20 July 2013
Both the Stoics and the Epicureans advocated living according to nature, though each sought inspiration with different eyes. The Stoics believed in a universe bound up by a divine plan, and that a life of virtue meant living according to that plan, accepting what happened as the will of God -- or cosmic fate. Deities and their wills were more immaterial to the Epicureans, however, who saw more chaos than order in the cosmos and believed virtue lay in making the best of what we were given, of enjoying life while it lasted. There is wisdom in learning to adapt to whatever life throws at you, just as there is wisdom in enjoying it fully and not getting too distracted by mental chatter -- but there is more to living naturally than either.
What does it mean to live naturally? Outside of culture, beliefs, and ideology, human beings are fundamentally members of the animal kingdom in full standing. We use ideas to put distance between ourselves and that kingdom, but we are its subjects at every moment of the day whether we think we are or not. We are motivated by the same needs and instincts as every other animal on the planet, even if we dress those instincts up as feelings. Our instincts and needs are the products, not of perfect creation, but of imperfect evolution, of millions of years of trial, error, fix-it-on-the-fly biological compromise. To live naturally, first, is to respect that fact.
Before going forward, however, there is the matter of the naturalistic fallacy to address. Just because something is Natural does not mean it is good, or to be desired. Wariness and hostility toward strangers might be a natural instinct, but in modern times, chances are that the sudden arrival of group of strangers will not be a raiding party intent on killing your young, eating your fruit, and kidnapping your sisters -- a scenario our genes may be expecting when they produce anxiety in us at the appearance of an unknown person. Here is the wisdom of philosophy, in teaching us to overcome instincts that work to our detriment. However, we will presumably function best in the environment in which we evolved. That environment is not limited to the physical climate, but includes the kind of behaviors we're allowed to enact, the relations we engage in. Thus, humans are happier with one another than alone; we are happier sheltered from inclement weather than exposed to it; we are happier eating fresh food than rotting.
We must be conscious of our status as natural creatures, because instincts will manifest themselves with or without our permission. Hierarchies are ubiquitous among social animals, for instance, and in mammals there is often an alpha individual who rises to the top through strength, cunning, or in the case of certain primate species, cunning. Why then are we so surprised at the regularity with which political systems produce strongmen, and our easiness in accepting them? That monarchies persisted for so long, and that democracies become oppressive, is less a condemnation of political organization and more a mark against the systems which allow our natural weakness to lead to unnatural brutality. If Hitler had been the alpha male of a group of hunter-gatherers, the same strengths which brought him to power might have let him lead the tribe against threats -- and if they did not, or if those strengths failed him, he could have been displaced with ease. Civilization, however, has given alphas armies to expand their own power beyond natural limits, and given them means (like tradition or media outlets) to control by influence what they cannot touch by brute force.
We cannot turn back the clock and become hunter-gatherers. We must learn to work within the limits of our biology. In the realm of politics, the most rational response to our hierarchical weakness is to decentralize power as much as possible. Charismatic, strong, and cunning individuals will rise in every population and hold influence over people, but there is no reason their power must metastasize and become cancerous, dementing and corrupting them while abusing the public. Despite the lessons of the 20th century, political power, especially in the United States, is tending to become even more centralized, a trend that needs desperately to be reversed. Equally problematic is the power amassing in corporate entities, who are just as liable to tyranny as politicians, but who are even more wily, turning the very chains of regulation that we try to bind them by into weapons to whip their rivals and opponents with.
There is more to 'natural living' than politics, however. Evolution is starting to guide medicine more than in years past: we are now realizing that dropping anti-biotic bombs into our guts isn't the wisest course of action given our dependence on some bacterial species for basic processes like digestion. Some researchers suggest that our bodies need 'hostile' bacteria in them just to give our immune system something to do: otherwise, it attacks its own body. Or take matters of diet: just as a cat would not fare well on salad, or a dog on plankton, or a koala on anything other than eucalyptus leaves, so do we not fare well on many of the modern 'foodstuffs' filling the grocery store. In recent years a 'paleo' diet movement has arisen, maintaining that people should eat what we evolved to eat: meat, fruit, nuts, and some vegetables, leaving behind artificial food products like snack cakes, rolls, margarine, and imitation crab meat.
Many of the problems we face are caused by our attempting to live as something we are not, as creatures in a world of our choosing. We cannot drastically change our circumstances of living and expect the consequences to be marginal. We create an environment filled with fake food and no opportunities for the physical exertion our bodies were designed for, then wonder why obesity and diabetes have soared. We allow children to keep themselves overly stimulated with games on their tablets, or force them to sit in a box for seven hours a day quietly listening, and then label mark them as having attention deficit disorder. Perhaps it is our way of living, not ourselves, that are disordered. Maybe if children were taught the way they were evolved to be taught -- in the field, through the experience -- and played as they evolved to play, skin on skin with physical playmates -- they would not be bundles of neuroses. Perhaps if adults spent more time with one another and their families, and less time slaving at jobs producing profits for other persons, or stuck in traffic, they would not be as easy marks for depression and energetic religions.
Truth be told, I don't know what it means, entirely, to live naturally. I have some ideas, which is why I eat real food, voted libertarian in the last election, and practice simple living. In abstract, I can only say: to live naturally is to embrace our humanity -- to guard against our weaknesses while revelling in the experience of being human.