Stoics talk a lot about living according to nature. But what exactly does that mean?
In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche calls the Stoic phrase “according to nature” a fraud of words.
He writes that living according to nature and living according to life are the same thing. And he rhetorically asks, “how could you do differently?”
It’s a good question. Human beings are products of nature. Evolution produced the human brain, which is the basis for human behavior. So human behavior follows the laws of nature just as rocks follow gravity.
Saying human behavior is natural doesn’t mean it’s good or bad. Bad things are a product of nature just as much as good things are.
When someone says something isn’t natural—take cannibalism for example—they really mean that’s it’s morally wrong.
But that’s the naturalistic fallacy—incorrectly assuming that whatever is natural must be good. Nietzsche claims Stoicism falls into the naturalistic fallacy.
Further, he says Stoics wish to dictate their morals and ideals to nature. That is, Stoics are creating the world in their own image, which is not only arrogant but self-tyranny.
This self-tyranny is found in the Stoic call to regard anything that neither contributes to nor detracts from virtue as a preferred or dispreferred indifferent.
Nietzsche writes that to live is to resist indifference. Living is “valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavouring to be different.” He says Stoics imagine that indifference is power, but he doubts anyone can truly live in accordance with indifference.
I’ve described my philosophy as having many features of Stoicism—particularly acknowledging that I have no control over (but sometimes can influence) external events.
But referencing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I disagree that being a good person is sufficient for human flourishing. Needs such as food, water, shelter, and safety are also essential for happiness.
That is, I find Stoic talk about preferred and dispreferred indifferents to be unrealistic for most people (myself included).
There was a missing receipt at work, and administration was frantically looking for it. At first I insisted I didn’t have it. But it turns out I had misplaced it. The receipt was on my desk—in the wrong pile—the whole time. Once I found it I turned it in and apologized.
But I felt embarrassed and feared that my coworkers would think I’m untrustworthy. Really this is a fear of social rejection. And the thought of rejection causes muscle tension and a faster heart beat.
At its worst, contemplating thoughts of social rejection can spiral to overgrown scenarios of conflict with others and an unmet need for approval.
Staying outwardly calm is the stereotypical stoic response. But it’s not a philosophically Stoic response—just like painting a rotting piece of wood covers the problem but doesn’t repair it.
How could I have handled this better? First there’s the acknowledgement that I have no control over the past. I can’t un-misplace the receipt, and I can’t un-speak my denial that I had it. Turning the receipt in did mean possible judgment from my coworkers (though this didn’t happen), but I have no control over their judgments.
Knowing I did the right thing by turning it in and apologizing should be sufficient for my peace of mind. The only things left are making a plan to keep better track of my receipts in the future, and reflecting on my spiraling thought process as the source of my distress.
The other night I dreamt I was in an office. There was a locked glass door, and if someone buzzed to get in I could push a button that would open the door.
I heard it buzz, but no one was at the door. Instead a cart that looked something like a rectangular skateboard was rolling toward the door. The cart had a box on it. This seemed odd to me.
I thought maybe I shouldn’t open the door. But whoever set the cart in motion wanted the cart in the office, and I didn’t want to disappoint that person.
So I opened the door. I took the lid off the box that was on the cart. Inside was a handgun. I knew that in the office there was another box that had several guns in it, so I picked up the handgun and put it with the other guns.
I decided it was no big deal. But then the police arrived looking for a man who just killed someone. I realized that the gun must be the murder weapon, and now my prints were on it because I touched it.
If you’re interested in the philosophy of Stoicism, Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic is the place to start. Don’t let the fact that it’s philosophy stop you – Pigliucci’s conversational, straightforward writing style makes Stoicism easily accessible.
Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness is also a good introduction. But while Robertson is more detailed on the the finer points of Stoicism, Pigliucci focuses on general concepts.
If you like what you read from Pigliucci then read Robertson next. The reason I put William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy third is that Irvine modifies Stoicism somewhat – and being a philosophy rather than a religion you can do that. But to understand Irvine’s perspective it helps first to have a good understanding of Stoicism.
And if you’re still with us after these books then it’s time to delve directly into Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and other classical writers.
But back to Pigliucci. He describes Stoicism as a philosophy that
is not about suppressing or hiding emotions – rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control, focusing our efforts on the former and not wasting them on the latter. It is about practicing virtue and excellence and navigating the world to the best of our abilities, while being mindful of the moral dimension of all our actions.
Throughout the book Pigliucci uses anecdotes to illustrate Stoic ideas. He lucidly explains Epictetus’s Enchiridion and Discourses, often framing it as a conversation between Epictetus and himself. But Pigliucci never overdoes it. The effect makes Stoicism feel more like a way of life than abstract musings.
For example, at one point Pigliucci paraphrases Epictetus as saying to him, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”
Pigliucci saves the best for last. Chapter fourteen, “Practical Spiritual Exercises,” provides the reader with twelve actions we can undertake daily so we can actually practice Stoicism rather than just read about it.
But before he details these twelve actions he provides a succinct summary of Stoic philosophy (pages 204 and 205):
“Virtue is the highest good, and everything else is indifferent” because “nothing is to be traded against virtue.”
“Follow nature. That is, apply reason to social life.”
“Dichotomy of control. Some things are under our control, and others are not (though we may be able to influence them).”
And the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism:
“(Practical) wisdom: Navigating complex situations in the best available fashion.”
“Courage: Doing the right thing, both physically and morally, under all circumstances.”
“Justice: Treating every human being – regardless of his or her stature in life – with fairness and kindness.”
“Temperance: Exercising moderation and self-control in all spheres of life.”
Religious fundamentalists and postmodernists may have very different political views, but philosophically they are cousins. Both have roots in the Counter-Enlightenment. Both say that factual truth claims are based not on scientific objectivity, but feelings, intuition, experience – and for fundamentalists, revelation.
As he explains it, the medieval worldview was supernatural, faith based, collectivist, feudal, and believed in God’s will and original sin.
In contrast, modernism is naturalistic, individualistic, based on autonomy, values objectivity over faith, and lead to capitalism, democracy, and human rights.
Postmodernism, however, rejects scientific objectivity in favor of subjectivism, sees most things as social constructions, is collectivist, and socialist.
Christianity felt threatened when Enlightenment thinkers such as Francis Bacon, John Locke, and others promoted reason and scientific objectivity. How could the belief that there is one God who is three persons withstand rational analysis?
Hicks writes that Immanuel Kant sought to defend faith and counter Enlightenment ideas by restricting reason to analysis of one’s internal experiences. That is, reason is incapable of knowing reality itself. There’s an insurmountable barrier between subject (you) and object (the outside world). Other German philosophers took subjectivism all the way, advocating personal feelings over reason.
French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau rejected reason most explicitly. Pining for a mythological past, he thought modern society was pathological and should be replaced. Rousseau was especially protective of religion, rejecting the Enlightenment’s religious tolerance.
Today, fundamentalists often claim that reason cannot answer ultimate questions, and that God’s revelation – the Bible – trumps scientific findings about the origin of the species. In this view, science is as subjective as any personal opinion. Biblical revelation is supreme. And fundamentalists often oppose separation of church and state.
But right-wing Christians reject collectivism, seeing it as a governmental threat to religious liberty. Postmodernists, in contrast, are collectivist and see Christianity, not government, as oppressive. So a split happened somewhere along the way.
The leap to postmodernism
While postmodernists see science as one subjective opinion among many, they reject traditional religious claims as oppressive. But socialism originally claimed to be a scientific endeavor. What happened to that?
Hicks says that right-wing collectivism collapsed with the defeat of National Socialism – the Nazis – in World War II, leaving left-wing and atheistic Marxist socialism as the dominant collectivist ideology.
And by the 1950s mathematical rigor in economics had shown capitalism to be a superior system that increased wealth for both rich and poor, while socialism would fail in the long run. In the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and liberal economic reforms in China, history proved socialism’s failure.
This left socialists with two choices: abandon socialism and embrace capitalism, or abandon science and reason in favor of subjectivism. So the far left rejected the Enlightenment just as the religious right had done centuries before.
Further, in the early twentieth century the Frankfurt School in Germany expanded Marxist thought beyond economics and into sociology and psychology. Herbert Marcuse popularized this in American universities. Class conflict became conflict between various identity groups.
More recently, intersectionality – a matrix of oppression based on membership in multiple oppressed groups – has amplified identity politics. Identity politics, however, is not just a left-wing phenomenon. Christians, whites, and men have also joined the game.
Hicks notes postmodern contradictions and provides a compelling explanation:
Postmodernists say truth is relative, but insist that they tell it like it really is.
Postmodernists say all cultures deserve equal respect, but that Western civilization is uniquely destructive.
Postmodernists promote tolerance but are intolerant of anyone who violates their speech codes (political correctness).
Postmodernists say the West is uniquely racist and sexist, yet it’s the West that first championed human rights, identified and addressed ethnocentrism, abolished slavery, and promoted women’s equality.
Postmodernists say capitalism is inherently oppressive to the poor, yet the poor in Western countries are much better off than the poor in other countries.
Hicks provides a detailed explanation showing that at its core, postmodernism is absolutist and totalitarian. Relativism and subjectivism are merely rhetorical tools for arguing against Enlightenment values without having to provide real intellectual substance.
While right-wing Christians are an older demographic, and their political power is likely to wane in the coming decades, Islamic fundamentalism shows no signs of slowing down. Islamists believe the West – with its Enlightenment values – is a to threat their culture. And they’re willing to kill to stop the spread of Enlightenment values.
In contrast, the postmodernists are far less violent. Their agenda is to invert Western society’s hierarchy. Status is derived from belonging to multiple oppressed groups. And oppressed groups are held to lower standards than dominant groups are. For example, white people shouldn’t sell burritos, but it’s racist to similarly segregate minorities. And some have called for the abolition of men as a social category (as if men are not a biological reality), but to call for the abolition of women would be misogyny.
Hicks references Nietzsche’s description of weakling morality to describe the postmodern approach. People who cannot confront those who are more powerful feel frustrated and envious. They rationalize their hate by telling themselves they are morally superior because they are oppressed.
But what about those who are too smart to really believe that? They seek to passive-aggressively undermine Enlightenment values. Rhetorical techniques of relativism and subjectivism can cause a society to lose faith in itself. Hicks illustrates this with direct quotes from postmodernists such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Kate Ellis.
Islamic terrorists likewise desire the destruction of Enlightenment values – but with violence. It’s no surprise, then, that postmoderns are often willing to defend terrorists.
What the future will bring is hard to say. Postmodernism might collapse as groups competing for the status of more oppressed than thou turn on each other. Or, considering the recent rise in postmodernists’ violence on college campuses, postmodernism could surge ahead and feel more empowered to use violence.
Maps of Meaning. That’s psychologist Jordan B. Peterson’s description of myth. His book is by a professor for professors, so it’s a challenging read – very technical and dense. I didn’t make it through the entire book, but enough to get the gist.
Part of what Peterson does is connect neurology to “the architecture of belief,” with a particular focus on Jungian archetypes. I won’t go into detail about that. But the basic idea is that just as the general structure of language is hardwired in the human brain even though specific languages must be learned, the general structure of storytelling is also hardwired even though specific stories must be created and learned.
Science & myth
Peterson makes a crucial distinction about the role of science and the role of myth. Science describes the world of things – what composes them, how they physically interact with other things, etc. But myth is about meaning. More so, myth is a call to action.
Familiar territory feels predictable and safe, but unexplored territory feels unpredictable and chaotic. The unknown is both frightening and alluring at the same time. And myth is a journey from the known to the unknown to bring back something of value.
The basic mythological template, Peterson writes, is a metaphor for our lives. Our present state is familiar, and we may be complacent even if things aren’t so good right now. But we also have an ideal future – a desire for how things could be better.
That desire is an expression of meaning. It’s not a scientific endeavor even though scientific knowledge can help us navigate the world. Further, this hero’s quest is a responsibility. Responsibility being the primary source of meaning.
Myth is a challenge
The challenge myth articulates is that we must act without truly knowing what our actions will bring. Unpredictability is chaos, and when things don’t go as expected we can become irate.
The world is a forum for action and myth serves as a guide. A particular pitfall, however, is that we’re inclined to compare what we have with what we want, not with what may actually be. That is, we’re prone to illusion.
Each person’s challenge, Peterson says, is to develop a personality capable of facing even extreme conditions. The exploratory act quells chaos, freeing something valuable from its grip (sometimes represented as a dragon’s gold). By incorporating this value we are transformed.
Peterson analyzes myth and claims there are common archetypes or images used to represent the process – the hero’s journey – of leaving the comfort of familiar territory, which protects us from chaos, to undertake the dangerous task of confronting chaos in unexplored territory.
Seen through a Freudian lens, the unknown is the Id, the known is the superego, and the knower/hero is the ego.
The structure of myth
In myth there’s a threat to the comfortable state of affairs. This status quo, this unself-conscious paradise, however, is incomplete. It represents childhood, and the terrible mother – nature’s chaos – is the threat. The hero confronts her but is swallowed, often represented as a visit to the underworld. There the hero must defeat a monster (or perhaps death itself), and be transformed. The hero must then return to transform the community.
Sigmund Freud’s student, Carl Jung, articulated several archetypes or characters that appear in myths worldwide. It all starts with primordial chaos before creation, represented variously as dragons, serpents, waters of the deep, and so on:
Nature is the eternal unknown. Every archetype has positive and negative aspects. At the positive pole, the great mother gives birth to nature from primordial chaos. But everything must also die. The terrible mother is a devourer, the goddess of anxiety, depression, even pain and death. Nature uses destruction to create new things, so primordial chaos is somewhat retained in nature. The great mother also gives birth to the hero, who might be her lover as well. Myths are weird in the same way that dreams are weird. Maybe that’s where many myths came from.
The known is culture – the wise king or father whose shadow is the tyrant. Culture is predictable and disciplined, but can be restrictive and tyrannical. Ritual imitation of the great father protects us from the fear of unprotected exposure to unexplored territory. The resulting culture, or group identity, restricts the meaning of things and makes social interactions more predictable. But it can also heighten social aggression when the unknown intrudes. And denial of the unknown (“we have infallible knowledge”) can lead to hell on earth.
The knower is the hero, who is sometimes a sun god or the son of the great god. The hero slays the dragon, vanquishes the villain, or defeats death, which represent chaos. But the hero’s shadow side is the adversary – the prince of darkness – who rejects the unknown. Loyalty to personal interest – identification with the hero – is important to counteract group pressure.
According to Peterson, myths feature the positive aspects of order (the father) and the hero (usually the son) protecting against destruction (the terrible mother); or the negative aspects of tyranny and the adversary against creation.
Notice that he places the masculine and feminine in opposite directions. It’s like the father and the hero’s positive poles point one way, and the mother’s pole points in the opposite direction. I’m not sure what to make of that.
Real world implications
Throughout human history myth has been central to people’s worldviews. Modern Western society is an outlier because myth is seen as superstition. But science and myth are not incompatible considering the distinction that science is an objective description of things while myth is a guide for acting on the subjective meaning we ascribe to things.
However, Peterson warns that involuntary exposure to chaos can unleash forces that can undermine a culture’s known world. The societal destruction that accompanied European contact with the people of the Americas is one example.
Further, there’s a tension between freedom and security. Order can keep the chaos of untamed nature at bay, but order can also be overbearing and deadly. The hero must achieve a delicate balance of creating order from chaos while maintaining novelty and flexibility.
Too much order and predictability denies the unknown, which can lead to violence to suppress the perceived threat. Lucifer’s pride is thinking that all he knows is all that’s necessary to know – an apt description of religious fundamentalism or secular utopian schemes such as communism and fascism. This arrogance creates hell on earth.
I’ve written quite a bit about Stoicism over the past year. And I’ve been asking myself, What do I believe?
The short of it is:
Ethics: Stoic with Peripatetic (Aristotelian) modifications
I agree with the value Stoicism places on ethics as the focus of reason. And that centers on the idea that the only things I really control are my chosen values, goals, and my deliberate thoughts and actions. Nothing else is up to me, and I must accept this fact.
Related to this is knowing what belongs to me and what does not belong to me. And not touching what’s not mine while guarding what is mine.
But while I agree that being a good person is necessary for human flourishing (eudaimonia), I disagree that it’s sufficient. Basic necessities such as food, shelter, and safety are also necessary for human flourishing. And Abraham Maslow’s research on the hierarchy of needs lends tremendous support to this view.
In ancient times physics was philosophy about the nature of the universe. Many of these pre-scientific ideas were about the gods – what we call metaphysics today.
Ancient Stoics were pantheistic. They believed that the material universe is all that exists, and the universe is God. Coupled with the Stoic belief in divine providence means that everything that happens is just. But this is clearly irrational. As I noted in a previous post, “If everything is just then injustice doesn’t exist. Just like if everything were yellow then red wouldn’t exist.” Yet justice is the core of Stoic ethics, so the house of cards falls.
In contrast, Epicureans (who were Stoics rivals) believed in an atomistic universe. And though ancient Epicureans didn’t explicitly deny that gods existed, they did claim that the gods have little to do with the universe – a type of deism, or de facto atheism. This enabled Epicureans to take the problem of evil seriously.
With the advent of modern science, however, ancient speculations about physics and gods are moot. We can’t prove that gods don’t exist, but we don’t need gods to understand how the natural world works.
I don’t think gods exist. And I think the universe is impersonal. There’s luck – good and bad – but no providence.
How do we know what we know? Ancient Sceptics said we can’t really know anything. But most ancient Greek philosophers thought we can know things by thinking it through, or rationalism.
But eighteenth century philosopher David Hume disagreed. He said reason is often self-serving. Besides, if you start with a false premise then even perfect logic won’t get you to the right conclusion.
In a recent post I summarized the findings of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who said David Hume was right. Hume’s empiricism is a model for modern science. We must use our sensory perceptions to test theories, and then draw a logical conclusion. Certainty is proportional to evidence.