Stoicism & the problem of Nature

Ancient Stoic beliefs about Nature face challenges in the modern era.

Carefree, AZ. © Dave DuBay

Stoicism is experiencing a renaissance after fading away with the fall of the Roman Empire. But modern Stoicism departs from its ancient ancestor in important ways. Modern Stoicism is effectively agnostic. That is, some modern Stoics believe in God while others are atheists.

Contrary to the stereotype that Stoicism is about repressing your emotions, virtue (or being the best you can be) is the core of Stoicism. Emotions are okay but losing control is not because you’re at your worst when you lose control.

Ancient Stoics believed in living in accord with Nature. They were pantheists—the universe is God, which is a reasoning entity. To live according to Nature is to live in accord with Logos, or reason. And this leads us to the four cardinal virtues—wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.

But critics of Stoicism often ask how Stoics define Nature and how they know that certain virtues are in accord with Nature.

The God question

Despite fake internet quotes attributed to Marcus Aurelius, ancient Stoics did not look at agnosticism favorably. Fake Marcus is alleged to have said:

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

In contrast, real Marcus wrote:

If the gods exist, then departure from the world of men is not frightening—the gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what happens to us, then what is life to me in a world without gods or providence? But they do exist, they do care what happens to us.

Many modern Stoics are atheists, however, while others believe in God. I’ve previously written that atheism creates a vacuum. Human beings seem to need a comprehensive framework that provides a sense of moral order. Whether you think that moral order arose from evolution or from a transcendent source is another question.

But if you don’t believe God then on what basis can you equate reason with Nature? Does attributing reason to Nature imply that Nature has consciousness? If so does this mean that Nature is God, or is this universal consciousness not divine?

These questions might seem like a distraction, but Stoicism is philosophy and these are philosophical questions.

Morality without gods

Earlier I argued for a basis of universal human rights even without deities. In a nutshell I wrote that culture can build upon human psychology, which is the product of evolution.

We survive in groups, so being good team players evolved as part of our psychology. But human psychology is flawed. Our most basic moralistic impulse is selfish—”you shouldn’t do that to me.” The cultural concept of universal human rights is necessary to protect every individual’s hardwired sense of personal boundaries.

This argument is pragmatic, however. It asserts that virtues like justice are cultural concepts—tools, if you will—that are instrumental in creating the kind of society we all want to live in.

In other words, my framework doesn’t deny the importance of virtue or human excellence, but it’s not in total agreement with ancient Stoicism. Of course, modern Stoicism is free to update itself based on modern views of the world.

Virtue and modern Stoicism

This doesn’t mean that modern Stoicism has to abandon virtue. For many people modern Stoicism’s appeal is the idea of keeping your cool and putting things in perspective by distinguishing between what’s under your control and what’s not under your control. Perhaps it makes sense to start with the practical usefulness of Stoic ideas and to extrapolate from there that reason, wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation are the most effective values for maximizing the benefits of Stoicism.

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Nature, the Universe & the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius believed in an interconnected universe where everything is just and happens according to divine will – even if that means you’re oppressed.

Modern science has not vindicated the ancient Stoic view of nature. Their rivals – the Epicureans – believed that nature is atomistic, impersonal, and that divine providence doesn’t exist. 

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

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Butcher Jones Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona

Pantheism

The world is a living being – one nature, one soul. Keep that in mind. How everything is absorbed into this one consciousness, how a single impulse governs all its actions, and how everything helps produce everything else – spun and woven together (4.40).

The natural can never be inferior to the artificial. Art imitates nature, not the reverse (11.10).

Interconnection

Keep reminding yourself how things are connected. All things are related one another and in sympathy with each other (6.38).

There is a single harmony. Just as the world forms a single body comprising all bodies, so fate forms a single purpose, comprising all purposes (5.8).

Everything is interwoven in a sacred bond. None of its parts are disconnected. They are arranged in their proper place. There is one orderly, graceful disposition of the whole. There is one God in the whole. There is one substance, one law, and one reason common to all intelligent beings. And one truth. There is a sort of perfection to all beings, who are of the same nature, who share the same logos (7.9).

Each of us needs what nature gives us, when nature gives it (10.20). Whatever happens to you is for the good of the world. That should be enough right there. But if you look closely you’ll generally notice something else as well: whatever happens to a single person is for the good of others (6.45).

To the world: Your harmony is mine. Whatever time you choose is the right time. Not late, not early (4.23).

To nature: What the turn of your seasons brings me falls like ripe fruit. All things are born from you, exist in you, return to you (4.23).

Nature is personal

The soul of the universe is kind and social. It has made the inferior orders for the sake of the superior; and has suited the superior beings for each other. You see how it has subordinated, coordinated, and distributed to each according to its merit, and brought nobler beings together into a mutual agreement and unanimity (5.30, see also 7.55).

For a rational being, to act in accordance with nature is to act in accordance with reason (7.11). All rational things are related, and to care for all human beings is part of being human (3.4).

To lie is to blaspheme against nature because nature is synonymous with truth (9.1). What injures the hive injures the bee (6.54).

Don’t pay attention to other people’s minds. Look straight ahead where nature is leading (7.55). Teach yourself to be at one with those things ordained for you. And treat the people who share them with you with love – with real love (6.39).

Everything happens by necessity

Nature is passive and malleable. And the logos that governs it has no reason to do evil. It knows no evil, does none, and causes harm to nothing. It dictates all beginnings and all endings (6.1).

Nature brings about everything (6.9). Nature willed the creation of the world. We must agree that everything – even the worst we see – happens as a necessary consequence or connection with those excellent things primarily intended (7.75). Either the world’s intelligence wills each thing (if so, accept its will), or it exercised that will once and for all — and all else follows as a consequence (and if so, why worry?) (9.28).

Through nature all things happen as they should. That things happen for the worst and always will, that the gods have no power to regulate them, and the world is condemned to never-ending evil—how can you say that? (9.35, see also 10.6)

No one can keep you from living as your nature requires. Nothing can happen to you that is not required by Nature (6.58). What humans experience is part of human experience. The experience of the ox is part of the experience of oxen, as the vine’s is of the vine, and the stone’s what is proper to stones. Nothing that can happen is unusual or unnatural, and there’s no sense in complaining. Nature does not make us endure the unendurable (8.46).

Fate? Providence? Or random and undirected? If it’s fate, why resist? If it’s providence then try to be worthy of God’s help. If it’s confusion and anarchy then be grateful that on this raging sea you have a mind to guide you (12.14).

Reason, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces — to what is possible. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow. It turns obstacles into fuel (4.1).

Nature is constant change

The whole is composed of individual parts whose destruction, or transformation, is inevitable. How can the whole run smoothly if this is harmful to the parts? Is nature oblivious? Neither seems very plausible (10.7).

All things are little, changeable, and presently to vanish. All things proceed from the universal governing mind, either by direct and primary intention, or by necessary consequence and connection with things primarily intended. Thus, the horrid jaws of the lion, poisons, and whatever is pernicious (as thorns or mire) are the consequences of those venerable and lovely things you admire. So don’t think they’re foreign to nature, which you revere, but rather the fountain of all things (6.36).

The universe is preserved by the changes of the elements, by the changes of the complex forms. Let these thoughts suffice; let them be your maxims, laying aside that thirst after multitudes of books; that you may die without repining, meek and well satisfied, and sincerely grateful to the gods (2.3b).

Even the incidental effects of the processes of nature have their own charm and attraction. For anyone who has a deep affection of soul, and insight into the workings of the whole, scarcely anything connected with nature will fail to recommend itself agreeably to him (3.2).

All that exists is the seed of what will emerge from it. Constantly observe everything that comes from change. The nature of the whole loves nothing so much as to change what exists and makes new things from it (4.36).

You have arisen as a part in the universe, you shall disappear again, returning to your source – or rather, by a change shall be resumed again, into that productive intelligence from you came from (4.14). Don’t look down on death, but welcome it. It too is one of the things required by nature (9.3).

Frightened of change? What can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you eat food without transforming it? (7.18) Nature takes substance and makes a horse. Like a sculptor with wax. And then melts it down and uses the material for a tree. Then for a person. Then for something else. Each existing only briefly (7.23). The world is continually renewed (7.25). To decompose is to be recomposed. That’s what nature does (9.35).

Nature gives and nature takes away. Anyone with sense and humility will tell her, “Give and take as you please” – not out of defiance, but out of obedience and goodwill (10.14).

Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as the capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us. See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare – as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name — the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return (3.11).

The big picture

Think of the whole of existence, of which you’re the tiniest part; how brief and fleeting your appointed time is; and how small a role you play in universal fate (5.24). By contemplating this you can discard most of the junk that clutters your mind — things that exist only there — and clear out space for yourself (9.32, see also 12.32).

Remember these things always: what the nature of the universe is, what your nature is, and how this is related to the universe; what sort of part you are, what sort of whole (2.9), and the governor of the universe from whom you flowed as a small stream from a great fountain (2.4). And that no man can hinder you from acting and speaking in agreement with the whole, of which you are a part (2.9).

___________________

Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

Virtue, good, & evil

Psychology

Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear

Kindness

___________________

I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.