Being focused on reason, the ancient Roman Stoics exhort us to rely upon it greatly, for if we don’t, we are mere animals; it is because of reason that we have risen above all other species on the planet in terms of dominance. (Although, I think I can honestly state, I would rather hang out with a cat or dog over most people.)
Reason, and higher cognitive functioning in general, are why we have symphonies, computers, and antibiotics. It is why, biologically speaking, we walk around without fangs and claws, with our hearts exposed. It is why we generally have civil societies, where humans turn to each other for mutual support and protection.
Unless you subscribe to superstitious beliefs that have been invalidated by irrefutable scientific evidence, we have evolved over tens of thousands of years from being hunter gatherers to a species with light-speed global communication and the ability to land machines on other planets in our solar system.
According to the Stoics, without applying reason to one’s life, we would be no better than cattle.
I have had an interest in evolutionary biology and anthropology since college, and as the years progress, and I see more and more studies regarding neuroscience, one thing is becoming increasingly clear:
Some humans are actively using their prefrontal cortex to adapt to a world that is growing much more interconnected in terms of economics, national boundaries, and empathy towards others who may look different externally.
Simultaneously, many seem to be merely guided by a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is a small, almond-sized area in the brain whose sole purpose is to regulate fear. It is the physical home to the fight or flight response.
Animals (including humans) that are seemingly motivated by the amygdala, are highly driven by power, the control of resources, and regulating the reproduction rights of females. They are consistently afraid of “them” and “the other” – basing their lives on the idea that there is always someone out there on the verge of stealing all your stuff.
Such an attitude might have been beneficial a few thousand years ago, but because of its reasoning abilities, the culture of humanity has far surpassed the need for such a rudimentary and primitive area of the brain having total control over our lives.
The Stoics put forth no human, intent on reason and a good life, should sink to the plane of wild animals, guided merely by instinct.
While reading William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, he used a term I had never heard before, but found to be absolutely brilliant.
He states that to truly take Stoicism to heart, and therefore living a worthwhile existence, one needs to be wary of an enemy that is always lying in wait. He refers to that foe as “evolutionary autopilot.”
What does that term mean?
Letting evolutionary instincts that may have once served their purpose in helping us survive natural selection, to be not only of no use, but counter-productive, if not downright harmful, to a good life and our own well-being.
For example, let’s look at sugar.
If you were a hunter/gatherer alive 20,000 years ago, and had a sweet tooth, you would have sought out fruit. Because of that, you not only enjoyed the tasty apple or plum, you also received more of the vitamins and nutrients that helped you live a longer, healthier life, increasing the chances of having offspring.
Today, we still have that pleasure center in our neural pathways lighting up when it comes to sweets, but to a fault.
While hunter/gatherers only had access to fruits that were not only sweet but nutritious during certain times of the year, we now have access to mountains of food, all the time, with high sugar content, and more often than not, little to no nutritional value.
Our evolutionary autopilot compels many to crave and consume something that once had beneficial side effects, yet is now leading to an obesity epidemic in many first world nations.
Let us also look at another area of functioning that is prevalent in the 21st century: Shopping.
If you lived in a primitive tribe somewhere on the plains or savannah, and you actively sought resources not only for your survival, but pleasure as well, your probability of a longer life with multiple offspring increased. Especially if you lived in an environment where resources had to be gathered in summer and autumn in order to get through a winter.
Today, that drive for acquisition is within all humans to one degree or another.
Because of modern conveniences though, such as malls and one-click online shopping, the neural pleasure centers that once served a purpose in ensuring we lived through the cold months are now activated by flash-sales in our email or simply walking the aisles of the nearest department store.
We are human. Our basic needs, as with any animal, must be met; and because we have the ability to reason, we can plan for the future.
Each of us have different lives within different socio-economic strata, but a good life, one that leads to higher and more regular intervals of happiness, can only be had if we ask ourselves before purchasing something, “Is this a natural need, or an unnatural one?” (“Unnatural” simply meaning anything above and beyond what one needs to survive.)
Food? A natural need.
A burger from a fast-food joint, or an exquisitely prepared six-course meal? Not so natural.
A natural desire. We need to protect ourselves from the elements. (And for many, simply avoid intruding upon others’ senses.)
Spending half a paycheck, or perhaps spending money one doesn’t even have, on sneakers or an article of clothing with some French designer’s name on it?
Not so natural.
Two to three homes, or a home so large it requires vast time and resources to maintain?
Not so natural.
A natural desire.
Watching porn? Reinforcing unrealistic expectations about what coitus and your partner should be like? Rather than going out, actually interacting with other humans, and finding someone with which to share the physical bliss?
Not so natural.
If you want a good life, an elevated life, a life with purpose, then according to the Stoics, reason should be your guide. The amygdala and evolutionary autopilot might work for donkeys and elephants, but in the 21st century, we’ve risen above that.
Acta Non Verba: Make a list of your desires in life. If some seem clearly natural, cross them out, be happy.
If some seem unnatural, ask yourself “Why?” Reason, which has led us to being above all other animals, and on par with the gods (at least according to the ancient Romans), would dictate that resources should be used specifically to better ourselves as humans, and for helping out other fellow humans; not for only having more cars and shoes.
The flourishing life cannot be achieved until we moderate our desires and see how superficial and fleeting they are. – Epictetus
You are all worked up chasing after this and trying to avoid that. These things are not coming to you, so to speak, but you are going to them. Stop desiring the one and fearing the other, and they will stay where they are. – Marcus Aurelius
…those people whose dull nature and lack of self-awareness have brought them down to the level of beasts of the field and animals. There is no difference between these people and those creatures, since the latter have no reason, while the former have reason that is warped, and, because it expends its energy in the wrong direction, detrimental to themselves. – Seneca
The body’s wants are of little significance: it desires the removal of cold, and the satisfying of hunger and thirst by food and drink; if there is anything we crave beyond these, the effort we expend is for our vices, not our needs. – Seneca
You fear everything as mortals but desire to have everything as gods. – Seneca
Stephen Sumner is a writer with over three decades experience studying what it means to have a good life. He has a BS in Human Development and Family Studies from Cornell University. His favorite pastimes include reading, fountain pens, and growing insanely hot peppers. Click here to follow him on Twitter.
Original, non-meme image from Aziz Acharki via Unsplash.com.