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.