Nature and Fate
Live Like a Stoic
Early in the morning, when you are finding it hard to wake up, hold this thought in your mind: “I am getting up to do the work of a human being. Do I still resent it, if I am going out to do what I was born for and for which I was brought into the world? Or was I framed for this, to lie under the bedclothes and keep myself warm?” “But this is more pleasant.” So were you born for pleasure? In general, were you born for feeling or for action? Don’t you see the plants, the little sparrows, the ants, the spiders, the bees doing their own work, and playing their part in making up an ordered world. And then are you unwilling to do the work of a human being? Won’t you run to do what is in line with your nature? “But one must rest too.” One must, I agree. But nature has set limits on that, just as it has on eating and drinking, and yet are you going beyond what is enough?
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.1
The Stoics were fatalists. They regarded the path of our lives and every other natural process as determined in advance. And further, they held that all of these events are providentially arranged as part of an order that’s inherent in nature. Far from encouraging an attitude of resignation or passivity, however, the Stoics believed that this idea of fate does not in any way diminish our ability to make free decisions. Fate and free will are compatible on their view. Nature has endowed all living creatures with various capacities, and given the kind of creatures we are, our nature requires that we carry out what Marcus above calls “the work of a human being.”
Part of this “work” will typically be wrapped up with certain duties we have, which are in turn determined by the social roles that are conferred on us or that we come to pursue in the course of our lives. In Marcus’ case, his role as Roman Emperor required its own particular kind of activity and one of his aims in the passage above is clearly to remind himself of that work. (Recall that all of the readings in the Meditations are pieces of advice he is giving himself.) But beyond these specific duties, the most general duty that the Stoics believe we have is to ourselves as creatures in possession of a will or faculty of choice. In a sense, this is our ultimate fate and our chief “work”: to make choices that ensure our progress in aiming to live well.
Your exercise today is to spend some time accepting your fate in the Stoic sense. Later this week you’ll explore the ways in which living like a Stoic requires a more activist attitude in bringing about certain events, but today try affirming an attitude of accepting things as they are while retaining your faculty of choice. “Don’t ask for things to happen as you would like them to,” Epictetus advises, “but wish them to happen as they actually do, and you will be all right” (Handbook 8).
For things that are “fated,” consider outcomes that have occurred today or in the recent past that you did not seek out or that you even hoped would not occur at all: perhaps a poor grade on an assignment, getting rejected for a job, a disappointing political result, the lost time you’ve spent online, or a stray remark you made in public that you now find embarrassing. Instead of dwelling on these outcomes as “bad” or wishing they didn’t happen, try regarding them as not only necessary but as events that were also (in some sense) meant to happen. In adopting this attitude, do you still regard them as “bad”?
As you go about your day, keep track also of whether the Stoics’ idea of fate leads you to direct your motivation elsewhere or provokes a change in your outlook or attitude. Feeling “all right” about our fate for Epictetus is also a feeling of freedom. Rather than constraining our choices, such an attitude enables us to make better choices. Can you be a fatalist in the Stoic sense without feeling fatalistic?