Chrysippus, Zeno, and Epictetus on what it means to live according to nature
One of the more perplexing ideas handed down from the ancient Stoics is the motto, “live according to nature.” It’s a nice-sounding motto, but it is less than obvious what it really means.
Perhaps the ancient Stoics provided thorough explanations about what “live according to nature” meant, but, sadly, these have not survived. The closest thing we have to that comes from Seneca in his fifth letter to Lucilius:
Our motto, as you know, is ‘Live according to Nature;’ but it is quite contrary to nature to torture the body, to hate unlaboured elegance, to be dirty on purpose, to eat food that is not only plain, but disgusting and forbidding.
Decoding What “Live According to Nature” Means
A helpful pointer about what “live according to nature” meant to the ancient Greeks is that in ancient Greek the concept of nature had a commonly used antonym typically translated as “convention.” What is opposite to nature is what is conceived of by man — what is by convention. So, to “live according to nature” means that one should defer to nature over convention.
Epictetus gives an example of how one should disregard conventions about how one should feel about the death of one’s child or friend and instead focus on what is according to nature:
Remind yourself that what you love is mortal … at the very moment you are taking joy in something, present yourself with the opposite impressions. What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die, or to your friend similarly: Tomorrow one of us will go away, and we shall not see one another any more?
The Stoics tell us that nature guides us to avoid what is harmful and to embrace what is beneficial. In this example, Epictetus points out there is no harm in reminding yourself that your child is mortal. It’s simply true. Embracing this truth will produce a benefit in preventing one from grieving when one’s child or friend dies. Avoiding grief is naturally beneficial.
The Stoic philosopher Chrysippus pointed out that some other widely held conventions go against what nature tells us is…