This post concludes my mini-series commenting on C. Kavin Rowe’s One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions. (Part I; Part II; Part III) I have so far discussed Rowe’s excellent take on each of the three Roman Stoics, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, where he explores what he (correctly, I think) sees as the major themes of their philosophy. The book then enters its second part, where Rowe applies the same approach to three great early Christian thinkers, Paul, Luke, and Justin Martyr. I will not discuss those here because my focus is on Stoicism, not Christianity, but I highly recommend those chapters as well, because they provide the reader both with a very good introduction to early Christian thought, and they serve as excellent benchmarks to compare the Stoic and Christian traditions. The resulting picture of the two “forms of life” puts them in striking contrast with each other.
On a number of times I have commented on the differences and similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism (insofar I understand the latter, I’m certainly no expert). But there are some interesting parallels between Stoicism and Christianity as well, parallels that were famously highlighted by Justus Lipsius, the founder of Neo-Stoicism, in the 16th century. The occasion to revisit the topic is being afforded by the fact that I’ve been reading with much interest a recent book by C. Kavin Rowe entitled One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions.
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.
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.
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).
The ongoing attempts to revive and update Stoicism for the 21st century go under a number of names, usually along the lines of “Modern Stoicism” or “Stoicism Today.” But people don’t use the obvious term: neo-Stoicism.
There is a reason for that. “Neo-Stoicism” actually describes an earlier project for the revisitation of Stoicism, mostly associated with Justus Lipsius, who in 1584 published a book entitled De Constantia (“On Constancy”), which tackled the issue of how to reconcile Stoic philosophy with Christianity, and which ended up influencing a number of other important figures, including most famously Michel de Montaigne.
The issue of Stoic theology comes up often in the context of reviving ancient Stoicism for modern times. Lately, there has even been talk of “officially” incorporating Stoicism as a religion so that Stoic “chaplains” can provide services to the US Military. I thought that was a mistake when secular humanists did it, and I think it would be a mistake for Stoics. The world doesn’t need another religion, and Stoicism has never been one, under any reasonable description of what a “religion” is.
I’ve got to the point in the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (chapter 6) where one of the authors, Keimpe Algra, tackles the thorny issue of Stoic theology. I say thorny not because there is anything too peculiar about the topic per se, but because of course I will have at some point to address it from a secular, non-theistic perspective, in my quest for updating Stoicism to the 21st century.
(Incidentally, as I’ve said before, one of the things I find attractive about modern Stoicism is that it has a big metaphysical tent, capable of accommodating theists, pantheists, agnostics and atheists, so long as they share the Stoic commitment to cultivating moral virtue as essential to a eudaimonic life.)
I am reading William B. Irvine’s superb A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, and early on in the book he begins to tackle the issue of whether embracing Stoicism requires a belief in a supreme being. While Stoicism is a philosophy, not a religion, some of the Stoics – especially Epictetus – do often refer to “Zeus,” understood not as the familiar Olympian god, but as similar to the God of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition (though with some interesting differences).
At any rate, I think, as does Irvine, that belief in a supreme being is not necessary for Stoicism, and that it is even questionable the degree to which the ancient Stoics themselves thought it necessary. Below is a short extracts from the first time in the book in which Irvine discusses the issue, promising to return to it in greater depth later on: