Don’t Live According to Nature Like the Stoics. Do this Instead.

Douglas C. Bates
6 min readMay 12, 2023

The ancient Stoics took for their motto, “live according to nature.” While this motto sounds appealing, it turns out to be terrible advice.

The problem is that while nature does seem to provide some guidance — we do have to eat, drink, and sleep, for example — nature’s guidance is ambiguous at best about how to make decisions about how to live in complex human societies, and at worst, plainly bad.

Part of this problem is that complex human societies are man-made things. “Man-made” is an antonym for “natual.” To live according to nature in what is man-made invites calamity.

Any investigation of various human societies will show that they vary considerably in their ideas of what is ethically proper. For example, some societies consider bribery to be a normal transaction. It’s how officials earn their living as they cannot live on what they are officially paid. Other societies consider bribery to be immoral. Countless other examples could be provided.

Despite the vast differences from society to society, the Stoics think that nature gives guidance on how humans should live in complex societies. Worse, the Stoics think that they are in a position to know what that guidance is. It is this false knowledge that in the midst of the mostly commonsensical advice written by ancient Stoics one occasionally encounters things that are simply whacko.

Even in antiquity there were Stoics who tried to shed some of this whacko stuff from Stoicism. The most famous examples of this are the passages from Zeno’s works that were later disapproved of by the Stoa and expunged from copies held at libraries. (Diogenes Laertius, Life of Zeno, 34).

What they were trying to expunge was some of the whacko stuff Zeno and Chrysippus advised. Perhaps most notorious among these were their endorsements of incest and cannibalism. (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Ethicists, 191–194). In addition to these, Zeno also believed that ordinary education was useless, that in an ideal society women should be held in common by the community (of men), and there should be no gymnasiums, lawcourts, or money. (Diogenes Laertius, Life of Zeno, 32–33).

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Douglas C. Bates

Ancient Greek philosophies of life. http://www.pyrrhonism.org Author of “Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism.”