Classically Inclined

March 29, 2019

What’s nature got to do with it? The Stoics and secundum naturam

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:05 am
Tags: , ,

This is one of a series of posts designed to support students and teachers looking at the Love and Relationships unit of the OCR Classical Civilization A-level. You can find all the posts in the series by clicking on the OCR Seneca hashtag.

A central element of Stoic theory to remember when thinking about love and relationships and Seneca is the importance of acting in accordance with nature, or secundum naturam in Latin. Since the Stoics believed that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that the universe has been created by a providential deity who is the equivalent to perfect reason, this means that nature itself is closely aligned to reason. By looking at nature, we can learn important lessons about what behaviours are in accordance with nature, and thus rational.

For love and relationships, there are two very important implications of this theory. First, getting married and having a family is in accordance with nature, because that’s what we see creatures in the wild doing. Seneca gestures towards this in Letter 9.17:

As long as [the wise man] may order his own affairs by his own judgement, he is content in himself, and marries a wife; he is content in himself, and brings up children; he is content in himself, and yet would not live, if he were to live without a human being. No personal benefit brings him to friendship, but a natural stimulus; for as the enjoyment of other things is innate to us, so it is with friendship.

So long as having a family does not interfere with the sage’s pursuit of wisdom, then having a spouse and children is acceptable, and indeed a preferred indifferent. It is natural to want friends, and natural to want to be part of a family; thus the drive to find someone to have such a family with is also natural, and thus compatible with pursuing virtue (provided there are no opposing factors, such as falling in love with someone of dubious morals).

The second implication concerns the distinction between sexual desire and lust. Sexual desire, the desire to procreate, is considered natural – after all, it is abundantly visible in animals. What is not considered natural is when sexual desire ceases being a healthy natural urge and instead becomes an obsessive, irrational passion – that is, when desire turns into the passion of lust. This is an important distinction, and needs to be remembered when Seneca condemns lustful behaviour – it isn’t the fundamental instinct that he disapproves of, but the way that it has become twisted out of its natural path and into irrationality.

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