Gods or atoms? Marcus Aurelius says it doesn’t matter. I agree

gods or atomsIt seems clear that Marcus Aurelius believed in god(s). It is possible to rationalize some of his generic references to them as not necessarily reflecting faith, but rather a generic piety. This one, for instance: “To the gods I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good.” (I.17).

But in other places he is pretty explicit, here for instance: “Since it is possible that you might depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly. But to go away from among men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve you in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, why would I wish to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence? But in truth they do exist, and they do care for human things, and they have put all the means in man’s power to enable him not to fall into real evils.” (II.11)

So, especially considering that he was writing to himself, not in order to please others, it is hard to contest his profession of faith, such as it is. Whether Marcus actually believed in the Olympian gods, or in the pantheistic god=nature=reason “god” of the Stoics is an interesting question for historians, and I am guessing one that is going to be difficult to settle.

(That said, this bit seems to make it clear that he didn’t: “For there is one universe made up of all things, and one God who pervades all things, and one substance, and one law, one common reason in all intelligent animals, and one truth.” VII.9. This really is Stoicism 101.)

All of the above notwithstanding, as a non-theist modern Stoic, I am interested in the surprisingly high number of times in the Meditations where Marcus very clearly says that it doesn’t matter whether the universe is governed by a providential divinity (in whatever form) or by random chaos (as the Epicureans thought). One still has to practice the virtues and do his job as a rational member of the human polis.

This seems to decouple, at the least to some extent, Stoic “physics” (i.e., their natural science and metaphysics) from their ethics, contra what the Stoics themselves professed. Chrysippus, for one, was adamant that the Stoic system is to be taken as one whole, not to as a menu to pick and choose from a la carte.

But I don’t think that i) Marcus’ statements imply a rejection of the idea of deep connections between physics (and logic) and ethics, and I do think that ii) Chrysippus was a bit too rigid for his own (and Stoicism’s) good.

To the first point, as Becker as argued in A New Stoicism, what is even more fundamental than teleology in the Stoic system are the twin ideas of universal cause and effect and of materialism. Let us not forget that even though the Stoics did talk of god and souls they were adamant that both were finite and made of stuff. As Becker again puts it, the famous Stoic motto, “follow nature” can be interpreted in modern terms as “follow the facts,” meaning the facts about the nature of the universe and that of humanity, which science helps us uncover.

Indeed, and this speaks to the second point, there is plenty of evidence that the Stoics themselves disagreed on various aspects of their philosophy, and changed their mind over time. For instance, initially Chrysippus believed that the seat of human reason was the heart, based on his interpretation of then current anatomical work. But later Stoics, following Galen’s criticism, updated their belief, correctly identifying the brain as the organ where the “ruling faculty” resides.

After all Stoicism (like Epicureanism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Cynicism, and so forth) was a philosophy, not a religion. Even religions do constantly change the interpretation of their sacred texts, updating them (usually with a bit of a lag!) as human knowledge and understanding improve. But philosophies don’t have sacred anythings, they are general frameworks meant to provide helpful accounts of how the world works, and more importantly — especially in the case of Stoicism — of our place and role in it.

Therefore, the collection of passages below is not meant to argue that Marcus Aurelius was an agnostic, let alone an atheist. He certainly wasn’t. But the fact that so many times he reminded himself that ultimate metaphysical commitments are irrelevant to one’s daily conduct toward other human beings is one of the most compelling aspects of Stoicism, and what has made it a far gentler and more welcoming place for me than, say the New Atheism, or my original religion of Catholicism. Enjoy.

You have embarked, made the voyage, and come to shore; get out. If indeed to another life, there is no want of gods, not even there. But if to a state without sensation, you will cease to be held by pains and pleasures. (III.3)

Recall the alternative; either there is providence or a fortuitous concurrence of atoms. (IV.3)

Either it is a well-arranged universe or a chaos huddled together, but still a universe. (IV.27)

The universe is either a confusion, a mutual involution of things and a dispersion; or it is unity and order and providence. If then it is the former, why do I desire to tarry in a fortuitous combination of things and such a disorder? And why do I care about anything else than how I shall at last become earth? And why am I disturbed, for the dispersion of my elements will happen whatever I do. But if the other supposition is true, I venerate, and I am firm, and I trust in him who governs. (VI.10)

About death: Whether it is a dispersion, or a resolution into atoms, or annihilation, it is either extinction or change. (VII.32)

If a thing is in your own power, why do you do it? But if it is in the power of another, whom do you blame? The atoms (chance) or the gods? Both are foolish. You must blame nobody. (VIII.17)

In a word, if there is a god, all is well; and if chance rules, do not also be governed by it. (IX.28)

Either all things proceed from one intelligent source and come together as in one body, and the part ought not to find fault with what is done for the benefit of the whole; or there are only atoms, and nothing else than mixture and dispersion. Why, then, are you disturbed? (IX.39)

Whether the universe is a concourse of atoms, or nature is a system, let this first be established: that I am a part of the whole that is governed by nature; next, that I stand in some intimate connection with other kindred parts. (X.6)

Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind Providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director. If then there is an invincible necessity, why do you resist? But if there is a Providence that allows itself to be propitiated, make yourself worthy of the help of the divinity. But if there is a confusion without a governor, be content that in such a tempest you have yourself a certain ruling intelligence. (XII.14)

With respect to what may happen to you from without, consider that it happens either by chance or according to Providence, and you must neither blame chance nor accuse Providence. (XII.24)

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Categories: Marcus, Metaphysics, Religion

7 replies

  1. “As Becker again puts it, the famous Stoic motto, “follow nature” can be interpreted in modern terms as “follow the facts,” meaning the facts about the nature of the universe and that of humanity, which science helps us uncover.”

    If evolution as uncovered by science is real, then following nature means that anything goes, and what survives survives. This seems to fly in the face of a stoic commitment to human civilization. The stoicism that Aurelius describes seems more to say, ignore nature, for we cannot truly master its ultimate mysteries. Value instead that which we awake to around us each day whose context tells us to take care of each other or be annihilated.

    I would add that the seat of reason, if medical science is to be believed, is not yet correctly identified as the brain, because the brain is governed by substances produced by the heart, the gut, and the 100 trillion microbes that outnumber our own cellular makeup by a factor of ten. Additionally, can there be reason in only one brain? It seems to me that it takes at least two brains to create what we recognize as reason.

    The brain may be the structure that integrates all the inputs and outflows of energy in individual humans, but the seat of reason is not a seat at all, it is a web of interactions among countless organisms and entities, big and small, and likely even more than we have yet uncovered (dark matter and dark energy loom large).

    I do agree that stoicism is a gentle and welcoming home for us humans, but there is more in nature than is dreamt of in its philosophies, Massimo.

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  2. It seems clear that Roman Stoics, including Cicero, were trying to be eclectic in harmony with Roman pragmatic ethics and universalism. I think it is logically possible to be a soft determinist or compatibilist as the Stoics are usually described, but indeterminism has to explain how our mind or reason is exempt from this chaos, which it usually does by saying it is an illusion or a byproduct of brain activity which is not Stoic and probably illogical. So Marcus in his philosophical diary approaches it in a number of ways but I don’t think logically the two can be separated although for practical purposes one can focus on ethics.

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  3. My reading of Marcus is that he states in various ways and places that stoic virtue is consistent with atheism (so even if a god doesn’t exist, we could form the same ideas and perform the same actions), but I don’t see how the passage in II.11 can be read as anything other than that it remains necessary to derive purpose from faith in divinity.

    There, he says (via rhetorical questioning) that he would not wish to live in a universe without gods or Providence but, luckily enough, the gods do exist, so he’s OK. Perhaps there isn’t enough to say exactly why he takes this stance, but the subtext I presume is that he feels godlessness entails some kind of nihilism or amoralism. I think this is corroborated by other passages where he talks of social responsibility in terms of man’s intrinsic nature; i.e. we have been made by an intelligence to work together like teeth and limbs, so beware the implications of not having been made after all.

    Clearly, we (as atheists) disagree that gods are necessary for meaning and we can separately justify civic virtue, but I think it’s only half-right to say that Marcus was equivocal on the relationship between metaphysics and ethics.

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  4. Theism versus atheism seems to me to be a false dichotomy. The alternative simply asserts that we live in a universe in which we must find values. Aurelius speaks to this, as do existentialists. And there are ancient traditions and followers of all religious systems who are believers but not necessarily capital T theists.

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  5. ajc,

    “If evolution as uncovered by science is real, then following nature means that anything goes, and what survives survives”

    That is not what the Stoics meant by “following nature.” As I tried to explain, they meant use your rational faculty to improve social living.

    “I would add that the seat of reason, if medical science is to be believed, is not yet correctly identified as the brain, because the brain is governed by substances produced by the heart, the gut, and the 100 trillion microbes that outnumber our own cellular makeup by a factor of ten”

    “The seat of reason” is a metaphoric phrase, not to be taken literally. The Stoics themselves emphasized a universal web of causality, so they would agree with your observation. Still, there is no doubt that human higher cognitive functions are anatomically located in the forebrain, not in the heart or anywhere else. Cut those off, no more thinking. Take away parts of your stomach and you can still think very clearly (though your digestion might be hampered).

    Callum,

    “My reading of Marcus is that he states in various ways and places that stoic virtue is consistent with atheism”

    Yes, that’s my reading too.

    “but I don’t see how the passage in II.11 can be read as anything other than that it remains necessary to derive purpose from faith in divinity”

    I think that can be read has Marcus’ own preference / view.

    “I think it’s only half-right to say that Marcus was equivocal on the relationship between metaphysics and ethics”

    Well, I think the contrast between II.11 and the other quotes makes it clear in what sense I say he was equivocal: he clearly preferred a universe with Providence, and believed he lived in one. But at a rational level he also (repeatedly) admitted that either way one still has to figure out how to behave ethically, independently of one’s metaphysical leanings.

    Robin,

    “Theism versus atheism seems to me to be a false dichotomy”

    Not sure that’s correct. From an ontological perspective, either there is a god or there isn’t. I don’t see any half-ways. But if you meant that one can be ethical regardless of one’s metaphysical commitments, yes, I completely agree, and as I said, I think this is one of the best features of modern Stoicism.

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  6. MP

    “The seat of reason” is a metaphoric phrase, not to be taken literally. The Stoics themselves emphasized a universal web of causality, so they would agree with your observation. Still, there is no doubt that human higher cognitive functions are anatomically located in the forebrain, not in the heart or anywhere else. Cut those off, no more thinking. Take away parts of your stomach and you can still think very clearly (though your digestion might be hampered).”

    Either the seat is a metaphor, or it’s not. The forebrain is necessary for reason, no doubt, but absent the forebrain’s interactions with the many substances that course through the body from conception, and the social interactions that begin at birth, and one will not become a reasoning human. Once a human fully develops, reasoning may continue despite changes in bodily structure and function (including the microbiome), but that only proves that the human organism is a chaotic attractor.

    I also cannot see how a web of causality is consistent with a “seat” of any kind, literal or metaphoric. We might be seen as “nodes” in a web, but that is not the same thing. This is not a small difference. It moves the concepts of identity and free will to a different level of function, depending on if we are a seat, or a node.

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  7. Much of Aurelius’ arguments on this amount to the ancient version of the argument from design to favor the existence of God. He says that there is evidence of design in nature, which could only happen if there was an intelligence involved in making it so. All other possibilities for order he discounts as atoms crashing into each other, formless and inconsequential. As an ancient, he can be forgiven for having little knowledge of science. Today we know that physical laws and properties can produce order without an intelligence, but this was not fully realized in the second century AD. Nevertheless, Aurelius seems to realize that it doesn’t matter what forces govern the universe because reason and order should be preeminent and triumph over disorder.

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