Another Analysis of Language: Stoicism and Nature

This is a follow-up to my last article There Are No Accidents.  In that article, I analyzed a deceptively simple phrase to show how culture impacted language, and how deep misunderstandings could occur because of this.

Today I want to apply the same analysis to a core maxim of Stoicism.

Stoicism is a philosophy of living that seeks to find a stable happiness, one that is not contingent upon events.  It arose in ancient Greece and was quite influential for a while, before falling out of favor. Recently, it’s experienced a resurgence, which makes understanding Stoic teachings (and understanding how we may misunderstand them) very pertinent.

Ok, with that said, let’s look at a core maxim of Stoicism:

Live according to nature.

Sounds simple, right?  No technical terms, no long passages, just a nice, succinct line.

Because of this, we may think we understand the message and thus not critique what we’re bringing to the interpretation of key words — in particular “nature”.

Let’s look at this word in more detail.

When I hear nature, I think of birds, trees, organic food and so on.  I think this because my culture is still influenced by the impact of the 60s counter culture, health food, and environmental concerns like global climate change, deforestation and species’ extinction.   All of this leads to significant connotations to the word “nature”.

Given this context, when I hear Live according to nature, it sounds like I should start eating organic foods, get rid of my car, set up a tent in a forest, and join a few protests outside of oil companies.  In particular, the maxim Live according to nature sounds very close to Living in harmony with nature, which just contributes to the confusion.

Very well, that’s my understanding, but how would the Stoics have understood nature?  For them, it was two-fold.  First, nature was simply reality — the unfolding of physical laws, the mechanistic march from one event to the next. Second, Stoics may have also used nature as a shorthand for human nature, which they believed to be our capacity for reasoning.

The message that emerges from this interpretation is that our suffering is caused by our inwardly railing against fate — by refusing to accept what is.  This isn’t to say that one doesn’t act to change things or fix problems, but that one shouldn’t internally deny what is, or ask questions like “why must this happen to me?” Our human nature factors into this because we can use our reasoning to aid us, to show us the folly of railing against what is, and to reflect on our role in the cosmos, the inevitability of what happens, the impossibility of going back in the past or guaranteeing the future.



5 thoughts on “Another Analysis of Language: Stoicism and Nature

  1. I find the word “nature” confusing in both versions. There’s human nature, then there’s fate or the natural world. Human nature can be many things depending on who’s doing the interpreting: reason, irrational impulses to destroy the planet, irrational impulses to ask “why must this happen to me?”, some combination of irrational/rational etc. All this wording is in need of a lot of clarification for both the Stoics and the hippies, in my opinion.

    I keep wanting to ask, when were we ever outside of nature?

    Well to make sense of the Stoics, we might say, “You’re outside of nature when you ask irrational questions like ‘why must this happen to me?'” In other words, when you are not rational, you are acting against your nature. On the other hand, when you’re acting rationally, you’re elevating yourself above Nature-as-fate. You’re not letting that which is outside of your control affect you. So acting rationally according to our human nature is acting against Nature-as-fate or mechanism or causal chain of events outside of us, or whatever. Therein lies the ambiguity in that maxim.

    1. These are very good points, and to be frank, I dislike the Stoic claims of human nature. After all, isn’t it our reasoning capacity that got us into this mess in the first place? Isn’t it our reasoning capacity that enabled us to project onto the past and future and imagine alternate worlds that is the driving force behind this non-acceptance?

      Now granted, using our reasoning capacity can bring us back, however in this sense, it’s using reason to combat reason as it were. But it would have been best had they simply left out all the assertions about human nature and simply stick with the first interpretation of nature.

      And yes, I agree that the only place we can be outside nature is in our mind, that the resistance to nature is purely an inward reaction, and that too may have been better formulated. But maybe it’s back to the formulation and connotations we’re bringing to key terms, terms we may not realize are an issue?

      1. Exactly. You picked a brilliant example of an ambiguity that we take for granted all the time. There’s so much more to say about the matter, but, of course, it won’t be as snappy or worthy of a bumper sticker. 🙂

  2. What if I ‘reason’ that I would rather not hear what I fear will be a frightening prognosis for my disease? I reason this because although I am consciously denying myself access to knowledge about what may in time prove to be a reality for me, I am doing so because I know by that way I “seek to find a stable happiness, one that is not contingent upon events.” In such a situation, am I adopting Stoic philosophy? If my ‘nature’ is to live in denial and to self-deceive, because I have found it conduces to my sense of well-being, am I not still adhering to the tenet that I should “live according to nature? After all my ‘reality’ is my subjective experience which in turn gives rise to my ‘nature’, and I am more certain about them than I am about any objective ‘reality’, the interpretation of which always seeming fallible even to me.

    1. Therein lies the rub. If it were up to me, I would have left out the second interpretation of Nature as human nature and probably re-worded the first.

      Our reasoning capacity can be used for a great deal, including denial, so I do have an issue with the Stoics trying to use it as part of their principle.

      I mean if it’s the natural state of creatures to not deny nature (and I’m not saying it is), and if reasoning is what allowed us to deny nature, then aren’t we using reasoning to basically undo reasoning?

      So yes, absolutely valid points!

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