Spinoza’s Stoicism

SpinozaThis is my last essay in a long series (examples here, here, here, and here, among others) based on chapters from the excellent Cambridge Companion to the Stoics. This last chapter, by Anthony Long (the author of the best modern commentary on Epictetus, about which I will write at some point) is about Stoicism in the post-Roman philosophical tradition. It deals with Justus Lipsius, Joseph Butler, and Benedict de Spinoza. My commentary here refers only to the latter.

Interestingly, Long begins his section on Spinoza reminding us that he — and Descartes — were accused by Leibniz of being leaders of “the sect of the new Stoics”!

Regardless, the first substantive observation is that the Stoics and Spinoza had much in common concerning their concepts of God / Nature, its causal powers and their relation to necessity, as well as the interdependence of everything on God / Nature, which permeates all of reality.

For Spinoza, Long asserts, the world simply is God or Nature. But the Stoics had a notoriously dualistic view: their physics recognized two organizing principles of the cosmos, an active one (which they identified with God or the Logos) and a passive one (identified with inert matter). Terminologically, the Stoics reserved the word “substance” for matter and “cause” for the organizing principle.

This would seem to sharply separate the Stoic conception of the cosmos from Spinoza’s, but Long adds: “the Stoic principles, notwithstanding their duality, are completely inseparable and correlative; hence, the world that they constitute is unitary rather than dualistic.” Think two principles bundled into one, not two separate principles.

Another thing that the Stoics and Spinoza clearly had in common is the idea that everything that exists emanates from God / Nature. As Long puts it: “The Stoics called these ideas spermatikoi logoi, ‘seminal formulae,’ and because God is the spermatikos logos of the world, he is the causal principle of everything.”

That said, a significant metaphysical difference is that for Spinoza God has infinite extension and infinite attributes, while for the Stoics everything, including God / Nature, is finite (though eternally recurrent).

Long again: “the upshot of both systems is a broadly similar conception of reality – monistic in its treatment of God as the ultimate cause of everything, dualistic in its two aspects of thought and extension, hierarchical in the different levels or modes of God’s attributes in particular beings, strictly determinist and physically active through and through.”

More interestingly, Spinoza’s ethics is very similar (“profoundly” so, says Long) to the Stoics’. He accepts the Stoic idea that the negative passions are faulty value judgments, that happiness and freedom depend entirely on accommodating our will to the necessary causal structure of the universe, and that virtue consists in living according to (one’s) nature while following the dictates of right reason.

Spinoza, again like the Stoics, rejects the value of pity, humility, hope and repentance. They also concur that, because we are inherently social animals, our personal good coincides with the good of society at large. And of course both Spinoza and the Stoics deny (contra-causal) free will.

Long, however, also highlights some major differences between the two systems: for the Stoics, God is identical with causality, fate and providence. Spinoza, by contrast, thinks it is a mistake to regard God as directing things toward an end. Here is how Spinoza himself puts it: “Nature has no aim set before it  … This doctrine takes away God’s perfection. For if God acts for the sake of an end, he necessarily wants something which he lacks.”

Another major difference is that Spinoza thinks that God’s intellect is qualitatively different from ours, as we are only “finite modes” of His infinitude. The Stoics would have none of it. For them God is not anthropomorphic, as in the Abrahamic tradition, but nonetheless human and divine faculties are the same.

I find it interesting, especially in the context of my project of updating Stoicism (see here and here), that Long writes: “If the Stoics had taken Spinoza’s route of denying divine providence, they would have avoided a battery of objections brought against them from antiquity onward. As it is, they were faced with having to account for the apparent imperfections of a world whose author was a perfect being in ways we are supposedly equipped to understand and find rationally acceptable.”

Of course, Long is aware that the Stoics did develop a number of responses to this challenge. But it nonetheless remains an aspect of Stoic philosophy that modern Stoics need to tackle, especially if they, like me, reject a teleological view of the universe.


Categories: Modern Stoicism

3 replies

  1. Do you reject a teleological view of the universe including man? I thought you said man evolved into teleology as a planning creature? Not very monistic but….


  2. One question for me would be: are we saying that Spinoza WAS a stoic or only that there are similarities? And, if the latter, given that Spinoza got rid of the teleology, why are we all stoics instead of Spinozists?


  3. jbonnicerenoreg,

    “Do you reject a teleological view of the universe including man? I thought you said man evolved into teleology as a planning creature? Not very monistic”

    Good question. No, I definitely think there is teleology in the universe, brought to it courtesy of conscious, self-reflecting beings like us (and potentially others, on other planets). And there is teleonomy, through the biological world, brought about by natural selection.

    But I don’t see any of this as not monistic (well, depending on what one means by that term, exactly). Both biological teleonomy and human teleology are the result of naturalistic, physical processes, the way I see it, so they don’t imply a special substance or principle at work.


    “are we saying that Spinoza WAS a stoic or only that there are similarities? And, if the latter, given that Spinoza got rid of the teleology, why are we all stoics instead of Spinozists?”

    I definitely think the second option, which is what Long also is suggesting. We are Stoics and not Sinozists because we (well, I, at the least) don’t buy into other aspects of Spinoza’s philosophy, while I do buy most of what the Stoics were saying.

    It is, of course, an open question whether a teleological take is unavoidable or optional for a modern Stoic. I have argued that it is optional: https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2016/01/04/the-essence-of-stoicism/ and https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2015/08/07/atoms-vs-providence-both-really/


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