What does living according to nature mean?

“Living in accordance with nature” is a core principle that’s common across ancient Stoic teaching.

But what do the Stoics mean by “nature”?

Judging by the number of questions online, in articles, and on social media, the term “nature” seems to be an area of confusion for the Stoic community. Is it Mother Nature? Human nature? The natural order of things? Without a clear definition, the term can be extremely subjective, depending on who’s reading it.

Given that so many Stoic quotes and teachings recommend that we align ourselves with nature, we will get more benefit from these lessons when we find out what “nature” really means.

The Founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium wrote a piece of work called “On Life According To Nature”. However, like much of the work from the ancient Stoics, this has been lost to time, so we’ll have to look elsewhere for our answers.

“This thou must always bear in mind, what is the nature of the whole, and what is my nature.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

The Stoic Definition for Nature:

Fortunately there are surviving works from the ancient Stoics that explain what they mean when they say “nature”.

Simply put, “nature” to the Stoics comprised of two things:

  1. The nature of the universe

  2. The nature of human beings

In the book, Lives of The Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius writes:

“The nature according to which one should live Chrysippus takes to be both universal nature and, in particular, human nature. Cleanthes, however, holds that it is only the universal nature that should be followed, and not that of the particular.”

Cleanthes proposed that we should only concern ourselves with the nature of the universe. We should see the world for what it is, accept how it works, and act in alignment with it, rather than resisting it. For example, we might resent ageing, hate the winter, resist bad weather, or dislike the fact that delicious food is bad for our health. However, these are examples of the way the world works, we cannot change them, so we must align ourselves with them and act accordingly.

Chrysippus agreed but took this one step further. He believed that we should align ourselves with the nature of the universe, but that we should also align ourselves with human nature.

Chrysippus ultimately won this debate. Stoic “nature” concerns itself with both universal nature, and the nature of the human condition.

So, what does this mean for us that practice Stoicism?

How Do We Act In Accordance With Nature?

Human Nature:

Humans possess a nature similar to animals and plants. It is the nature of plants to draw nutrients from the soil, photosynthesise, grow towards light and bear fruit in the right season.

It is the nature of animals to act upon their urges and instinct to survive, eat, shelter, seek comfort and reproduce. An animal will attack if threatened, eat when hungry, and run when afraid. This is the nature of the animal.

Alongside these living things humans have the drive for self preservation and will be fiercely defensive if our existence is threatened, in the same way an animal will become aggressive when threatened. We have the need to eat, rest, mate, and socialise, a nature common with chimps and wolves.

However, we humans differ from other animals. While we still have the drive to survive and reproduce, we also have another layer, the unique ability to reason.

Our ability to reason allows us to choose one action over another. Therefore human nature is not simply to follow every urge to survive and reproduce, it is to balance our base animal nature with the human ability to reason. This balance is what will lead to a happy and virtuous life.

For example, it is in our animal nature to eat when hungry, however if we eat whenever we want to we’ll soon become overweight and unhealthy. This animal nature needs to be moderated with our human nature.

Our animal nature will  want to lash out when disrespected or mistreated, however if we allow anger to guide our actions we will quickly find ourselves regretting our behaviour. This animal impulse also needs moderation from our human nature.

So, regarding the Stoics, our human nature is twofold:

  1. To accept that we share the same base impulses as other creatures. However as humans we do not simply submit to them, but use our reason to both satisfy them and moderate them in order to balance a good life.

  2. To constructively take a deliberate role and be an active participant in our small corner of the universe. To influence it in a very human way, with virtue.

Cicero writes:

“As the Stoics hold, everything that the earth produces is created for human use; and as human beings too, are born for the sake of human beings, that they may be able mutually to help one another; in this direction we are to follow nature as our guide, to contribute to the general good by an interchange of acts of kindness, by giving and receiving, and thus by our skill, our industry, and our talents to cement human society more closely together, human being to human being.”

Universal Nature:

“Frightened of change? But what can exist without it?

What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and

leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming

it? Can any vital process take place without something being


Can’t you see? It’s just the same with you—and just as vital to nature.”

– Marcus Aurelius

The quote above from Marcus Aurelius helps us to understand part of what the Stoics mean by universal nature. In the case her for Aurelius he tells us that the nature of the universe is change, we can either accept it and work alongside change, or we can resist it and suffer as it inevitably happens around us.

Looking at universal nature more broadly it is about accepting the world around us for what it is, not resisting it because it is not what we think it should be.

The world is what it is and it will behave in its nature. Trees will bear fruit when it is their time, the tides will rise and fall, time will pass as it always has done, rain will fall, animals will age, and everything changes. To live in accordance with universal nature is to accept the conditions of the world and live in harmony with them.

The Stoics tackled universal nature through the concepts of death, change, time, and fate, to name a few.

Seneca writes:

“If you regard your last day not as a punishment but as a law of nature, the breast from which you have banished the dread of death no fear will dare to enter.”

To live in accordance with nature is to accept the boundaries of the natural world. We cannot control the way the universe works and we cannot change human nature. However we can decide how to act within their rules.

Amor Fati.

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