Stoic theology

olympian_zeus_by_pervandr-d3htv5qI’ve got to the point in the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (chapter 6) where one of the authors, Keimpe Algra, tackles the thorny issue of Stoic theology. I say thorny not because there is anything too peculiar about the topic per se, but because of course I will have at some point to address it from a secular, non-theistic perspective, in my quest for updating Stoicism to the 21st century.

(Incidentally, as I’ve said before, one of the things I find attractive about modern Stoicism is that it has a big metaphysical tent, capable of accommodating theists, pantheists, agnostics and atheists, so long as they share the Stoic commitment to cultivating moral virtue as essential to a eudaimonic life.)

There is no denying that the Stoics believed in a God, and that moreover this God played an important (though, I will argue in forthcoming essays, not irreplaceable) role in their general philosophy. As such, we need to understand what exactly they thought and why, and Algra’s chapter is an excellent guide for that purpose.

“According to Cicero (ND II 3), the Stoics recognized four main questions in theology: First they prove that the gods exist, next they explain their nature, then they show that the world is governed by them, and lastly that they care for the fortunes of mankind. The existence of god involves the fact that he governs, or rather is, the cosmos, which explains why some of the proofs for the existence of god simply amount to proofs that the cosmos itself is a rationally ordered living being.”

The Stoics deployed a number of arguments for the existence of God, including the (near) universality of belief among humans (along the same lines as “all the French people can’t be wrong about cheese”…), the argument from design, and the (alleged) unacceptability of atheism.

Algra discusses in some detail the famous Zenonian syllogism about the existence of God, its critique (likely devised by Alexinus), as well as two responses by the Stoics, recorded by Sextus.

Here is a famous Stoic description of God:

“[God is] an immortal living being, rational, perfect and thinking in happiness, unreceptive of anything bad and provident with regard to the cosmos and the things therein. But he is not of human form. He is the demiurge of the whole and as it were the father of all things, both in general and insofar as the part of him is concerned which pervades all things, and which is called by many names, corresponding to its powers. Both Zeno and Chrysippus are said to have claimed that the cosmos is the ‘substance of god’ (DL VII 148). Elsewhere, an even more straightforward identification of cosmos and god is ascribed to Chrysippus (Cicero ND I 39), and this identification can also be found in some reports of the common Stoic view in Arius Dydimus.”

It’s interesting to me that Algra points out that Epictetus, for instance, speaks of God in clearly theistic fashion, but that that is not the only possible interpretation of what the Stoics made of the concept of God. Indeed:

“One of the most striking features of Stoic theology was its rather fluid conception of god. This did not go unnoticed. The Epicureans already found fault with it, as can again be inferred from the critique expressed by Velleius in the first book of the De natura deorum. The Stoics took great pains to account for the juxtaposition of what we might call pantheistic and polytheistic elements in their theology, by ‘appropriating’ and re-interpreting some aspects of traditional polytheism, while clearly rejecting others.”

Stoic theology also faces the problem of theodicy, that is the task of explaining the existence of evil in a world created by a powerful (though, crucially, not omnipotent) and benevolent God. (They also face the problem of free will, which I’ll postpone until discussion of the next chapter in the Cambridge Companion, about Stoic determinism.)

They have a number of responses to the issue:

“[Chrysippus’] first answer claims that, as opposites, good and evil are interdependent, both epistemically (we cannot conceive of the good without evil) and ontologically (the good apparently cannot exist without evil). [secondly] the good and purposive workings of providence inevitably involve some concomitant evils, as a form of ‘collateral damage’. Finally, in his On nature, Chrysippus also claimed that some apparent evils can simply be explained away by showing that on closer view they are goods: wars may drain off surplus population.”

What’s interesting here is not that these arguments are convincing (they aren’t), but rather that they clearly point — as Algra observes — to a conception of God on the part of the Stoics that is very different from the Judeo-Christian or the Neo-Platonic ones, and actually closer to Heraclitus:

“as a rational principle, [God] incorporates the laws of rationality, where opposites may be said to entail each other, and as a physical force he incorporates the laws of physics, according to which some things cannot be created without a certain amount of waste.”

Interestingly, the Stoics took divination seriously, not because they accepted it as credible mysticism, but because they thought of it as a science aimed at understanding God’s messages to humans. While this is obviously untenable by modern standards, here is a revealing and surprisingly modern bit:

“The gods are not directly responsible for every fissure in the liver or for every song of a bird, since, manifestly, that would not be seemly or proper in a god, and furthermore is impossible.”

The converse of divination, in a sense, was prayer, i.e., human attempts to communicate with God. Here, however, Stoics like Seneca would have felt right at home with modern skeptics:

“What use are expiations and precautions if the fates are immutable? Allow me to support that rigid sect of philosophers who accept such practices with a smile and consider them only a solace for a troubled mind. The fates perform their function in another way and they are not moved by any prayer.”

In this context, Algra goes on to discuss Stoic prayers as of being rather peculiar in nature:

“neither this short text [Cleanthes’ prayer, quoted by Epictetus at the end of the Enchiridion] nor the more monumental Hymn [to Zeus, also by Cleanthes] offers the kind of traditional prayers that ask for ordinary and particular favours. The small prayer simply asks Zeus to lead Cleanthes wherever he has ordained him to go, and where he would lead him anyway. Cleanthes does not ask god to change his mind. The Hymn offers a slightly different case. To be sure, it does address Zeus with the traditional epithet ‘bountiful’ (pandôros, line 28), but the bounties he is asked to confer are of a moral, intellectual, or even ‘spiritual’ nature. What the Hymn (29– 34) prays for appears to be virtue. The short prayer at the end of Epictetus’ Manual, though professing to address Zeus (and fate), may in fact be regarded as a form of self-address. It represents a form of meditation, of telling one’s rational self that Zeus will lead, and that one will have to follow the decrees of fate anyway.”

The Stoics, it would seem, pray for rationality.

12 thoughts on “Stoic theology

  1. The comments on prayer are interesting to me. As part of my recent embrace of stoic ideas, I have created for myself a distilled arrangement of Aurelius’s ‘Meditations’ which I say to myself twice per day. It’s just over a thousand words and it includes what I consider to be his best passages on issues of perspective, thoughtfulness, social responsibility and the like.

    One of the biggest appeals to me of having some kind of philosophical framework to live by is that I want to live more ‘consciously’; to be more self-aware of every action I commit myself to. Sometimes it seems as though we live and behave automatically and I can go several days or weeks before, in a sense, suddenly remembering that I exist in any self-reflective capacity.

    Saying a ‘prayer’ (which is what I call it even though it is reflective rather than a plea) is particularly helpful to me compared to, say, mindfulness meditation, as it encircles each day within a set of precepts that are continually on my mind as I set about doing things. This is one of the ritualistic aspects of human life that I think the monotheists got right.


  2. Thanks, Massimo. Very interesting once again. It would seem there are similarities between classical Stoicism and early Buddhism in regard of their supernaturalist cosmologies as well as in other respects. Early Buddhism did accept the existence of deities as very powerful but deluded mortal beings; it was however wrong to claim the existence of a creator deity who was responsible for the world’s persistence. (E.g., Aṅguttara Nikāya 3.61).

    The analogue to the theist arguments Stoics put forward can be found in arguments for rebirth and active kamma within the Nikāyas. They boil down to prudential and ethical arguments that people who don’t believe that they will be punished for bad actions and rewarded for good in future lives will tend to act badly, and will tend to be censured by “the wise”. These arguments are, of course, no more convincing than those for the existence of God, e.g., Pascal’s Wager, indeed one argument mirrors the Wager very closely:

    Interestingly, the Buddha also censures monks for performing rites of divination, fortune telling, etc. (Dīgha Nikāya 1).

    As regards prayer in particular, while there was nothing quite akin to it in early Buddhism, some forms of meditation such as the Brahmavihāras (the so-called “abodes of Brahma” or meditations on kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity) resemble prayers in being pro-attitudes that one repeats to oneself as forms of “right intention”. Right intention should always guide mindful meditation in Buddhism.

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  3. What I find amazing about Stoicism is that it inspires in me some things that I would have earlier thought of as religious practices (and I’m very much irreligious). Reflecting on passages of Meditations at night before bed is something Christians do with the Bible. I also carry short aphorisms and whole passages of Stoic texts with me for reflection and prayer (though I don’t call it that).

    The stand out difference is that, unlike religion which inspires people to hope an external source gives them favour, virtue ethics starts with what we can control (virtuous action). This is a much better starting point for living a good life and being a fine upstanding moral citizen IMO.

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  4. Fred, precisely right. I do the same, and I find it particularly nice that I’m getting plain spoken wisdom from other human beings, rather than from an inscrutable transcendental entity.

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  5. Another tale from my incidental theologizing. The ever tiresome Bishop Spong seemed every week to deny some other Christian dogma. I particularly remember one time it was, “How could anyone in the 20th century still believe in theism?” How indeed! How do you deny a metaphor? Theism had as many problems in 500 BC or 100 CE as it does today. Sometimes it is a helpful metaphor, more often not. The Greek and Roman observations about the gods had a huge influence in popular and even serious Christian theology. I recalled my shock at first reading the Iliad, more so the Odyssey and the Aeneid. It struck me at the time here is where much Christian theology came from, certainly in my bible reading I had not come across nearly so much support for the tone of so much popular theology.

    The god of the Old and New Testaments is not nearly so theistic as most Christians believe. There are any number of biblical passages, which upon literally reading them, lead the reader to know that the author is speaking metaphorically.

    Even the very nascent development of the doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament begs to be understood in a metaphorical sense. God, as totally other, is related to Logos is related to Jesus is related to the spirit that enlightens everyone. Hans Kung has discussed at length the harm done by over defining and dogmatizing.

    “…especially in light of modern findings concerning human cognitive biases and the large role of subconscious reasoning and decision making …” With some Buddhism excepted is there any religion or philosophy which does not stand in need of major correction here? There are hints of course even in St Paul, but even there they seem ascribed to something akin to animal nature, rather than inherently cognitive. Perhaps the one surviving legacy of Freud is that he persuaded most of us that the subconscious was an enormous factor to be considered.

    If the bible and theism were subjected to skepticism in the last century or two, surely in this century we are becoming profoundly more skeptical about human consciousness, rationality, and morality – indeed the very nature of what Homo sapiens itself might be. I get only more skeptical as I get older.

    A humorous aside, the god so many Americans believe in, even atheists and agnostics, is inadvertently parodied in the Christmas song, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.

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  6. Epicteuts is so fervent in his belief and praise for God that even A.A. Long who wrote a book about Epictetus was about to scrap his project altogether (because I would presume Long is an atheist). Stoicism is more of a theist belief system than an atheist belief system in my opinion and any atheist would be bothered by Stoicism’s constant insistence of a God’s presence, albeit a natural God, not the same as the Christian’s view of God. I can’t find one passage about prayer in Musonius, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, or Seneca. Their prayer is indeed the reasoning they engage in everyday life using the gift they received from God.


  7. suntzu,

    I must say that — as an atheist — even Epictetus’ frequent references to god don’t really bother me, partly because, as you say, it is a naturalized god, and partly because I think Stoicism is a powerful vehicle to find common ground among atheists, theists, pantheists, and so forth.

    (speaking of which, I wouldn’t say that the Stoic concept of god is theistic, at best pantheistic)


  8. Massimo, yes I agree the more exact degree would be pantheistic, although there have been times when Stoics spoke of God knowing and caring about your every being (especially Epictetus and Marcus) comes close to a personal God.

    Just curious, are you an atheist as in you believe there is no God or the modern meaning of atheist which to me means agnostic?


  9. I’m an atheist in the Humean sense: I try to proportion my belief to the evidence, and the evidence seems to me to point toward the non-existence of the supernatural.


  10. Massimo, I see. What do you make of evidence of a collection of atoms that can contemplate about itself? I like your brand of atheism because it is open to new evidence. Nobody can be sure one way or another. If I was a betting man, I would hang my hat on the Big Guy because the universe works on rules. Otherwise a universe without God would be total entropy, and as such, no collection of atoms acting in its own behalf, which is to say acting on the behalf of nature.


  11. suntzu,

    # What do you make of evidence of a collection of atoms that can contemplate about itself? #

    Not much. It’s just one more natural phenomenon for science to have to explain, if we are that smart. If not, okay, but it still doesn’t license any inference to the supernatural, which of course would simply be a matter of shifting the question further, not actually answering it.

    # Nobody can be sure one way or another. #

    No, but that’s raising the bar too high. I’m not absolutely positive that there is no Lock Ness monster, but I’ll be a substantial amount of money against it.

    # I would hang my hat on the Big Guy because the universe works on rules #

    Another issue for science to tackle, if possible. If not, it needs to be taken as a brute fact about the cosmos. Again, doesn’t license any further inference, in my opinion.

    # Otherwise a universe without God would be total entropy, and as such, no collection of atoms acting in its own behalf #

    I don’t see why, though of course that is a standard argument in favor of theism.


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