I am reading William B. Irvine’s superb A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, and early on in the book he begins to tackle the issue of whether embracing Stoicism requires a belief in a supreme being. While Stoicism is a philosophy, not a religion, some of the Stoics – especially Epictetus – do often refer to “Zeus,” understood not as the familiar Olympian god, but as similar to the God of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition (though with some interesting differences).
At any rate, I think, as does Irvine, that belief in a supreme being is not necessary for Stoicism, and that it is even questionable the degree to which the ancient Stoics themselves thought it necessary. Below is a short extracts from the first time in the book in which Irvine discusses the issue, promising to return to it in greater depth later on:
“Those who read Epictetus cannot help but notice his frequent mention of religion. Indeed, Zeus is mentioned more than anyone except Socrates. To better understand the role Zeus plays in Stoicism, consider the situation of a prospective pupil at Epictetus’s school. If this person asked what one must do to practice Stoicism, Epictetus might describe the various techniques Stoics advocate. If he asked why he should practice these techniques, Epictetus might reply that doing so will enable him to attain tranquility.
So far, so good, but suppose this student had looked at other schools of philosophy and wondered why Epictetus’s school was better than they were. Suppose, more precisely, he asked Epictetus what reason there was to think that the techniques advocated by the Stoics would enable him to attain tranquility. In his response to this question, Epictetus would start talking about Zeus.
We were, he would tell the student, created by Zeus. His student was likely to accept this claim, inasmuch as atheism appears to have been a rarity in ancient Rome. (Then again, what Epictetus had in mind when he referred to Zeus is probably different from what most Romans had in mind. In particular, it is possible that Epictetus identified Zeus with Nature.)
Many readers will therefore, at this point, be thinking, “If I have to believe in Zeus and divine creation to practice Stoicism, then Stoicism is for me a nonstarter .” Readers should therefore realize that it is entirely possible to practice Stoicism— and in particular, to employ Stoic strategies for attaining tranquility—without believing in Zeus or, for that matter, in divine creation. In chapter 20 I will have more to say about how this can be done.”