Nice nature, nasty nature

Nature is a two-faced goddess and going with the flow can be tougher than it sounds...

I don’t know if I could describe myself as a Stoic in an orthodox sense, but Stoicism is definitely the faith / philosophy that has had the biggest and most beneficial influence over my life.

Stoicism originated in ancient Greece in around 400BC. Stoics themselves considered their founding father to be Diogenes the Cynic, this strange philosopher-tramp who lived in a barrel in Athens in the time of Plato, and tried to get people to live according to nature rather than according to the conventions of civilization. If you wanted a pithy definition of the Stoic ethos, it would be ‘going with the flow of Nature’.

This might sound a fairly mellow way to live, but actually, going with the flow of nature is tougher than it sounds.

Nature, as the Greeks well knew, is a two-faced goddess. She can be a nurturing, life-giving mother. Or she can be a cruel and destructive bitch.

The problem with civilization is that it loves one of nature’s faces, and is terrified of the other. It takes some parts of nature and deems them desirable or ‘good’. Thus we deem youth, health, wealth, success, beauty, popularity and fame to be ‘good’, and we exert a huge amount of energy to try to achieve these states.

On the other hand, we deem old age, sickness, poverty, ugliness, failure, unpopularity or ignominy to be ‘bad’ or even awful, and spend an enormous amount of energy trying to avoid these states.

But the nature of nature is change. Stoics like to quote the philosopher Heraclitus, who asserted that the universe was in constant flux, with things constantly turning into their opposites. Nature is constantly shifting, and we can’t control it, try as we might. It's no respecter of our civilized preferences, and is likely to bring us not just the things we consider good – sunshine, youth, life, beauty etc – but also the things we consider bad – rain, old age, sickness etc.

But we can’t accept these ‘bad’ things. They terrify us. We try to protect ourselves from the wrath of nature with all the tools of our civilization – with houses and cars and hospitals and banks and plastic surgeons. But we’re still terrified of the dark side of nature hitting us, and the threat of it fills us with panic, anxiety, dread.

And if ‘bad’ things actually occur to us, we find ourselves plunged into depression and shame. We make our lives hell, worrying about not being successful enough, or not having enough friends, or growing old, or getting sick. If we’re not worrying about the future, we’re ruminating over the past.

According to Stoicism, when we cannot accept something that has happened to us or which might happen to us, we turn ourselves into exiles from nature. We shut ourselves off from the flow, refuse to accept it, make ourselves miserable over it. We no longer live in the present, but ruminate over the past or fret over the future. We feel like we are disconnected, withered, cut off from the vitality of the world.

Stoicism tries to help us become re-integrated with nature. It tries to teach us that what is making us miserable is not the external event that bothers us, such as getting fired or getting old, but our opinion about that event, for example, that it is terrible and unacceptable to be fired or to get old. We have to dismantle these conventional beliefs, and learn to accept that things conventionally deemed awful are not really so catastrophic, and are just part of the flow of nature.

This is hard. Our conventional beliefs are deeply rooted in us. They are the inheritance of millennia of evolution. They are drummed into us by our parents and our society, which tells us that external success is everything, popularity is everything, beauty is everything, and the opposite of these things are awful.

But with practice, you can stand up to these beliefs, you can dismantle them. Each time you stand up to them and resist their pull on you, they become less powerful. Giving up a habitual belief is like giving up smoking.

Stoics approach each situation as an opportunity to overcome their conventional beliefs, and become more free, more in harmony with the ebb and flow of nature.

And this doesn’t just mean you accept that your life is terrible. Because the remarkable thing about acceptance is, when you accept an external situation, you transform the negative emotions that it previously provoked in you. You dissipate the panic or the depression, you feel a wonderful peace and serenity, and feel yourself to be re-connected to nature, re-connected to the world and to other people.

This movement, from miserable disconnection and alienation from nature, to acceptance, re-integration and regeneration, is the basic movement of almost all religions and faiths.

What is beautiful about Stoicism is it provides you with a clear, rational and practical way to follow that path back from disconnection to reconnection with nature.

Jules Evans is the author of Philosophy for Life

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.