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).
Dorothea Frede’s chapter in The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics is about determinism, and it’s a must read for anyone seriously interested in the philosophy of Stoicism.
Frede’s approach is to contrast the Stoics with Aristotle, because the two schools share a number of positions, and yet differ markedly in certain crucial respects. The idea is that it is easier to appreciate the differences if one also has an understanding of the similarities.