Stoicism Today and Climate Change

Draft by Dr. Jan Garrett

October 8, 2005

The idea of Zeus as a Supreme Reason pervading and controlling nature as a whole, occasionally defended by rational argument but at least as often taken for granted by the ancient Stoics, is of interest even to this nonbeliever because it implicitly conceives of reason on a managerial model, and what reason manages is a very large system, indeed nature as a whole.

There are in the ancient texts hints that the Stoics thought of the cosmic manager as designing the whole in a way that permitted local breakdowns resulting from local regularities previously put into effect but that he intervened at such points to recuperate the byproducts of earlier processes for the sake of the whole, thereby restoring its cosmic health.

This could in principle be a model for intelligent management of human communities, including human communities on the grand scale of the Roman empire or the world system today. Suppose we consider the lessons offered to us by studies of today's difficulties regarding, e.g., the breakdown of social order of which nongovernmental terrorism is a symptom and the dangers of global warming. The latter is arguably a breakdown in a system involving human dependence and impact on terrestrial nature on a large scale. The Stoic divinity could be a model for our own stewardship of nature as a whole.

But people today come to Stoicism primarily through the Roman-era Stoics, who shifted the focus of Stoic philosophy so much toward the ethical dimension, and personal ethics at that, that responsibility for the larger system fades almost completely from the picture. Indeed, from Epictetus' description of what is up to us, it seems that we have almost no control over anything beyond our power of moral choice, which does not even necessarily control our corruptible bodies.

The grand vision of a manager responsible for large material systems seems to be lost in the emphasis on how we respond to impressions! One has to say that Marcus Aurelius the emperor does not appear to be of much help. Here we have the supreme ruler of the most powerful political machine of his own time and he is acutely aware of his inability to exercise much influence over even the people in his court!

Not that I blame Marcus for not leaving us reflections on the mechanisms whereby Roman society was systematically producing results that would eventually destroy it. Not that I blame him for not leaving us meditations about how changes in its structure might more adequately serve the needs of human beings in its borders and preserve more adequately what was worth preserving from classical civilization. He may not have intended the meditations he left for us to be read by anybody but himself, and--who knows?--he may have actually written a systematic analysis of Roman society that has not been found but has instead been lost like so many other products of the ancient mind.

Today's Stoics do not need to imitate an impression of the classical Stoics formed in part by the accidents of historical transmission. We could imitate the Stoic Zeus in paying more attention to his cosmic body, part of which, arguably, is our own as well. We may not be able to exercise the kind of control over nature that the ancients attributed to Zeus--but many of us are not without some influence upon the part of it that constitutes the terrestrial biosphere.

Forum members in recent days have recognized that not all preferred indifferents are of equal value. Not everything that falls into the category "preferred things" or "first things in accordance with nature" is of equal weight. Some ancient Stoics, and Stoic-influenced statesmen like Cicero, put a lot of weight upon the defense of civic institutions, over which they had no control in the sense of which Epictetus famously spoke in the first chapter of his Handbook. Some Stoics kept alive the ideal of republican institutions well into the first century of imperial Rome.

The point is not that the institutions of the Roman republic were ideal or that the empire represented a step backwards compared to the republic in every respect. The point is that Stoics could see that appropriate actions concerned not merely what my reaction should be to this resentful slave or that broken jug but also what kind of laws and general practices might better secure justice or promote systemic stability for the long haul.

By analogy, today's Stoics who are still citizens with rights of free expression in certain countries might concern themselves, for instance, with what kind of government policies might promote greater practical devotion by civic leaders to the common good. They might give some attention, for instance, to the fact that U. S. government policies on climate change and policies that permit the erosion of the wetlands in the Gulf Coast not only made the devastation of recent hurricanes possible but unless more concerted action is taken on climate change and U.S. wetland policies are radically changed similar highly dispreferred events are virtually guaranteed in the coming years.

Of course, such efforts can fail to bring about the changes that one advocates. But surely we can by now advocate such changes as highly preferred things and not as goods, the failure to produce which would bring "violent feelings contrary to reason."

October 8, 2005