This article is part of the weekly series ‘In Good Spirits’. New articles will be published every Saturday.
“I am a part of a world controlled by Nature”
– Marcus Aurelius
To get in good spirits means to be happy. And according to the Stoics, being happy means living in accordance with Nature. But how can we do this? How can we get happy? What is the first step? The first step towards happiness is to know your goal. In our case, we must learn what Nature is and how we can align ourselves with it. This article will help you achieving exactly that: to set your first step on the path to happiness.
In the previous post, I described Nature as how things are. I also reminded you that the Stoic concept of Nature has little to do with plants and trees. Moreover, we established the basic principle that following Nature means acting with reason. Today, let’s dig a bit deeper. The Stoics developed an elaborate theory about the world around us and the role of Nature. In fact, the study of physics was one of the three main areas of interest in Stoicism. Nowadays, physics is for most people no longer a topic of philosophy, but a topic of (natural) science. Ethics is the primary concern for most Stoics. However, to understand how we can be happy, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of the worldview underlying the path to happiness. In other words: to study ethics, we must first consider the basics of physics.
Reason is the force that moves the universe.
According to the Stoics, everything in existence is made up out of two elements: an active element and a passive element. These are the ‘building bricks’ of the universe, called ‘archai’ (literally: ‘the beginnings’ or ‘the causes’). The active element shapes the passive element, while the passive element allows itself to be shaped by the active one. The passive element is the physical manifestation of something that exists, while the active element is its underlying life force. So on a personal level, our body is the passive element, while our reason is the active element. Some people might even go as far to say that our body is in itself lifeless, unless it is inspired by a divine breath. This is also true on a cosmic level: the universe is made up out of lifeless matter, instilled with divine reason. You can call this active reason by different names, depending on your personal predisposition. Some call it God or Zeus. Others call it the laws of nature or ‘logos’. Regardless of its name, reason is the force that moves the universe, that holds the world together. It is the rational design of past, present and future. But designs can either be followed or disobeyed.
Living with Nature
“Do not seek that things happen as you want,
but want things as they happen, and you
will flow well” – Epictetus
This is where ethics comes in. While Nature is the product of matter instilled with reason, we have the choice to either follow Nature or not follow Nature. We can choose to disobey the path that is drawn for us, and live our own life. On the other hand, we can decide that it is best to follow reason and to live in accordance with Nature. To reach happiness, the Stoics argued that we should choose the latter: we should live in accordance with Nature. As Epictetus put it: “Do not seek that things happen as you want, but want things as they happen, and you will flow well”. Accept the natural course of things and you will have no need to worry at all. If you only want what happens, then you will always get what you want. If you follow the rational course of Nature, you will reach happiness. Deviating from this course equals struggle, hardship and disappointment. And more importantly: what can it possibly get you? Perhaps an alternative path may lead to fame, fortune or status, but is that really important to you? Does it contribute to your happiness? I would argue it doesn’t.
Now, a good ‘flow of life’ does not mean that you get everything and can do everything. But it means that your desires are aligned with the rational course of Nature, and consequently, that you get the most important thing: you get good spirits. The Stoics used the word ‘eudaimonia’ for this. It means more than just happiness. It means that you live the best life that you can possibly live. You flourish. Like a sunflower follows the sun to flourish, you can follow Nature. And to grow well, you should follow it closely.
Everything flows and nothing remains
“Nothing natural is evil” – Marcus Aurelius
To end this article, I have two remarks. First, following Nature should not be considered like converging on a defined line. You can’t move ever closer to Nature by following a set path in a steady pace. This is so, because Nature changes. The Stoic word for Nature is ‘physis’. This is not a steady state of being. Rather, it is a continuous process of development. Physis is, after all, matter instilled with reason. It is reason that guides it to flow the best possible course. And because it flows in the best course, “nothing natural is evil” (as Marcus Aurelius puts it). At the same time, Heraclitus observed that “you cannot step twice into the same river”. According to him, “everything flows and nothing remains still”. To follow Nature means to follow the ever-changing course that reasons directs it in.
Which brings me to the second remark. We are part of Nature. Nature and reason exist on many levels, but all those levels are essentially one. Christians believe that God is omnipresent: he is everywhere, in everything, and always with you. The same goes for reason: it does not only control the universe on a large scale, but is also the governing power of us humans. Human nature coincides with cosmic nature, because both are inspired by reason. Therefore, all we need to do to follow the rational course of Nature, is to be reasonable. We have to use our capacity for reason to the best of our ability. After all, that is what distinguishes us from beasts: the human nature stands out because of our capacity for reason. To use this defining feature of humanity means to live according to our own nature. And while we live in accordance with our own nature, we automatically live in accordance with cosmic nature. So, remember the principle that we established before: following Nature means acting with reason. And by now, we all better understand what exactly that entails.
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- Everything in existence is made up out of two ‘archai’: a passive element and an active element.
- The passive element (matter) is inspired by the active element (reason). Matter without reason is lifeless.
- Reason guides Nature to flow in the best possible course. Following this course will get you in good spirits and makes you ‘flow well’.
- Following Nature means acting with reason.
This is part 2 of the series ‘In Good Spirits’. This is a series of longer posts in which we discover the foundations of Stoicism, so that we may ultimately gain ‘eudaimonia’: a good spirit.