Stoicism, Aristotle and Environmental Responsibility by Chris Gill and Gabriele Galluzzo

This post is based on the workshop on this subject given at the Athens Stoicon (Oct 5 2019). Chris Gill provides the introduction and the section on the Stoics and Gabriele Galluzzo provides the section on Aristotle. This presentation was followed by a vigorous and wide-ranging discussion.


The environmental crisis represents the biggest challenge to humanity today – perhaps ever. There are many practical responses being made as well as strong resistance to these responses. Theorists, including philosophers, are also working out how they can help: environmental ethics is an area of current intense activity. In this workshop, we are thinking about the intellectual and ethical resources in ancient philosophy that may help thoughtful people to respond appropriately to the scale of this challenge, looking to Aristotle, the famous 4th-century philosopher and pupil of Plato, and the Stoics (early third-century BC onwards) – both of whom founded their schools in the city of Athens where this year’s Stoicon was held.

These ancient philosophers did not, of course, experience the environmental crisis that we have produced in modern times; but their ideas may still help us deal with it. We do not have to adopt all their ideas, and some of what they say may be unhelpful for this purpose; but their standpoint may still offer us new insights. Here, we are not looking at these thinkers primarily as a source of emotional resilience (Stoicism is often seen as helping to support resilience in times of crisis) or as sources of ideas about the virtues, though that is an aspect of their theory that is potentially relevant to this topic. It is especially their thinking about nature and the linkage between nature and ethics that we are most concerned with here.

We want to see if there are dimensions of their view of humanity and nature or nature and ethics that we can adopt and use as the basis for modern thinking in a way that can help us respond positively and usefully to the environmental crisis.

Aristotle and the Environment

Traditionally, Aristotle is not often associated with environmental ethics. What seems to militate against the inclusion of Aristotle in the list of environmental thinkers is his insistence on the primacy of human beings over all other creatures (both living and non-living creatures). This view, which is often called ‘anthropocentrism’, is certainly testified to by a famous passage in Aristotle’s Politics:

We may infer that, after the birth of animals, plants exist for their sake, and that the other animals exist for the sake of human beings, the tame for use and food, the wild, if not all at least the greater part of them, for food, and for the provision of clothing and various instruments. Now if nature makes nothing incomplete, and nothing in vain, the inference must be that she has made all animals for the sake of human beings.

Politics, 1.8

Although Aristotle certainly held this anthropocentric view, we should be careful not to jump to conclusions. In general, it seems wrong to claim that anthropocentrism is incompatible with a genuine concern for the environment as a whole or for forms of life other than the human. It is often claimed, for instance, that we have a moral responsibility for the wellbeing of future generations. And this responsibility entails that we should preserve our planet in the same condition as we found it, if not in a better condition.

This argument in favour of caring for the environment, which seems to be right, entirely revolves around human beings, their moral obligations and their interest (the interest, for instance, of future generations). Thus, to hold that human beings are in some way or other superior to other creatures by no means entails that we should not care for them or for the environment.

Actually, on closer inspection, we can see that there are several strands in Aristotle’s thought that could be used to support a concern for the environment and forms of life other than the human. The Politics passage might be taken to imply that animals and plants do not have any intrinsic value, but only have instrumental value to the extent that they serve the interests of human beings. But this is certainly not Aristotle’s considered view. Scholars have emphasised that there are clear traces in Aristotle of a biocentric or life-centred approach, in which the central idea is that life (all forms of life, not just human life) has intrinsic value.

This approach mostly emerges in Aristotle’s physical and biological works, which are devoted to a comprehensive study of all forms of life on earth. One area of interest is the way that Aristotle understands the nature and development of living beings. Aristotle has a conception of the nature and development of living beings (and, in some sense, of the universe as a whole), which is called ‘teleology’. This is the idea that, by nature, all creatures have an end or goal to realise, which is the development and full realisation of their own nature.

Thus, all plants, as well as non-human animals and human beings, tend or strive by nature to become fully developed and well-functioning creatures. The activities that lead all creatures to develop into fully functioning beings are good; and the attainment of their nature is their goodness and excellence. As the application of categories such as goodness shows, non-human living beings are valuable, precisely because they tend and strive to achieve their own goodness. In this way, they are not only instrumental to human beings but have intrinsic value. They cannot be, therefore, ethically irrelevant.

This general line of argument can be further strengthened by looking at Aristotle’s approach to life more generally. Aristotle has a holistic approach to life and to the universe in general. When he studies the different forms of life, Aristotle considers them all together and emphasises what the different forms of life have in common (De anima, 2.1-4).

With plants, for instance, we share the capacity to take food, reproduce and interact with the environment. With non-human animals, we share, in addition to the basic capacities we share with plants, the capacity to perceive the world, to have desires and to move around to get the objects of our desires. Obviously, for Aristotle human beings have more capacities than other creatures (such as the capacity to think and speak, which implies many other ethically relevant capacities) and so they occupy the top place in the scale of nature. But the different forms of life have at least as many elements of continuity as they have of discontinuity.

Thus, Aristotle’s universe appears to constitute a system and organisation, in which the different inhabitants are necessarily interconnected and there are no radical breaks between human beings and the rest of the natural world (Metaphysics, 12.10). If this is the case, we can see how, in an Aristotelian universe, what happens in one part, layer or level of the world is relevant to, and affects, to some extent, what happens in the other parts, layers or levels. This holistic or interconnected approach invites us to think seriously about a certain number of environmental issues, such as the preservation of plant and animal species, as well as the preservation of the habitat that makes life possible.

It is not only in Aristotle’s metaphysical and scientific approach to life that we may find inspiration to place concern for nature and the environment at the centre of our ethical and political agenda. Several aspects of Aristotle’s ethical thought invite similar conclusions. Here, clearly, the perspective is quite different from the biological works; and anthropocentric considerations play a significant role in this area of Aristotle’s thought. It is clearly our happiness as human beings that is at stake in Aristotle’s ethics and the way we make use of the resources that we have. But Aristotle’s approach to these issues shows how anthropocentrism and environmental responsibility are not necessarily incompatible. A couple of examples may illustrate this general point.

Aristotle is a eudaimonist: he believes, in other words, that happiness or flourishing is the goal of human life. He also believes that happiness or flourishing mainly consists in the possession and exercise of the virtues. Human beings are happy when they perform the activities that fully express their nature, and these are, for Aristotle, virtuous actions, both practical and intellectual. One of the distinguishing marks of Aristotle’s version of virtue ethics is the insistence on virtues that relate strongly to the (modern) idea of sustainability. For instance, Aristotle believes that an amount of money is necessary for a good life, as money removes obstacles to happiness and provides security (Nicomachean Ethics, NE, 1.8, 4.1). But Aristotle strongly insists that it is only some money (and not as much money as possible) that we need to be happy (NE, 3.7-9, 4.1):

Of the art of acquisition then there is one kind which by nature is a part of the management of a household, insofar as the art of household management must either find ready to hand, or itself provide, such things necessary to life, and useful for the community of the family or state, as can be stored. They are the elements of true riches; for the amount of property which is needed for a good life is not unlimited.

Politics, 1.8

Thus, some is enough, and self-restraint in material pursuit is at centre of Aristotle’s ethical thinking. And it is this notion of ‘enoughness’, as it were, that shapes Aristotle’s ethical approach as a whole. Thus, if we consider the problem of exploitation of the planet’s resources, an Aristotelian approach would certain encourage a sustainable use of such resources and strongly discourage consuming more than is actually needed. Some resources are necessary for collective or social happiness, but an increase in resources does not correspond for Aristotle to an increase in collective happiness. It follows that we can be equally happy, and arguably even happier, by using fewer resources than we do now or by using them in a sustainable way.

Aristotle’s ethical thinking offers a second, interesting line of argument to the same conclusion. This is not a point that Aristotle explicitly makes, but it seems to follow quite naturally from his general position. Aristotle argues that the happiness of a human being must be assessed on the basis of his or her life as a whole (NE, 1.7). It is not a short or long period of time that enables someone to be called happy, but their life as a whole. In the same context, Aristotle raises the apparently weird question whether someone’s happiness may be affected by what happens after his or her death (NE, 1.10). Aristotle’s answer to the question is open-ended, but it is still interesting that he raises the question at all.

The kind of situation that Aristotle has in mind is probably this. We have a moral responsibility to educate our children well because this is part of what it means to exercise our virtue. Suppose that we fail and our children misbehave after our death, this may have consequences for our happiness because, of course, if we fail in that crucial task, we cannot be said to have lived a good life.

Now, let’s suppose that, by analogy with Aristotle’s thought, we have a similar obligation to care about future generations, and that preserving the planet in a good condition is part of this care. It follows that, if we fail to preserve the environment in a good condition for future generations, we fail in our moral obligation, and this may have consequences for the extent to which we can be said to have led a good life and thus to have been happy. In this line of argument, preserving the environment is a component of what makes us flourish as human beings and so, ultimately, of our happiness. In all these ways, then, Aristotle’s thought can provide insights that we may be able to adopt and that may help us to adopt a more sustainable way of life and set of attitudes.

Stoicism and the Environment

As with Aristotle, there are some aspects of  Stoic thinking that are not helpful to us in our present situation, including the idea that Gabriele singled out at the start of his talk: the belief that other animals, as well as plants, exist for humans to use for our purposes. This attitude (we usually call it an ‘anthropocentric’ attitude) has come today to form part of the problem that we are trying to address. However, more closely examined, the Stoic viewpoint is not so much ‘anthropocentric’ (centred on human beings as a species) but ‘logo-centric’ or ‘reason-centred. Human beings are regarded by the Stoics as especially valuable in relation to other animals because of the possession of rationality, which is also shared with the universe as a whole. This is a rather complex idea whose implications I will explore in the course of my talk and which, I think, is potentially valuable for us too.

What are the Stoic ideas that are most helpful to us in confronting the environmental crisis? One idea centres on the place of human beings in nature and the ethical implications of this place. Modern moral theories tend to be framed in terms of relationships between human beings, and are then extended (sometimes) to animals or the environment, Stoicism sees human beings as an integral part of the universe as a whole and sometimes defines the best kind of life in terms of the universe or nature as a whole.

Happiness or the best kind of life is defined, typically, as the natural life, or the life according to nature; and this means, in part, that the best kind of life is one which exhibits qualities which are also present in the universe as a whole, namely rationality or order and providential care for ourselves and others. Aristotle also sees the happy life as one that is ‘according to nature’, but he mainly stresses the idea of living according to human nature (Aristotle, NE,1.7), whereas the Stoics go further in linking human happiness with nature as a whole. In this respect, the Stoic standpoint is not, in fact, anthropocentric: for them, the universe as a whole exhibits more fully qualities that we possess to a lesser extent. This viewpoint may help to counteract the modern tendency to see human beings as in some sense separate from nature or as uniquely valuable elements within it.

Secondly, the Stoic standpoint offers a distinctive way of formulating the idea that nature is inherently or intrinsically valuable, and not just valuable to us (humans). Some modern thinkers in environmental ethics also stress the importance of this idea as a corrective to modern anthropocentrism; but the Stoics provide their own way of framing and grounding this idea. The Stoics see nature not as ethically neutral, not as just a material object or a process; they see it as embodying in a strong form good qualities which human beings can also share, though less completely.

These good qualities are two-fold; the first is rationality, which the Stoics interpret in terms of structure, order and wholeness or, overall, consistency. Secondly, according to the Stoics, nature is good because it exercises providential care, not just for human beings and other animals, but also plants, and sea and air, all of which contribute to the totality of the universe (its order or rationality) and are to that extent good.

Nature’s providential care is expressed, for instance, in the fact that all animals are naturally motivated to take care of themselves (to preserve themselves) and to take care of others of their kind (their offspring, most obviously). In human beings, this motive of care for oneself and others goes much further than with other animals because of our distinctive rationality. So this is another way in which Stoic ideas can be useful to us now: in offering new ways in which we can see nature as a whole as inherently valuable (what is sometimes described as a ‘biocentric’ viewpoint) and not valuable only because nature is useful to us humans.

Also, I think the Stoic framework can be helpful in leading us to make the kind of response in action that is called for by the environmental crisis, and to conceive this response in a positive way.  The Stoics think human beings (like other animals) have an in-built instinct to take care of themselves and others of our kind. Because of our distinctive capacity for rationality this takes a complex form, that of developing the virtues, in a way that benefits ourselves as well as those affected by our actions.

The second aspect, developing our care for others, takes two main forms: involvement in family and communal life (including political life); and also coming to see all human beings as part of a single community or family as rational and sociable animals. I think that this Stoic idea can be especially helpful for us as we try to take action that addresses the environmental crisis. We need to view our actions not just as they affect our own family and community or even nation but as they affect humanity as a whole, seen as part of our broader family of humankind or as ‘citizens of the world’ (cosmopolitans). This can help us to adopt an attitude of care for people in other parts of the world who are already experiencing more than some of us the destructive results of climate change.

I see one further possible argument, which is based on Stoic ideas, even if it is not one the Stoics themselves put forward. One could argue that the rationality that makes humans special among animals carries with it the obligation to use this capacity not just for our own benefit or for our families and community or humanity in general but also on behalf of other aspects of nature which lack this capacity, that is, other animals, plants and the natural environment more generally. Put differently, we should use our special capacity to adopt, as far as we are able, the role of providential nature in taking care of these other elements. We should do so, especially, in the light of the damage that we have ourselves already done to the world. This line of thought is not, as I say, one the Stoics adopted but it is based on Stoic themes and represents another way in which their theory can be valuable for us in forming an appropriate ethical and intellectual response to the environmental crisis.

Further readings on Aristotle:

Further readings on Stoicism:

For the Stoic worldview, see Cicero, The Nature of the Gods Book 2.

For all aspects of the topic, see:

  • A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, especially sections 54 (theology), 57 (development), 63 (the end and happiness)
  • John Sellars, Stoicism, ch. 5 (Stoic Ethics).

See also:

  • C. Gill, ‘Stoicism and the Environment’
  • K. Whiting, ‘Stoicism and Sustainability’, Stoicism Today
  • S. Shogry, ‘Stoic cosmopolitanism and environmental ethics’, forthcoming in the Routledge Handbook of Hellenistic Philosophy.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter

Gabriele Galluzzo is a Senior Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter

One thought on Stoicism, Aristotle and Environmental Responsibility by Chris Gill and Gabriele Galluzzo

  1. Thanks for sharing, I truly enjoy your work, keep it up.

Leave a comment

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