The Stoic aim, to live in accordance with nature, sounds good, but is often perplexing. What exactly did the Stoics mean by it? Michel Daw, who blogs at Living the Stoic Life, tackles this question.
What does ‘live according to Nature’ actually mean?
The Stoics have consistently stated that the core of their philosophy is to ‘Live according to Nature.’ This phrase has caused a great deal of discussion and misunderstanding over the millennia and no less so today. In this post, I am going to dig into what this actually means.
The word that is conventionally translated as ‘Nature’ is actually began as the Greek term ‘physis.’ Physis isn’t merely an object, as in the Natural world, nor is it a State, as in it’s a leaf’s natural color. Physis is a process, it describes the way in which things are intended by nature to change and grow. So our first clarification would rephrase the statement to ‘Live according to the way things are meant to change and grow.’
The phrase ‘live according to Nature’ is obviously directed at humans (you don’t have to tell a plant to live according to Nature, it will change and grow on its own.) Nor does the instruction mean to tell us to eat, breathe, bathe etc, as these are all ‘natural’ functions shared with other animals. By using the phrase, Stoics mean ‘live according to the way human nature is meant to change and grow.’ So what do we mean by ‘human nature’?
There are acutally two senses in which we can understand ‘human nature.’ First, each of us has a genetic structure that has been determined by evolution, a legacy of time and adaptation, and in a way of speaking we are ‘designed’ to fulfill determinate ends, to survive and flourish in our environments. We also exist at a precise time and place in history, and surrounded by cultural influences.