Recently I’ve been asked to write a review of a fascinating book by Peter T. Struck: Divination and Human Nature, A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity. While the full book is worth reading for anyone interested in ancient Greco-Roman culture, as well as in the early development of science, there is a whole chapter on Posidonius, one of the major figures of the so-called Middle Stoa, the period during which Stoicism transitioned from its original home in Athens to Rome. Posidonius is a fascinating figure in his own right, and he is often not written about because all we have by him are fragments and indirect sources (as opposed to, say the wealth of stuff by Seneca). Divination is also rarely commented on in Stoic circles, because it is automatically relegated to the category of superstition, something the Stoics were wrong about and that we just don’t need to be concerned with nowadays. But the story is not that simple.
The ancient Stoics were determinists, believing in universal cause and effect. Indeed, Chrysippus — we are told by Diogenes Laertius — wrote extensively about the concept of causality. In a sense, then, they also believed in “fate,” and in fact modern Stoics formulate the so-called reserve clause that accompanies any of their plans for the future with “fate permitting.” Some of their critics came out with something called “the lazy argument” to show that if things are fated then one doesn’t actually need to do anything other than sit around and wait for things to happen. The reason this is relevant to modern Stoicism is that, as we have seen even recently, part of the harsh criticism our philosophy is getting these days is based on the (fallacious) assumption that it leads one to disengage from social and political life. So, let’s see what exactly the lazy argument consists of, and how Chrysippus himself responded to it. I will then distinguish two senses of the word “fate,” only one of which would be recognized by the Stoics.
The point of Stoic philosophy is to help us live a worthwhile life. That task fell to one of the three Stoic topoi, i.e., areas of study, known as the ethics. But the Stoics insisted that in order to improve our understanding of ethics we also need to learn about the other two topoi, “physics” and “logic.” Physics actually encompassed what we today would call the natural sciences (including physics in the modern, narrow sense, of the term), metaphysics, and theology. Does that mean, then, that Stoic ethics is compatible only with a particular type of metaphysics or theology? I have argued in the past that this is not the case, and have reiterated the notion more recently, when discussing the difference between pantheism and panentheism. But if so, doesn’t that mean that the ancient Stoics were mistaken in linking their physics to ethics? And wouldn’t that, in turn, make their ethics far less naturalistic than it seems to be? I’m going to explain in this post why that is not the case either: Stoic ethics is compatible with some, but not all, possible metaphysics, thus confirming the ancient intuition that we ought to know something about how the world works in order to live the best life possible, and also that modern Stoicism is an ecumenical philosophy, within certain limits.
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.
As a Stoic, am I committed to some kind of fundamental mind-body dualism? And if so, how on earth can I reconcile that with my understanding, as a scientist, that dualism has become untenable at the least since the second part of the early 20th century, particularly with the publication of Jacques Loeb “The Mechanistic Conception of Life”? (Not to mention earlier sharp criticism by Thomas Henry Huxley, the famous “Darwin’s bulldog.”)
We are getting near the end of my running commentary on the wonderful Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, this time tackling the Stoic take on naturalism — a term in philosophy that has taken on a variety of meanings over the past two millennia or so.
The relevant chapter, written by T.H. Irwin, begins with a useful reminder of the three Stoic doctrines that have markedly influenced later moral philosophy: “(1) Eudaemonism: the ultimate end for rational action is the agent’s own happiness. (2) Naturalism: happiness and virtue consist in living in accord with nature. (3) Moralism: moral virtue is to be chosen for its own sake and is to be preferred above any combination of items with non-moral value.”
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).