor Matt Sharpe teaches and researches philosophy at the Australian Catholic University.  He’s the author of Stoicism, Bullying, and Beyond (2022) and The Other Enlightenment: Self-estrangement, Race, and Gender (2023), coauthor of Philosophy as a Way of Life: History, Dimensions, Directions (2021), and cotranslator of Pierre Hadot’s Selected Writings: Philosophy as Practice (2020).  He’s published academic and popular articles on Stoicism in venues such as Stoic Gym, Stoicare, Stoicism Today, and The Conversation. All are welcome at a free online event with Professor Gill and A. Professor Sharpe to discuss Learning to Live Naturally, 9 November at 7 pm AEDT, registration here.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.