The Stoic Cosmos and Australia’s Wildfires
A Universal View of Local Climates
Large parts of Australia have recently been on fire. Wildfires (or “bushfires” as they are known locally) have even encircled the nation’s most populous city. On one recent Saturday the fires cut all but two of the routes out of the city of Sydney.
A local State Government Minister reacted to these circumstances by shutting down discussion regarding a link between the fires and climate change. The Minister’s justification was that time and resources should not go to “philosophical debate” but instead to practical localized action.
This was not climate change denial. The Minister concerned readily declares her belief in climate change and its human element.
The Minister’s target instead was philosophy. More specifically, her intention was to separate practical localized action from what she viewed to be the less practical and de-localized scope of philosophical discussion.
This Government Minister is not the first public figure to recently denigrate philosophy in order to broadcast a commitment to hyper-local urgencies. The Minister later clarified that she had entirely mistakenly used the word “philosophical” in relation to climate change responses. The debate around climate change wasn’t philosophical at all, she explained. It was more “serious” than that.
Via Stoicism we can respond to these assertions that philosophy occurs outside serious practical action. We can do this by identifying rather than discounting the utility of Stoic philosophy for local climate issues. The Stoic practice in question concerns its outlook that avoids conceptually opposing local from non-local environments.
A Stoic Relevance to Climate Issues? Isn't Stoicism Too Old?
A Stoic relevance to climate issues is not readily apparent. Themes of environmental sustainability are rare in ancient Stoicism. In an apparent gesture, Seneca laments in his Letters the inundation of the natural habitat by human buildings and opulence. His motivation though is to critique self-indulgence rather than to attend to ecological maintenance.
Neither is ancient Stoicism overly interested in the impacts of human diets on ecologies. Carnivorous eating habits are linked in the current era to climate change effects. The odd ancient Stoic such as Musonius Rufus is reported by Stobaeus to refrain from eating much meat. Musonius however is more concerned with living moderately and not “impeding mental activity” than he is with the ecological effects of meat eating.
Indeed in terms of ecological relations, Stoicism’s early proponents often adopt the idea of a chain or ladder of all Being (as propagated by, for example, Aristotle’s scala naturae from his History of Animals). A typical Stoic application of this ladder ranks humans at the top, whereas non-human animals serve us as food or laborers.
These points do not therefore easily evidence a contribution to current climate themes from ancient Stoicism. Recent commentaries though from Christopher Gill, William Stephens, and Kai Whiting recognize how Stoic notions of virtue and rationality extend human responsibilities beyond purely human relationships to our connections with the rest of the ecological realm.
From this kind of impetus I here want to explore how ancient Stoic philosophy might inform our climate change responses via Stoicism's dual commitments that (i) philosophy is the practice of a particular appreciation of change, and that (ii) we must look at our local environments from a universal perspective.
Practice and Change
Philosophy for the Stoics firstly is a practical act. This counters the Australian Minister’s distinction of philosophy from practical action. As Marcus Aurelius famously declares in Meditations, evoking imperatives from Seneca and Epictetus, philosophy means quitting our mental deliberations about what constitutes a good person and instead just being that person!
We can only be that person for the Stoics if we live in a way which appreciates that change is inevitable. The Athenian founders of Stoicism posit that change is the world’s basic condition. Later Roman Stoicisms assert that to be fearful of change is ridiculous because we are each change ourselves. Our bodies, our lives, and everything around us, came into being because of changing matter, change every moment, and will change significantly when “perishing”.
You might be wondering how this philosophy of universal change can help us with climate change issues. Might such a perspective conversely even hinder climate action? If we are Stoically not bothered by any change because we believe such transition simply reflects the world’s fundamental state, are we less likely to be concerned about a changing climate?
The Stoics would not endorse such passivity. Instead they demand that our practices should actively reflect our appreciation of the interconnectedness of all that changes. This will alter what we believe are the restricted limits of our local environment.
View the Local through the Cosmic
Modern environmental perspectives highlight how emissions in one country can damage the entire planet. The physical world is one. Climate science here presents somewhat of a match with the position in Stoic physics that the whole universe is, as Marcus describes, “meshed together”. Marcus on this point develops an original Stoic principle in which Zeno of Citium declares that all bodies in the universe are connected by their common substance. There is, in this monistic sense, simply one worldly body.
If this notion of a universal interconnection is too abstract, Stoics such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius discuss things possibly more concretely when observing the world’s recurring ecological patterns. The regularized tempos of flowers blooming, fruits ripening, and so on, indicate concordant relations between all things and environments. As Marcus eloquently describes, there is “a single harmony…comprising all purposes…in a harmonious pattern”.
When we are conscious of this harmony in our day-to-day lives we take what Marcus calls the “cosmic view”. This Stoic perspective avoids separating out localized events from the rest of the world. The cosmic view furthermore defines as irrational the prioritizing of what happens locally and immediately over what happens globally or universally and over time. Living according to the cosmic view is for the Stoics a way to practically make decisions and act upon them that always recognizes our reality; the interconnectedness of every decision and action.
For the Stoics any disharmony, localized or not, resulting from our practices is an indication of our negligence to act philosophically via the cosmic view. If we have caused harm to our surroundings we have neglected the initial and enmeshed responsibility that we have according to Marcus “to our whole environment”. Marcus was not literally speaking of a climate environment. From a present-day application of Stoicism though, our “whole environment” undeniably includes shifting climatic influences and elements.
Philosophy, in the Stoic sense, is not a supplement to practical action. It is embedded within everyday practice. Elected representatives might broadcast a focus on localized immediacies rather than on non-local concerns. Stoic philosophy though reveals how our localized practices — related to climate change or otherwise — require thinking universally.
Will Johncock (PhD) is the author of the books Stoic Philosophy and Social Theory (2020), and Naturally Late: Synchronization in Socially Constructed Times (2019), both of which contain chapters that address climate change issues from philosophical perspectives.