Epictetus on the Climate Crisis

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A 17 year old Climate activist recently told me I should stop saying “climate change” and start saying “climate crisis”, and she’s right. By this point, we all know the statistics, and some of us are tracking how much worse they get every week. Do the Stoics have anything to say to help steel ourselves in the face of our apocalyptic century?

Stoics are rightfully viewed as the Graeco-Roman technologists of the self par excellence. It is less well known that they were keen students of the natural world and lovers of science. If the ancient Stoics were faced with the incipient catastrophe of anthropogenic climate change, I don’t think their response would differ much from what they wrote millennia ago. Not about the climate crisis, of course, but about living well in the face of ever-present possibilities for chaos large and small.

After all, they wrote during times in which war, social chaos, and brutal political oppression were well known to most of them.

Epictetus

Epictetus, born in 55 CE, was a freed slave who taught in Rome before being banished by the emperor Domitian in the year 89 CE along with all other philosophers. He went to Greece and continued to teach there, along the way adopting an orphaned child. Realizing the child would do better with a mother, he married as well. He died in 135 CE after decades of teaching the disciplined quest for eudaimonia, or human freedom and happiness.

Epictetus’ prescription for freedom, despite its power, can be explained simply: Desire should only be directed towards the possible, because desiring the impossible will produce frustration and unhappiness. “Some things are within our power, while others are not,” Epictetus is recorded as saying by his disciple Arrian (c. 89–160 CE) in his Enchiridion (“Handbook”), a terse summary of important points from his teaching. “Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”

For Epictetus “the possible” is the refinement of our own understanding and the quality of our own choices. Our desire should strictly be directed only towards understanding and choosing well and not to anything else, including the expected or desired results of our choices. We should take our happiness only from thinking and choosing well (which is within our power) and not from getting what we want (which isn’t). Our pleasure should be in our own rationality and the good character that follows from it. We should not seek happiness in things that we want but which are impossible to control: our health, wealth, reputation, relationships, or even whether we continue to live or die.

Epictetus’s vision of the Stoic sage is one who restricts the lion’s share of their discernment and desire towards refining their own rationality, knowledge, and wise choices, and takes pleasure as much as possible in them alone. In doing so, they attain to imperturbability and joy even in the face of extreme circumstances:

“What, then,” asks Epictetus, “should we have at hand to help us in such emergencies? Why, what else than to know what is mine and what isn’t mine, and what is in my power and what isn’t? I must die; so must I die groaning too? I must be imprisoned; so must I grieve at that too? I must depart into exile; so can anyone prevent me from setting off with a smile, cheerfully and serenely?”

Tell me the secrets.

“I won’t reveal them; for that lies within my power.”

Then I’ll have you chained up.

“What are you saying, man, chain me up? You can chain my leg, but not even Zeus can overcome my power of choice.”

I’ll throw you into prison.

“You mean my poor body.”

I’ll have you beheaded.

“Why, did I ever tell you that I’m the only man to have a neck that can’t be cut?”

“These are the thoughts,” says Epictetus, “that those who embark on philosophy ought to reflect upon; it is these that they should write about day after day, and it is in these that they should train themselves.”

Epictetus does not shy away from the full implications of his own teaching, and his discourses are confrontational and blunt. The sage at each moment should assess the claims of their own thoughts. Do they have to do with the possible or the impossible? With what is up to me or what is not up to me? As he argues, “Practise, then, from the very beginning to say to every disagreeable impression [thought which causes suffering], You are a mere impression and not at all what you appear to be. Then examine it and test it by these rules that you possess, and first and foremost by this one, whether the impression relates to those things that are within our power or those that aren’t within our power; and if it relates to anything that isn’t within our power, be ready to reply, That is nothing to me.”

Epictetus provides a vignette of what this might look like:

“So what was it that Agrippinus [who conspired against the tyrant Nero] used to say? ‘I won’t become an obstacle to myself.’ The news was brought to him that ‘your case is being tried in the Senate’. ‘May everything go well! But the fifth hour has arrived’ (This was the hour in which he was in the habit of taking his exercise and then having a cold bath) so let’s go off and take some exercise.’

When he had completed his exercise, someone came and told him, You’ve been convicted.

‘To exile,’ he asked, ‘or to death?’

To exile.

‘What about my property?’

It hasn’t been confiscated.

‘Then let’s go away to Aricia and eat our meal there.’

“This is what it means to train oneself in the matters in which one ought to train oneself,” says Epictetus, “to have rendered one’s desires incapable of being frustrated, and one’s aversions incapable of falling into what they want to avoid. I’m bound to die. If at once, I’ll go to my death; if somewhat later, I’ll eat my meal, since the hour has arrived for me to do so, and then die afterwards.”

How does this apply to facing the climate crisis?

Applying Epictetus’s advice to our situation would mean, first of all, ending our desire to save human civilization and the current integrity of the biosphere, as shocking as that might sound. We may succeed in saving those things, but according to our best current projections, there is a very real possibility that we won’t. Therefore, Epictetus would say, we should not desire what may be impossible.

What we should desire is that we choose and act well. This would mean seeking to understand what is happening and making the most rational choices we can. This would include acting in ways that protect the earth’s ecology, trying to change government policies (or governments), protecting ourselves and our families, and many other things. It also means prioritizing building strong and serene characters. That’s the one thing, Epictetus claims, it is always in our power to do.

It might seem that Epictetus is preaching an indulgent quietism unmoored from the wider world. It might seem that in following his advice we will become comfortable narcissists, whistling while the world burns.

That’s not what we’re talking about.

Stoics were civic-minded and saw the person’s role in the global city of humanity- the cosmopolis- as being of central importance. For Epictetus, all people have multiple roles to fill in the cosmopolis, each of which should be embodied with excellence.

For example, being a good father requires certain choices and types of behaviour, and one should enact them. A key element of this doctrine is that one’s obligation lies solely in fulfilling one’s role. It does not lay in attaining anything outside of that, and especially not in being rewarded for it. As Epictetus said to a student of his who complained that his brother mistreated him: “So what? Your task is not to have a brother who loves you, which you cannot hope to succeed in, but yourself to be a good brother, which you can.”

When applied to climate change, this can be powerful guidance. What is our role as intelligent animals whose wellbeing is totally dependent on the integrity of the wider ecosystem? The Stoics, who sought lives of honour and responsibility, would certainly counsel living lives permeated by care towards the natural world.

In the face of the climate crisis, then, our Stoic task is not to save the ecosystem, which we cannot hope to succeed in doing. Our task is to fulfill our roles as good citizens of the earth, even if everything goes to hell.

Reducing our carbon footprint, curtailing our plastic waste, and engaging in activism and political involvement to reform our human societies- these are “up to us”, they are within our power. To quote a radically different source (Pirke Avot 2:21, a Jewish wisdom text), “It is not up to you to complete the task, but neither is it yours to neglect it.”

Note: this is a revised version of an earlier essay I published on Medium called “A Rational Animal On The Vulnerable Earth.”