Chapter 3 of Chris Gill's Learning to Live Naturally
So far in our review of Chris Gill’s magisterial work, Learning to Live Naturally, we’ve talked about human nature as the basis for virtue and happiness. We’ve also discussed how indifferents (the material for virtue) align with nature and our goal to live in agreement with it. But we haven’t talked much about the cosmic, big-picture Nature that we are all part of. So this is the post where we dive into that important, misunderstood, and controversial topic.
I say “controversial” because this is probably the most contentious area of modern Stoic scholarship, both for academics and for practicing Stoics. Precisely because it is so contentious, Chris Gill’s book is an exceptionally valuable contribution to the discussion. Not only is he one of the world’s foremost experts on Stoicism and ancient thought, Gill is also highly involved with Stoicism’s practical application through Modern Stoicism. His opinion is, therefore, authoritative and, as far as I’m concerned, definitive.
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If you’re at all familiar with Stoic physics, you probably know that the ancient Stoics viewed the cosmos as imbued with a divine “breath” that provides different levels of “tension” to all of creation: rationality to humans, intention and locomotion in animals, and varying capacities to plants, rocks, and other elements of the cosmos. In this system there was no god outside the universe; rather, every part of creation participates in the inherent divinity of Nature. Nature was seen as rational and providential, exhibiting the properties of order, structure, and wholeness.
This outline of ancient Stoic theology is well-known and is not really in doubt by anyone. Where the doubt comes in is how this cosmology (which falls under the umbrella of physics) relates to the other two branches of Stoic philosophy, especially ethics. We know nature was very important to the ancient Stoics, but is their ethics based on human nature, cosmic nature, both, or neither?
This is the topic Chris Gill tackles in Chapter 3 of Learning to Live Naturally. He begins by reviewing the current state of this debate and acknowledging that both human nature and cosmic nature are important in Stoicism. He then outlines the primary focus of the chapter: “I take it as obvious that nature, both human and universal, plays a significant role in Stoic ethics; the problem is to determine precisely what this role is” (p. 111).
Today we’ll begin with a quick overview of the debate, move on to Gill’s very elegant solution, and then discuss how cosmic nature was understood by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. This is a pretty advanced and nuanced topic, and I’ll be packing a lot into this blog post. But I hope you’ll hang in there with me, because clarity on this issue is worth it. Let’s jump in!
The Nature/Nature Debate
Some scholars claim that acceptance of Stoic theology (what Gill calls “the Stoic worldview”) is necessary to accept any other Stoic claims in ethics or logic. Other scholars (most notably Julia Annas, Terence Irwin, and Chris Gill) argue that Stoic theology (and physics more broadly) is not foundational to Stoic ethics, although the two fields certainly are connected. These scholars propose, rather, that the three traditional fields of inquiry (logic, ethics, and physics) are intertwined and mutually supporting, but none takes precedence. Stoic ethics does not depend on Stoic physics, although of course the two are interrelated and mutually supportive.
Their physics-independent view rests partly on the fact that the open-ended nature of this conversation probably goes all the way back to the early Stoa. While Stoic cosmology dates from at least Cleanthes (Zeno’s successor), there has always been scope for different scholars to interpret it in different ways. Even in antiquity there does not seem to have been one standard theological position that was uncritically accepted by all Stoics. Apparently this has always been an area open to consideration and reinterpretation.
Part of the confusion, if it can be called such, appears to go all the way back to Chrysippus, “who defined happiness in terms of both universal and human nature” (p. 148). As Gill points out, the fact that even Chrysippus was ambiguous about the physics-ethics relationship suggests that neither one is foundational to the other. If it were, this would be clearly stated (which it never is) and consistently presented (which is it not). Instead, while various sources make reference to human nature, cosmic nature, or both in their discussion of ethics, neither of these appear consistently in every presentation.
Of course, a big part of the problem in this debate is the dearth of original Greek texts on this topic. Certainty is difficult, and conjecture is necessary. Scholars must piece together a coherent picture primarily from the three surviving accounts of later philosophers: Diogenes Laertius, Stobaeus (probably based on an account from Arius Didymus), and Cicero. Each of these sources has its own challenges in presentation or reliability, so the modern task of interpretation is not easy.
A New Approach to the Debate
As usual, Chris Gill evaluates the available evidence with clarity and precision. In considering how these three surviving accounts explain core Stoic ethical principles, he lays out four different possibilities (cited verbatim from p. 112):
(1) These principles can be presented in terms of the standard concepts of Greek ethical theory (virtue, happiness, good and so on), though modified in the light of the distinctive claims of Stoic ethics.
(2) They can be presented in ethical terms (those of type (1)), combined with reference to human nature.
(3) They can be presented in ethical terms, along with a mode of analysis (notably the theory of development as appropriation) which conceives human nature as part of a broader natural pattern of forms of life.
(4) They can be presented in ethical terms, together with reference to universal or cosmic nature (or god).
Gill argues that the three surviving ethical accounts are primarily formulated in terms of standard Greek ethical terms (Type 1). However, in each account additional arguments are added to support this presentation: Stobaeus uses (1) and (2), while Diogenes Laertius and Cicero use both (1), (3), and (4). As a result, “A clear implication of this overall pattern of presentation is that each of these modes, including type (1), is regarded by Stoics as constituting a valid way of stating core ethical principles” (p. 112).
Many of the scholars who argue that Stoic physics is foundational to ethics tend to emphasize passages in Type 4, but Gill points out that this mode of presentation is not prominent in the three surviving ethical accounts. It is mentioned briefly by both Cicero and Diogenes Laertius, but rather than standing alone, it is used to bolster Type 1 arguments. The same could be said for Types 2 and 3—these are not usually presented as stand-alone arguments but as complementary to the Type 1 presentation of standard Greek ethical concepts. Therefore Type 1 seems to be a consistent feature of Stoic ethical accounts, while Types 2, 3, and 4 are seen as providing additional support.
Gill contrasts this cast-the-net-wide approach to Stoic ethics with examples of other religions and philosophies that do truly rely on categorical ethical foundations. In Christianity, for instance, God is “the ultimate standard of value and source of normativity” (p. 124), while for deontologists and Utilitarians morality is firmly grounded in foundational principles. These examples are revealing because they show that Stoicism lacks the same type of categorical formulation. Stoic moral principles are not derived from universal nature: “the Stoic worldview, or the idea of universal nature, is not presented as essential or indispensable for the core Stoic ethical claims” (p. 125-126). Conclusion: the relationship between physics and ethics is close but not foundational.
Personally, I find Gill’s arguments extremely convincing and this systematic typology highly illuminating. And, crucially, this is not just helpful for interpreting ancient Stoicism; it also helps us as contemporary Stoics to figure out our own perspective on this topic. I was also able to locate my own opinions within this schematic, and I would encourage you to think about where you stand as well.
Cosmic Nature in Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius
The next order of business is examining in more detail what the ancient Stoics understood by cosmic or universal nature. We know, for example, that the later Roman Stoics like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius had quite a lot to say on the topic of Nature, providence, and God. What did they mean, and how does this fit into the picture sketched above?
It all goes back to an important but ambiguous passage from Chrysippus, which was quoted and interpreted in different ways even in antiquity:
Therefore, the goal becomes ‘to live consistently with nature’, i.e. according to one’s one own [i.e. human] nature and that of the universe, doing nothing which is forbidden by the common law, which is right reason, penetrating all things, being the same as Zeus, who is the leader of the administration of things. And this itself is the virtue of the happy person and a smooth flow of life, whenever all things are done according to the harmony of the daimōn in each of us with the will of the administrator of the universe.
(cited in Gill, p. 133-134)
Gill points out that this passage solidifies some significant ideas for Stoic physics. I’m calling out these ideas here because I think they hold the key to properly understanding Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius (cited from p. 134):
the goal of life consists in the establishment of a special kind of connection (‘harmony’, sumphōnia) between the mind or rationality (daimōn) of the human being and core principles of nature.
we can supply the connotations of human and universal nature already discussed; that is, in the case of human nature, the combination of rationality and sociability, and in universal nature, the combination of structure, order, and wholeness, and providential care.
‘harmonizing’ oneself with the administrator of the whole means realizing the best qualities of both human nature and universal nature, in so far as they can be expressed at the human level.
This emphasis on harmonizing ourselves to nature leads to one of the most prominent themes in Roman Stoicism: acceptance of fate, even misfortune, as necessary at the cosmic level. You can probably recall many examples in which Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus advise accepting life’s challenges as the will of Nature. They both emphasize that even unpleasant events are “providentially shaped” and “in some sense, working out for the best” (p. 141). Rather than fighting our fate, Marcus and Epictetus suggest, we should welcome it and harmonize ourselves to its reality.
You might think that this leads us back into the territory of ethics depending on physics, since “harmonizing ourselves to the will of Zeus” helps us to endure hardship. But this is where things get interesting. Gill argues that this recognition is not enough, on its own, to engender the joyful acceptance advocated by Stoics. Rather, such acceptance must come from the ethical side, as realized through our lifelong development toward wisdom:
Epictetus highlights the fact that, in the absence of virtue, people regularly curse or dismiss Zeus and his will and bitterly resent the fact that their wishes are not being fulfilled in reality. In other words…what is needed is not only the recognition of divine action but also that of the radical distinction in value between virtue and preferred indifferents. This in turn implies that, for this recognition to take place and to have the desired effect, what is required is not just a certain way of understanding nature or the course of events but also ethical development, as presented in Stoic thought, involving both development in beliefs (about what is really good) and the correlated change in emotional response.”
In other words, a grasp of Stoic physics alone is not enough to produce an ethical outlook. Virtue first of all requires a clear understanding of Stoic ethical principles. So we once again have evidence of physics supporting ethics but not determining ethics. While the Stoic worldview on harmonizing yourself with Nature certainly reinforces our ethical development, that development still must happen through other channels. A similar idea is found in the writings of Marcus Aurelius:
“Although Marcus’ comments presuppose that, in his view, events work out in a providential way, he also brings out that recognizing this providential role depends on developing virtue and the associated attitudes and actions. In other words, for him too, the understanding of the ethical significance of nature is inseparable from ethical development more generally.”
This thought brings us back to the typology we examined above, in which basic Greek ethical ideas (Type 1) may stand alone or may be supported by human and cosmic nature (Types 2, 3, 4). Even in Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius (who are often cited in support of the physics-first argument), cosmic nature is not a foundation for ethics but rather a close and supportive companion.
Thank you for coming with me on this fascinating exploration of cosmic nature. We’ve covered a lot of ground, and I hope you’ve learned as much as I have from Chapter 3 of Chris Gill’s Learning to Live Naturally. We have now finished reviewing the first part of the book. After a brief intermission next week, we will resume with Part II, which covers oikeiosis and emotions. See you then!
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