I’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.