What does it mean to ‘Follow Nature?’

If you know three or four things about Stoicism, one of them might be that all of Stoic ethics is supposed to be summed up in a simple slogan: follow nature.

The obvious problem here is that “follow nature” is an incredibly vague maxim.   Ask a group of people what they think it means, and you’ll get a dizzying array of answers:  Are we talking about following divine Providence—a cosmic plan?  Or a Walden-like retreat into the forest?  Is “nature” here something like the pattern of Yin and Yang in Eastern Philosophy?  Or perhaps the “inaction” of Zhaungzi?  Or does “following nature” mean strict gender roles and conservative social institutions?  Or perhaps a heavy investment in the scientific method?

I want to propose to you that the Stoic answer is far more simple than any of that: following nature means loving fate and pursuing virtue.

According to Cicero, the phrase “follow nature” was used by a lot of early philosophers, and basically summarizes the basic ideas of Greek humanistic ethics: that right and wrong is “something intimately adapted to our nature” (De Finibus, 5.12).  But Cicero also tells us that the Stoics in particular mean exactly three different things by the slogan.  Here they are, in the order given in De Finibus 4.14–15.

  1. Love fate: “Live in the light of a knowledge of the natural sequence of causation.”

Here, following nature means focusing on what you can control, and not becoming upset about things that you can’t control. The ancient Stoic metaphor of the dog and cart is apt here: “follow nature” literally means following events the way that a cheerful dog follows a cart that it’s tied to.   A dog that pulls and strains against the rope doesn’t so much “follow” as get “dragged along.”

Screen Shot 2016-12-03 at 9.07.23 PM.png
Illustration of the dog-and-cart metaphor by Daniel Mackie.

So, first of all, Follow nature = Don’t get dragged along by nature.  But there’s more:

  1. Make virtue your end: “Live in the performance of all, or most, of one’s intermediate duties.”

This is the distinctive Stoic position that virtue is the highest and only good that we should direct our lives toward.  In this definition, “follow nature” means following your own human nature—and according to the Stoics, your nature flourishes and becomes excellent only to the extent that you embody Temperance, Courage, Prudence, and Justice/Benevolence and perform the duties those character traits entail.

  1.  Preferred indifferents: “Live in enjoyment of all, or of the greatest, of those things which are in accordance with nature.”

Unlike Aristo and the Cynics, and despite their dog-and-cart metaphor, the Stoics believed that we must care about external things that align naturally with human needs and proclivities—things like health, pleasure, good food, etc, for ourselves but especially for others.  Even if you believe that virtue is the only thing that matters, after all, virtue still needs something to act upon: so part of the way we “follow nature” is to select wisely among externals.

These three points are about as good a summary of Stoic moral theory as you’re going to find in any short nutshell—and, for me, they make the phrase “follow nature” far less enigmatic and far more useful!

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