Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The stoic viewpoint: make the best of what's in our power and we take the rest as it naturally happens.

 The Stoics are the people on the top of the hill. They are applying Epictetus' maxim that says "What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens." (Discourses, 1.1.17). 
(Image courtesy: Nate Hagens.)

There comes a point in which you have to acknowledge reality: Business as usual, BAU, is dead. Not that it would be impossible to avoid, or at least soften, the imminent disruption of our way of life caused either by resource depletion or climate change (or both). But that implies making sacrifices, renouncing something today for a better world tomorrow. And people are just not going to do that. We are not wired to plan for the future. We are wired to exploit what we have at hand.

The recent global events have shown that humans, worldwide, are unable to see priorities. The richest country in the world, the US, has turned its back to what science says about our faltering ecosystem, pursuing the impossible dream to return to an imaginary world of happy coal miners as England was at the time of Charles Dickens. The US is not the only example of a society that desperately tries cling to the old ways, refusing to change. Practically every country in the world is pursuing a dream of economic growth which, at this point, is just as impossible as a return to coal.

Does that mean we have to fall into despair? Some people seem to have arrived at this conclusion: there is nothing that can be done, therefore nothing that should be done. After all, what was so bad with the Middle Ages? And, anyway, human extinction would surely solve a lot of problems. Other take the opposite view, desperately hoping for some technological miracle that will lead us to leave the earth, colonize other planets, and mine the inexistent ores on asteroids.

What is to be done, then? Over the years, I found myself closer and closer to that group of ancient philosophers who lived during the times of decline of the Roman Empire who called themselves "Stoics" and who themselves the same question: what's to be done? The answer was given by Epictetus in his "Discourses:" It is "To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens". (1.1.17). And, after all, Seneca, to whom I credit the idea of the "Seneca Cliff", was a stoic, too!

So, here is a picture of the vegetable gardens that we planted in the courtyard of a building of the University of Florence (here it is shown with two students who have volunteered to take care of it). We plan to plant many more of these gardens. And, in this way, we make the best of what's in our power and we'll take the rest as it naturally happens.


  1. This is good advice. Its little things that change the world.

    "With little power comes great responsibility!"

    (Though I tend to grow into a cynic, and would be totally ok with living in a wine barrel and giving sage advice).

    1. Ugo,

      Shouldn't your point of view be synchron with the conditions of your life as it is? For example, in my case I'm dependent on medication and supplies from an array of countries I don't live in (France/Germany/USA). Without the most vital medication I'd be gone in the span of a week. All of these medicines are based on 'cheap' long-distance transportation, plastics (from oil), carton/emballage, electronics, metals etc. No, I couldn't make the most vital substance myself in a basement lab either (AFAIK it's based on processes conducted in a very delicate temperature span and has then to be rigorously refined for effeciacy. And getting the material for the process doesn't seem easy either).

      Patient associations are more into educating and giving advice on how to cope with symptoms etc. than looking into under what conditions with the rest of the society they are in. No one discusses peak oil there, nor the fact we're dependent on a large-scale complex bureacracy-corporative sphere for our literal survival. Myself I find it quite astonishing why there's so little discussed regarding medicine and peak oil scenarios. Everyone in health care still uses plastics and medication from far away as if there's no tomorrow and does not question it. Perhaps this has to do with medicine still being in somewhat special regard, who wants to look like they're supporting more suffering in the world, I honestly don't really know. Every modern hospital is dependent on all these transports from far away and energy inputs etc. that'd be impossible to sustain.

      Right now I am into stoic mood. What happens happens. But you could also ask yourself what the point is when you know your life support is dependent on far-away made decisions and circumstances you have no control over. The weak always goes first.

    2. Regarding plastics and chemical products (as pharmaceuticals) there will probably be enough oil to provide us with those products for a very long time yet (if we so choose).

      The peak oil problem is more complicated than the mere availability of oil. The real problem has been described here often, and it is most clearly shown by the recent study done by the hill's group (

      and here:

      "For purely thermodynamic reasons net energy delivered to the globalised industrial world (GIW) per barrel by the oil industry (OI) is rapidly trending to zero."

      Meaning that oil will be transformed from an energy source to a mineral ressource. We will have oil as a ressource for a long time yet, but we will not be able to run our industry on the burning of oil anymore.

    3. Our dependence on hi-tech medicinals is something I have been thinking, too. I am not critically dependent on anything, but I take drugs to lower blood pressure. Without these, my lifespan would be considerably reduced, although I can't guess of how much. And, yes, no matter how much we may discuss about getting independent of the trapping of the hi-tech society, we still need them. Our life would be considerably shorter without them. Although, sometimes I think, not more painful, considering what I have seen in terms of futile medical care for elderly people

    4. I too am in a similar position, although my medical condition is caused by diesel pollution, resulting in terrible asthma (used to be occasional, now chronic).

      I am consoled by the fact that, in consequence, I will likely not see the ghastliness of extreme old age, regardless of whether the steroids are available.

      I once asked a group of friends at dinner to show hands if their lives had certainly been saved by antibiotics, etc.

      All would have died before 35, from one thing or another. We have been and are very lucky people!

  2. Thanks! I would suggest to expand Epictetus' maxim as follows:
    - To make the best of what is in our power;
    - *To seek ways to extend the reach of what is in our power, by learning and by collective action;*
    and finally take the rest as it naturally happens

  3. I tend to fall on the right side of the hill, knowing that many of the forces driving planetary systems are well beyond our control, including those we humans set in motion inadvertently, and that delayed responses already locked in have yet to manifest fully. So in a sense, yes, there is nothing we can do to forestall any number of horrible scenarios. However, that doesn’t mean there is nothing to do in the meantime.

    I wish I could say that, faced with a host of awful options, we could find not a solution necessarily (since they often don’t exist for implacable problems) but at the very least the right thing to do. My suspicion is that as conditions continue to deteriorate, societies will instead descend into unimaginable barbarism before the big sleep takes us all. That’s my realism, free (I hope) of illusion, though dour.

    1. Not so much 'barbarism' as such, but rather irrationality caused by impossible pressures.

      I think Primo Levi had much to say on this subject.

    2. I like to imagine an invisible embrace between Stoics throughout the world.

      Ave Atque Vale!

  4. If "making the best of what's in our power" includes planning early, then I would agree with ecological economist Tim Jackson who, in his book, "Prosperity without Growth", 2nd ed, writes --

    "...our best chances for success lie in planning early, long before scarcity arrives. The question we should be asking right now is not whether scarcity is here already, but rather whether there is any prospect at all of it arriving in the foreseeable future. If there is, we should already be acting now. And some kinds of scarcity, it seems, are already upon us..."

  5. Robert Twigger, who has a philosophy blog, proposed another question:

    'What to do when 'positive thinking' doesn't work, as there is nothing 'positive' to be gleaned from a situation? '

    He suggested this sort of response: 'So, is that all you can throw at ME?!!' A certain scorn for one's fate.

    I've tried it, in some depressing situations, and it works.

    There is another method which may be of use: allow nasty, shocking and unpleasant facts to sink into a kind of mental holding pen, and only examine them after a while. It certainly takes the sting out of them, gives them perspective.

  6. A motto for Stoics? 'It is surprising how we can get used to anything, eventually.' Sad smile.

    I have been thinking about and been involved in health promotion for many years. (I suffer from dangerous incurable cardiac artery disease I first knew about 27 years ago.)

    Over that period I have been glad though to be surprised by the speed with which smoking has declined in the UK. There is more recently a follow-on public health effort to tackle hypertension. (Encouragingly, perhaps, although they are very few, there are some tiny populations elsewhere in the world who do not see hypertension rise substantially with age.) On the downside more recently the UK has caught the Type 2 Diabetes epidemic from the USA. About one third of the adult US population now is pre-diabetic adding to those already with the full condition. It seems diet matters. It matters also for some cancers. There are a few world populations that do not have colon polyps, whereas multiple polyps are a dangerous scourge in the USA. The US can only tackle their pre-cancers using hi-tec tools, which is expensive. But I offer the thought that if smoking is a model, then just talking about dangerous matters often enough, and long enough, seems to work. It would be even more fun if the motor car went the same way as these other chronic conditions. Smile.

  7. Ugo
    Very nice garden idea at the University. Please pass our congratulations to the young people. I notice some trees. I worked for a while in buildings like yours and in pretty much the same climate where the shade of a full-grown screen of trees made a large difference to the comfort of the buildings in summer (without AC).

  8. Crabgrass to garden in 1 year...

    This transformation is only appreciated by those who attempt to grow a garden. Most are simply ensconced in their mobile devices and the boob tube. I find Stoicism helpful in dealing with the reality of our predicament.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)