From Vol. 4, Issue 6, June 2022
Stoicism and appropriate actions
“We should think very carefully about the appropriateness of our lifestyle choices to make sure they are consistent with our values”
Seeking unity with the natural world, by extending our care toward animals, plants, and their habitats, helps us to re-evaluate our priorities and reconfigure our values.
The ancient Stoic concept of the circles of concern, which we expanded to reflect contemporary understandings of the natural world, is one way to envision our relationship with our self, our family members, our friends, our local community, the whole of humanity and the universe within which we are intimately connected to. Starting with concern for the self, we then bring each successive circle of concern inwards until we can see our self as an intrinsic part of Nature and Nature as an intrinsic part of our self.
A Stoic’s appreciation of Nature thus goes beyond taking selfies and a superficial enjoyment of breathtaking sights and sounds. It involves a profound thirst for the kind of knowledge that helps us understand how the world works and our position within it. Through this deep relationship with Nature, we can challenge the perceived role of consumerism in our own sense of happiness, especially when what we consume contributes to the obliteration of pristine rain forests, coral reefs, and cherished landscapes.
Thinking more conscientiously about virtue and the journey we are on can help us to make wiser decisions about those attitudes and actions that exacerbate pollution, environmental damage, and climate breakdown. Arguably, the present environmental crisis represents the biggest threat to humanity’s ability to flourish. After all, how can our children hope to achieve what the Stoic philosophers referred to as the “good life” if the air is so polluted that their brains do not develop properly? How can they think well if they don’t have clean water to drink? Is it fair that some people prefer gas-guzzling SUVs and meat-heavy diets (and their excessive carbon emissions) if this leads to burning forests and rising sea levels and global temperatures, which destroy the homes of other people and their ability to grow crops? If it is not, environmentalism is not something that should be restricted to politicians (who haven’t done a particularly good job), political activists, or philosophers. Everyone should play their part in helping to secure a more sustainable (and consequently virtuous) path forward. For example, a musician could engage people with environmentally conscious lyrics; a religious leader could introduce environmental concerns into their sermons. Teachers could grapple with sustainability issues in their lesson plans, and fine artists could incorporate environmental themes in their canvases and sculptures. Chefs and restaurants could source their products from local farms, feature seasonal fruits and vegetables in their dishes, and share knowledge of these practices with diners. Even a car mechanic could do their bit for the planet by minimizing the environmental impact of their business by thinking about the appropriateness of repairing rather than replacing certain car parts, for example.
right thing for the right reason, it will involve an investment on your part. This may include taking more time to weigh potential solutions, talking them over with people you trust, and even paying a little more money for a more ethically sound option. Once you are better informed about the available choices, go one step further and ask which ones stand up to the scrutiny of a reasoned argument and exemplify the “right thing.” For instance, take the hypothetical example of a singer trying to make a living in the music business while promoting an environmental message. The singer should think not just about the lyrics in their songs but the way they conduct every aspect of their business. Do they try to minimize carbon emissions when they go on tour, or do they try to play at venues that do the same? Conversely, what “message” would it send if they sing about green values but lead an excessively materialistic lifestyle and actively encourage fans to mimic this and follow them as they globetrot from venue to venue, flying around the world?
This same dynamic applies to everyone. From a Stoic perspective, we should think very carefully about the appropriateness of our lifestyle choices to make sure they are consistent with our values. Stoicism is not about doing the impossible or trying to singlehandedly solve complex social or environmental issues. It’s about consistently doing what you can within the life you lead using the personality, knowledge, social role, network, and skill set that you already have. In short, it’s about changing your world for the better so that others too enjoy a better life alongside you.
This is an extract from the book Being Better, written by Kai Whiting and Leonidis Konstantakos and published by New World Libray. Reprinted with permission, with minor editorial changes to conform to THE STOIC style.