William O. Stephens | Living in Agreement with Nature

William O. Stephens | Living in Agreement with Nature


William O. Stephens was born in June 1962 in Lafayette, Indiana. He was raised in West Lafayette, Indiana, the second son of Purdue University professors. He attended West Lafayette Senior High School where he earned varsity letters in tennis and began his study of ancient civilizations and Latin with an inspiring teacher named Oliver S. Oesch. After two years at the College of Wooster in Ohio studying philosophy with James Coke Haden and Latin with Joe and Leslie P. Day, Stephens transferred to Earlham, a Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana. At Earlham he studied philosophy with Robert L. Horne and Peter Suber, Greek and Latin with Steve Heiny and Liffey Thorpe, and played varsity tennis (doubles). After graduating from Earlham in 1984, Stephens moved to Philadelphia to do his graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn he studied with Charles H. Kahn, Alexander Nehamas, and Martin Ostwald, and received his doctorate in philosophy in 1990. In autumn of that year he joined the Arts & Sciences faculty at Creighton University.


He has published articles on topics in Stoicism, Epicureanism and friendship, ecology and food ethics, ethics and animals, sex and love, sportsmanship, and the concept of a person. His books include an English translation of Adolf Bonhöffer’s work The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus (Peter Lang, 1996), an edited collection The Person: Readings in Human Nature (Prentice Hall, 2006), Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom (Continuum, 2007), and Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum, 2012). A manuscript entitled Lessons in Liberation: Epictetus as Educator is his current research project. He teaches a variety of courses in philosophy.


Stephens has traveled widely. In May 2016 he toured much of Poland, from Wiżajny (near the Lithuania border) and Suwałki in the northeast to the lakes of Mikołajki. After presenting two papers at the University of Warsaw he visited Kraków, the Wieliczka salt mine, and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. In June 2017 he returned to Poland, presented two papers at the University of Warsaw, and visited Poznań, Jastrowie, and the village of Chwalimie before traveling to Marseille and Aix, France.


He has presented papers abroad at conferences in London, England (Stoicon 2018), in Toronto, Canada (Stoicon 2017), at Aix-en-Provence, on the island of Rhodes, at Vilia, Greece, and at Palmerston North, New Zealand. He has toured the island of Crete, the northern and southern islands of New Zealand, Iceland, and several of the Galapagos Islands. Stephens has taken cruises to Ensenada, Mexico, the Bahamas, and the Isle of Symi in the Dodecanese island chain. His expedition aboard the National Geographic Endeavor to the Antarctic peninsula was by way of Santiago, Chile and Ushuaia, Argentina. In England he has toured Cornwall, East Sussex, Bournemouth County, the Salisbury Plain (and Stonehenge), the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands, and the Isle of Skye. He has visited Montreal, Vancouver Island, and Victoria, British Columbia. In the Hawaiian islands he has visited Maui (and Haleakalā), Kauai (and Waimea Canyon), and much of Oahu.


Stephens enjoys tennis, chess, hiking, spelunking, kayaking, and nature photography. His domestic treks include the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, the Cascades, and the Olympic peninsula in Washington. He has kayaked in the San Juan Islands of Washington and in the Point Reyes National Seashore area of California. He has visited Crater Lake in Oregon and Boundary County, the Kootenai River, and Coeur d’ Alene in the Idaho panhandle. In California Stephens has hiked in Redwood, Yosemite, and Joshua Tree National Parks, spelunked in Lava Beds National Monument, and visited Crescent City, Tule Lake, Bodega Bay, Monterey, and Big Sur. He has explored Arches National Park, the Moab area, the Valley of the Gods, and Monument Valley in Utah. His travels in Arizona include the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Petrified Forest National Park, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, and Sedona. He has visited Shiprock, Petroglyph National Monument, and Santa Fe in New Mexico. In Colorado he has visited Rocky Mountain National Park, Crested Butte, Mesa Verde, Durango, Royal Gorge, Silverthorne, Breckenridge, Vail, and has traveled over Loveland Pass. In August 2016 Stephens drove Mount Herman Road from Monument to Woodland Park, Colorado. As a boy he visited Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. His travels include the Badlands, Wind Cave, and the Black Hills of South Dakota, Madeline Island off the northern coast of Wisconsin, Mammoth-Flint Ridge Cave of Kentucky (the longest known cave system in the world), Acadia National Park in Maine, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and many parts of Florida. He has yet to visit Alaska, Louisiana, Arkansas, or Mississippi.


From an early age Stephens has closely followed the misadventures of the Chicago Cubs, which helps explain his interest in Stoicism. Stephens watched his Cubs win game seven of the World Series Nov. 2, 2016 at Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in the Bemis Park neighborhood of Omaha in an arts & crafts style house built in 1912 he shares with four cats and a talented chef blessed with a beautiful singing voice.


Website: https://williamostephens.wordpress.com/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/william-stephens-b76369b/

  • When studying Stoicism it’s important to start with the original texts so that we can gain a clear understanding of exactly what the philosophy offers as principles for a well lived life. 
  • The idea of living in “agreement with Nature” is central to the cannon of Stoic ideas, and it cannot be removed from Stoicism. 
  • Nature is simply everything that is - people, the planets, the universe, the cosmos etc. Humans cannot be removed from Nature, and we are made up of elements that exist in the cosmos (stardust), therefore we are not separate from Nature but are simply a part of it. 
  • Nature can be seen as “the flow of events in the universe”. 
  • Living in agreement with Nature means, in one sense, living in agreement with biology. We have biological parameters in which we have to operate if we want to survive and sustain ourselves each day. For example, we need water, food, exercise and many other things to operate properly. Is Stoicism, then, a philosophy that offers us a pathway to existential meaning through our biology by embodying our virtues?
  • Living in agreement with Nature also means aligning with our nature as human beings or primates. We’re social creatures, so we should try to improve our ability to be social and communal. We should help others, care for them and try to be as capable as we can be so that we can be effective in our relationships.
  • We can also talk about diet when it comes to living in agreement with Nature. Some foods, especially in excess, are not going to allow us to be healthy and vital. We need certain vitamins and minerals to be healthy, so we should seek a healthy and balanced diet which gives us what we need biologically. 
  • The soul is seen as a “physical entity that is dispersed throughout another physical entity - your body - and the two together constitute what you are.” 
  • “Psyche” is the word used by the Hellenistic philosophers to describe the soul. 
  • The “Logos” is the principle of rational utterance. It is connected with speech, but it is also the internal faculty by which you can comprehend and understand the world. 
  • The understanding of Nature is vital to Stoic theology. 
  • Christianity and other religions offer a picture of “God” or “gods” as something that is outside nature - something that is supernatural. 
  • The Stoics didn’t go this far, but they said that “God" is Nature. 
  • God is an aspect of Nature itself. God is not outside of the world, but:
  • “God is the… orderly, structured, intentional, “logical” pattern or architecture of the cosmos.”
  • The principles of regularity which we find in Nature are called “Natural laws.” Too often we will import the post-medieval view of God as a “law giver” into our conversation, but this was not how the Stoics saw it. The Stoics saw God as the embodiment of all Natural laws. 
  • “Providence” is simply another name for the “seminal reason” which governs everything that unfolds in the cosmos. Night, day, reproduction, death, recycling of organic materials, etc. These are all expressive of the regularity within the Natural world which make it all run. 
  • We can call all of the recurring processes of Nature “Fate”, which basically means that it’s going to happen whether we like it or not. Fate is similar to Providence. 
  • Everything in the cosmos, including animals and plants, share in the divine nature of “God” or “Nature”. 
  • The Stoics were not Darwinian, however they did believe that all of the natural processes and happenings which we see are not simply happening by accident, but rather are happening for the benefit of the whole. 
  • The question: What are the similarities between the Stoic and the Taoist approach to aligning with our providential nature?
  • “If you’re a Stoic and you believe in Providence, Fate, destiny, right reason, that the universe is well-structured, orderly, put together, and operates on it’s own without [your] contributions just fine, and has done so for a very long time, then this does invite you to have a great deal of confidence that the world will do just fine whether or not [you] choose to participate in the symphony.” 
  • Things happen whether you like it or not, and so to imagine that your life would be better by pushing against this is to beget insanity. 
  • Stoicism offers a certain confidence that things will be just fine if we don’t push against fate too much. 
  • Stoicism also offers a kind of antidote to arrogance, because we can see that we’re not the biggest and most important thing in this world. We aren’t the centre of the universe, but we are simply parts of the cosmos that can contribute to its entire working order by aligning with its path. 
  • This perspective provides both a confidence that things will go fine (big picture) regardless of whether or not you try to intervene, as well as a sense of responsibility to follow the path that is up to you - to have correct thinking, right action, and thoughtful deliberation. That’s your failure to focus on, but at the same time it’s important to recognise that it’s ok that there is so much that’s outside of our control. We don’t decide when it rains or snows or is night or day, and so we can be grateful that there are so many processes that allow us to survive without the need for our action. 
  • As a teacher gives us examples of what we can learn and what would be good for us, so too does Nature give us opportunities to learn, grow and live a happy life. We need to attune ourselves to these lessons so that we don’t miss them. 
  • Living in agreement with Nature means understanding your strengths and limitations, and living with your own self-knowledge of those limitations. 
  • The question: as it pertains to the Bible verse “Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?”, does Stoicism offer a similar confidence that if we simply focus on doing what’s right then we will be provided for, at least existentially? 
  • Ancient philosophers were keen observers of the natural world. They noticed, for example, how the bees take care of their hive and how each bee plays a part in its contribution to the whole. Marcus Aurelius echos this attention by stating that what doesn’t harm the whole (the hive, or humanity) wouldn’t harm the parts (the bees, or humans). 
  • Everything in Nature exists in a delicate balance where everything is necessary for the structure of the whole. Our job is to understand what our role is in the ecosystem of the cosmos so that we can slot into that role and effectively do our part, just in the same way that the bee does his part to support the hive. 
  • Therefore, there are certain things which, if we as human beings did, would contribute well to the working order of the whole, and therefore we would be taken care of. 
  • Living according to Nature is also to say that we should be sustainable in our approach. We need clean oceans, healthy fish, healthy animals, healthy ecosystems, forests, and clean air in order for us all to survive and thrive. 
  • There are more people on this earth than ever before, and with complete urbanisation we have gone in a direction where we see ourselves as detached from Nature as opposed to being a part of Nature. We can no longer see the stars in cities and we rarely find ourselves walking in a forest, so we have removed ourselves from much of the “natural world.”
  • In the ancient world when the Stoics were theorising they were much closer to Nature. They could see the stars and wonder about the meaning of it all. They could see the majesty of Nature, and they therefore could be inspired to think and learn more about their place in the cosmos. 
  • Seneca’s “Natural Questions” is a great example of a work written by a Stoic who was trying to appreciate and understand the world by observation.