Stoic theology: pantheistic or panentheistic?

Where the ancient Stoics pantheists or panentheists? Is it possible that they were anything else, theologically speaking, maybe monotheists, deists, agnostics, or even atheists? I think a fair reading of the ancient literature clearly excludes the second group of possibilities. Despite Epictetus’ (and even Seneca’s) recurrent talk of “God” or “Zeus,” there is no reason to think that they departed in any major fashion from the standard Stoic position that those terms are to be used as synonyms with Nature herself, and more specifically with Her active principle of reason, the Logos. Also, notwithstanding Marcus’ well known and clearly ecumenical pronouncements on “gods or atoms,” it is equally clear from both the Meditations and his biography that he was a religious person. So that leaves the pantheism vs panentheism dichotomy, and this is what I want to explore in this post.

Let’s start with the basic definitions. Pantheism (“everything divine” in Greek) is the belief that all of reality is identical with the divinity, or that the cosmos is made of an all-encompassing god. In Western philosophy, pantheism is most closely associated with Baruch Spinoza, who in turn was the modern philosopher whose thought was more clearly akin to the Stoics. Panentheism (“all-in-God” in Greek), by contrast, is the idea that the divine interpenetrates all of the cosmos, but also stands somehow outside of it, beyond time and space, so to speak. So the main difference between the two is that pantheism confines god, in a sense, to be identical to and embedded within the universe, while panentheism accepts that notion, but adds an extra component to or role for the divine.

Interestingly, a number of early Christians were pantheists, for instance some of the Gnostics, and pantheistic thought appears in several medieval thinkers. Giordano Bruno famously was a pantheist, one of the reasons he was burnt at the stakes as a heretic by the Catholic Church. Outside the West, early Hinduism had elements of pantheism, and so did ancient Egyptian philosophy, which was probably the source for early Greek pantheism, influencing the pre-Socratics Anaximander and Heraclitus.

Panentheism also has a complex cultural history, being found again in Hindu thought, as well as in Hasidic Judaism (Kabbalah) and in Sufi Islam. The Native American concept of the Great Spirit is more panentheistic than pantheistic, and while lower class Aztecs were polytheistic, the metaphysics accepted by the aristocracy was panentheistic. Again, there are panentheistic tendencies within Christianity too, for instance within Gnosticism as well as Eastern Orthodoxy, and more recently in Process Theology. The Reverend Zen Master Soyen Shaku, who introduced Buddhism to the West at the beginning of the 20th century, wrote that “To define more exactly the Buddhist notion of the highest being, it may be convenient to borrow the term very happily coined by a modern German scholar, ‘panentheism,’ according to which God is πᾶν καὶ ἕν (all and one) and more than the totality of existence” (see here).

The sticking point, however, is Spinoza, whose philosophy is considered pantheistic by some scholars and panentheistic by others. As I mentioned above, he is generally thought of as a pantheist, but in a letter to Henry Oldenburg he wrote: “As to the view of certain people that I identify god with nature (taken as a kind of mass or corporeal matter), they are quite mistaken.” The German philosopher Karl Jaspers commented that when Spinoza wrote “God or nature” he did not intend those terms to be interchangeable, because for Spinoza God has infinitely many attributes, only two of which, thought and extension, manifest themselves in the cosmos. (Thought and extension in Spinoza play a similar role to the Stoic active and passive principles permeating the cosmos and distinguishing living from inert matter. The Stoics, however, did not recognize any other modalities, nor did they accept any extension of god/nature outside the cosmos.)

While it is not clear, then, whether Spinoza was a pantheist or a panentheist, it seems to me obvious that the Stoics belong to the former, rather than the latter, category: for them, god is entirely immanent in nature, it is made of the same dual-principle type of matter that all living organisms are made of, and indeed we are in a literal sense a part of god. Moreover, this god/nature does not exist outside of the cosmos, as nothing exists that transcends space and time, or that is not made of matter.

If that was the Stoic position, then one can see why nowadays they would be considered very close to being panpsychists, a position that sees consciousness (the Stoic would say the Logos) as present throughout the universe, with human beings differing in degree, but not kind, from the rest of matter. (There is a tension here between the Stoic distinction of an active and a passive principle and the idea that the cosmos is made of the same stuff, but Anthony Long — in comparing the Stoics to Spinoza — made the point that the two principles are completely intertwined for the Stoics, essentially yielding a monistic view of reality.)

As a modern scientist and philosopher, I reject both pantheism and panpsychism, on the simple ground that I see no positive reason to believe in either notion (they cannot be disproven, of course, but that goes also for a lot of other stuff that is not generally accepted). As David Hume put it, a reasonable man proportions his beliefs to the evidence, and there is no evidence for pantheism or panpsychism. Moreover, they violate Occam’s razor, the philosophical heuristic that we should postulate the smallest number of theoretical or metaphysical entities that are necessary to account for how the world works.

This, however, leads to a natural question: since the Stoics insisted that the study of ethics, i.e., of how to best live one’s life, had to be informed by an understanding of physics (which for them included metaphysics and theology), am I not radically diverging from the ancient Stoics? If so, why do I call myself a Stoic? The answer is that while there is indeed a connection between metaphysics and ethics, that connection is not quite as tight as the ancient Stoics might have thought, so that a modern Stoic can retain the ancient approach to ethics while rejecting some (but not all!) of the physics. I will explain how this works in my next post, stay tuned.


15 thoughts on “Stoic theology: pantheistic or panentheistic?

  1. jbonnicerenoreg

    Since materialism is the view that only matter exists, why do many insist that Stoicism, which says there are two principles of reality–matter and form– is a species of materialism?


  2. John Sprackland (@johnsprackland)

    “As a modern scientist and philosopher, I reject both pantheism and panpsychism, on the simple ground that I see no positive reason to believe in either notion (they cannot be disproven, of course, but that goes also for a lot of other stuff that is not generally accepted).”

    … As a modern scientist and philosopher, in the absence of evidence to prove or disprove, should you not suspend judgement rather than reject a hypothesis?


  3. Massimo Post author


    There is, as far as I can tell, complete agreement among scholars that the Stoics were materialists. They clearly stated that the soul and god are made of the same stuff as everything else in the universe, and they subscribed to the materialist principle of universal cause and effect.

    As explained in the Long essay on which I’ve commented before (the one about Spinoza and Stoicism, see link in the OP), the apparent dualism of the Stoics is really a strange kind of monism, since the two principles are completely intertwined. Moreover, some kinds of dualism are not incompatible with materialism, philosophically speaking.


    As a modern scientist and philosopher I reject unicorns and Bigfoot, not because anyone has disproved the notion, but because there is no evidence at all for their existence. Moreover, in the case of pantheism and panpsychism, they conflict with the currently accepted scientific view of the world, which is very well established on empirical grounds. So I think the reasonable thing to do is toe (provisionally, as usual) reject the notions of pantheism and panpsychism. If you are interested, I explain my reasons to reject the latter in an essay linked to in the OP.

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  4. Daniel Cirignani

    It seems to me that there tends to be a difference in emphasis between earlier Greek Stoics and later Latin ones – Epictetus being a bit of an exception where his “God talk” is pointed in a way we don’t see with Seneca or Aurelius.
    But – when I read them I have in mind eras and locations. Greece in the 4th century BCE was still a place of warring city-states with highly divergent levels of academic sophistication, in a Mediterranean world that was coming into the end of a heavily decohesive Axial Age, and the “Schools of Athens” can still be seen as prototypes of themselves, gestating.
    I tend to think that’s the error a lot of students make is to think that the Schools came fully formed at the end of the 4th century BCE and then froze into place.
    But they didn’t freeze. The Greco-Roman world matured and cohered as it came into the Roman era so later Latin Stoics don’t surprise me when they give every indication of a different manner of thought than their forebearers.
    In the Roman world Plato wasn’t just a “School of Athens” – Plato was physics and to be educated was to be Platonic. The way we see Seneca, Cicero, Aurelius writing – it is as though they perceive no contradiction at all between Platonic assumptions about how the world works, and Stoic ideas about how we are to make sense of our place in the world.
    Pre-Christian Platonism tended to be panentheistic – and that’s even if we Christianize “the one” which is at least questionable. But in any case: an unknownable one was understood to “emanate” energies which took form through the Logos to give shape to the material world. Latin Stoic write in a way that seems to take this cosmology for granted and to the degree that they do, on one hand: that makes them seem panentheistic, but on the other: the more panentheistic they are, the less need they have to speak of God or a personal deity, … they can – the metaphors still work – but philosophically they just don’t need to.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Robin Luethe

    Teilhard de Chardin could be said to support a sort of panentheism/panpsychism. What impressed me when I read him in the early 60s was his assertion that it all had to be evolution, up to and including whatever we call ‘soul’. A second assertion I still concur, is that consciousness, personhood, free will, justice, beauty coming from the material of which we are made must in some sense be inherent to that material. Modern militant atheists disagree by denying soul/consciousness etc.

    He writes as a Catholic, but it does not take much imagination for those of any persuasion to write their own metaphysics and ethics into what he writes. I generally suggest if someone read him, they consider it as one of the great books in the set of literature called science fiction. And for Christians and Jews a rewriting of Genesis and the Gospels. Orwell’s Animal Farm looked at the cosmos with a dystopian view, and also part of the set of great science fiction.

    And a short iteration:
    It all has to be evolution, and emergent human ‘higher’ human qualities are inherent to the material and its evolution or process (form!).


  6. davidthurman

    The fallacy of the article is rooted in the words “they believed”. It pure unadulterated nicene creed cranium centered linguistic clap trap dressed in secular clothing. There is this cult that believes that believe is central to every thing. This cult is highly clever not very bright. They imagine that their brains determine the reality around them. They “believe” that believe is guided by empiricism. They believe that the narratives that they create is the reality they see they call themselves scientists when they do this to nature, they call themselves theologians when they do this to their magic book called the bible. Nonsensically group usually wel suited for scholarship and phds and really just sheep and consumers at the end of the day because they believe.


  7. Daniel Cirignani

    “…they [panentheism and pantheism] violate Occam’s razor, the philosophical heuristic that we should postulate the smallest number of theoretical or metaphysical entities that are necessary to account for how the world works”

    I have always disagreed with this.
    Both panentheism and pantheism are expressible (and are most often expressed) as forms of monistic idealism – one in a camp with Plato, our Stoics, Hindus, Buddhists and quite a few more.

    Monistic idealism is arguably the most basic ontological system:

    The one, and only, thing, we have direct evidence of, is: our thoughts; or our ideas.
    One must conjecture from the materiality of some thoughts that this other stuff, material, exists, and it’s quite a few more steps to reason that it exists independent and apart from our thoughts, and quite a few more to turn reason on its head and compose that from this alien matter, thoughts arise!

    But that’s the alchemy of the modern mind – and monistic materialism makes sense, militant sense it seems, to millions.


  8. Massimo Post author


    I agree, if considered on their own, pantheism and panentheism are ontologically simple. But once we bring in all the knowledge about the universe that comes from modern science I think those positions become harder to defend, and they add to the complexity. For one thing because they imply that biology and/or physics got something extremely wrong about the cosmos.


  9. Daniel Cirignani

    “…biology and/or physics got something extremely wrong about the cosmos”.
    Not at all Massimo – they simply follow the forms of the Logos, which we get to learn better by studying them.
    But fair enough, we can agree to disagree.


  10. Marco Barbieri

    This is very interesting. One question, doesn’t a pantheistic view risk ending up – potentially – into atheism? I mean, I see it as a form of “reduction” of the divine, privated of his particular quality of being something more than the whole amount of reality.
    Although maybe to a Stoic that would seem perfectly acceptable…


  11. Massimo Post author


    Well, pantheism is certainly metaphysically closer to atheism (or at the least deism) than any form of monotheism. That’s why Spinoza was accused of atheism after all.

    But, as I will argue in the next post, I think that there are several metaphysical views (though not all) that are compatible with Stoic ethics, which is what really matters.


  12. Michael Mckenna-Mattiaccio

    Were* the ancient Stoics pantheists or panentheists?

    When I saw this in my feed reader I thought how could a typo slip into the SEP?! And then I realized I was actually looking at your feed and was equally surprised, but thought you might be flattered that I mistook you for the SEP :-p

    Liked by 1 person

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