2.1. A Stoic Education for Social Transformation and Sustainable Development
In this paper, the term “education” refers to what is learned and taught in formal, non-formal, and informal settings. It is used in the modern sense because the ancients would not have understood it in the way we do today, despite the great importance they attributed to the processes of teaching and learning [21
]. Whilst Stoicism calls for the education of human beings, it focuses much more on the nature of human behaviour than it does on an educative school system [22
]. This is also, incidentally, why Stoic virtue ethics applied to educational ideas must be approached indirectly.
To paraphrase the modern philosopher, Julia Annas [23
], in her book Intelligent Virtue
, a virtue is an active, persistent feature; that is to say, a characteristic and tendency to be (think and act) in a certain way. It is also something that is developed through selective and deliberate responses to a given circumstance or situation. To use Annas’ example, if generosity is a virtue (as Christians suggest but Stoics do not) then a person’s virtue will be strengthened or weakened by her generous or stingy actions respectively. Similar reasoning with regard to education for the “common good” is likewise put forward by Reich [24
] and Sison et al. [25
From a Stoic epistemological and ontological perspective, virtue is a type of “knowledge”, and virtues stem from dispositions (a state of mind or “soul”) that allow (or compel) an agent to assent to cognitive (true, clear, distinct) impressions [26
]. In Stoic philosophy, justice, courage, prudence and self-control are the four virtues that constitute the only true good. Together they are all that is necessary and sufficient for happiness. In contrast, there are no circumstances where injustice is good, nor cowardice, stupidity or ignorance. Likewise, under a Stoic framework, there are no circumstances in which greed is good (despite the recent popular maxim), as it is the opposite of self-control.
According to Stoicism, everything other than the four virtues is of secondary importance and referred to as “externals”. These are then categorised as “preferred indifferents” or “dispreferred indifferents”. This does not mean that Stoics are uninterested, unconcerned or unresponsive to externals, but rather that they are aware that they do not necessarily nor sufficiently in and of themselves bring about virtue. Health and wealth are two well-known externals, and it is natural for humans to desire good health rather than illness, or wealth rather than poverty. One can argue, therefore, that while Stoics value health and wealth, they also regard these externals as having no impact on one’s morality (virtue or vice), nor indeed on one’s happiness (eudaimonia). A person can be wealthy, yet morally bankrupt; physically weak, yet morally strong. Likewise, one can be healthy and wealthy yet utterly miserable. Conversely, one may be poor and sick, yet content in knowing that their present condition or circumstance does not define them nor prevent them from achieving eudaimonic wellbeing. In sum, wealth and good health, although both valuable (one would rather have them than not), make no moral difference; hence the Stoic indifference toward them.
Within Stoic philosophy, a purely virtuous person is one who, by definition, while not omniscient, is incapable of making a [moral] mistake [27
]. Such a person, if indeed she or he exists (or has ever existed), is referred to as a “sage”. A central figure in Stoicism, a sage is one who has perfected the four virtues. As Irwin [28
] explains, a sage always does the right [moral] thing, and for the right reasons. Consequently, given their perfect morality and the knowledge they can reasonably be expected to have at any moment, the impressions and actions of sages will be correct. Unfortunately, however, in proposing the usefulness of Stoicism in a modern pedagogical context, the notion of the sage is problematic, although logically and epistemologically necessary. Such an individual is unlikely to exist due to the type of educational structures that we have established in society and the pervasiveness of so-called “goods” that Stoics would consider to be moral “indifferents” [29
For most Stoics, the sage represents a moral ideal, or a thought experiment. It is a state which can be approximated (and even hoped for) but could possibly never be achieved. As particularly striking propositions of an unattainable ideal, the goals of perfect health or sustainable development provide everyday examples of the same reasoning. The articulation of sustainable development is intended to plot a course in the (vaguely) right direction. Being or becoming “more sustainable”, therefore, does not consist of a legally or politically binding set of ascribed deeds. Instead, it is an impression concerning the best course of action that society can pursue [30
]. In other words, any consensus as to what “sustainable” action consists of can only ever be agreed upon in the nominal sense.
In this respect, we would argue that one can draw a parallel between the awareness gained by Stoics regarding their moral obligation to act virtuously, and the decision taken by society regarding moral obligations towards future generations and their collective ability to realise their own visions of the good life [31
When distinguishing “virtues” from “values”, it is important to remember that the latter can be preferred or dispreferred, and that this judgment is dependent on particular circumstances or contexts. For Stoics, consistently choosing preferable externals in appropriate circumstances leads to a “good” disposition, exemplified by a “virtuous” thought or act. By way of extension, we can say that if Stoics value sustainable development, then it is only by consistently striving for virtue that society would truly operate in harmony with human nature, and with Nature generally (as implied, for example, in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals—SDGs). In his Republic
, Stoicism’s founder, Zeno, envisioned a political State of sages as an anarchical utopia. Each sage would be thinking and acting appropriately (rationally and virtuously), and would not require legally stated laws or decrees to guide them [32
]. Thus, Stoic philosophers, perhaps optimistically, believed that any divergence from the neurotypical adult’s desire or inclination to progress towards virtue (and thus eudaimonia
) was a corruption of one’s human nature and capacity to act rationally. For Stoics, a perfectly rational (and, therefore, virtuous) response would always be consistent with their inherent moral obligation, determined by the concepts of cosmopolitanism and the circles of concern [33
The original concept of the circles of concern developed by the Stoic Hierocles begins with the circle of the “self” and thereupon a successive set that encompasses “family”, “friends”, “community”, and “all humanity”. Cosmopolitanism invites a person to reach beyond the “self” and bring each circle back in upon its predecessor, until one is able to recognise oneself in all of humanity and all of humanity in oneself. If a Stoic also acknowledges their connection to the living Earth, as the environment that necessarily sustains and supports all of the preceding circles, then their concern naturally extends to non-human living beings and the ecosystems upon which they depend [30
]. Any divergence from this norm would also necessarily constitute a failure to recognise the distinctly Stoic ethical theory of oikeiosis
(appropriation). Although a detailed discussion of this concept lies beyond the scope of this paper, it is worth stating that cosmopolitanism encompasses the natural instinct humans, and other living beings, share in preserving and caring for members of their own tribe for their own self-preservation (please see Long and Sedley [34
], 57, esp. A, F(1)).
The distinction between virtues (which constitute absolute “good”) and values is apparent in the oxymoronic promotion of the UN’s SDGs, many of which hinge upon national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the notion of “sustained growth”. This can be identified by posing the following questions related to the discourse of sustainability: “Whose interests does a sustainable development based on economic growth really promote? And, at whose or what expense?” A traditional or indigenous community may find that in the name of “sustainability”, their natural environment and social fabric have become devalued or demoted as secondary to “economic wellbeing” [35
]. This is a complex problem frequently discussed by Freirean ecopedagogues such as Misiaszek [14
], Misiaszek and Misiaszek [36
] and Gadotti and Torres [13
]. The fact that such a contradiction exists in the UN’s SDGs demonstrates just how entrenched neoliberal ideology is in modern society and how engrossed societies are by growth and capital accumulation [37
]. Such value judgements and actions are likely to be antithetical to sustainable development and actually undermine its progress. This is why it is important to evaluate development policies through a critical lens.
For the Stoic student and teacher, it is useful to understand epistemology in order to comprehend how mistakes (such as the doublespeak involved in expressing a desire for “sustained growth”) are made, and how both correct and incorrect judgements of impressions are formed. From a Stoic epistemological stance, knowledge (excepting perhaps the ethical knowledge derived by oikeiosis
) may be obtained through forms of inquiry based on Socratic dialectic, a method that challenges assumptions and cross-examines received ideas [38
]. For example, when charged with identifying and promoting progress towards sustainable development, an educational framework based on Stoic ideals should ensure that scientific literacy is put into practice by the students themselves. This way they can properly understand the reality of complex phenomena such as climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental challenges. From a Stoical perspective, one should also be aware of the hard limits of science, as well as the tenuousness of popular opinion and political and religious ideology. Stoicism holds that a perceived truth should not be taken as true until it has been examined and approximated to the ideal, just as physicians do when detecting illness and striving to restore health. This aspect is neatly summed up by Becker’s [39
] call to “follow the facts”. As interpreted by Holowchak [40
], this necessitates obtaining facts about one’s physical and social world, as well as about one’s position in it, before deliberating normatively about correct courses of action. Likewise, it means judging information in line with existing knowledge and evaluating its merits and whether or not it stands up to standards of validity, reliability, and authenticity.
This is not to suggest that what seems reasonable to assume as true is in fact definitive. However, from a Stoical perspective, it establishes a foundation for credible public knowledge and further scientific inquiry [22
]. Nor is it wise to suggest that science and academia are the primordial founts of all knowledge. In fact, according to modern Stoic and science philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, to believe that science can provide humanity with all that it requires, including value judgements, would amount to “scientism”, i.e., the exaggerated use of science to dismiss artistic, philosophical and humanities-based contributions to societal development [43
]. That said, the scientific method of falsifying and validating propositions, hypotheses and theories aligns itself well with Stoic epistemology, and can serve as a precautionary foundation for policies and programmes aiming to advance the goal of sustainable development.