Is (or was) Stoicism a religion? I would say no, because there are substantive differences (though there is also overlap) between religions and philosophies, and Stoicism was (and is) primarily a philosophy. It is certainly the case that Stoics can be religious or not — this sort of ecumenicism is one of the main reasons I like Stoicism. It is also true that most if not all the ancient Stoics believed in a god, though they embraced a materialist, pantheistic conception of the divinity, something that moderns can somewhat easily accommodate in the guise of Spinoza’s (sometimes referred to also as Einstein’s) God.
But it wasn’t sophisticated philosophical arguments that recently reinforced in my mind the distinction between religion and philosophy. It was, rather, the simple art of traveling and paying attention to what you see around you.
I have spent four months during the Spring in Rome, writing my forthcoming book, not at all by chance entitled “How to Be a Stoic” (out for Basic Books in April of ’17 or thereabouts). I also then took a side trip to Turkey, part work, part vacation, and ended up in the middle of a coup d’etat. Two episodes during this period are germane to this discussion: seeing the (alleged) chains that bound Saint Peter in Jerusalem and Rome, and admiring a tooth and hairs from the beard of the Profet Muhammad in Instanbul.
Let’s begin with Rome, where my apartment was near the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, but also not far from an unassuming church that contains two major historical and artistic pieces worth seeing. First, San Pietro in Vincoli (literally Saint Peter in Chains) houses a reliquary with the famous chains:
Nobody knows whether the chains are really that old, and much less so if they actually held Peter at any time. I’m pretty sure that the miraculous story of how the chains fused together is not true. According to legend, the empress Elia Eudocia (V Century CE) received one set of chains from the patriarch of Jerusalem. She sent them to her daughter, who in turn gave them to Pope Leone Magno. The Pope already had the similar chains that had allegedly held the Saint when in captivity in Rome. When the two sets were brought near each other, they suddenly and miraculously merged into the single chain we see today.
Ever since, pious Christians come to San Pietro in Vincoli to see the chains, which to them certify a supernatural occurrence that reinforces their faith.
Compare this to the very different second reason to visit the church: the Moses sculpted by Michelangelo in 1513-15, part of the sepulcher of another Pope, Julius II:
People (including, during my stay in Rome, yours truly, several times) go to see the statue not because of its religious meaning (Julius was an interesting Pope, but certainly not worthy of eternal worship — he was justly called the “fearsome” and the “warrior” Pope), but in admiration of the immortal art of Michelangelo.
(Did you notice the two “horns” on Mose’s head? They are apparently the result of a translation error: Exodus tells the story of Moses returning from Mount Sinai with the Commandments for the second time. The phrase “his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord” was translated in Latin by using the word for actual horns, rather than the original Hebrew term “karan,” which means something like shining, or emitting rays, but is similar to “karen,” which actually does mean horns. Talk about being lost in translation!)
So here I was, a non religious person more or less regularly coming to visit the church, not for the reliquary (which I saw once), but for the art.
What does that have to do with philosophy, and Stoicism in particular? Well, that brings me to the second story: my visit to Topkapi Palace. Inside the palace one finds the Chamber of the Sacred Relics. If you visit it, you will see the cloak of the prophet Muhammad, his sword, one tooth, a hair of his beard, his battle sabres, an autographed letter and other relics that are known as the Sacred Trusts.
Quite obviously, lots of people visit the chamber in Topkapi as tourists, like I did, but a good number go there as worshippers of the faith began by Muhammad.
Again, compare this to a very different sort of pilgrimage, which I had just done a few days earlier, to modern day Pamukkale, in Turkey. That’s the site of ancient Heirapolis, where Epictetus was born. I walked through the gate of the city (the standing wall is Byzantine, though, not Roman), and visited the splendid theater where Epictetus probably never set foot, since he was a young slave there, before being bought by a better master and moved to Nero’s court in Rome.
I did not go to Hierapolis because I worship Epictetus, or because I have developed a religious feeling for Stoicism. I went there out of curiosity for Greco-Roman history, as well as out of reverence for an intellectual giant that has influenced me personally. And that, it struck me, is the most important difference between a religion and a philosophy.
Religions, of course, incorporate their own philosophies, meaning that Christianity, or Islam, do present their practitioners with philosophical precepts, both in terms of metaphysics and, of course, in terms of ethics. But the worship of a transcendental entity of some sort is a crucial component, without which we wouldn’t recognize them as religions (which is why, for instance, some versions of Buddhism cannot be labeled as such).
When I visited Hierapolis I was in awe of the ancient site, being mindful that Epictetus walked along those streets when he was young. And I did meditate on several passages of the Discourses during my trip. But I don’t think of Epictetus as anything more than a really interesting man. As much as he was famously proud of his philosopher’s beard (Dis courses I.2), I would think it very odd if someone set up a museum featuring some remaining hairs from that beard.
More importantly, I am ready to argue with Epictetus, and Zeno, Chrysippus, Posidonius, Seneca, Marcus, and all the others, because I think they were wrong on this or that. Epictetus leaned too far toward the Cynic spectrum of things, for example, and Seneca’s sexism is downright insufferable, even though it wasn’t at all uncommon at the time. I can do that in good conscience because I am a human being capable of reasoning for myself — and because I don’t think of them as gods to be worshiped.