BMCR 2023.04.19

Learning to live naturally: Stoic ethics and its modern significance

, Learning to live naturally: Stoic ethics and its modern significance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. 384. ISBN 9780198866169.



This book acts both as an introduction to Stoic ethics and as a challenge to scholars to think about Stoic ethics, as opposed to Aristotle, as a better ancient prototype for modern virtue ethics. Gill cautions in his preface that this is not meant as “life guidance for a general audience” (p. ix), but rather a reading of Stoic ethics framed in three parts: “Living Naturally”, “Learning to Live Naturally”, and “Stoic Ethics and Modern Moral Theory”. Like the Stoic triad of ethics, physics, and logic, these three parts are intertwined and shed light on one another in important ways. Gill is a sure guide to the material and the arguments, while dense at times, are persuasive throughout.

The first section is meant to provide the foundation for Stoic ethics in general. Thus, Gill concentrates on the Stoic claim that virtue alone can provide happiness (Chapter 1), on the role of “indifferents” in Stoic ethics (Chapter 2), and on the Stoic conception of nature (Chapter 3). If the Stoics encourage us to follow nature as a guide (e.g. Seneca’s propositum est nobis secundum rerum naturam vivere; Ben. 4.25.1), what exactly does that mean from an ethical standpoint? Does one follow human nature or universal nature? Gill comes to the conclusion that there is significant slippage between the terms and that a happy life is one that most closely harmonizes with both conceptions of nature. It is not an either/or proposition but more likely both/and, which he will stress throughout the book. The structure, order, and wholeness of universal nature undergird the Stoic virtues, but the formation of those virtues can be derived and expressed through community interactions and “appropriation” (his translation of oikeosis). Thus, “virtue consists in knowledge or expertise in living a happy life, conceived as the life according to nature” (52).

Gill’s second chapter, on “indifferents”, begins by elucidating the problematic nature of preferred “indifferents.” Such “indifferents” (e.g. health, wealth) become the material by which the virtuous man may express his proper and engaged Stoicism. Cicero’s De Officiis can shed much light on the ethical deliberations involved in living that sort of Stoic life, and Gill elucidates how this work presents “actions characteristic of the virtues” (76). I was especially taken by his reading of the Regulus passage as a paradigmatic, Ciceronian picture of Stoic virtuous deliberation (3.99-111). Gill clarifies more thoroughly what nature may mean to a Stoic in the third chapter and how exactly Stoic ethics relates to nature. He finds that the relationship between physics and ethics is mutually supporting and reinforcing, and he leads readers through three possible interpretations of a passage from Chrysippus to understand fully how harmonizing with universal nature is to be conceived.[1] This chapter does a nice job pointing out that there can be variation between the sources as to the theological ramifications for universal nature and its impact on ethics (and vice versa).

Following Gill’s deep dive into nature, the second section of the book discusses how we develop the understanding to live naturally and the apparent paradox: “if this process is natural, why do we need to learn it and what form does such learning take?” (151). Appropriation is a major factor in one’s ethical development and is the subject of the fourth chapter. Gill’s analysis focuses primarily on four passages of Cicero (Fin. 3.16-22, 62-8, Off. 1.11-15, 50-9) which he reads together to get a more complete view of Stoic appropriation, especially the questions of whether the appropriation of oneself and others is natural and how it relates to ethical progress. Gill concludes, “The theory of appropriation helps to make sense of the key Stoic ethical ideas (especially that virtue is the sole basis for happiness) by correlating them with a credible conception of nature and natural development. In this respect, the presentation of ethical development (conceived as appropriation of oneself and others) as natural does real philosophical work in supporting the distinctive Stoic ethical ideas” (192). While Stoics are often thought to be dour, emotionless stiffs (hence our “stoic”), Gill’s subsequent chapter considers the emotional dimension of ethical development. This fine chapter explores how emotional and ethical development go hand in hand; the psychological cohesion that accompanies one’s philosophical progress can aid in the therapy of emotions. By examining how Stoic thinkers appraise Medea’s decision-making process as well as examples from Marcus’ Meditations, Seneca, and Epictetus, Gill stresses that emotions derive from rational judgements and that Stoic philosophers support “the linkage accentuated … between ethical development, including the social strand, and good emotions, as well as freedom from bad ones” (237).

The final section of the work aims to show the links between ancient Stoic ethical ideas and modern virtue ethics. Stoic thinkers, with their idea that virtue is the only good, can form a better basis for modern virtue ethics than Aristotle, whose loose ends and ambiguities may not offer the firmest foundation.[2] Gill finds that the holistic, unified view of virtue that the Stoics espouse gives a role to both theory and practice in moral progress and helps to refute the charges of selfishness and egotism that are often made against eudaimonism. Because Stoic happiness has an other-directed dimension, through oikeosis, Stoicism provides a different perspective on the egoism-altruism contrast often found in virtue ethics. Additionally, the role of nature in ethics can also be a fruitful way to show Stoicism’s contribution, and Gill’s seventh chapter is devoted to the way Stoic natura can inform contemporary philosophical debates. This chapter felt the least fleshed-out to me, and while it assesses the way that Stoicism can support environmental ethics, it does not engage with Stoic texts about the natural world with any depth.[3] The conclusion that the Stoic conception of universal nature “offers a highly suggestive framework for a virtue ethical account of environmental ethics” (306) is surely true, but the chapter could have gone into more depth about Stoic texts versus the overviews of modern accounts such as Foot and Hursthouse,[4] and the rather obvious connections between environmental thinking and a philosophy devoted to living a life “according to nature”. The final chapter of the book stresses that Stoic thinking can be applied today and points out how it informs contemporary therapies such as CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy). Gill surveys how Stoic life-guidance resembles and differs from other models of virtue ethics and provides an overview of the syllabus of the “Modern Stoicism” project that he has pioneered. This chapter acts as a good conclusion for the book as a whole in that it allows Gill to demonstrate that Stoic ethical thinking can shape modern thought and that it can be an effective counter to Aristotelian views of ethical development.

While Gill makes sure to keep footnotes to a minimum and to translate his ancient sources, I think this would be a difficult book to tackle for most general readers. For specialists, one will enjoy his thoroughness and his holistic use of sources from fragments of Chrysippus to Epictetus as well as the way he responds to modern critics such as Annas and Inwood.[5] While Gill points out variations between certain Stoic thinkers, he could have stressed the basis for such variable positions even more emphatically and spent more time on Stoic sources apart from Cicero, who takes up a majority of the ancient evidence.[6] With evidence, sometimes fragmentary, scattered over a period of 500 years in a variety of genres, it would have been beneficial to bring in more of the later Roman Stoics and to show the varied emphases of different authors, or of the same author in different genres or with different audiences. That being said, Gill is careful to lay out his argument, previous interpretations of the material, and his novel points in a judicious and straightforward manner in this successful monograph.



[1] The Chrysippus passage is found in Diogenes Laertius (7.88): “Therefore, the goal becomes ‘to live consistently with nature’, i.e. according to one’s 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.”

[2] Gill finds Nicomachean Ethics 1.8-10 and 10.7-8 especially problematic “in their treatments of virtue, happiness, and the contribution of other valuable things, and of the relationship between practical and theoretical forms of virtue and happiness” (255).

[3] For example, Seneca’s Naturales Quaestiones does not appear at all in the chapter.

[4] Foot, P. (2001) Natural Goodness, Oxford University Press, and Hursthouse, R. (1999) On Virtue Ethics, Oxford University Press.

[5] Especially Annas, J. (1993) The Morality of Happiness, Oxford University Press, and Inwood, B. (1999) “Rules and Reasoning in Stoic Ethics,” in K. Ieradiakonou (ed.), Topics in Stoic Philosophy, Oxford University Press: 95-127.

[6] A quick glance at the index shows that he is cited more often than Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus combined.