Musonius and Epictetus on “In Accordance With Nature” by Greg Sadler

Back in April, I authored a piece focused on a concept particularly central to Stoic Ethics, that of “living in accordance with nature”.  This was not a concept whose clarity the ancient Stoics could simply take for granted in their audiences – after all there were competing conceptions of “nature” (phusis) out there not only in philosophy itself but in the broader culture – but it seems to be one still more confusing to modern readers.

That is not surprising, given that we live in an era informed by centuries of progress in the modern sciences – in which more than one cosmology has been developed, relied upon for a while, and then supplanted by yet another (hopefully) more adequate one – and during which the understanding of the human being in relation to “nature” has seen some radical reinterpretations as well.  Many contemporary readers of Stoicism come to its key texts and thinkers eager to learn what they have to teach, but encumbered by unquestioned background assumptions about what the term “nature” must mean.

I argued that if one wants to understand what classic Stoics actually did mean by “nature,” and thus what would be “in accordance with nature,” there is nothing like actually reading what they had to say on the topic.  Fortunately for us, while we have lost nearly all of the literature of the early and middle Stoa, we still possess sources that provide us with some of their actual doctrines, arguments, and overall positions.  Diogenes Laertes and Cicero prove invaluable in this respect, and in my previous piece, I concentrated on what they had to tell us about what Stoics understood “in accordance with nature” to mean.

I promised to write a follow-up piece in which I would discuss what the representatives of the late Stoa whose texts we do fortunately possess have to say about this issue.  As it turns out, there is quite a lot, and their writings provide us with useful clarifications and additional examples.  In the case of Epictetus, there is also an interesting complicating factor, as he tends to speak much more of “the faculty of choice in accordance with nature” than of “living on accordance with nature,” and that accordingly will be discussed here as well.

Although I committed in that earlier piece to extend the discussion of “in accordance with nature” to its occurrences in Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, three things became apparent in writing this post.  First, devoting sufficient discussion to the first two would result in a post just at the high end of the length within which we typically attempt to keep pieces here in Stoicism Today.  Second, even confining the discussion to Musonius Rufus and Epictetus, what I have set down here, while expressing essential points about their views on the matter, is really just scratching the surface.  Third and following from those first two, I realized that a fuller and more adequate treatment of what the Stoics mean “in accordance with nature” would make an excellent subject for a short book (a project upon which I have begun working).

Musonius Rufus on What Is In Accordance With Nature

The phrase “in accordance with nature” occurs several times in the Lectures we possess from Musonius Rufus, giving a clear sense of what he considered to fall within its scope.  He tells us that among the functions of the philosopher is to be “both a teacher and a leader of human beings in those things that are appropriate for human beings according to nature” (tōn kata phusin anthropōi kathēkontōn, lec. 14).  Philosophy, for Musonius, ought to be practically oriented – and likewise the practitioner of it, the philosopher.

When asked by an old man what the best means for dealing with old age is, he answered that it was “the very one that is for youth, to live following the path [hodōi] and in accordance with nature.” (lect. 17)  He goes on to explain

The nature of a human being did not arise on account of pleasure. Neither is this the case for the horse or dog or cow, and all of these creatures are much less valuable than the human being.  A horse would not be considered to have fulfilled its purpose by happening  to eat and drink and mate, and doing none of the things which are the proper work of a horse [hōn prosēkei]. . . Nor would any other animal if deprived of the functions proper to it and allowed to have its fill of pleasures; in short, according to this, nothing would be said to be living according to nature but what by its actions manifests the excellence [aretē] peculiar to its own nature. For the nature of each guides it to its own excellence; consequently it is not reasonable to suppose that when man lives a life of pleasure that he lives according to nature, but rather when he lives a life of virtue.

While we do come to feel, and even desire pleasure (and feel and are averse to pain) through natural processes, which stem from what we are endowed with by nature, pursuit and enjoyment of pleasure is not – for Musonius and other Stoics – what our nature is primarily about.  Each type of living being has its own specific nature, and with that, its own specific types of excellences.  Developing and expressing those excellences in action is living in accordance with nature.

The question then is what that means determinately for human beings.  Musonius unsurprisingly turns to discussion of the four cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, courage, and temperance – as distinctive modes of human excellence, that is, the excellences of a rational being.  He stresses that these virtues stem from the very nature of human being.  He also points out that if a person is fortunate enough to have got good instruction and put it into practice while young, living in accordance with nature becomes easier later on.

What else does Musonius contribute to our understanding of this key Stoic ideal?  One matter of longstanding controversy – particularly about whether it was appropriate for philosophers –  was marriage, and Musonius comes down decisively in favor of that institution, claiming that “if anything is in accordance with nature, then marriage appears to be so,” and providing this reasoning in support:

For, to what other purpose did the creator of mankind first divide our human race into two sexes, male and female, then implant in each a strong desire for association and union with the other, instilling in both a powerful longing each for the other, the male for the female and the female for the male? 6Is it not then plain that he wished the two to be united and live together, and by their joint efforts to devise a way of life in common, and to produce and rear children together, so that the race might never die?  (lect. 14)

Another thing that Musonius regards as in accordance with nature is the lifestyle and profession of the farmer, the “worker of the earth”.  Although a number of professions are compatible with engaging in philosophy, Musonius regards agriculture as particularly so, asking:

is it not more living in accordance with nature to derive one’s living from the earth, which is the nurse and mother of us all, rather than from some other source?  (lect. 11)

Other than small-scale growing in our own or community gardens, farming is not a practice, let alone a life-style available as a viable option to many of us today, but we ought to consider the point and purpose of what Musonius advocates.  He argues that it is better to have one’s own living depend as much as possible upon one’s own labor, rather than on others.  And he points out that there is no incompatibility – whatever people might think – between lecturing about and displaying the virtues, on the one hand, and performing manual labor, on the other.  Nor, for that matter, does working prevent a student from being able to learn.

That really is the key determinant, for Musonius, around which everything else centers in this matter of what is “in accordance with nature” – cultivating and acting in accordance with virtue.  He points out in lecture 2 that virtue is something possible for everyone.

All of us, he said, are naturally constituted by nature [phusei pephukamen] so that we can live blamelessly and well. . . .

In the conduct of life it is no longer only the philosopher whom we expect to be free from error, though he alone would seem to be the only one concerned with the study of virtue, but all human beings alike, including those who have never given any attention to virtue. Clearly, then, there is no explanation for this other than that the human being comes to exist inclined toward virtue [pros aretē].

A bit later in that lecture, he will speak of “seeds of virtue” within us by our natures.  Notice as well that the “all of us” Musonius invokes is genuinely inclusive.  Not only does he maintain that virtue is a live and natural possibility within all human beings irrespective of class or education, he also explicitly affirms that the same virtues apply to women and men.  In Lecture 3, entitled “That women should study philosophy,” he tells us

Women as well as men, he said, have received from the gods the gift of reason, which we use in our dealings with one another and by which we judge whether a thing is good or bad, noble or base. . . . Moreover, not men alone, but women too, have a natural desire and affinity [orexis kai oikeiōsis] toward virtue.  And women no less than men are constituted by nature [pephukasi] to be pleased by good and just acts and to reject the opposite of these.

Epictetus On Nature and What Is In Accordance With It

Musonius Rufus’ most celebrated student, Epictetus, also contributes considerably to fleshing out what “in accordance with nature” means for the Stoics.  One of the main innovations of his articulation of Stoic philosophy – identifying and discussing in great detail what he terms “prohairesis” (“moral purpose”, “faculty of choice”) – and his reformulation of “in accordance with nature” along those lines – is discussed in the next section.  This one focuses on his references to that phrase that do not bring in the notion of prohairesis, on what he affirms our nature to be or include, and on what aligns us with and realizes our nature as human beings.

Epictetus speaks to an audience that is already familiar in at least a superficial way with the Stoic teachings and works of his predecessors. So one of the first references to what is in accordance with nature occurs in a passage where he challenges someone who has supposedly read one of Chrysippus’ works to display his knowledge in practice.  What matters is:

How you act in your choices and refusals, your desires and aversions, how you go at things, and apply yourself to them, and prepare yourself, whether you are acting in harmony with nature or out of harmony with it.  If you are acting in harmony, show me that, and I will tell you that you are making progress. (1.4)

The expression Epictetus employs in this is sumphonōs tei phusei, “in harmony with nature” rather than “in accordance with nature”, but he tends to use those synonymously.  A bit later in that very chapter, he has Chrysippus say:

Take my books and you shall know how conformable and harmonious with [akouloutha kai sumphona] nature are the things which make me tranquil.

Epictetus tells us in general what “in accordance with nature” means or involves with human beings in a number of places.  In one, he speaks of a “law of life”:

We must do what follows from nature.  If in every matter and circumstance we intend to observe what is in accordance with nature, then it is clear that in everything we should make it our goal not to avoid what follows from nature nor to accept what is in conflict with nature. (1.26)

What then “follows from” (akolouthei) nature, particularly for us human beings?  What is in conflict with our nature and with nature in general? Although at times Epictetus speaks as if determining this is straightforward and self-evident, it sometimes requires a good bit of thought, and often goes against key assumptions common within the prevailing culture.

In passage after passage, for example, Epictetus emphasizes the fact that we all share a common human nature.  This commonality is something that social ranks, cultural status, and institutions can easily lead us to forget.  One example of this occurs when he points out that “all human beings by nature are members of one common household with each other” (3.24)  Another example of this is his reminder that other people – slaves for instance, for whom one possesses a bill of sale – remain nonetheless “kinsmen, brothers and sisters by nature” with the person who happens to hold power. (1.13)  What does that common human nature then involve?

Nature has given us faculties we share in common with other animals, but also distinctive human endowments, such as the capacities to contemplate or reflect (theōria) and to understand (parakolouthesis), and to conduct our lives (diexagogē) in harmony with nature (1.6).  The capacity to reason – a faculty that Epictetus notes is reflexive (i.e. applying to itself as well as other faculties) – is given to us by nature precisely in order for us to be able to deal with (or rightly “use”) appearances or external impressions (phantasiai, 1.20).  This extends to judging them and understanding them, so in performing those functions well, we realize and perfect our rational nature, and thereby live more in accordance with nature.

We are also by our nature creatures that are endowed with a number of desires and aversions.  In the case of human beings, however, these require rational development.  Epictetus stresses a distinction between an initial, basic self-love (philauton) of the human being as an animal, focused on attaining what one identifies and then pursues as goods simply for oneself, and a more fully developed, rationally extended attitude towards oneself, others, and genuine goods. (1.19)

When Zeus wishes to be “Rain-bringer,” and “Fruit-giver,” and “Father of men and gods,” you see for yourself that he cannot achieve these functions, or get these titles, unless he is profitable to the common interest.  To speak in general, he has constituted the nature of the rational animal so that it cannot attain its own proper and individual goods unless it contributes something to the common interest. (1.19)

Both attending to one’s own proper goods and taking the broader focus on the goods of others and of one’s communities are forms of oikeiōsis – a key idea of Stoic Ethics that Epictetus explicitly mentions in that passage – a fundamental way in which rational human beings do develop and act in accordance with nature.

Epictetus provides a number of more specific examples illustrating clearly and concretely what “in accordance with” or “in harmony with nature” means in some determinate area or aspect of life.  We will look at a few of those shortly, but before that, it may be useful to explore some implications of a short passage, almost a throwaway line.

Who has ever made a sacrifice in thanks for having desired well, or for having used choice in accordance with nature? (1.19)

He points out that we give thanks to the gods – or perhaps in our time, we might say, exhibit a sense of gratitude and acknowledgement – for what we consider good.  Most people in both our time and his tend to value other things than what puts us into proper alignment with nature, even though that is where we ought to find our genuine good.  Is Epictetus suggesting that we ought to give thanks for desiring well or using choice in accordance with nature?  If we do those things, those are up to us, after all, so it would seem strange to make some gesture of gratitude, wouldn’t it?  And yet, those are in significant part where our most proper good does lie, according to Stoic doctrine.

One concrete example in which Epictetus applies his more general views is furnished by “familial affection” (philostorgia).  When he clarifies the meaning and effects of what this term rightly applies to with one of his interlocutors – who claims he was simply behaving “naturally” (phusikōs) –  Epictetus tells him that it remains to be seen whether that person really was acting “naturally”, which would mean “in accordance with nature” (kata phusei).  That cannot simply be what tends to happen, or what people tend to do.

First convince me of this, that you were acting naturally. . .  and then I will convince you that whatever is done in accordance with nature is rightly done. . . For by your line of reasoning, we would have to say that tumors are produced for the good of the body, just because they occur, and in general, that to go wrong (hamartanein) is in accordance with nature, just because nearly all, or at least most of us go wrong in matters. (1.11)

He points out to the man – who claims that precisely out of familial affection he was led to leave the sickbed of his ill child – that his behavior was wrong and unreasonable.  What would have actually been in accordance with nature would to do as others – his daughter’s mother, nurse, and tutor – did in the situation, to remain with the sick child.

Another set of useful examples are provided by various duties, stemming from roles and relationships that we are either born into, find ourselves involved in (sometimes to our surprise!), or even willingly chose to take upon ourselves.  These extend to a number of aspects of our lives:

The duties of citizenship, marriage, raising children, reverence to the divine, taking care of parents – in general, desire, avoidance, choice, refusal, and in doing each of these to do them as they ought to be done, that is, in accordance with our nature (hōs pehpukamen, 3.7)

He goes on to clarify what this means:

To act as free human beings, as noble, as self-respecting. . . . And it is our nature to subordinate pleasure to these duties as their servant, their minister, so as to arouse our interest and keep us acting in accordance with nature (kata phusin).

Fulfilling our roles and the demands they involve with – to use another term that Epictetus employs in many places – fidelity (pistis) is precisely one way in which we human beings act and live in accordance with nature.  In doing so, we often find ourselves having to choose or go against some of the inclinations or desires we do “naturally” feel.  For instance, when Epictetus counsels a brother wishing to reconcile with his sibling who remains angry with him (1.15), telling him that all he can do is to keep or bring himself in accordance with nature.  He adds that making that commitment is not something accomplished once and for all, but requires an ongoing and organic growth, akin to that of a cluster of grapes that require time to form and ripen.

Prohairesis In Accordance With Nature

Among the most interesting and innovative features of Epictetus’ interpretation of Stoic philosophy is his focus on prohairesis – a term that we generally translate as “faculty of choice,” “moral purpose,” or even (a bit misleadingly) “will”.   He references it constantly throughout the Discourses and Enchiridion, as the very center or core of the human being, the character that we develop and bring with us to every situation (for better or for worse).  It is intimately connected with the rational faculty (to logikon) and the ruling faculty (to hegemonikon) – in fact, all three of those are different ways of articulating and conceptualizing the same basic human reality.

I won’t attempt to provide a fuller treatment of this complex matter here – if you like, you can watch my recent presentation of prohairesis in this seminar – but it is important to explain why we would want to focus on it particularly when looking at Epictetus and the issue of what is in accordance with nature and what is not.  Suffice it to say that for Epictetus, the prohairesis is not just one faculty among others.  It is the very core of the person, who quite literally is his or her prohairesis (4.5)

Prohairesis is not the only faculty or function of the human being that Epictetus focuses upon as being in accordance with, or not in accordance with nature.  He frequently speaks of the “ruling faculty” as something that the human being ought to have or conduct in accordance with nature. Since the faculty of choice, the rational faculty, and the ruling faculty are distinguishable but not actually separable, those references explicitly to the ruling faculty should be understood as equally applying to the faculty of choice.  We should thus similarly associate the many references made to the rational faculty, and its function of “using appearances in accordance with nature” (e.g. in 3.3.).

Epictetus also writes at a number of points about using desire and aversion, choice and refusal, assent (sunkatathesis) and other functions in accordance with nature or not (e.g. 1.21, 2.14, and 3.9).  But as he also tells us, all of these fall within the scope of the prohairesis.  So using any of them in accordance with nature in some way involves one’s prohairesis as well.  There are considerably more references, however, in the Discourses and Enchiridion to prohairesis in accordance with nature.

One key feature of the faculty of choice is that by its very nature – or if you like, as nature produces it, is – something that is fundamentally free.  Epictetus emphasizes this point repeatedly, for example:

You have a faculty of choice free by nature of hindrances and constraint. . . Can anyone prevent you from assenting to truth? No one at all.  Can anyone force you to accept the false?  No one at all. Do you see that in this sphere, you have a faculty of choice free from hindrance, constraint, obstruction?  In the sphere of desire and choice, is it otherwise? (1.17)

At another point, after noting first that other faculties are determined and given their direction by the prohairesis, and that other faculties can be hindered or interfered with both by the prohairesis and by things that are outside of the field of choice (aproaireta), he raises a leading question:

What is by its very nature capable of hindering moral purpose? Nothing that lies outside the field of choice, but only the faculty of choice itself when turned in the wrong way [diastrapheisa]. For this reason the faculty of choice becomes the only vice, or the only virtue (2.23)

In that last line, Epictetus drives home that where virtues or vices reside – as dispositions either in accordance with nature or against nature – is precisely within the prohairesis, which possesses the freedom sufficient to move one away from the vices and towards the virtues.  Elsewhere, he affirms that – unless we willingly give over this power to another (e.g. by desiring something outside of our power, but which that other person controls) – nobody is actually master over another person’s faculty of choice (4.12).  When asking at another point, what ultimately determines a persons faculty of choice, he answers that “faculty of choice compelled faculty of choice” (1.17)

We determine whether we bring or maintain our faculty of choice in accordance with nature, and Epictetus identifies and discusses a number of means by which we can do this.  Having correct judgements or opinions (dogmata) ready at hand when we run into challenging situations  – which typically involves the preparatory work of learning, understanding, and committing to memory those expressions – is one key way.  Another would be to take an assessment of our habits, and to begin to gradually retrain them towards what would be more in accordance with nature.

We can also look to a number of specific examples Epictetus provides, cases in which we can reframe the situations in which we find ourselves.  In each of these sorts of situations, he advises the same basic approach. Realize that you are faced with a fundamental choice between two possibilities.  These are not just possible courses of action, but options for how to conceptualize and value matters, and then act accordingly.

One of these is the famous example of going to the baths in Enchiridion ch. 4. This is not an institution many of us can immediately relate to, to be sure, but it is easy enough to extend it to any other situation in which we and other people are in a place for some activity.  One might think of going to a public swimming pool, or to have a picnic in a park, or attending a concert.  Inevitably, there will be some unpleasant or inconveniencing interactions with others.  When we are going into situations like those, Epictetus suggests we pursue the following:

Remind yourself what the nature of that activity is. . . . [S]traightaway say to yourself “I want to bathe and at the same time maintain my faculty of choice in accordance with nature”. . .  For in this way, if anything that hinders you from bathing happens to arise, you will have ready at hand the saying “Well, this was not the only thing I wanted, but also to keep my faculty of choice in accordance with nature; and I won’t keep it [in that way] if I get upset over the things that occur.”

A very similar discussion occurs when Epictetus counsels an official who imprudently took sides in a comedy contest, and found himself at odds with the crowd.  He provides the same advice about going into a matter with the understanding that one has to choose to keep one’s prohairesis in accordance with nature. (3.4)

To bring this follow-up discussion of “in accordance with nature” to a close, it may be useful to highlight one final aspect of Epictetus’ view, in this case, derived explicitly from the example Socrates provides.  Epictetus tells us:

Socrates bore very firmly in mind that no one is master over another person’s ruling faculty. He willed, accordingly, nothing but what was his own. And what is that? [Not to try to make other people act] in accordance with nature, for that is something that belongs to another  but, while they are attending to their own business as they think best, himself no less to keep and conduct his [ruling principle] in accordance with nature, focusing just on his own, so that those others might be in accordance with nature too. (4.5)

We cannot directly bring other people into accordance with nature, even though it is rational for us to desire that as their proper good.  What we can do is to focus on the labor involved with our own faculties of choice, our own lives, and our own actions.  And if we put in the consistent and cumulative work required for that, we can perhaps move them by experience and example.

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutoring, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He has produced over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

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2 thoughts on “Musonius and Epictetus on “In Accordance With Nature” by Greg Sadler”

  1. Greg,
    Musonius Rufus’ apparent gender egalitarianism is more problematic than you suggest, and not as unequivocal as it might seem from the one text you quote. Nussbaum argues that a closer look at the texts indicates that Musonius actually defends the view that men are stronger and suited to certain kinds of work and women are weaker and suited to subordinate domestic chores. See:
    Nussbaum, Martha C. ‘The Incomplete Feminism of Musonius Rufus, Platonist, Stoic, and Roman.’ Pages 283-326 in The Sleep of Reason. Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome. Ed. M. C. Nussbaum and J. Sihvola. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002.
    But an even better article, in my opinion, is:
    Engel, David M. ‘The Gender Egalitarianism of Musonius Rufus.’ Ancient Philosophy 20 (Fall 2000): 377-391.

    For Epictetus’ concept of prohairesis, a useful study is Robert Dobbin, “Prohairesis in Epictetus,” Ancient Philosophy XI, 111-135 (1991).

    Prof. William O. Stephens