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.
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.”
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.
Interest in Stoicism didn’t end in ancient times only to be revived today. David Hume was an eighteenth century Scottish philosopher who had a lot to say about a lot of things. And one of them was Stoicism.
The characters in Dialogues are loosely based on certain Greek philosophers. Ancient Sceptics (unlike modern scientific skeptics) claimed that we can’t really know anything. But Hume notes that it’s “impossible to persevere in this total scepticism… External objects press in upon him; passions solicit him…”
But he finds Stoics making the same mistake of thinking that because they can full it off in some situations they can pull it off in every situation. Hume describes the Stoic ideal by saying that,
When the mind, by Stoical reflections, is elevated into a sublime enthusiasm of virtue, and strongly smit with any species of honour or public good, the utmost bodily pain and sufferance will not prevail over such a high sense of duty; and ’tis possible, perhaps, by its means, even to smile and exult in the midst of tortures.
Inevitably, however, “the bent of his mind relaxes [and]…misfortunes attack him unawares.” But that doesn’t mean there’s no value in Stoicism. Hume goes on to say,
that though the mind cannot, in Stoicism, support the highest flights of philosophy, yet even when it sinks lower, it still retains somewhat of its former disposition; and the effects of the Stoic’s reasoning will appear in his conduct in common life, and through the whole tenor of his actions.
In other words, progress is possible even if perfection is not. Besides, even Epictetus didn’t claim to be a Sage.
Just as a drowning man is no more able to breathe if he be not far from the surface of the water…than if he were actually at the bottom already, …similarly a man that has made some progress towards the state of virtue is nonetheless in misery than he that has made no progress at all.
If the Sage is an impossible standard then is Stoicism pointless? Buddhists probably have the same question enlightenment.
It’s Stoic practice to offer a continual challenge. Pigliucci interprets Cato as saying that a perfect ideal keeps us from becoming complacent: “I take this to be a humility check on ourselves: …there is no sense in feeling smug about those people who are not making progress.”
That we are primarily driven by emotions seems obvious to most of us. But even before Plato some have believed that with a little effort we can – and should – make reason primary.
Is that even possible? Seneca, writing On Anger, says anger is temporary insanity because it shuts off rational deliberation. Emotions easily override reason. Seneca isn’t necessarily saying that reason can’t redirect emotion, though. But being a Sage is almost impossible.
The elephant and the rider
Not so fast, says Jonathan Haidt. He published The Righteous Mind in 2012. He says his research on moral reasoning shows that moral reasoning is intuitive, or driven by proto-emotional sensibilities that may or may not develop into full blown emotions. And reason’s role is providing excuses after that fact. Haidt quotes David Hume as saying that reason is the servant of the emotions.
Haidt uses the image of a rider on an elephant. Our intuitions and emotions are big and powerful like elephants. And like elephants, emotions are intelligent. But they can be unruly and are sometimes destructive.
The rider can’t totally control the elephant, but a skilled rider can figure out what the elephant wants and try to guide it to a better path. The rider’s most import task, however, is to convince other elephants that this is a good elephant – even if that’s not true. Haidt describes the rider as a PR spokesperson and defense attorney.
The lord of the rings
The self-serving bias – and everyone’s lack of self-awareness regarding it – is well documented in psychology. Within the individual, reason is about self-justification. Conscious reasoning is mainly about persuading ourselves and others that we’re good, regardless of the truth.
Haidt points to a debate between Plato and his brother Glaucon. Plato thought it’s better to be good than to have a good reputation. But Glaucon claimed that people care more about their reputations than actually being good, so the only way to really be good is to be held accountable to others.
Glaucon even said that if you had a magic ring that could make you invisible then you’d become evil because you could do anything with zero accountability. J.R.R. Tolkien, in writing The Lord of the Rings, seemed to agree.
Most psychologists side with Glaucon, but ancient Stoic philosophers often sided with Plato. Epictetus, however, adds an important caveat. He says we get confidence and caution backwards. We shouldn’t worry about things we don’t control. But we should be cautious, rather than confident, about things that are up to us such as our chosen beliefs, and deliberate thoughts and actions.
Epictetus wrote, “To act rashly, or to carry out some shameful act or harbor some shameful desire, we regard as being of no importance, provided only that we achieve our aim with regard to matters that lie outside the sphere of choice.” He fully understood how easily we let the elephant steer while the rider believes the lie that it is in control.
Reason is indifferent to virtue
It’s noteworthy that Haidt isn’t saying reason is useless. Without reason we wouldn’t have modern science. And reason, after reflecting on a situation, can come up with better ways of handling things, which in turn might influence future behavior.
How we think about things is central to Stoic philosophy. But in contrast to the Stoics, Haidt says it’s a delusion to think that reason is our most noble attribute. Put differently, reason is indifferent to virtue and vice. Further, reason detached from emotion is psychopathy.
But in Stoic philosophy virtue must be reason’s goal. And by virtue Stoics mean not just ethics, but excellence in general. That’s also why Stoicism values cultivating positive emotions.
Reason is a social activity
No other animal is capable of reason like we are. The trick is to use reason well. Haidt says that reason is used best when we know that knowledgeable people will be made aware of our choices, but we don’t know if they’ll approve.
Stoics also believe that being social creatures is central to human nature – no other species cooperates on the scale human beings do. So reason, virtue/excellent, and sociability are essential to each other.
The Stoic focus on sociability shows that Stoics have never thought that most of us can be islands of virtue unto ourselves. But our desire for reputation questions the Stoic claim that virtue is the only thing we need to be happy. Maybe that’s why the Sage is a mythical figure – and no Stoic philosopher ever claimed to be a Sage.
Human nature, according to Stoic philosophers, is not only rational but social.
From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
We are social beings
You participate in society by your existence. Then participate in its life through your actions — all your actions. Any action not directed toward a social end (directly or indirectly) is a disturbance to your life, an obstacle to wholeness, a source of dissension — like the man acting as a faction unto himself, out of step with the majority (9.23).
In a sense, people are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them. But when they obstruct our proper tasks they become indifferent to us — like sun, wind, or animals. They impede our actions, but they can’t impede our intentions or our dispositions because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts its purposes to the obstacle, and what stands in the way becomes the way (5.20).
People exist for one another. You can instruct or endure them (8.59).
Wash yourself clean with simplicity, humility, and indifference to everything but right and wrong. Care for other human beings. Follow God (7.31).
Don’t turn away from others
To move from one unselfish action to another with God in mind. Only there is delight and stillness (6.7).
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own. So none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry or hate them. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at others, to turn your back on them: these are obstructions. (2.1).
People find pleasure in different ways. I find in in keeping my mind clear. In not turning away from people or the things that happen to them. In accepting and welcoming everything I see. In treating each thing as it deserves (8.43).
Kindness is its own reward
Some people, when they do someone a favor, are always looking for a chance to call it in. Some don’t, but they privately think they’re owed something. But others don’t even do that. They’re like a vine that produces grapes without looking for anything in return. They are a human being helping others (5.6).
You’re no different from anyone else
When you deal with irrational animals, or with things and circumstances, be generous and straightforward. You are rational, but they are not. When you deal with your fellow human beings, behave as one. They share reason with you. And invoke the gods regardless (6.23).
Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds (6.53).
Speak the truth as you see it, but with kindness, humility, and without hypocrisy (8.5).
Take care that you don’t treat inhumanity as it treats human beings (7.65).
Be gentle with others
When you face people’s insults or hatred, look at their souls. Get inside them. Look at what sort of people they are. You’ll realize there’s no need to impress them. But you should still be kind to them. They are by nature your friends (9.27).
It’s cruel to forbid people from striving for what they think is good for them. And yet that’s just what you do when you get angry at their misbehavior. Are they drawn toward what they think is good for them even though it’s not good for them? Then show them that. Prove it to them instead of losing your temper (6.27).
If they’ve made a mistake, correct them gently and show them where they went wrong. If you can’t do that, then the blame lies with you. Or no one (10.4).
Kindness is invincible
Kindness is invincible, provided it’s sincere. What can even the most vicious person do if you keep treating him with kindness and gently set him straight (if you get the chance), correcting him cheerfully at the exact moment that he’s trying to do you harm. Show him, gently and without pointing fingers, that it’s so. Don’t do it sardonically or meanly, but affectionately — with no hatred in your heart. Speak directly even if there are other people around (11.18).
When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them. It’s good to keep this in mind (6.48).