Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, summarized the goal of the Stoic life as living consistently with nature according to one harmonious plan. Later Stoics tinkered with the wording in an attempt to respond to doctrinal critiques or for greater clarity, but consistency with nature (or at least with human nature) remained a key feature of Stoic thought.
One difficulty for modern readers encountering Stoicism is the word nature, which has been loaded with a number of conflicting meanings over the centuries since Zeno. A modern reader might bring with him notions of an Earth Mother type of nature or the conception of “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” To avoid confusion, it is important to remember that Zeno and the other Stoics used a Greek word (Physis– roughly meaning the way a thing grows), which does not implicate either of those concepts. Instead, the “nature” at issue for Stoics is human nature (and to another extent the nature of a created universe).
In modern times, it has been popular to assume the worst about human nature. From Hobbes’ Leviathan to some aggressive economic theories to social Darwinism, the modern assumption about human nature is that it tends toward self-interest and isolation. In that view, each person is a creature who must strive to survive alone, even at the great cost to fellow creatures. But that was not the Stoic conception of human nature. The Stoics assumed that human nature included a tendency to have an affinity for one’s relations, neighbors, and other humans (to one extent or another). Similar to Aristotle’s concept of humans as the “social animal,” the Stoics assumed that empathy for and contact with other people was a key part of living in accordance with human nature (and therefore the universal nature).
The Stoics, like all ancient people operating without the benefit of the scientific method, were terrible scientists. But they believed that the nature of human beings and the universe could be discovered through scientific inquiry and the use of reason. Therefore, it should be heartening to modern Stoics to see that recent research appears to confirm the ancient observation underlying the Stoic assumption of affinity. Much of that research has been done by primatologist Frans de Waal (View page on Wikipedia) Dr. de Waal most recently presented his research at the 2012 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (AAAS Summary) De Waal’s conclusions can also be found in his 2009 book, The Age of Empathy.
To me, this has two meanings. First, it is a reminder that science and rational inquiry into human nature and the nature of our universe must remain an important part of modern Stoicism. Stoics cannot fall back on the truths discovered by the ancient writers, but must stay current with scientific discoveries and see what impact those discoveries have on the Stoic understanding of nature. I would urge that we must keep Zeno’s formula in mind and continue to live consistently with nature and with the apparent order of the universe, even if that someday is not as consistent with ancient teachings as Dr. de Waal’s research.
Second, it is a reflection of why a personal commitment to living consistently with nature and striving for virtue is so important. Human nature and the force of biology urge us toward an affinity with our fellows, but we are still divided by racism, sexism, and other prejudices. It is apparent that a merely natural tendency is not enough to make us remain true to our principles. Instead, virtue takes hard work. Just as human nature tends toward good health and vigor but requires hygiene and exercise to maintain it, we must face the reality that we cannot fulfill our tendency toward affinity for our fellows without taking the appropriate actions. One practical goal of Stoicism must be to learn and practice how that can be done.