'Would A Stoic Save The Elephants?' by Leonidas Konstantakos

Would A Stoic Save The Elephants?

by Leonidas Konstantakos

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The ancient Stoics never had to worry about problems of biological extinction and resource sustainability on a scale such as ours (although they perhaps noticed the extinction of several species due to the hunts in the Coliseum). But if the newsreels are correct, elephants could be extinct in the wild in as little as four years. All of them hunted to death for their tusks, and sometimes their meat. But if a sage were arguing for saving the wild elephants (assuming a sage would), what would that argument look like? Presumably a Stoic argument for keeping the pachyderms from environmental decimation wouldn’t appeal to the reader’s emotions by discussing the methods in which elephants are hunted and slaughtered for the ornamental value of their ivory. A Stoic probably wouldn’t see anything honorable in inciting pity by merely presenting the gruesome pictures of butchered elephants with their faces hacked off, allowing poachers a larger take of the ivory (since humans routinely slaughter other animals anyway). Boogeymen only scare children. So would a Stoic save the elephants (inasmuch as a Stoic could), considering the severe Stoic doctrine of ‘indifferents’? The fundamental tenet holds that nothing except virtue and vice has any moral value, and that nothing bad happens when any animal dies. Does a sage hold it even when an entire species goes extinct?
Since Stoics typically denied any justice existed between men and animals (or any irrational living thing), it may be objected that this poses a significant problem for any Stoicism-inspired environmental ethics. For instance, Chrysippus ‘excellently remarked’ that everything in the world was created for the sake of men and gods, and that men could therefore use animals for their own ends. In fact, Chrysippus believed pigs’ salty flesh was evidence that they were providentially appointed to be human food! In that case, wouldn’t the Stoics accept the slaughter of elephants for the sake of profit from the ivory trade, or for beautiful ivory decorations and furniture? Or at least in order to eat them?
Unlike an argument for Stoic moral obligations to others, it is difficult to propose one for Stoic natural rights. Our concept of environmental ethics, let alone any modern concept of animal rights, would certainly seem bizarre to them. It is Theophrastus, not the Stoics, who is the patron philosopher-saint of animals. However, it is in the Stoic doctrine of oikeiosis, what is appropriate, to a rational animal that may give the best reasons to produce environmental virtue ethics, and in turn, provide methods to save the elephants (e.g. by educating ivory-buyers, donating money or providing mercenaries to protect the animals, perhaps even farming them, or much less subtly, commandeering them). The reasons are anthropocentric in that they revolve around what has preferred value for us humans, but for the Stoics who are intellectual kin to the rational principle of the universe, why should that be a refutation?
Hierocles, as an orthodox Stoic, understood the entire universe as an organism. This pantheistic universe is identical with Zeus, and everything in it is a part of Zeus. Humans are also a part of the divine organism, but are different than other living things in that we are imbued with a spark of Zeus’s divine reason. That is, we are a part of the universe that can reason- we participate in Zeus’s mind. We can figure out the way the world works. Ever the naturalists, Stoics observed the nature of every part of Zeus, including the living parts, to understand what is natural and appropriate to them. Humans are no exception, and so the Stoics understood that willingly perfecting that which is appropriate for human rationality and sociability is to be prudent, just, moderate, and courageous. These things make up human virtue, the only human good in the Stoic worldview, and to be virtuous is to have perfectly developed the moral character.
Hierocles takes this to be the best starting point for ethics. To know what is in fact appropriate for humans, and to select them, is of utmost importance for a flourishing life. To live according to nature then, to live virtuously, means perfecting our choices in accordance to what is appropriate to ourselves. Appropriation leads the animal to self-preservation, which in turn leads naturally to concern for externals, including the other people around us. If choosing the correct things for our human nature is our appropriate disposition to external property, and (as humans) if affection is our appropriate disposition to our children, and (as living things) if self-preservation is our appropriate disposition to ourselves, then it follows that we humans must consider our external environment carefully and choose the correct external things for the sake of ourselves and our loved ones. That is, for the Stoics our natural disposition necessarily requires us to be virtuous (prudent/just/moderate/courageous) about externals.
The important part here is to understand our roles as humans, and our moral concern for those around us. The upshot of Hierocles’s philosophy follows from his view of the appropriate acts of a human being- a social, rational animal. Here is his model:

Each one of us is as it were entirely encompassed by many circles, some smaller, others larger, the latter enclosing the former on the basis of their different and unequal dispositions relative to each other. The first and closest circle is the one which a person has drawn as though around a center, his own mind. The circle encloses the body and anything taken for the sake of the body. For it is virtually the smallest circle, and almost touches the center itself. Next, the second one further removed from the center but enclosing the first circle; this contains parents, siblings, wife, and children. The third one has in it uncles and aunts, grandparents, nephews, nieces, and cousins. The next circle includes other relatives, and this is followed by the circle of local residents, then the circle of fellow-tribesmen, next that of fellow-citizens, and then in the same way the circle of people from neighboring towns, and the circle of fellow-countrymen. The outermost and largest circle, which encompasses all the rest, is that of the whole human race. (Stobaeus 4.671, 7-673, 11 [Long & Sedley 349-50])

For most, it may seem odd that caring for ourselves leads so naturally to caring for others. However, Hierocles uses the natural sociability of humanity to turn from his view of the human condition (from perception of the world, to self-perception, to self-preservation) to get to the pith of his virtue ethics that considers the fundamental nature of humanity. In his view, in order to progress toward human virtue we then ought to:

…draw the circles together somehow toward the center, and to keep zealously transferring those from the enclosing circles into the enclosed ones… it is incumbent on us to respect people from the third circle as if they were from the second, and again to respect our other relatives as if they were those from the third circle. For although the greater distance in blood will remove some affection, we must still try hard to assimilate them. The right point will be reached if, through our own initiative, we reduce the distance of the relationship with each person… (Ibid.)

He understands that our social roles, and our affections, endear us to those (in various senses) closest to us more than to those further out, but a good person will vigorously attempt to reduce the moral distance between ourselves and others. So our ability to understand and deliberately affect the world leads us to our obligations. We flourish when we take into account Hierocles’s concept of incorporating the outer rings of social relationships into our inner rings of moral concern. In a sense, we consciously keep moving others into us.
Hierocles’s paradigm, despite its incompleteness, provides general guidelines for the new Stoics two millennia later. Our modern understanding of biological kinship with the other animals (and indeed all life on Earth), along with our modern understanding of our chemical relationship to the Earth,  and the modern environmental challenges our species and many others face would have been enough for Hierocles to add a few more circles to his model had he known about them. At any rate it is enough for the new Stoics to add them, in light of humans’ common evolutionary kinship with the planet. Another great Stoic contemporary of Hierocles, Epictetus, adds to the moral obligation that Hierocles exhorts:

Furthermore you are a citizen of the world and a part of it, not one of the underlings but one of the foremost constituents. For you are capable of attending to the divine government and of calculating its consequences. What then is a citizen’s profession? To regard nothing as of private interest, to deliberate about nothing as though one were cut off [i.e. from the whole].” (Discourses 2.10.1-12 [Long & Sedley 364])

Environmental ethics can (and should) be based on the Stoic concentric circles of moral concern, but would the Stoics themselves have accepted an environmental virtue ethics? Can we call a modern claim Stoic even if the ancient Stoics might have laughed it away? In fact, a moral philosophy that incorporates animals, plant life, and natural resources (however strange this may have sounded to an ancient Stoic ear) may actually be loyal to the implications of ancient Stoic doctrine. Where we can no longer defend the ancient anthropocentric claim of animals and the rest of the world being created for the sake of man, the Stoics today can reinterpret that anthropocentrism to show that self-preservation still leads to universal concern. The Stoic is a person of social action, and there are few problems as universal and deserving of our concern as that of our environmental plight. Admittedly, it still remains to be seen how useful Stoic environmentalism can be by learning what exactly these policies might look like, and how possible or practical they would be to ratify and enforce.
Positing the universe as a super-organism did not end with the ancient Stoic Hierocles, and super-organisms are now seen as biological facts of nature. A Stoic virtue ethics approach to our modern problems deeply considers our intricate connections with our environment, our living universe, and offers us harmony with our extended family and our home: all life on Earth, and our land and air. But how can we begin putting into practice an environmental virtue ethics based on Hierocles’s paradigm that is not trite or sentimental to the point of meaninglessness? Fortunately the Stoic himself provides us with some advice as to how we may get closer to virtue, and to incorporate the distant circles of relationships into our closer ones, by our own inherent impulse to preserve ourselves. The continuation from Hierocles’s quote above becomes our starting point for action:

The principle and practical point has been discussed. But it is necessary to add in also usage in regard to modes of address, calling cousins, uncles, and aunts “brothers,” “fathers,” and “mothers,” and still others “cousins,” in whatever way their ages may run, for the sake of the affection in the names. For this kind of address is a by no means faint sign of the concern we feel for each and at the same time can excite and intensify the above-indicated contraction, as it were, of the circles. (Stobaeus 4.84.23 [Ramelli 93])

In attempting to discover a land ethic the emphasis has typically been placed on utilitarian consequences or the supposed rights of the environment and/or future generations, and the Stoic Hierocles’s paradigm has been woefully overlooked. For our Stoic philosophical ancestors, the problem about choosing to slaughter elephants for the sake of profit, greed, or gaudy ivory decorations would’ve been about what these decisions do to us, to our characters. If the Stoics were to have our modern understanding of evolutionary biology, and therefore a view of the biological relationships we share with all life on earth, they would have incorporated a few more circles into their model. They would not have treated animals like elephants as moral agents with rights, but certainly as preferred indifferents whose welfare we are obligated to take into account, along with our own. The fact that these animals don’t have logos doesn’t mean that we have no obligation toward them. There is in fact a heartening anecdote about the Stoic Cleanthes who, counter to some other Stoics, changed his view on non-human animals when he observed that ants “possess the elements of reason” in their interactions with members of another colony. Knowledge gained through observation changed Cleanthes’s opinions. We’ve learned much more about our natural world through human observations since the early Stoics, and we should also revisit and, if necessary, revise the old doctrines. Like Seneca quipped, “Zeno is our friend, but Truth is a greater friend.”
In a very real sense, separated by mere chance, time, and circumstance, other animals on this planet are our kinsmen, and even plants are our (no longer so distant) cousins. In another sense, the Earth is our mother and the universe is our City, its ruling faculty is our Father Zeus. The new Stoics, per the advice of Hierocles, can start by using inclusive terminology when referring to the outer circles of our ecological family, and educate the young in our inclusive paradigm of progression toward virtue: how social, rational animals ought to behave toward their family members and their surroundings. Neil deGrasse Tyson once said, “We are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically, and to the rest of the universe atomically… [We] are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.” The ancient Stoics agreed, and added that we are responsible for our world, insofar as our judgments and choices are involved. The upshot is that Stoics need not challenge the most fundamental doctrines in order to find reasons to protect the fellow-inhabitants of our planet and universal city. Human oikeiosis provides perfectly good motivation to take care of our land and resources. I challenge you new Stoics to conduct your ‘appropriate actions’ by implementing Stoic environmental virtue ethics based on Hierocles’s concentric circles of moral concern and, Zeus permitting, save our elephant kinsmen from unnecessary suffering and extinction in the wild.


Long, A. & Sedley, D. (1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ramelli, I. (2009). Hierocles the Stoic: Elements of Ethics, Fragments, and Excerpts. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.
Leonidas became a special education teacher after the Army, has a Masters in Liberal Studies from Florida International University and adjuncts philosophy at night. He has more papers on academia.edu if anyone wants to read further. 

4 thoughts on 'Would A Stoic Save The Elephants?' by Leonidas Konstantakos

  1. Nigel Glassborow says:

    Another excellent article.
    Seneca offered ideas that may be seen as ecological in nature:
    “Nature has laid on us no stern and difficult law when she tells us that we can live without the marble-cutter and the engineer, that we can clothe ourselves without traffic in silk fabrics, that we can have everything that is indispensable to our use, provided only that we are content with what the earth has placed upon its surface.”
    “God, who is the Father of all, has placed ready to our hands those things which he intended for our own good… But that which would be injurious, he buried deep in the earth. We can complain of nothing but ourselves: for we have brought to light the materials for our destruction, against the will of Nature, who hid them from us.”
    However, back to the article. Over on the International Stoic Forum I am getting some stick for suggesting that we need to look at Stoic ideas in light of modern knowledge, despite it being a Stoic principle that the Stoic path involves taking into account the best knowledge available if we are to make correct judgements.
    We now know that animals think in a similar manner to us and that we are already able to see in many the workings of rational thought and self-awareness. If they had had this information the Stoics of old would certainly have adjusted some of their ideas regards the nature of the world about them. However, none of the new knowledge, as far as I am aware, in any way affects the Stoic principles – albeit that it may affect some of the reasonings for arriving at those principles.
    As it is, any Stoic today with a good understanding of Stoicism as a whole will have adjusted their thinking to take into account the more up to date knowledge about specific aspects of Nature when it comes to making judgements about perceptions and externals and living virtuously etcetera.
    But, to counter a point in a previous post, this does not necessarily mean that we all become vegetarians. While we have so impacted on the world that we are endangering the ecosystem and the biodiversity of Mother Earth, the system in part relies on predation in order to maintain life. We have been evolved as omnivores and Stoics follow Nature’s guidance. Very few can live as vegans without artificial supplements or without ‘inadvertently’ taking in some form of animal protein to keep them healthy.
    But having learnt to farm animals, provided we share out the benefits of such, we lose any excuse to hunt and kill wild animals unless it is to cull them (taking the role of the predator if necessary) or if they have ‘gone rogue’ and it is a question of them or us.
    And when it comes to protecting wild animals from extinction as a result of our actions it is rational that we seek to protect the biodiversity of Mother Earth for all of it is a manifestation of her life and her health. From the effects of the potato famine in Ireland we have learnt that monoculture can lead to disaster. Common sense tells us that we should not become Mother Earth’s monoculture. Ours and Mother Earth’s survival relies on us drawing back from our selfish unthinking use of the natural resources and suggests that we ought to be leaving room for the rest of life on our planet to be able to thrive.
    If we follow our principles, we Stoics should be calling for a reduction in the human population so as to bring back some balance. If we do not, Nature will do it for us and there will be much suffering – suffering that will make today’s disastrous situations of war, famine, disease and the like look mild.

  2. Mike says:

    Excellent article. Spinoza adopted the same “enlightened self-interest” paradigm as the starting point for his ethical system.

  3. Angela Gilmour says:

    Well written Nigel always refreshing to read your comments. I particularly agree with your last sentence – “the elephant in the room” in our current world!

  4. […] explicitly include concern for animals (see for instance Leonidas Konstantakos’ essay, “Would a Stoic Save the Elephants?“).  Whether we can do that by appealing to a more general notion of the Logos that includes […]

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