Chapter 4 of Chris Gill's Learning to Live Naturally
What is meant by the rather paradoxical idea of learning to live naturally: if this process is natural, why do we need to learn it and what form does such learning take?
We have now reached Chapter 4 in our study of Chris Gill’s new book on Stoic ethics, Learning to Live Naturally. In Part I we discussed the connections between virtue and nature, in both its human and cosmic forms. We now turn to Part II, which dives more deeply into the human nature side of things. This includes two of my favorite topics: oikeiosis (which covers not only personal development but also affection and social relationships) and emotions. Part II also answers, in general terms, the question Gill poses at the top of this page (cited from p. 151): if virtue is natural, as the Stoics maintained, why and how do we have to learn it?
The Stoic answer to that question is ingenious. It’s built upon their concept of oikeiosis, which comes from the Greek word for household and means, roughly, “to make something your own.” For lack of a better term in English, it’s often translated as appropriation (Chris Gill’s choice), familiarization, affiliation, or similar terms that connote drawing something near to yourself.
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For me it’s actually very helpful to think about its opposite: alliotrosis, the Greek word for alienation. We all know what alienation means, right? It means feeling separate, estranged from the people around you, like you don’t belong. Oikeiosis, in contrast, implies belonging, understanding, alliance. Through the lifelong process of oikeiosis, we draw other people near to us, but we also come into alignment with ourselves. We discover our true nature as humans and grow into the people we are meant to be.
Underlying this process, as Gill explains in Chapter 4, is the Stoic idea that nature “appropriates” all animals to themselves by equipping them with two basic instincts: self-preservation and care for their young. He cites Cicero’s very clear explanation in On Duties:
From the beginning nature has assigned to every type of creature the tendency to preserve itself, its life and body, and to reject anything that seems likely to harm them, seeking and obtaining everything necessary for life, such as nourishment, shelter and so on. Common also to all animals is the impulse (appetitus) to unite for the purposes of procreation and a certain kind of care (cura quaedam) for those that are born.
As Diogenes Laertius points out (probably quoting Chrysippus), nature was not likely to create an animal and not give it the tools to flourish. Such a creature would not be long for this world and would certainly not be able to successfully procreate. The ancient Stoics saw this as evidence of providential Nature taking care of the world. Today we are more likely to see it as evidence of Darwinian natural selection, but either way, it’s clear that nature provides animals with the instincts they need to survive and pass their genes on to the next generation.
Developing our Rationality
So oikeiosis is “natural” in the sense that all creatures are genetically programmed to develop in ways appropriate for their species. In this respect, humans are no different than any other animal. However, we differ in one important way: our rationality. This great cognitive gift both “inform[s], and to some extent transform[s], the two basic motives common to humans and other animals” (p. 174). We are able to understand ourselves in a way other creatures are not, and our natural developmental process incorporates this understanding.
Humans start off as helpless infants, of course, but as we mature we develop both agency and advanced capacities for reasoning. In On Ends, Cicero describes the development of virtue alongside this growth in rationality, which Gill lays out as a three-stage process (cited from p. 175):
Stage 1: “Human beings, unlike other animals, naturally develop rationality and exercise this function in making a selection between things that do or do not maintain their constitution, that is, things according to nature or contrary to nature, or preferred and dispreferred indifferents.”
Stage 2: “This process of selection and rejection is also closely linked with the performance of appropriate acts; and these activities form the means by which human beings recognize what is really good, that is, virtue (or virtue-based happiness), and, increasingly, embody this in their actions and lives.”
Stage 3: “This, in turn, leads to the understanding that virtue, or happiness based on virtue, described as ‘right actions and the right itself ’, and also as ‘consistency’ or ‘order and harmony of actions’, constitutes the only real good and the proper object of choice. The things towards which humans were previously drawn (things according to nature), while they are still seen as having positive value, and as providing a valid basis for selection, are recognized as being of a qualitatively lesser order of value (that is, as preferred indifferents).”
Or, as Gill sums it up succinctly (p. 181):
Following the basic stage of instinctive attraction to things according to nature, we have:
(1) rational selection of ‘things according to nature’;
(2) increasingly consistent selection;
(3) the emergence of virtue, the recognition of the difference in value between virtue and indifferents, and virtue-based selection of indifferents.
The key to all this is our ability to look past surface appearances and see the patterns underlying human activity. When we do this, we recognize that being human is not about merely staying alive and acquiring superficially useful items (like food, social status, money, and the accoutrements of life). Rather, fulfilling our nature—or growing into ourselves as mature adults—requires excelling at those things most characteristic of humans, especially our rationality and sociability. This includes properly understanding the nature of things, including the world around us but also our own nature. Such understanding enables us to make good selections, which then reinforces our understanding and grows through a virtuous cycle toward wisdom.
Developing our Sociability
Elsewhere Cicero emphasizes the social side of this developmental process. Interestingly, he describes two socially-oriented motives that are “fundamental for human society” (p. 195):
The more basic one: a desire to procreate and care for children
The more complex one: a sense of community among all human beings as such
The more basic motive, procreation and care for young, we share with all other animals, but the more complex one is distinctively human. For Cicero, these advanced capabilities for forming communities and building wider social bonds go hand-in-hand with our rational development. As Gill puts it:
Our in-built human nature, as rational and sociable, and as disposed to care for others as well as ourselves, leads us to view ourselves as integral parts of social wholes, such as states, and, when appropriate, to value the common good of these wholes above our own. Put differently, like the sociable animals [Cicero] has just cited (ants, bees, and storks), we see ourselves as integral parts of a larger whole or body, but we do so in ways that reflect our distinctive rationality or our being sociable in a distinctively rational way.
The key for both Cicero and Gill is that we are “sociable in a distinctively rational way.” But the exact nature of the relationship between rationality and sociability in human development is actually a point of contention among Stoic scholars (yes, another one!). That’s because our existing sources on Stoicism don’t unambiguously state what this relationship is. There are tantalizing suggestions, in both Cicero and other Stoic writers, that rationality and sociability are closely intertwined, but there is plenty of room for interpretation on what that relationship actually looks like.
Some scholars see oikeiosis as based primarily on one instinct: our instinct for self-preservation. As we mature and understand our true nature as social animals, we naturally begin to give preference to other people as much as (or even above) ourselves. Thus the sage’s perfected sociability derives from her perfected rationality. Her completely correct judgment and understanding of her role as a social human transforms her instinct for self-preservation from self-focused to other-focused.
Other scholars, including Chris Gill and Julia Annas, see oikeiosis as based on two instincts: our instinct for self-preservation (personal development) and a different basic instinct to care for others (social development). These two instincts have a separate basis but complement each other over the course of human development. Gill sees Cicero’s work as supporting this viewpoint. Following Cicero’s line of argument, he weighs in for the two-instinct option:
The disposition to care for others is as fundamental a part of human nature as that of the disposition to care for ourselves or our constitution; thus, ethical development, when fully described, embraces the progressive unfolding and realization of both dispositions.
The development of our social disposition, Gill suggests, follows similar lines as that of our rationality: we must go through the process of leaving behind preferred indifferents in favor of virtue. Fully mature humans have shed their juvenile preoccupation with external “goods,” shifting their values toward dispositional goods like wisdom and justice. This occurs in both the personal and social strands of oikeiosis, ultimately culminating in our natural potential for virtue.
We began this post by asking: if virtue is natural, why does it have to be learned? The Stoic answer, as we’ve seen, rests on the natural process of oikeiosis. All humans are born with the potential to complete this process, although for various reasons not everyone does. You might say we are all born with the seeds or “starting points” of virtue. But, unlike for other creatures, it’s up to each human to fully realize our rationality and sociability. Given our advanced cognitive abilities and our singular capacity for moral choice, we have more freedom to express (or not express) the best aspects of ourselves.
Since you’re here reading about Learning to Live Naturally, you’ve already made the choice to work on your rational and social capacities. Thank you for taking this journey with me! Next time, we’ll look at another topic related to oikeiosis: does Stoic justice concern local and personal social relationships, or is it more about the broader community of humankind? We will see what Chris Gill has to say about this in the final part of Chapter 4. Please join me next time as we continue exploring Gill’s excellent new book, Learning to Live Naturally.
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I find the concept of oikeiosis to be of great importance in my own practise of Stoicism . Five years ago when I started to learn about Stoicism I found many of the concepts persuasive , unfortunately coming from scientific background I could not buy into the metaphysics . When I came across the concept of oikeiosis it allowed to rethink Stoicism and align it with my scientific view point , oikeiosis enabled me to take Stoicism seriously . Once I started to think in terms of oikeiosis regularly I noticed a psychological benefit , at 61 years of age rekindling the idea I could continue to develop was reinvigorating . Thank you discussing Chris Gill's book , looking forward to the next post .