One guiding ideal for Stoics is living “in accordance with nature”. But what does this phrase really mean? To judge by the many questions and comments one sees in Stoicism-oriented social media, blogs and websites, this doctrine seems to be a perennial source of confusion. I get asked about it frequently when I teach online classes, lead seminars, give talks, or even post lecture videos.
When you first hear or read it, “in accordance with nature” sounds like a helpful criterion we could use to guide and measure our choices, beliefs, reasonings, desires, and actions. But then confusions and worries arise. For, without some clear conception in mind of what “nature” and “in accordance with” mean, it appears we might be just playing around with generalities, and thereby fooling ourselves with words that lack any definite meaning but do appeal to us on some merely emotional level. And that – if it really is the case – should be very troubling to a Stoic (pun intended)!
Given the uncertainties and confusions raised by this issue, it is quite natural to ask: Is there a simple and straightforward answer to this question – What does “in accordance with nature” mean? Well, I have some good news and some bad news for you.
The good news is that if it is a simple answer you’re looking for, you’re in luck! For there isn’t just one, but a whole slew of answers meeting that criterion. Then there’s the bad news: they all tend to be more or less wrong. Simple answers about complex matters abound, since there are multiple ways to go wrong through oversimplification.
There is, fortunately, a set of consistent answers contained within classic literature of (or about) Stoic philosophy. Unfortunately for us in the present, a significant portion of Stoic writings are lost (as is the case with many of the schools and thinkers of antiquity). Perhaps one of the greatest loss in this respect is the work that Zeno reportedly wrote, titled “On Life According To Nature” (Peri to kata phuisin biou). Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have that book in our hands? Nevertheless, the texts that we do still possess provide a fairly clear, though necessarily complex, account of this key Stoic concept and doctrine.
Which texts should we turn to, if our goal is to better understand what “in accordance with nature” means for the Stoics? In my view, we should start with several works not authored by Stoics themselves, but that do provide us with invaluable information about key doctrines (and sometimes disagreements) of the Early and Middle Stoics. The first of these sources is Diogenes Laertes’ Lives of the Philosophers, the 7th book of which is devoted entirely to the Stoic school. Another key source is the eclectic philosopher and statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero. To understand Stoic thought on this matter, it is particularly helpful to look at his On The Ends and On Duties.
Given the recurrently expressed worries about this key idea, I thought it might be useful to write a short piece here setting out and explaining classic Stoic teachings on the topic. The idea was to provide a resource those expressing confusions about the matter might be referred to – along with Eric Scott’s and Michel Daw’s earlier (and shorter) pieces on the same subject – not a complete answer on the matter, but at least enough to clear up a few misunderstandings and give readers a sense of where they might look for fuller discussions of the issue.
What Do We Mean By “Nature”?
One completely understandable – and avoidable – source generating confusions on the parts of modern readers is reading decidedly non-Stoic conceptions of “nature” into passages where the Stoics talk about being, living, or acting in accordance with nature. The result of this is typically that other key doctrines of the Stoics then appear out of harmony with, or even contradictory to “living in accordance with nature” interpreted along those lines. A great example of this is provided by a frequently-posted criticism made by Friedrich Nietzsche, from Beyond Good and Evil:
You desire to live “according to Nature”? Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves indifference as a power – how could you live in accordance with such indifference? To live – is not that just endeavoring to be otherwise than this Nature? Is not living valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavoring to be different? And granted that your imperative, “living according to Nature,” means actually the same as “living according to life”- how could you do differently?
Nietzsche goes on to argue that the Stoics have imposed their own viewpoint of “Nature ‘according to the Stoa,’” upon the totality of nature, and that Stoicism, as a form of “self-tyranny,” attempts to extend this domination to all the rest of nature, of which the Stoic is merely a part. What it comes down to, however, is that Nietzsche has worked out a very different conception of nature than that of the Stoics, and essentially faults them for relying upon their conception, rather than the one he prefers. This difference applies not only to “nature” in the sense of the entire cosmos and its processes, but also to “nature” as living things, and particularly to “nature” as human nature.
Setting aside Nietzsche as a particular example of, there is a broader problem. We do live in an era in which the sciences have made significant leaps forward, and within a culture in which some small measure of scientific literacy can be assumed on the part of the general public. But it is also safe to say that there are differing conceptions of “nature” floating around in our broader culture. Understandably enough, when newcomers to Stoicism try to make sense of “living in accordance with nature,” some read in one or another conception of “nature” adopted either from the sciences – or more often from popular accounts of the sciences and science journalism – or from alternative sources.
The Stoics themselves did articulate an account of nature, understood as the totality of the cosmos, its differing degrees of being, its processes, and so on. We lack full access to that account, of course, since a good portion of Stoic literature has been lost, but we do at least have some outlines, with certain portions of that more or less filled in. What we can reconstruct is an account that is not entirely at odds with those set out by contemporary sciences. In fact, where through modern science we now possess better explanations of matters such as the nature of the universe, or what individual things are and how they causally interact, a Stoic might well want to consider how the philosophical doctrine might be harmonized with more modern conceptions of “nature”.
There do remain, admittedly, some doctrines central to classical Stoicism that will inevitably present significant challenges for the modern Stoic, for instance the conception of the cosmos itself as the divine, or the strong conception of providence for which Stoics argued against rival schools in antiquity. Those tensions, or problems, are very interesting and worth discussion, but I pass over them here.
A more serious conflict – one that that is highly relevant here – arises when we consider what would be in accordance with nature not just as referring to the totality of the cosmos, but more specifically in terms of our rational, i.e. distinctively human nature. According to Diogenes Laertes, some disagreement occurred in the early Stoa precisely over this matter:
By the nature with which our life ought to be in accord, Chrysippus understands both the common nature of the universe and the specific nature of human being, whereas Cleanthes takes the nature of the universe alone as that which should be followed, without adding the nature of the part [of the universe]. (7.89)
Chrysippus’ approach prevailed, as becomes apparent when examining later discussions of this key Stoic idea. In this domain not just of nature itself, but specifically human nature, clarity about what understanding of (or assumptions about) “nature” we have in mind becomes imperative. We need to be particularly on our guard towards uncritically substituting conceptions of “nature” drawn from non-Stoic sources when we attempt to think out what “in accordance with nature” means. Instead, we ought to look to the Stoic sources we do possess, and elaborate the conception of nature (particularly human nature) along those lines.
Stoics on Human Nature in Diogenes Laertes
One discussion that helps significantly toward understanding the “nature” Stoics advocate living in accordance with, begins by generalizing about all animal life:
An animal’s first impulse, say the Stoics, is to self-preservation, because nature from the outset endears it to itself, as Chrysippus affirms in the first book of his work On Ends. (7.85)
Being “endeared to itself” translates the Greek term oikeiouses, a cognate of which is the later oikeiosis, discussed at length by Hierocles in his Elements of Ethics, a concept many modern Stoics have become familiar with. Diogenes goes on to note that the Stoics apply this feature of self-preservation still more widely, extending it to all living things.
And nature, they say, made no difference originally between plants and animals, for she regulates the life of plants too, in their case without impulse and sensation, just as also certain processes go on of a vegetative kind in us. But when in the case of animals impulse has been superadded, whereby they are enabled to go in quest of their proper aliment, for them, say the Stoics, Nature’s rule is to follow the direction of impulse. (7.86)
Notice the turn the discussion now takes:
But when reason by way of a more perfect leadership has been bestowed on the beings we call rational, for them life according to reason rightly becomes the natural life. For reason supervenes to shape impulse scientifically. (7.86)
Nature, in one sense of the term – the totality of things that are – gives to these different orders of living things varied manners of preserving their existence, and indeed of growth, enjoyment, and flourishing. The higher order does not lack what the lower order possesses, but adds to it. Human beings and the other animals possess what plants have, and add on impulse to it. Human beings also have impulse like other animals, but add the rational faculty on to that. This will have very important implications for what “in accordance with nature” means specifically for human beings.
Zeno was the first (in his treatise On the Nature of Man) to designate as the end “life in agreement with nature,” which is the same as a virtuous life, virtue being the goal towards which nature guides us. (7.87)
Already here, we see the interconnection, or even equivalence, between two central features of Stoic moral theory: living in accordance with nature, on the one hand, and the cultivation and practice of the virtues, on the other. This was a consistent doctrine, and Diogenes points out Cleanthes and Posidonius as having taught it. Chrysippus also emphasizes another side to this:
[L]iving virtuously is equivalent to living in accordance with experience of the actual course of nature. . . . for our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe. And this is why the end may be defined as life in accordance with nature, or, in other words, in accordance with our own human nature as well as that of the universe, a life in which we refrain from every action forbidden by the law common to all things, that is to say, the right reason which pervades all things. . . . And this very thing constitutes the virtue of the happy man and the smooth current of life, when all actions promote the harmony of the spirit dwelling in the individual man with the will of him who orders the universe. (7.87-88)
Understood in this way, “living in accordance with nature” does not mean merely maintaining one’s existence through following impulse. Nor does it mean merely adapting oneself to the course of life, to things that happen, to the circumstances one finds oneself in. It means participating in our small portion, or role, within the totality of the universe, and doing so in a distinctively human way. That is what is in accordance with our specific nature. Rationality is essential to that nature. The capacity for virtue is too, and so is the possibility of recognizing and voluntarily following that common law or right reason.
Several other later Stoics added to Chrysippus’ explanation, as Laertes tells us. His successor as scholarch, Diogenes of Babylon “expressly declares the end to be to act with good reason in the selection of what is in accordance with nature.” Archedemus of Tarsus extends this to “the performance of all befitting actions.” Notice that in these two formulas, what we see is an emphasis on reasoning out more practically – in particular cases as well as in general – what “in accordance with nature” means. Diogenes emphasizes the need to competently decide (and act upon), upon one out of a range of possible things in accordance with nature, that is, which one to prudently select. Archedemus emphasizes the whole domain of actual duties (in Greek, kathekonta, in Latin, officia) as part and parcel of living in accordance with nature.
Human Nature In Cicero’s Presentations of Stoicism
Although (as noted earlier) not himself a member of the Stoic school, Cicero’s works provide us very useful presentations of Stoic doctrines. On this matter in particular, a good bit of what he has to tell us is already there in Diogenes’ Laertes. That seeming redundancy is not entirely without value, since it confirms those points as long-established, and perhaps even commonplace, Stoic understandings of “in accordance with nature”. But on some points, Cicero also adds some additional depth to the picture outlined so far.
On The Ends contains passages specifically focused on the issue of what is in accordance with nature. In book 3 of this work (which is set up as a series of dialogues), Cicero places the presentation of Stoic teachings into the mouth of his fellow philosopher and statesman (and later ally in the civil wars), Cato the Younger, who proposes that he “expound. . . the whole system of Zeno and the Stoics.” (3.4. 14) As a side-note, it should be pointed out that in book 4, Cicero actually claims that the notion of “living in accordance with nature” is not a feature unique to the Stoic school of philosophy. More specifically, he maintains that Zeno took over this notion from one of his teachers, the Academic Platonist Polemo. (4.6.15)
In book 3, Cicero clarifies the relationships between human nature, rationality, intrinsic moral value, duty, and choice. What is itself in accordance with nature, or are productive of those things in accordance with nature, possesses genuine moral value, and is worth choosing. This leads to a duty of “retain[ing] those things which are in accordance with nature, and to repel those that are contrary.” This in its turn involves choice (selectio) on the person’s part along those lines, i.e. following that basic duty. And then, with time, that choice develops into something reliable (perpetua), and eventually attains the state of being entirely in agreement with nature. There is a process of development for the human being, by which he or she can more fully come into agreement with nature. That process of development both involves and refines the distinctively human faculties of reason and of choice.
He emphasizes another key aspect to the Stoic doctrine:
The human being’s first attraction is towards the things in accordance with nature; but as soon as he or she has attained to understanding, or rather to conscious intelligence. . . and has discerned the order and so to speak harmony that should govern conduct, he then esteems this harmony far more highly than all the things for which he originally felt an affection, and by exercise of intelligence and reason infers the conclusion that in this order resides the main good for human beings. . . (3.6. 21)
In the human being developing into a fuller agreement with nature, the basis from which one starts is just that, a starting point. There is a rational process that leads from the basic impulse for self-preservation into rationality and sociability.
A later discussion reaffirms this. When considering duties, or “appropriate actions” (officia), one example that he says both the wise and the foolish will choose, is that of self-preservation, since this is in accordance with nature (secundum naturam, 3.18.59). But, for a rational person, there may be occasions when it becomes appropriate to for that person to depart from life. It depends, Cicero tells us, on where the “preponderance of things in accordance with nature” (in quo enim plura sunt quae secundum naturam sunt) happens to fall in the specific case. A bit later, after noting that happiness (beate vivere) means “living in accordance with nature” (convenienter naturae vivere), he points out that this involves “grasping the right occasion” (opportunatis esse, 3.18.61)
In On Duties, Cicero elaborates upon what nature provides us with as human beings, that is, what distinctively human nature we possess:
Nature likewise by the power of reason associates human being with human being in the common bonds of speech and life; she implants in him above all, I may say a strangely tender love for his offspring; she also prompts human beings to meet in companies, to form public assemblies and to take part in them themselves; and she further dictates, as a consequence of this, the effort on man’s part to provide a store of things to minister to his comfort and wants – and not only for himself alone, but for his wife and children and for the others whom he holds dear and four whom he ought to provide. (1. 4.12)
This is particularly interesting, because not only does it asserts that sociability, affection, and association with other human beings are integral to rational human nature, but that this very tendency towards associating with others requires that rationality be effectively exercised. This in turn means that fully realizing our human nature requires that we develop and exercise the virtue of prudence or wisdom.
Cicero also points out several other sides to the natural human inclination towards acquiring wisdom, towards becoming more rational.
Above all, the search after truth and its eager pursuit are peculiar to human being. . . . We are eager to see, to hear, to learn something new, and we esteem is desired to know the secrets are wonders of creation is indispensable to a happy life. Thus we come to understand that what is true, simple, and genuine appeals most strongly to a human being’s nature. (1. 4.13)
And yet another:
To this passion for discovering truth there is added a hunger, as it were for independence, So that a mind while molded by nature is unwilling to be subject to anybody save one who gives rules of conduct or is a teacher of truth or who, for the general good, rules according to justice and law. (1. 4.13)
In going on and discussing the virtue and the duties associated with justice, Cicero also tells us:
As the Stoics hold, everything that the earth produces is created for human use; and as human beings too, are born for the sake of human beings, that they maybe able mutually to help one another; in this direction we are to follow nature as our guide, to contribute to the general good by an interchange of acts of kindness, by giving and receiving, and thus by our skill, our industry, and our talents to cement human society more closely together, human being to human being. (1.7.22)
Similar references to nature and reason in the discussion of the other cardinal virtues, courage and temperance (which I skip over here), further fill out this picture of what fully developed human nature – and thus living in accordance with nature – involves and requires of the human being.
On Duties also contains a relevant distinction and discussion of “four characters” (personae), each individual possesses by virtue of their human being. One of these is a universal character bestowed upon all of us by nature:
Arising from the fact of her being all alike and endowed with reason and with that superiority which lifts us above the brute. From this all morals of the impropriety are derived, and upon it depends the rational method of ascertaining our duty. (1.30.107)
The second is a character that is assigned to individuals as such. This assigns us our particular characteristics, “the bent of our own particular nature” (1.31.110), which might be better or worse, in some respects, than those of other persons. Cicero stresses that we cannot simply copy the traits of others and suppress those that express our own proclivities. But we must also find ways to adapt our own individual character to the greater whole.
There are two other “characters” as well. The third is imposed by “chance or circumstance” upon particular persons. Cicero cites as examples: “regal powers and military commands, nobility of birth and political office, wealth and influence, and their opposites.” In our own day, we might think of what countries and cultures we are born into or emigrate to, what organizations or institutions we are involved in, what opportunities we are afforded, and the like. The fourth depends upon our own deliberate choice (judicio nostro), that is, what we make of all of the rest of our circumstances and nature by our own will or choice (nostrae voluntatae).
How does this doctrine of the four characters impact the ideal of living “in accordance with nature”? The first character expresses a considerable amount of what “living in accordance with nature” would look like for all human beings. But there is also what is distinctive to us as individual persons, and we ought to cultivate that “nature” and live in accordance with it as well, provided of course that it really is “proper to us and not vicious,” or put in another way, “not against universal human nature” (1.33.110).
The fourth is particularly interesting, since it bears upon what we actually choose to do with and from those other three characters. It is where human agency not only expresses human nature but also deliberately shapes our own selves in relation to it. Whether or not we live in accordance with nature or not is something up to us. Even how we live “in accordance with nature” is up to us as well. Cicero points out a person’s choice about which virtues to excel in as one example of what lies within this fourth character’s scope.
A Few Conclusions
After examining several of these interesting discussions of classical Stoic doctrine on “living in accordance with nature” and about specifically human nature, found in Diogenes Laertes and Cicero, what clear conclusions can we set out on the matter? Here are a few:
First, the Stoic ideal of “living in accordance with nature” does involve adapting oneself to “nature” in the sense of the cosmos, of which any given person is merely one part of a much greater whole. Just as important, however, is realizing distinctively human, rational nature in oneself.
Second, as living beings, humans are driven by the same natural impulse for self-preservation as are other non-rational living beings. Our rationality may often be used in the service of this impulse, but that is not its only function. Integral to that rationality, as it develops, is a capacity and desire for living together harmoniously with other people. Rational human nature involves sociability.
Third, human rationality affords us the capacity to be to some extent self-determining. We can rationally reshape what it is that nature has bestowed upon us, for instance our impulses. We not only have capacities for responding to and modifying our natural environment, but also for working upon our own selves, as well as for taking part in complex human communities.
Fourth, living in accordance with nature involves the cultivation of the virtues – specifically prudence, justice, courage, and temperance – since virtue is the end to which nature orients rational beings. Doing so follows out and refines desires and impulses that we possess as human beings, for example for understanding truth, or for realizing justice.
Fifth, recognizing and fulfilling our duties is a main way in which we live in accordance with nature. This is not just a matter of blind or mechanical obedience to demands imposed upon us from outside, but rather ways in which we apply our human rationality to ourselves, others, and the situations in which we live together.
As I mentioned earlier, this short piece is not meant to provide a fully comprehensive account of what “living in accordance with nature” means for the Stoics. Instead, the goal was to flesh out that notion enough so that those who find it vague, confusing, or vacuous might have something more substantive to wrap their heads around. Here I have just drawn upon Diogenes Laertes and Cicero, but there is a good bit more said on the topic in the works of the Late Stoics that we fortunately still possess. My intention is to write a follow-up piece (later this year) focused on passages further developing this notion of “according to nature” in Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and especially in the works of Epictetus.
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 works as an executive coach and ethics trainer for Priority Thinking, produces the Half Hour Hegel series, and is a team member of (Slow) Philosophies.