119 - On Nature As A Guide - Moral Letters for Modern Times
You have pointed out another inconsistency in the Stoic advice. Or at least you have raised a question about their consistency when you reminded me of a basic teaching I like to repeat. “You have stated that we should strive in all things to live in accordance with Nature. This means being satisfied with the basics, and not being tempted to chase after luxury. You also said that a major cause of our unhappiness is looking to see our relative position in the hierarchy, because no matter how many people we stand over, so long as there is one above us we will be miserable.”
So far so good, and I see no fault in the argument. You continue, “You also say, do you not, that hierarchy itself is a fundamental feature of Nature, and that every society and every group of animals will organize themselves according to hierarchies. In hierarchies, more possessions and power mean more status, which means a longer, more secure life with better mating opportunities. When the Stoics counsel us to become wise by foregoing the quest for more, are you not advising us to act against Nature?”
Although most who make such an argument are looking to justify their own insatiable desires, I know you are looking only to understand the truth of the matter. So I will give your question the attention it deserves. The first point I would make is that to say we should live in accordance with Nature is not to say that everything Nature offers is equally valuable. I would rather recommend you live on the verdant slopes of a dormant volcano whose caldera has long since exploded and become still than on the lava-strewn plains of its active cousin. Both mountains are creations of Nature, but you may confidently choose the one that will provide a safe home for you and your family.
So too would I tell you to steer clear of the trackless desert and to take your guidance from the plants that Nature has deposited all around us. If a land is barren, why should we humans thrive there? The desert is just as much a part of Nature as the Alpine valley, but I can easily tell you which one we are better off dwelling in. When we say live in accordance with Nature, this means first understanding your own nature. You can then take advantage of the resources Nature offers that provide the best match for your nature.
If you love the warmth and the feel of the sun on your face, better that you incline towards the equator. If you thrive in the cold, the Northern regions are a more suitable home for you. The point is it that the natural environments we find ourselves in differ. We can and should choose those environments that will best suit us. And this speaks only to physical needs. The question you have raised goes a step further. You are asking how the hierarchies we so readily perceive are to be considered in accordance with Nature, when they have such an impact on our minds and our state of mind.
Here we have come to the crux of the matter, Deuteros. When we move from the physical to the mental, we arrive at the point where Nature ceases to be the primary driving force and humankind takes the wheel. It is by our thinking, whether reasoned or not, that we make all that Nature offers better or worse. Nature provides the instinct for us to acquire more possessions, assert our dominance, and ascend the hierarchies we find ourselves in. Our thinking serves as a mechanism to accelerate or slow our progress, or to steer in another direction.
Do not forget, dear Deuteros, our minds are also the product of Nature. Thus, the application of our minds to the situations we find ourselves in is also acting according to Nature. Does it seem like a conflict to you that one part of Nature drives us unthinkingly down certain paths while another part gives us the ability to look ahead and plot a course? I say no more a conflict than for every carnivore who eats today another creature has been killed. And for that matter, who said Nature itself needed to be consistent in all things?
It is because humankind developed such keen reasoning that we are at risk of acting against Nature. The animals around us do not amass possessions far beyond their potential use. When they have satiated their hunger, they stop eating. When they have slaked their thirst, they stop drinking. It is humans who override the signals from Nature and drive themselves to new heights of avarice, gluttony, and greed. A need arises naturally and is satisfied naturally. A luxury is fabricated and requires an elaborate system to create and maintain.
So far, we are still taking about satisfying physical needs. Consider that as thinking creatures, we also have mental and emotional needs. I would place the desire to be happy high among them. The philosopher’s aim is to help achieve the conditions to live a good life. Here we see humankind’s greatest danger to itself arises from itself. Descartes did not go far enough with his famous statement “cogito, ergo sum.” He needed to add a further word at the end: “I think, therefore I am unhappy.” We are unhappy because we realize we could have more, and we see that someone else does have more.
I assert this is not thinking, but merely instinct run amok in our minds. Pesky Nature seeking to ensure humans are fruitful and multiply, and that only the strongest and fittest survive. We are fruitful, Deuteros, but it is now mainly in multiplying our problems and our worries. When the Stoics say live in accordance with Nature by developing well-ordered reason to understand the true value of things, they mean that we should place the greatest value on our peace of mind.
The physical things we torment ourselves with are necessary for physical survival, and that is all. If we can relegate them to their proper place, we will see that our physical needs are relatively easy to satisfy. Having satisfied our physical needs, we can then turn our attention to the regulation of our mental processes. Our thoughts can make us either happy or unhappy. We are fools to become distracted by anything that experience shows leads to unhappiness. Playing the status game is a consequence of the hierarchies Nature has established. The philosopher is playing the happiness game that Nature also allows us to pursue by virtue of our reason.