I was thinking about what the Stoics were going on about when they said to live in agreement with nature or follow nature. Many people sum it up as, “live rationally and virtuously.” I mean that’s pretty good. But there’s something else going on. The foundation of Stoic morality isn’t just reason but it’s a particular kind of sentiment called love.
Basically, Stoics were moral sentimentalists in some respects and moral rationalists in other respects. Let me explain, when you go back to the Stoic Hierocles, he made the observation that in the course of our development, if everything goes right, we start from self-love, learn to love family, then learn to love our tribes, then our community of tribes, then ultimately all of humanity. Humans start with moral sentiment when they’re young and then develop philanthropy, a form of rational love and respect for all rational beings. So we kind of have a rationally guided system of moral development.
But why follow nature if this is just how nature goes? Shouldn’t we just go with the flow? We’re going to become philanthropists in the end right? Unfortunately, nature isn’t that simple. To follow nature in the Stoic sense, you have to combat some external forces that halt this natural development.
This is where Newtonian physics enters the picture. Newton was able to describe falling bodies and the dynamics of forces by removing complicated features of nature like air resistance. In a vacuum, everything will fall to Earth, despite varying masses at exactly 9.8 meters per second per second. When a cannon ball is shot from a cannon, you can pretty much ignore air resistance and predict where it will fall based on angle of trajectory. Only if you drop a feather is it difficult to ignore air resistance.
I think this is what the Stoics meant by following nature. They meant to imagine how humans would develop if you assume things just go well. So conceptually removing things like abuse from parents or society, removing things like terminal cancer, removing things like being born mentally handicapped, removing certain resistances, you create a situation where humans can easily grow from self love to love of family to love of community to ultimately love of humanity. The problem is though that you can’t remove a lot of these resistances, so the Stoics had to create all kinds of mental strategies to get humans back on track. Let’s face it, someone will try to abuse us, we might get cancer, and some of us might not have a good brain.