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«Enlightened Self-Interest: In Search of the Ecological Self (A Synthesis of Stoicism and Ecosophy) BARTLOMIEJ LENART UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA Abstract ...»

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Praxis, Vol. 2, No. 2, Summer 2010 ISSN 1756-1019

Enlightened Self-Interest: In Search of the Ecological

Self (A Synthesis of Stoicism and Ecosophy)




Neass’ Ecosophy and the Stoic attitude towards environmental ethics

are often believed to be incompatible primarily because the first is often

understood as championing an ecocentric standpoint while the latter espouses an egocentric (as well as an anthropocentric) view. This essay, however, argues that such incompatibility is rooted in a misunderstanding of both Ecosophy and Stoicism. Moreover, the essay argues that a synthesis of both the Ecosophical and Stoic approaches to environmental concerns results in a robust and satisfying attitude toward the environment, namely an enlightened self-interest, which not only guards our fragile environment from abuse, but also provides self-interested reasons and motivations for the protection of our natural surroundings.

“No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure that he does. The hare in its extremity cries like a child. I warn you, mothers, that my sympathies do not always make the usual phil-anthropic distinctions. Such is oftenest the young man’s introduction to the forest, and the most original part of himself. He goes thither at first as a hunter and fisher, until at last, if he has the seeds of a better life in him, he distinguishes his proper objects, as a poet or naturalist it may be, and leaves the gun and fish-pole behind. The mass of men are still and always young in this respect.” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods)1 1 Thoreau 1854, p. 138.



Introduction In The Nature of the Gods, Cicero (45, p.77) writes: “Now the universe is, so to speak, the sower, planter, begetter, tutor, and nurturer of all things ordered by nature; it gives nourishment and support to all things, for these are in a sense its limbs and parts.” As much as the above could be understood as a precursor of many of the ecocentric attitudes found amongst environmentalists today, it is important to note that the ancients did not share most of our contemporary environmental concerns and views. Cicero, several pages down, continues: “It remains finally for me to show in my peroration that all things in this universe of ours have been created and prepared for us humans to enjoy” (Cicero 45, p.103).

There is a deeper similarity worthy of investigation, however, underlying the prima facie contrast between ancient approaches to ethics and morality and contemporary environmental movements. In particular, I think there is a striking similarity between Stoicism and Arne Naess’ elucidation of deep ecology, one that gives birth to a novel and quite reasonable approach to environmental ethics.

This paper explores the possibility of such a synthesis. I propose an approach that, at first glance, may appear to take one step back from the type of environmental consciousness advocated by followers of Aldo Leopold or Albert Schweitzer, but one that I believe provides a reasonable alternative. We can redefine our place in the world by revisiting the wisdom of the ancients in light of our contemporary understanding of and concerns for the environment. And thus, rather than taking a step back, it is my hope that the vision of an enlightened self-interest presented in this paper proves to be a stride toward an environmental consciousness.

Stoicism and Oikeiosis The Stoics identify happiness or flourishing (eudaimonia) as the goal or end (telos) of living. The fact that morality and the pursuit of the good life are not separate concerns, but rather, are intimately intertwined, is a salient feature of Stoicism. For the Stoics, happiness can only be achieved by living in agreement, or in accordance, with nature.

The Stoic theory of Oikeiosis speaks of a natural ‘primary attachment’ to oneself.

In Letter 121, Seneca writes:

An animal has a primary attachment to itself; for there must be something to which other things can be referred…Nature brings forth her offspring, she does

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not toss them aside. And because the most reliable form of protection comes from what is closest, each one is entrusted to itself…Nature has bestowed on animals this primary tool for survival, attachment to and love for oneself. (Seneca 64b, pp.88-89) And again, Diogenes Laertius records Chrysippus’ understanding of this ‘primary

attachment’ or a primal familiarity with oneself as follows:

An animal’s first impulse, say the Stoics, is to self-preservation, because nature from the outset endears it to itself, as Chrisippus affirms in the first book of his work On Ends: his words are, ‘The dearest thing to every animal is its own constitution and its consciousness thereof.’ (Laertius, n.d., 193)

Hierocles explains Oikeiosis in terms of circles of familiarity:

The first and nearest circle is the one which a person has drawn around his own mind…Second, further from the centre and enclosing the first one, is the one in which are placed parents, siblings, wife and children. Third is the one in which are uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers, siblings’ children and also cousins. Next the circle including other relatives. And next the one including fellow-demesmen; then the one of fellow tribesmen…The furthest and largest, which includes all the circles, is that of the whole human race. (in Annas, 1993, p.267) Oikeiosis, then, suggests that human beings should feel akin to all beings that are similar to them precisely because they are “familiar.” Oikeion (meaning ‘akin to’ or ‘what belongs to you’) as opposed to allotrion (‘alien’ or ‘not belonging’), then, suggests that if humans are essentially rational beings, all rational things belong to the same “familiar” group. Thus, humans, by nature, belong to the community of rational beings. This, of course, illustrates the ratiocentricity environmentalists criticize. However, I shall argue that the theory of Oikeiosis leaves ample room for rational valuers to bestow value on their environments in virtue of their intimate entanglement with them in a manner that, for the purposes of moral considerability, blurs the distinction between rational and non-rational entities.

It may prove useful to interpret the Stoic notion of various and widening circles of familiarity in light of the insight offered by the ethics of care. Understanding the moral importance of the proximity of the various spheres in terms of the care-focused insight that morality starts in the home (that is, that it arises out of the close kin ties one first encounters in the home) sheds light on why the various circles are categorized in ever-distanced relations to the moral agent who rightly remains at the center of her moral world. Such a comparison also suggests to me that the idea that morality ought to be grounded in the primitive human impulse to care about that which is familiar is, in fact, on the right track.


Thus, Oikeiosis, to my mind, implies a natural tendency of human beings to be concerned with others (human as well as possibly non-human members of the community of rational beings) and it suggests a much wider citizenship than merely the local citizenship we normally think we possess (i.e. being a citizen of Athens, of Poland, of Canada, etc.).

“Morally, we have a dual citizenship, in the embedded circumstances of our life and in the community of reason” (Annas, 2002, p.109). Marcus Aurelius (c. 170-180, p.44) writes: “[M]y nature is rational and social; and my city and country, so far as I am Antoninus, is Rome; but so far as I am a man, it is the world.” We are members of a universal moral community of rational beings where moral considerability is owed to all such members within this community (including ourselves). In arguing that membership of a community implies that moral agents in that community ought to treat all other members with equal moral considerability, I by no means deny that we may indeed give priority to certain members of our moral community over others (a claim the synthesis I propose in fact endorses). Although individual cases may call for certain proximityrelated choices, generally, when we move beyond such individual cases, we ought to consider all members taking part in the moral community to be morally considerable.

And such considerability applies equally to all members of a moral community even if individual agents in individual cases under certain circumstances may be justified to assign more weight to one member than another.

The bond of this universal citizenship defines us as much as our ability to reason does. It at once unites all rational beings and, prima facie, distinguishes rational from non-rational beings, but also hints at the intimate entanglement of reason with the cosmos as a whole.

To the Stoics, the universe is rational in a sense: it has order. Being mindful of that is part of what it means to flourish as a human being. Part of the reason mindfulness of the order of the universe becomes important for the Stoics derives from their deterministic view of agency and freedom of the will, a position that earned the Stoics numerous critics even in ancient times. Perhaps part of the aversion many people have to Stoicism today stems from its deterministic (and arguably fatalistic) metaphysics, which informs and shapes Stoic ethical thought. Human beings, on the Stoic view, are born into their stations in life and cannot exercise control over most of the things that affect them. In the Enchiridion, Epictetus reminds us of this and offers counsel about how we should cope with the feeling of helplessness that accompanies the realization that our cherished freedom is, at least for the most part, an illusion.

Remember that you are an actor in a play, which is as the playwright wants it to be: short if he wants it short, long if he wants it long. If he wants you to play a beggar, play even this part skilfully, or a cripple, or a public official, or a private

–  –  –

citizen. What is yours is to play the assigned part well. But to choose it belongs to someone else. (in Holowchak, 2004, p.202) Eudaimonia for the Stoics, in light of their deterministic view of the world, can be achieved only by living in agreement or in accordance with nature. And, being mindful of the ordered universe, for a follower of Stoicism, accomplishes just that. That is, such mindfulness is necessary in order to live in accordance with nature. It is important to note, however, that, although order is unveiled to reason, it is not necessary for an ordered universe to be rational itself. However, recognizing this order should prompt the contemplative soul to realize that her rationality, which is capable of appreciating the natural order, is inseparably wedged into and intimately determined by the natural world she observes. Even though the Stoics were quite ratiocentric, their conception of the value of rationality is intimately intertwined with the world that gives birth to and harbours rational beings. This, I hope to show, goes some ways toward my proposed thesis that, although the enlightened selfinterest of rational beings may be the source of value, the value such rational creatures bear spills over and is intimately tied to the non-rational world.

Seneca, in Letter 66 (64b, p.20), while arguing for the thesis that no one good is greater than any other, states that “Ulysses hastened home to the rocks of his beloved Ithaca just as Agamemnon did to the noble walls of Mycenae; for no one loves his homeland because it is great, but because it is his own.” The passage suggests that the ‘primary attachment’ is not only to other rational beings, but to anything that is one’s own or one’s ‘familiar.’ Thus, the concept of Oikeiosis can be stretched beyond the sphere of reason and rationality (though perhaps only in the presence of a rational valuer). The theory of Oikeiosis seems to suggest that something is instilled with value precisely because it belongs to, or is a familiar of, the valuer. The humble, rocky Ithaca is as valuable to Ulysses as the wealthy, noble Mycenae is to Agamemnon. As a means of foreshadowing my proposed synthesis, it is interesting to note that Aldo Leopold thinks of the land as a community, which comes quite close to the theory of Oikeiosis interpreted in the manner I am suggesting above.

One’s universal citizenship appears, in some sense, to widen one’s self (at least insofar as one comes to care for one’s immediate family as much as one cares for oneself, etc.).

Furthermore, Oikeiosis suggests a certain re-structuring of the self and one’s understanding of one’s place in the world. Oikeiosis, then, promises a possible means by which something (i.e. a place or a natural ecosystem) can be instilled with value.


Arne Naess’ Ecosophy Arne Naess’ Deep Ecology is not so much an activist stance (as might be the case with the shallow ecological movement), as it is an environmentalist philosophy, an ecosophy.

Ecosophy’s primary concern is with the “[r]ejection of the human-in-environment image in favor of the relational, total-field image” (Naess, 1995a, p.3) where organisms are viewed as knots in a biospherical net, web, or field of intrinsic relations. Ecosophy “is meant to characterize a way of thinking about environmental problems that attacks them from the roots, i.e., the way they can be seen as symptoms of the deepest ills of our present society” (Rothenberg, 1995, p.155).

It is important to remember that, although Naess’ Ecosophy focuses on deeper, perhaps more basic issues, it does not discount all the shallow ecological concerns. Focusing solely on resource depletion and pollution problems is not enough, however. We must begin by restructuring our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the environment.

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