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.