It 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)