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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Marcus Aurelius: Virtue, good, & evil

Reason and mindfulness must have a focus. That’s why virtue is Stoicism’s centerpiece. Virtue as the ultimate good, rather than being subordinate to pleasure,  is a key point of disagreement between Stoics and Epicureans.

South Mountain, Phoenix, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

What is good or bad?

Good or bad for rational and social beings lies not in feeling but in action. Virtue and vice show not in what you feel but in what you do (9.16).

You take things you don’t control and call them “good” or “bad.” So when “bad” things happen, or “good” ones don’t, you blame the gods and feel hatred for the people responsible — or those you decide to make responsible. Much of our bad behavior stems from trying to apply those criteria. If we limited “good” and “bad” to our own actions we’d have no call to challenge God, or to treat other people as enemies (6.41).

Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust, or lose your sense of shame, or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill will, or hypocrisy, or a desire for things best done behind closed doors (3.7).

When you have to deal with someone, ask yourself: What does he mean by good and bad? If he thinks this or that about pleasure and pain (and what produces them), about fame and disgrace, about death and life, then it shouldn’t shock or surprise you when he does this or that (8.14).

Suppose you take certain things as touchstones of goodness: prudence, self-control, justice, and courage. If you understand good in this sense then the saying, “Too much of a good thing” makes no sense (5.12).

Be realistic

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).

Justice is the cornerstone of virtue

Justice is the source of all the other virtues. For how could we do what justice requires if we’re distracted by things that don’t matter, if we are naive, gullible, or inconstant? (11.10)

To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice — it degrades you (9.4).

When I look at the human character I see no virtue placed there to counter justice. But I see one to counter pleasure: self-control (8.39).

Injustice is blasphemy. Nature designed rational beings for each other’s sake: to help, not harm, one another. To transgress its will is to blaspheme against the oldest of the gods. And to lie is to blasphemy too (even to lie without realizing it) because nature is synonymous with truth. And to pursue pleasure as good, and flee from pain as evil — that too is blasphemous. Those who do that are bound to find themselves constantly reproaching nature, complaining that it doesn’t treat the good and bad as they deserve. Moreover, to fear pain is to fear something that’s bound to happen, the world being what it is — and that again is blasphemy. If you pursue pleasure you can hardly avoid wrongdoing — which is manifestly blasphemous (9.1).

Characteristics of the rational soul: Affection for its neighbors, truthfulness, humility, not placing anything above itself — which is characteristic of law as well. No difference here between reason and justice (11.1).

Perfection of character: to live your last day, every day, without frenzy, or sloth, or pretense (7.69).

Just do it

Stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one (10.16). No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be good (7.15). If it’s not right, don’t do it. If it’s not true, don’t say (12.17). It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you, inside or out (4.8). Just do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter (6.2).

Practice the virtues you can show: honesty, gravity, endurance, austerity, resignation, abstinence, patience, sincerity, moderation, seriousness, high-mindedness. Don’t you see how much you have to offer beyond excuses like “can’t”? And yet you still settle for less (5.5).

You are much mistaken, my friend, if you think that any man worth his salt cares about the risk of death and doesn’t concentrate on this alone: whether what he’s doing is right or wrong, whether his behavior is that of a good man or a bad one (7.44).

No one but you can injure your character

No one can stop you from being honest or straightforward. The responsibility is all yours. Simply resolve not to go on living if you aren’t. It would be contrary to reason (10.32).

Like a branch cut away from a tree, people cut themselves off from the whole community through hatred and rejection. But they don’t realize that they’re cutting themselves off from the community. Yet we have a gift given us by Zeus, who founded this community of ours, to reattach ourselves and rejoin the whole. But if the rupture is too often repeated it makes the severed part hard to reconnect (11.8).

Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions (6.51).

When you wake up, ask yourself: Does it make any difference to you if other people blame you for doing what’s right? It makes no difference. Have you forgotten what people who are so vociferous in praise or blame of others are like as they sleep and eat? (10.13)

Let it go

So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine. What is done to me is ordained by nature, what I do what my nature wishes for me (5.25).

Don’t be disturbed. Uncomplicate yourself. Someone has done wrong — to himself. Something happens to you. Good. It was meant for you by nature, woven into the pattern from the beginning (4.26).

When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard? (7.26)

Look at who they really are, the people whose approval you long for, and what their minds are really like. Then you won’t blame them for their mistakes, and you won’t feel a need for their approval. You will have seen the sources of both their judgments and their actions (7.62).

The best revenge is not to be like your enemy (6.6).

How to treat other people

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).

When you run up against someone else’s shamelessness, ask yourself: Is a world without shamelessness possible? No. Then don’t ask the impossible. There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them. The same for someone vicious or untrustworthy, or with any other defect. But bear in mind the qualities nature has given us to counter that defect? As an antidote to unkindness it gave us kindness. And other qualities to balance other flaws (9.42).

Accept it without arrogance, let it go with indifference (8.33).

Leave other people’s mistakes where they lie (9.20). It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own (7.71).

How to act

We have the potential to lead a good life. Learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference (11.16).

Epictetus said, “We need to master the art of acquiescence. We need to pay attention to our impulses, making sure they don’t go unmoderated, that they benefit others, that they’re worthy of us. We need to steer clear of desire in any form and not try to avoid what’s beyond our control” (11.37).

When you’ve done a good deed and someone has benefited, why do you look, like a fool, for credit in return? (7.73)

When you feel pain be sure it doesn’t disgrace you or degrade your intelligence — that it doesn’t keep you from acting rationally or unselfishly (7.64).

Someone despises me? That’s their problem. I should not do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me? That’s their problem. I should be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them, but ready to show them their mistake – not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way (11.13).

Wash yourself clean with simplicity, humility, and indifference to everything but right and wrong. Care for other human beings. Follow God (7.31).

Remember that to change your mind and to accept correction are free acts too. The action is yours, based on your own will, your own decision and your own mind (8.16).

Have I done something for the common good? Then I share in the benefits. To stay centered on that (11.4).

Salvation is seeing each thing for what it is — its nature and its purpose. Doing only what is right, saying only what is true without holding back. (12.29).

___________________

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.