The Stoic aim, to live in accordance with nature, sounds good, but is often perplexing. What exactly did the Stoics mean by it? Michel Daw, who blogs at Living the Stoic Life, tackles this question.
What does ‘live according to Nature’ actually mean?
The Stoics have consistently stated that the core of their philosophy is to ‘Live according to Nature.’ This phrase has caused a great deal of discussion and misunderstanding over the millennia and no less so today. In this post, I am going to dig into what this actually means.
The word that is conventionally translated as ‘Nature’ is actually began as the Greek term ‘physis.’ Physis isn’t merely an object, as in the Natural world, nor is it a State, as in it’s a leaf’s natural color. Physis is a process, it describes the way in which things are intended by nature to change and grow. So our first clarification would rephrase the statement to ‘Live according to the way things are meant to change and grow.’
The phrase ‘live according to Nature’ is obviously directed at humans (you don’t have to tell a plant to live according to Nature, it will change and grow on its own.) Nor does the instruction mean to tell us to eat, breathe, bathe etc, as these are all ‘natural’ functions shared with other animals. By using the phrase, Stoics mean ‘live according to the way human nature is meant to change and grow.’ So what do we mean by ‘human nature’?
There are acutally two senses in which we can understand ‘human nature.’ First, each of us has a genetic structure that has been determined by evolution, a legacy of time and adaptation, and in a way of speaking we are ‘designed’ to fulfill determinate ends, to survive and flourish in our environments. We also exist at a precise time and place in history, and surrounded by cultural influences.
Whether or not we achieve the full expression of our genetic potential, depends on both our circumstances (things out of our control) and our choices (things in our control). I may have the genetic capacity to grow to 6′ tall, but disease, accident or self inflicted damage may prevent me from actually doing so. It is only over the second element though, choice, which I have any say in aligning it with ‘nature’, which in this case is meant ‘what is healthy for my body.
This is the sense that Seneca means in his fifth letter to Lucilius “Our motto, as you know, is ‘Live according to Nature;’ but it is quite contrary to nature to torture the body, to hate unlaboured elegance, to be dirty on purpose, to eat food that is not only plain, but disgusting and forbidding.” Seneca is directing our choices to align with our physical requirements. By ‘live according to nature’, Seneca seems to be instructing to reach for the things which ‘Nature’ has designed humans to desire. These things include health, safety, community, and other such things.
But there is a caveat. The frame in which the choices are made goes far beyond mere physical health, though it can include it. These are targets, the answer to ‘What should I pursue? What should I do.’ They are often referred to as ‘preferred indifferents’, that is things that have no intrinsic moral value. They are not the ultimate goal.
Stemming for Seneca’s statement above, and others like it, some have seen a suport for Eco-ethics in the term ‘Live according to Nature.’ They see it as an instruction to live with eye to a balance in our impact on the natural world, a reduction of our carbon footprint, recycling, animal rights etc. While these are, by and large, laudable goals, those who claim that this is what is meant are assigning a meaning to the phrase that was not intended. Nevertheless, if the term serves to remind Stoics that they should ALSO be concious of their impact on the planetary ecology in which they are fully integrated and upon which they are completely dependent for survival, well and good, but to repeat, that is not what ‘Live according to nature’ actually means.
So what does ‘human nature’ mean? In using the phrase ‘human nature’, the Stoics do not mean the agregate of all of the ways in which people DO act, which results in the actual condition of mankind (i.e. that which people actually do, averaging out the good and the bad). We need to remember that ‘physis’ adjusts our meaning to indicate that we are to live, not as people actually behave, but more that we are to live as we are MEANT to behave.
‘Human Nature’ refers to the condition of a human who is expressing the very best in his or her development, that is their ultimate ‘best self’. They are growing and changing in an effort to reach the ultimate goal for a human being.
This ultimate goal, according to the Stoics, is the achievement of a virtuous life (which itself is defined as a life in according to reason). It is the ‘how’ to the above mentioned ‘what’. In seeking out the ENDS of a flourishing life, Stoicism teaches us that we are solely responsible for the MEANS in which we pursue them. We are designed, by nature, to seek out the things we need to live, and are given, again by nature, the choice to grow and change in the way that each particular human is ‘meant’ to, or to work against that inborn potential.
Whether or not we fully express our ‘human nature’, depends on our choices alone. The Stoic phrase ‘live according to Nature’ therefore is actually a combination of points: ‘Live according to Nature’ actually means ‘live a virtuous life because that is what you have been designed to do. The capacity to do so exists in you, but you ultimately have the choice to express it or not.’
In his tenth letter to Lucillius, Seneca instructs his student that “Virtue is according to nature; vice is opposed to it and hostile.” What is left, really, is to determine what a ‘virtue’ actually is. And that is something that we actually need to understand to ‘live according to nature.’
(P.S. – The Eco-ethic, mentioned above, can in fact be seen to fall under the ultimate meaning of “Live according to nature,” if we take the perspective of human behaviour vis. other humans. Justice would dictate a equitable distribution of the necessities of a fully flourishing life, both to present and future generations. Moderation instructs us to exercise self-control in the acquisition and production of the actual needs of a flourishing life (the so called preferred indifferents), and not to support the needless exploitation to assuage greed and fear. More can be said on the social aspect, and we haven’t begun to address the anthropocentrism of this approach, but you get the idea.)
This article first appeared on Michel’s blog in April 2013 and is reproduced here with his kind permission.
Not sure I agree with you – not my interpretation of living according to Nature but an interesting slant and food for thought. My interpretation is more living in harmony with the seasons. Getting up early and going to bed late in the summer, and visa versa in the winter – celebrating the changing seasons and trying to eat simply of the produce of the season. Being aware of reducing my carbon footprint. Keeping fit and healthy in body mind and spirit and trying to live to my stoic goals each day. Just returned from Nova Scotia so beautiful and on the one hand healthy seasonal local produce and on the other prolific synthetic fast food and encouragement to do everything in your car! Lovely trails and playgrounds and loads of drive throughs so sad to see so many obese children and young people eating big portions of junk food. UK is following fast and it is heartbreaking and costing the NHS billions!
Living in harmony with the Natural World is part of what I mean. But there is a greater nature, in my opinion, that we ignore. That is our inner nature, that which makes us good and virtuous, the incredible potential we are endowed with. That is reflected in both our behaviour and our sense of awe and gratitude. Seneca once mused on the grandeur of natural phenomena and how it drove him to a sense of reverence. In my mind, understanding the natural world we are a part of and living virtuously in it are one and the same. Thanks for your reply.
Sorry, but your interpretation is not correct!
The stoics absolutely did not mean: live according to the seasons!
To live according to nature definitely relates to seeking virtue, behaving rationally, and expressing the best version of yourself.
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Awesome explanation. I am sure there’s more to it but this article perfectly explains the basic idea of this stoic virtue.
Thanks for sharing your knowledge.
Your interpretation is spot on. I was a classics major at university and your dealing with physis and arete are very much correct, in my opinion. I am in process of becoming a Stoic after all these years. Greek philosophy has always perplexed me. Especially presocratic stuff. I value your input and will subscribe.
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The greatest difficulty I have with Stoicism is the idea that we are “meant” or “designed” to live in such and such a way. It suggests some cosmic intention or purpose—but as far as we know, all intention, purpose and design is human. Projecting this onto the cosmos seems ludicrous, and not something a reasonable modern person should be expected to believe. For these reasons, I cannot subscribe to any notion that the universe itself has any built-in telos or purpose or providential character. “Living according to nature” means nothing at all. The extistentialists had this right: existence precedes essence. Nature doesn’t “care” how we live. If we decide to embrace the Stoic virtues, we should do so for our own reasons, not in reference to some imagined grand scheme of things that simply does not exist.
I fully agree that believing in Providence or a universal teleology is unnecessary to practice Stoicism. It may be helpful, however, because if one does hold such a view, they may find it easier to live according to the prescribed virtues than if one adopts an nihilistic attitude toward their place in the world. Believing your actions hold cosmic significance tends to reinforce your commitment to them. This is why religions and belief systems have some prudential value…
I really wanted to comment on your existentialist point, though. I think in the realm of meaning and value, there is some truth in the notion that these things are embedded in human nature and not simply up for grabs as Sartre suggested. The modern field of evolutionary psychology seems to indicate (judging by Stephen Pinker as a representative thinker) that human nature is not a tabula rasa, but comes hardwired with programs to find and pursue meaning (Jordan Peterson argues this is a deep instinct and not a second order philosophical epiphenomena). If this is true, then “living according to nature” might well mean living in accordance with your own intuitively-felt program for human meaning. Even supposing the universe has no inherent teleology, that doesn’t mean the injunction to “live in accordance with nature” simply to defaults to do whatever you want. There are likely real, evolutionary-driven imperatives that trigger the sense of meaning and value in us that one could use in place of Providence as a guide.
Thank you for your thoughtful reply, Mattheus. I do have a problem with believing something simply because it “may be helpful” (a pragmatist strategy) regardless of whether it is actually true, so I have to dismiss that part of your response. However, anchoring certain beliefs about human nature in evolutionary biology is a more promising approach that may have some basis in fact, and I will investigate these ideas more. Thanks for stimulating my thinking!
Being an Atheist and yet still a Stoic I also struggled with that thought to start with.
I don’t think we need to believe in providence or god to be a Stoic, I am not even sure that’s what all the Stoic meant.
They referred to the Logos as the reasoning, conscious substance of the universe, a substance actually animating the inert matter. The logos is supposed to be present within everything, controlling it. They observed the world and saw the matter obviously following some rules.
Considering the science of the time and how well the clock of the universe is turning that was an hypothesis as valid as another, something indeed seem to be controlling the nature.
Today we can replace the Logos by the “laws of physics” or “nature”, they are like an automated program that governs the universe. Whether we believe in a conscious universe or not, events are still happening in our life and we have to deal with them.
To be a Stoic, to do good, to act in accordance with Nature you don’t need to fear a god or believe those events are consciously imposed upon you, they are just happening.
I think the mistake is to look at the “Divine“ or at the “Cosmos“ as something outside of ourselves. If you look at it like this, I agree that it’s nonsense to think that a Divine being has projected a singular path to each one of us. If we look at all these old theories, religions, etc and still see ourselves as something separated from the All (as mere Egos), then it’s really hard to agree with this concept. In my point of view, using other beliefs that came not only from stoicism, if we look at the Cosmos/God WITHIN ourselves, thus believing that we all have something “Divine“ on the inside, then it’s much easier to live according to what we are meant or in accordance to our Nature.
From this point, after you understand that the God or whatever you call it is inside you, then you will see that your path can be made by you and still can be called in accordance to the nature. This inner force you have that desperately wants to grow as a human being, IS the Nature itself.
I don’t think the stoics meant that to live in accordance with nature is to accept everything, settle and wait for your death, especially because they made it clear that we should focus on what we can change. When you do it, trying to improve, you are acting towards what you are meant to in the means that we are all supposed to use this human life to grow as this small drop of the water in a giant ocean called The All.
And yes, Im mixing several concepts from differents lines of though, because I simply do not believe that the stoics came with this idea from nowhere lol
Eudaimonia has the same meaning!
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