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Ancient Greek Wisdom
A Stoic Response To The Climate Crisis
Matthew Gindin thinks that the Stoics have useful advice for us right now.
The Stoic philosophers, who flourished in the Graeco-Roman world between the third century BCE and the fourth century CE, were profoundly interested in the natural world, and considered science essential knowledge for a philosopher. It’s likely that a Stoic time traveller, transported into the early 21st century, would initially hesitate to believe that humans could remake the climate of the Earth and in doing so threaten the future of the entire biosphere. I think we can be confident, however, that once presented with the scientific evidence our devotee of Hellenic reason would embrace the consensus and agree we are facing an incomprehensibly dangerous emergency.
It is now widely agreed in the scientific community that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history – and that this one has been triggered by human activity. Due to the way we live, much of the biodiversity of the world has disappeared over the last hundred years, and more of it will go in the next hundred. At the end of 2018 the Living Planet Index of the World Wildlife Fund reported that from 1970 to 2014 there was a 60% decline in the overall numbers of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. Another recent report, published in the journal Biological Conservation (Vol. 232, April 2019), found that more than 40% of the world’s insect species are dramatically declining and a third are endangered – risking what the report’s authors call a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems.”
How would the Stoics have responded? I’m not asking this question merely as an interesting intellectual exercise, but because I think Stoic philosophy has key intellectual resources to help us face our growing ecological crisis. With that in mind I’ll outline what I think are a few useful pieces of advice from the Stoic arsenal. I want to begin first with Epictetus, who I think has the most powerful and important guidance to offer us, and then add supplementary ideas from Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.
Epictetus, Seneca & Marcus Aurelius by Gail Campbell, 2020
Epictetus (55-135 CE) was a freed slave born in what is now Turkey. He taught Stoicism in Rome before being banished in about 93 CE by the Emperor Domitian, along with the other philosophers. He went to Greece and continued to teach there.
Epictetus’ prescription for freedom can be simply explained, despite its power. Our desires should only be directed towards what’s possible, because desiring what’s impossible will inevitably produce frustration and unhappiness.
This seems to be common sense; but things get interesting as a result of Epictetus’s conception of possibility: we should get our happiness from thinking and choosing well (which is within our power), not from getting what we want (which isn’t). So for Epictetus our desire for happiness should be directed towards knowing that we understand and choose well. In other words, our pleasure should be in our rationality and the good character that follows from it. We should not seek happiness in things we want but which are impossible to control, even good things: our health, wealth, reputation, relationships, or even whether we continue to live or die. A moment’s reflection will confirm that all of these latter things (which Stoics call ‘externals’ or ‘indifferents’, or sometimes more charitably, ‘preferables’) are outside our control. A chance encounter with an ebola-carrying passenger on a jet could eliminate all of them in short order. Epictetus’s vision of the Stoic sage is of someone who restricts the lion’s share of their desire towards refining their own rationality, knowledge, and wise choices, and takes pleasure as much as possible in those accomplishments.
How does this apply to facing the climate crisis?
I think applying Epictetus’s advice to our global situation would mean first of all ending our desire to save the planet. More accurately, since the planet itself will, as some enjoy pointing out, be fine, it means ending our desire to save human global civilization and the current biosphere. We may succeed in saving those things, but according to current projections there is a very real possibility that we won’t. Epictetus would say that we should not desire what may be impossible, and certainly nothing which is out of the sphere of our control. Rather, what we should desire, is that we choose and act well. In the climate context this would mean seeking to understand what is happening and making the most rational choices we can as a result. Our individual choices might range from trying to change government policies to reduce the scale of the damage, to acting individually in ways that protect ecology, to moving to higher ground, among many other things. Primarily, though, it means directing our attention to building strong and serene characters to withstand the full impact of the coming crisis, something Epictetus claims it is actually in our power to do.
It might seem that Epictetus is preaching an inward-focused quietism or navel-gazing self-development, unmoored from the wider world, but he’s not. Stoics, unlike Epicureans, were civic-minded, and saw the person’s role in the universal city of humanity – the cosmopolis – as being of central importance. For Epictetus, all people have multiple roles to fill in the cosmopolis, each of which should be embodied with excellence. For example, being a good father requires certain choices and types of behaviour, and a father should enact those. A key element of this doctrine is that one’s obligation is to fulfill one’s role as best one can – which is different from succeeding in it or being rewarded for it. For our purposes though, the really useful insight comes from what Epictetus said to a student who complained that his brother mistreated him. Epictetus’s answer can be summarized as: “So what? Your task is not to have a brother who loves you, which you cannot hope to succeed in, but to be a good brother yourself, which you can.”
When applied to climate change, this can be powerful guidance. What is our role as intelligent animals whose well-being is dependent on the integrity of their ecosystem? One would think it obvious (although one would be wrong about that, apparently) that we should first and foremost study how not to disrupt the web of relationships that humans so need to survive and thrive. The Stoics, who sought both honourable and responsible behaviour, would certainly counsel living lives permeated by care towards the natural world. So perhaps Epictetus would say that in the face of the climate crisis, our primary task is not to save the ecosystem, which individually we cannot hope to succeed in doing, but rather to fulfill our roles as good citizens of the earth, doing what we can, even if everything goes to hell.
Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) was Roman Emperor for nearly twenty years. He was also a Stoic philosopher who kept a notebook of advice from himself to himself (a practice recommended by other Stoics too). This notebook, disseminated after his death as his Meditations, is still a bestseller. In it Marcus Aurelius focuses on the cultivation of virtues such as fortitude, serenity, and amiability, and reminds himself repeatedly of such things as the impermanence of life, the need to be mindful of our interdependency, and our responsibilities to the communities of which we’re inescapably a part.
I want to highlight just one remark from this book: “The foolishness of people who are surprised by anything that happens. Like travellers amazed at foreign customs” (Meditations 12.13, tr. Gregory Hays). Here Marcus Aurelius gently mocks our tendency to be shocked by events. I imagine he had in mind all the irrational extremes of human experience, as well as natural disasters, wars, or stunning twists of fate. All of these things are intrinsically part of the fabric of our social and natural lives, and to suggest otherwise is to believe things to be other than they actually are, which is dangerous.
There is a lot to learn from this one saying. Firstly, we should not think that a catastrophic climate change will not occur. Global extinction-level crises have happened before, at least five times, wiping out between 75-96% of life on Earth each time. And there is no reason to think that the conditions which prevailed the last time that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were this high – such as trees growing near the South Pole and sea levels twenty metres higher than now – will not happen again. On the purely human level, it’s also time to stop being shocked by our failure to adopt long-term thinking and act to halt the disaster now unfolding. Throughout history elites have acted to preserve their own interests while the world burned around them, and the common folk have been so fooled by propaganda that they have been unable to see what was happening until it was too late. Nazi Germany is only one of many examples of both tendencies; members of the intelligentsia around the world wrote of what was happening and would happen, but the high cost activities needed by the Allies to halt disaster were not undertaken until catastrophe demanded them and it was almost too late. Why should we think things would be any different now? The drastic reforms needed to halt climate change are difficult and expensive, and will take a long time to implement. During that time, climate change will advance and quite probably acquire irreversible, self-sustaining momentum.
The lesson from Marcus Aurelius here, then, is twofold: stop wasting mental energy being shocked or offended by human inaction on climate change. Do not assume that humanity will take upon itself timely and wise actions, or that some mysterious force will protect us from the results of our own behaviour, or soften the horrific blows when they come. Shock and incredulity are not worthy of anyone who studies history or the natural world. Don’t be like a traveller unfamiliar with how things go here. It’s time for us to face what is happening, and to prepare. Facing reality is the first step in figuring out how to handle it well.
Seneca the Younger (4 BCE - 65 CE) was a statesman, playwright, and tutor to the powerful. He was also a Stoic philosopher. Like other Stoics he counselled a focus on the perfection of character, and cultivation of peace and strength of mind in the face of adversity. One frequently-mentioned piece of advice in the letters he wrote to his friend Lucilius, is to learn to live with poverty and hardship before they happen, as well as to cultivate independence and self-sufficiency. As he wrote in his inimitable style, “Trim yourself back to that small fortune that chance cannot take away” (Letter 20). By saying this, Seneca did not mean that one should throw away, or even radically pare down, one’s possessions (he didn’t, as is well known), but rather that one should intentionally cultivate the ability both to be happy with less, and to rely only on that which one can find in oneself. As he wrote in the same letter, “So I think it is really necessary to do what I told you in my letter great men have often done: set aside some days when by making a pretence of poverty we train ourselves for the real thing. We should do it all the more since we are steeped in luxuries, and think everything harsh and difficult. Better to wake the mind from sleep; pinch it, and remind it of how little our nature actually requires. No one is born rich: everyone who comes forth into the light is ordered to be content with milk and a bit of cloth.”
Considering the uncertainties that face us, particularly economic and technological disruption in unpredictable ways, this idea of preparing ourselves might be good advice: a sort of workout before the fight.
So our Stoic advisors, who intended their philosophy to speak eternally across the ages for any human exigency, say: do not waste time in being shocked at human irrationality; do not be naïve about how bad things can get; and begin training for a world of lack and hardship. Restrict your desire to perfecting your own understanding and good choices, and fulfill your role as an rational animal on the Earth regardless of whether global civilisation can be saved or not.
© Matthew Gindin 2020
Matthew Gindin is a former Buddhist monk, teacher of Jewish history and culture, journalist, writer and meditation instructor in Vancouver. He is currently launching a Philosophy Club for children. He writes regularly for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, as well as for several other publications, and can be followed at matthewgindin.com.