According to Nature
Epistle 9. Posted on 2019-03-19.
The most commonly cited Stoic motto is to live “according to nature.” This article explains my logic-based interpretation of the meaning of this goal of life.
The first place to start is with understanding what “nature” meant to the Stoics. The best modern translation is “something real,” but not necessarily throughout the philosophy of Stoicism. So, by substitution this is to say that the goal of life is “to live according to something real.” The reason to distinguish something real from unreal is because you want to distinguish a sensory impression that was caused by an object in “nature” from a non-sensory impression that was caused by a figment of imagination, such as a dream. As an example, the proposition that “Dion is tall” describes an event in nature if you have sensed it, or an event not in nature if you have only imagined it.
So far so good, we want to live according to reality, and we will refer to the cosmos and everything that is real in it as nature. A brief tangent is that there is a distinction between absolute truth and subjective truth. It may or may not be absolutely true that Dion is tall, but absolute truth is unknowable because nobody experiences nature directly. Any experience of nature relies on the senses, and the senses are fallible. Any experience of nature also relies on past concepts. For these reasons, anything known can only be known subjectively, never absolutely.
Nature is often subdivided into cosmic nature, human nature, and so on. But for the present article, this categorization is irrelevant.
From Stoic Logic, Stoic Physics and Ethics
Stoic doctrines are usually subdivided into three categories: logic, physics, and ethics. I introduced the idea in another blog article that Stoicism is a logical philosophy, and so the doctrines in physics and ethics are derived, almost completely, from Stoic logic. I also asserted that Stoic logic is itself derived from a first principle that is against contradiction; the denial of contradiction is the first principle of the system.
Contradiction is described more fully elsewhere, but a brief introduction is that a contradiction is symbolized as
p & ~p
where any proposition may be symbolized as “p,” “&” symbolizes a conjunction, and “~” symbolizes a negation. For example, if p symbolizes the proposition “Dion is tall,” it is contradictory to propose that both Dion is tall and Dion is not tall in the same way at the same time and in the same place.
Next, we need to recognize that the doctrines about “physics” are doctrines about nature. Stoicism is largely focused on a particular form of contradiction in which the first proposition is a proposition about nature, and the second proposition is an ethical proposition. Consider:
Both my loved one died and I desire my loved one did not die.
I use this to represent grief. The proposition about nature is “my loved one died.” The ethical proposition is “I desire my loved one did not die.” This is a good place to mention that there are discrepancies between the ancient and modern concepts of ethics. In this context, consider ethics to mean your disposition toward nature, toward the way things are. Anyway, the form to note is:
Both nature and my disposition toward nature.
The goal of any adherent of Stoicism is to live according to nature, which means to have a disposition toward nature in the form of a current, ethical proposition about nature that is in accord with nature, or that is in harmony with it. This interpretation is almost identical to the original goal: to live consistently. This version of the goal of life is simply a little more specific, excluding inconsistencies between your will — desires, wishes, and so on — and anything imaginary. The specific kind of contradiction to avoid is when your will contradicts nature.
In short, your will contradicts nature when you want things to be different than they are. If you know the past cannot be changed and you desire a different past (to have been born rich), that’s a problem. The present moment follows suit, also being immutable. The future is more complicated, and is best left for another article.
A propositional attitude is a topic often discussed in modern logic, such as “I desire p”. It is poorly named because the content does not have to be an attitude. But, this aside, there are of course differences between proposing p and proposing that you desire p. I do not find this problematic at all here, because the main idea is that there is a contradiction between what is, and what is desired. In fact, this philosophy is concerned mainly with a specific kind of difference between nature and an attitude toward nature.
The Development of the Motto
Zeno of Citium (c.334 BC – c.262 BC), the founder of Stoicism, advocated living consistently. He reportedly wrote a work entitled “Life in Accord with Nature” (Greek: Peri to kata phuisin biou), and so he most likely introduced the phrase “according to nature” in the context of the goal of life. On the other hand, Cleanthes (c.330 BC – c.230 BC) is commonly attributed with extending the goal to this form: “to live consistently with nature.” Chrysippus of Soli (c.279 BC – c.206 BC) extended the motto again. For Chrysippus, the goal of life is “to live in accordance with one’s experience of the things which come about by nature.” His extension is more specific by further distinguishing between absolute truth and subjective truth, the fact that nature for you depends on your experience of it to date.
Hopefully this has been a brief but enlightening tour of the Stoic goal of how to live, of the main tenet of Stoicism. I have never seen Stoicism presented this way, and it was presented here first, as far as I know, because I interpret Stoicism as a logical philosophy. This is only one of hundreds of wonderful insights from interpreting Stoicism logically.
Vale (pronounced WAH-lay is Latin for “Farewell”),
- ◊ Contradiction
- ◊ Definitions
- ◊ Stoic Therapy Blog
- ◊ Stoicism Is a Logical Philosophy
- ◊ To Live Consistently