Maximize Your Potential: The Stoic Life in Accordance with Nature

Open any Stoic thinker and you’ll find the instruction to live according to nature. Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius put it this way in Meditations: “Philosophy requires only what your nature already demands.” The founder of Stoicism, Zeno, sweepingly defined nature as “the way things work,” and wisdom as acting in accordance with natural laws. Another Stoic, Seneca, put it this way: “Let us keep to the way which Nature has mapped out for us, and let us not swerve therefrom. If we follow Nature, all is easy and unobstructed; but if we combat Nature, our life differs not a whit from that of men who row against the current.” In another instance Seneca defines ‘living according to nature’ as the motto of the Stoic school.

This always sounds strange to any reader who picks up Stoicism. What? Human nature is selfish and impulsive—this Stoic prescription will lead to chaos! But what the Stoics had in mind was something above our natural base impulses. It was our reasoning power, the great gift from nature, that separated us from unthinking animals. As Diogenes Laertius described it in Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers: “… when reason by way of a more perfect leadership has been bestowed on the beings we call rational, for them life according to reason rightly becomes the natural life. For reason supervenes to shape impulse scientifically.”

Michel Dew, a Stoic scholar, defined what the Stoics meant in the following way in what might be one of the best description:

“’Human Nature’ refers to the condition of a human who is expressing the very best in his or her development, that is their ultimate ‘best self’. They are growing and changing in an effort to reach the ultimate goal for a human being.”

Below are six rules to help and guide you to live every day in accordance with nature according to the Stoics.

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Rule 1: Focus on what is within your power.

To live in accordance with nature begins with accepting our natural limitations – inherent and circumstantial. As Epictetus observes:

“For good or for ill, life and nature are governed by laws that we can’t change. The quicker we accept this, the more tranquil we can be.”

“Freedom comes from understanding the limits of our power and the natural limits set in place by divine providence. By accepting life’s limits and inevitabilities and working with them rather than fighting them, we become free.”

Get to know yourself, your talents and your natural affinities. Concentrate on what you are and make the most of it.

“If you try to be something you’re not or strive for something completely beyond your present capacities, you end up as a pathetic dabbler.”

A man in harmony with himself pursues limited natural desires. Greed, the desire for more, not being a natural desire, cannot be satisfied. If you seek things outside your control – wealth, reputation, or physical pleasure – you are bound to end up frustrated. As Seneca points out, wealth and poverty are relative concepts.

“The man who restrains himself within the bounds set by nature will not notice poverty; the man who exceeds these bounds will be pursued by poverty however rich he is. “

Unlike the fame- and power-addict, whose appetites are insatiable, the Stoic sage knows when to put a stop to his pursuit of happiness.

Rule 2: Philosophy is a way of life.

Epictetus encourages us to approach our everyday activities with the same discipline and degree of seriousness as the runner, singer, and soldier display in their training.

“Conduct yourself in all matters, grand and public or small and domestic, in accordance with the laws of nature. Harmonizing your will with nature should be your utmost ideal. Where do you practice this ideal? In the particulars of your own daily life with its uniquely personal tasks and duties. “

Aristotle had taught that virtue is the result of a habit rather than an isolated act. The Stoics follow suit by arguing that the best way to absorb Stoic principles is through good habits. Epictetus again:

“Desire and aversion, though powerful, are but habits. And we can train ourselves to have better habits. Restrain the habit of being repelled by all those things that aren’t within your control, and focus instead on combating things within your power that are not good for you.”

We all have of our inclinations and weaknesses. One of way of countering character flaws, Epictetus argues, is by opposing them with contrary habits. Are you devoted excessively to physical pleasure or irrationally afraid of pain, train yourself in the opposite extreme.

Rule 3: A life according to nature requires an absolute commitment to truth.

Nothing good can come out of fear, greed, superstitious beliefs, and wishful thinking. Self-conceit – lying to oneself – is worst of all. It separates you from your natural instincts and results in a sense of disconnectedness. The Stoic attitude is one of complete honesty—to others, but especially to oneself. What is required is nothing less than an absolute commitment to truth – in every thought, word, and utterance, in every moment. Approach life with open eyes, as Epictetus teaches.

“See things for what they really are, thereby sparing yourself the pain of false attachments and avoidable devastation.”

Things and people are what they are regardless of how we perceive them and how they appear to others.

“Instead of averting your eyes from the painful events of life, look at them squarely and contemplate them often. By facing the realities of death, infirmity, loss, and disappointment, you free yourself of illusions and false hopes and you avoid miserable, envious thoughts.”

For this purpose, the Stoics admonish us to exercise continuous vigilance and regularly examine our motives and actions.

Rule 4: View adversity as a challenge and an opportunity.

Honesty to ourselves is tested in adversity. Adversity is part of nature and has to be faced. To refuse to do so is childish and outright absurd. Seneca does not mince his words.

“To be always fortunate, and to pass through life with a soul that has never known sorrow, is to be ignorant of one half of nature.”

It is in adversity that we discover our mettle. Epictetus urges us to accept the challenge that misfortunes pose.

“Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own submerged inner resources. The trials we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths. […] Dig deeply. You possess strengths you might not realize you have. Find the right one. Use it.”

Mentally we can prepare ourselves by imagining bad things befalling us. Epictetus recommends that we train ourselves not to worry about things and outcomes that lie outside our control.

“But start modestly, with the little things that bother you. Has your child spilled something? Have you misplaced your wallet? Say to yourself, ‘Coping calmly with this inconvenience is the price I pay for my inner serenity, for freedom from perturbation; you don’t get something for nothing.’”

Bad things are bound to happen and we are not always going to able to stop them. But one thing is always within our power – how we think about them and how they appear to us. Epictetus again,

“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”

Marcus Aurelius would say that “the impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” There is always a way to make good out of a trial in our lives—there is always a virtuous response available to us.*

By welcoming adversities as occasions for practicing mental discipline, we turn them into opportunities. As the great philosopher Nietzsche in one of his Stoic moments famously said: “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”

It would also be Nietzsche who would define his formula for human greatness in the following way: “Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it….but love it.” Generations earlier Marcus Aurelius would say that “a blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.” This was part of the Stoic mindset of amor fati (see our amor fati medallion): Treating each and every moment—no matter how challenging—as something to be embraced, not avoided. To not only be okay with it, but love it and be better for it. So that like oxygen to a fire, obstacles and adversity become fuel for your potential.

*This is the quote that inspired the bestselling cult Stoic classic, The Obstacle Is the Way. It shows how some of the most successful people in history have applied Stoicism to overcome difficult or even impossible situations.

Rule 5: Accept death as part of ever-changing nature.

As a principle and a whole, nature is constant and never-changing. But viewed in its parts it is perpetual change. Living beings undergo a natural cycle of birth, growth, and death. These are the conditions under which we live. Marcus Aurelius returns to this Stoic trope time and again in his Meditations:

“And if the elements themselves suffer nothing by their perpetual conversion of one into another, that dissolution, and alteration, which is so common unto all, why should it be feared by any? Is not this according to nature? But nothing that is according to nature can be evil.”

“Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature’s delight.”

In Meditations Marcus would also write to himself “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” That was a personal reminder to continue living a life of virtue now, and not wait. (See our memento mori medallion which has Marcus’s timeless message on its back and is intended to be carried daily to act as a reminder of the shortness of life.)

Death, being part of this natural change, it is not to be feared, Seneca argues.

“If you regard your last day not as a punishment but as a law of nature, the breast from which you have banished the dread of death no fear will dare to enter.”

Prepare yourself for this moment by imagine yourself dead. Memento Mori. Stop clinging to the trivialities of life, give them up, and let them sink into nothingness. Let go of this world. Now when you have ceased to exist, death cannot touch you anymore. To live like that – like already dead, indifferent to yourself – is to live invincible behind the walls of an indomitable fortress.

Rule 6: You are part of a greater whole.

The paradoxical effect of imagining yourself dead is that you will now see your place, role, and connections in the world more clearly. In this view from above, you are the missing piece, the part for which the whole cries out. You can now, following Marcus Aurelius, define yourself as the center of your world, if not the world at large:

But my nature is rational and social; and my city and country, so far as I am Antoninus, is Rome, but so far as I am a man, it is the world. The things then which are useful to these cities are alone useful to me.

As the quote shows, it was in fact Marcus Aurelius who was one of the first writers to articulate the notion of cosmopolitanism—saying that he was a citizen of the world, not just of Rome. He believed in the collective good as an individual good, and there are more than 80 references to the common good in his Meditations. (“That which isn’t good for the hive, isn’t good for the bee.”)

Marcus was illustrating an important term in Stoicism which is sympatheia (συμπάθεια): sympathy, affinity of parts to the organic whole, mutual interdependence. The French philosopher Pierre Hadot, who was a great student and scholar of Stoicism, has referred to it as the “oceanic feeling.” A sense of belonging to something larger, of realizing that “human things are an infinitesimal point in the immensity.”

It is in relation to this infinite immensity, Seneca urges us to understand our human purpose.

“We are members of one great body, planted by nature … We must consider that we were born for the good of the whole.”

Having started out with nature as an inner guiding principle, we have now come full circle. Nature which speaks within us is also the great whole that envelops us and of which we are a part.

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Remember Michel Dew’s definition of living accordance with nature from earlier:

“’Human Nature’ refers to the condition of a human who is expressing the very best in his or her development, that is their ultimate ‘best self’. They are growing and changing in an effort to reach the ultimate goal for a human being.”

We can excel and live virtuously by understanding our limitations and focusing what is within our control, we adhere to philosophy as a way of life, we are committed to seeking truth every day and in every moment, we always aim to act virtuously—especially during adversity, accept death as part of life and treat every day as a gift. And finally, we remember that we are part of a larger whole and treat other people with kindness and respect. That’s how we realize our potential and become our best selves.

P.S. To keep Stoicism front and center in your life, check out the Daily Stoic Store. It features our popular memento mori and amor fati medallions, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius prints, and much more.

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