The issue of Stoic theology comes up often in the context of reviving ancient Stoicism for modern times. Lately, there has even been talk of “officially” incorporating Stoicism as a religion so that Stoic “chaplains” can provide services to the US Military. I thought that was a mistake when secular humanists did it, and I think it would be a mistake for Stoics. The world doesn’t need another religion, and Stoicism has never been one, under any reasonable description of what a “religion” is.
(To elaborate on this point briefly: all ancient philosophies, including Epicureanism, had a “theology” of some sort, meaning that they had something to say about the existence and nature of a transcendental, supernatural world. But their own leaders and adherents never thought of those doctrines are religious, clearly treating them as philosophies. I don’t see why we should break with that approach now.)
That said, there is a genuinely interesting — philosophical — debate about the extent to which Stoic theology, and in particular the concept of Providence, is a quintessential part of Stoicism, and therefore whether one might do away with it, if one is not theistically inclined, and still honestly get to call the resulting philosophy “Stoicism.”
One obvious answer would be: who cares? Labels aren’t important, and if I want to call my personal philosophy “Stoicism” even though it bears only a weak family resemblance to the original version, so be it, what’s the big deal?
The (not really big, but significant) deal is that there is a point in being historically and philosophically accurate, in respecting the tradition that allegedly inspires us and taking it seriously. That said, however, I do think that modern Stoicism is a big enough tent to include both theists and atheists (as well as pantheists, agnostics, etc.). Indeed, that’s a major reason I’m attracted to it. Let me defend this position by way of a discussion of two recent essays on this very topic that have appeared over at Stoicism Today.
(But before we proceed, an interesting aside from a post by Erik Wiegardt in The Stoic Philosopher newsletter: according to his thoughtful analysis, the textual support is for the conclusion that the ancient Stoics were — in modern parlance — deists, not theists, and of a pantheistic strip: they believed in a god who is embedded in nature and does not answer prayers or is otherwise concerned with what happens to individual creatures in the cosmos.)
The first essay is by Christopher Fisher, who argues that one cannot do Stoicism without a concept of Providence, and hence that Stoicism has an inescapable religious component to it. His argument is that it is not difficult to find textual evidence, as well as modern scholarship, supporting the idea that the Stoics thought that the universe was embedded with a rational plan. This is most definitely the case. More controversially, though, he also argues that such a belief is crucial to the entire system of ethics that is central to Stoicism (as opposed to the ancillary role played by Stoic physics and logic).
For instance, here is Epictetus: “The philosophers say that the first thing that needs to be learned is the following, that there is a God, and a God who exercises providential care for the universe.” (Discourses II.14.11).
Or: “What are we to do, then? To make the best of what lies within our power, and deal with everything else as it comes. ‘How does it come, then?’ As God wills.” (Discourses I.1.17).
Fisher argues that these aren’t just rhetorical flourishes (he’s right) and that ignoring them puts the entire project of modern Stoicism in peril (I think he’s wrong about that): “The concept of a providential cosmos provides psychological comfort and supports the ethical framework of Stoicism. When the threads of providence are unraveled from the fabric of Stoicism, the whole tapestry begins to fall apart, and the practitioner is left without the essential therapeutic tools the Stoics thought were necessary to face the vicissitudes of life.”
Donald Robertson responds to Fisher by acknowledging the importance of Stoic theology, while at the same time pointing out that the Stoics themselves where open to revision or alternatives on this point. He mentions Panaetius, the last head of the Athenian school, who framed his discussion of the gods in a “nugatory” (i.e., of little importance to Stoic practice) framework; cites Cicero as saying that “Aristo holds that no form of God is conceivable, and denies him sensation, and is in a state of complete uncertainty as to whether he is, or is not, animate” (On the Nature of the Gods, I.14); and then mentions the famous “God or atoms” comments by Marcus Aurelius, who really does not seem to think the answer is crucial to his understanding of Stoicism:
“Alexander of Macedon and his stable-boy were brought to the same state by death; for either they were received among the same creative principle of the universe [God], or they were alike dispersed into atoms” (VI.24).
Or: “If the choice is yours, why do the thing? If another’s, where are you to lay the blame for it? On gods? On atoms? Either would be insanity. All thoughts of blame are out of place” ( VIII.17).
My conclusion after reading these two essays — as well as after reflecting on several pertinent chapters in the well researched Cambridge Companion to the Stoics — is that both Fisher and Robertson have good points. Fisher is certainly right that the concept of Providence played an important role in early Stoicism; Robertson is also correct that there was dissent among the Stoics, as well as room for maneuvering within their philosophy.
But how are these two positions to be reconciled? Am I just deluding myself, rationalizing an irreducible difference in the name of a well intentioned but ultimately incoherent ecumenism?
I don’t think so. What needs to be done is to take the Stoics themselves at their word, one or two levels up, so to speak, from the Fisher-Robertson discussion. Let me explain.
Every scholar I have read agrees that Stoicism was a system made up of three components: physics (i.e., what we today would call natural philosophy, metaphysics, and theology), logic (what we today think of as logic, epistemology, rhetoric, and psychology), and ethics (not in the modern deontological or consequentialist sense, but in the virtue ethical one).
Scholars also agreed that the Stoics considered the ethics, not the other two parts, the absolutely crucial aspect of their philosophy. Stoicism is a practical philosophy, and it was clear from the beginning that the “physics” and “logic” were seen as instrumental to the ethics, not on the same level as the latter. In the Socratic tradition, Stoics were not interested in understanding nature (physics) or reason (logic) for their own sake, but insofar as such understanding lead to a better formulation of their ethical principles, which in turn were good only because of the practice they lead to. Here is Epictetus, on merely theoretical philosophy, for instance:
“Some students [of philosophy] become captivated by all these things and don’t want to proceed further. One is captivated by diction, another by deductive or equivocal arguments, someone else by yet another ‘inn’ of this kind; and there they stay and rot as if seduced by the Sirens.” (Discourses, II.23.41)
The Stoics were also very aware that they could be wrong on specific doctrines, and they were willing to change their mind about them. This is not only clear from the continuous back and forth with the Epicureans, the Academics and the Peripatetics as understood by modern scholars, but also from direct textual evidence. Here is Seneca, for instance, in the context of Stoic knowledge of comets and other celestial bodies:
“Let us be satisfied with what we have discovered, and leave a little truth for our descendants to find out.” (Natural Questions, book VII, XXVI)
Fisher claims that the concept of Providence was basic to Stoic philosophy, and that without it there simply is no recognizable Stoicism. But the idea of a providential universe can in turn be understood as embedded in Stoic understanding of physics, of which a truly basic component was the universality of cause and effect. Everything has a cause, all things are interconnected. The idea of Providence is one reasonable interpretation of this universal web of causation. Another, of course, is the naturalistic one: the universe is what it is because that’s the way nature works. (It is relevant here to note that Boethus of Sidon, a I Century BC peripatetic philosopher, thought of the cosmos as an unconscious vegetative process, not the embodiment of a rational principle.)
So one can consider the idea of a Logos in the more neutral sense — the fact that the universe is understandable by rational means — to be more fundamental than either the providential interpretation (which was, to be sure, by far the most common in antiquity) or the naturalistic one (which has gained more traction nowadays because of the discoveries of modern science).
If this doesn’t convince you, at an even more abstract level one could simply think of as truly fundamental to Stoicism the idea that our best understanding of the way the world is ought to inform the way we behave in it. In this sense, Stoicism is a thorough naturalistic philosophy, with a spelled out connection between “is” (matters of fact) and “ought” (values).
(Another parenthetical aside: it is often said that David Hume argued that one cannot in principle bridge the is/ought gap in a famous quote in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739). But what Hume actually did was to very reasonably ask for an account of how such bridging is done, if it is to be attempted.)
Look, the Stoics were, after all, wrong on a number of pretty serious tenets of their physics: the world is definitely not made of four elements, there is no pneuma (the breadth of life) permeating the universe, and current cosmological theories do not accord with the Stoic idea of a recurring series of identical cycles of booms and busts of the universe (the universe may indeed cycle between a Big Bang and a Big Crunch, though even that’s open to debate, but it is more likely that each cycle isn’t exactly the same as the preceding one, as the Stoics maintained).
And yet it is far more credible that had Stoicism continued to be practiced in the way, say, Buddhism has been, Stoic philosophers would have acknowledged the discoveries of science and incorporated them into their system, or — when necessary — that they would have altered some components of their system accordingly. Even the Dalai Lama recently said that if Buddhism contradicts science, so much the worse for Buddhism, it will have to adapt:
“If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” (Dalai Lama XIV, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality)
I really don’t think the Stoics would have been any less wise than this.