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.