Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods, and why the Stoics got it wrong — part I

(Raphael's Olympians, 1516-17)

Philosophies of life have a lot in common with religions. Up to a point. Both systems of thought comprise, at a minimum, two components: a metaphysics and an ethics. The metaphysics provides adherents to a given system some notion of how the world works; the ethics gives them guidance on how to live in the world. So if you are a Stoic, for instance, you accept the metaphysical notion of a universal web of cause-effect (which the ancient Stoics called “god”), as well as that everything that exists is made of matter. Ethically speaking, you are on board with the idea that virtue is the only true good, and that we should behave as citizens of the world (cosmopolitanism). If you are a Christian, by contrast, metaphysically you accept that the world was created by an omnipotent god who exists outside of time and space, and ethically you agree that we should help others and offer the other cheek even to our enemies.

One major difference between philosophies of life and religions, however, is that the founders and early contributors to philosophical schools are not regarded as gods, and what they wrote is not scripture. We are free to change things that we think no longer stand up to scrutiny. That’s why, for instance, I suggested that the notion of a Stoic god interpreted as a cosmic living organism endowed with reason (the logos) is untenable in the light of modern science, and hence ought to be dropped. Of course, if we start dropping and replacing components of a coherent philosophical system there may be a legitimate question as to whether what we are left with is, in fact, “Stoic” in any reasonable sense of the word. Good question, but not the one I wish to address today.

Instead, we are going to look at book II of Cicero’s De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods). Why? Because it presents in detail the Stoic arguments for the existence of a god conceived as a living creature coincident, spatially and temporally, with the universe itself. We will see why these arguments were reasonable two millennia ago, when they were articulated, but no longer are. Which is a good example of what the ancients got wrong, and that we modern Stoics ought to change. Throughout the following, keep in mind one of my favorite quotes from Seneca:

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road -- but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters XXXIII.11)

De Natura Deorum — written in 45 BCE — is narrated by Cicero himself, playing the part of a mediator in a discussion involving Gaius Velleius, representing the Epicurean school, Quintus Lucilius Balbus, arguing for the Stoics, and Gaius Cotta, speaking for Academic Skepticism, Cicero’s own preferred school of thought.

Balbus begins by saying that there are four conclusions that the Stoics have arrived at on the question of the nature of gods: “First, [we] prove that there are Gods; secondly, of what character and nature they are; thirdly, that the universe is governed by them; and, lastly, that they exercise a superintendence over human affairs.” (II.1)

Balbus dispatches of the first entry in the list rather quickly: “The first point, then, says Lucilius, I think needs no discourse to prove it; for what can be so plain and evident, when we behold the heavens and contemplate the celestial bodies, as the existence of some supreme, divine intelligence, by which all these things are governed?” (II.2)

This is a straightforward argument from design, to which Balbus will return over and over again, as we shall see. At the time, the argument actually had force, and I think was on firmer basis than the Epicurean contention that it’s all about atoms bumping in the void. After all, human experience up to that point (and for the following couple of millennia) was that if anything looked designed, and appeared to have a specific function or purpose, that was because it was, in fact, designed with that specific function or purpose in mind. By us. But since we clearly did not create planets and stars, or the universe as a whole, then by analogy we get the inference to a far more powerful and intelligent designer, responsible for the whole shebang. I will explain later on in this essay why such an inference is no longer tenable, particularly not after the double punch it suffered in the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively at the hands of David Hume and Charles Darwin.

Balbus then veers into apparently weird territory, invoking the notion of divination — the ability to foresee future events on the basis of currently available clues. Divination was a big deal in the ancient world, and the Stoics accepted it as a science. This may sound hopelessly naive, until we realize that it was in synch with their notion of universal causation. If everything is connected by cause-effect, it stands to reason that a careful observation of current events (considered as causes) will lead to accurate predictions of future events (considered as effects). The Stoics were not as foolish as to believe that the entrails of an animal, say, would cause a battle to be won or lost. Rather, they thought that both the specific arrangements of said entrails and the outcome of the battle were the result of the same causal laws and current arrangements of things. It turns out that they were wrong about this, but the principle isn’t that different from that of modern scientists who attempt to predict the future (say, climate change) on the basis of the current state of affairs. Only the scientists have a far better grasp of how cause-effect works compared to that of the ancient Stoics.

The next two arguments by Balbus are, however, fairly shaky. In rapid succession he says: “there are interpreters of the Gods; therefore we must allow there are Gods,” and “All nations agree that there are Gods; the opinion is innate, and, as it were, engraved in the minds of all men. The only point in dispute among us is, what they are.” (II.4) Well, no. Just because there are interpreters of the gods it certainly doesn’t follow that there must be gods. There are interpreters of astral influences on human destiny, and yet astrology is false. As for the idea that belief in god is innate for human beings, that’s interesting, but probably also false. And at any rate, just because the majority of people (obviously not everyone) holds to opinion X that doesn’t make X true. To reason that way is to incur in the informal logical fallacy of vox populi.

Balbus then gives us direct evidence of the opinions on the matter expressed by Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoa, successor to the founder, Zeno of Citium: “Cleanthes, one of our sect, imputes the way in which the idea of the Gods is implanted in the minds of men to four causes. The first is that which I just now mentioned — the foreknowledge of future things. The second is the great advantages which we enjoy from the temperature of the air, the fertility of the earth, and the abundance of various benefits of other kinds. The third cause is deduced from the terror with which the mind is affected by thunder, tempests, storms, snow, hail, devastation, pestilence, earthquakes often attended with hideous noises, showers of stones, and rain like drops of blood; by rocks and sudden openings of the earth; by monstrous births of men and beasts; by meteors in the air, and blazing stars.” (II.5) Cleanthes, unfortunately, was well known for not being the brightest of the Stoics, and this triplet of bad arguments is a good example of why.

Cleanthes also had a fourth reason in mind: “His fourth cause, and that the strongest, is drawn from the regularity of the motion and revolution of the heavens, the distinctness, variety, beauty, and order of the sun, moon, and all the stars, the appearance only of which is sufficient to convince us they are not the effects of chance; as when we enter into a house, or school, or court, and observe the exact order, discipline, and method of it, we cannot suppose that it is so regulated without a cause, but must conclude that there is some one who commands, and to whom obedience is paid.” (II.5) This is one of the most clear instances of argument from design in Stoic literature, and it is very explicitly an argument from analogy. Arguments from analogy, Hume will point out much later on, are very weak, and a given position is in serious trouble if one such argument is regarded as “the strongest.”

Next, Balbus tells us how Chrysippus — the third head of the Stoa, and shall we say not a slouch in logic — addressed the matter:“‘If,’ says he, ‘there is anything in the universe which no human reason, ability, or power can make, the being who produced it must certainly be preferable to man. Now, celestial bodies, and all those things which proceed in any eternal order, cannot be made by man; the being who made them is therefore preferable to man. What, then, is that being but a God? If there be no such thing as a Deity, what is there better than man, since he only is possessed of reason, the most excellent of all things? But it is a foolish piece of vanity in man to think there is nothing preferable to him. There is, therefore, something preferable; consequently, there is certainly a God.’” (II.6) Unfortunately, this isn’t much more convincing than Cleanthes’ attempt, though — again — I will postpone a fuller explanation of why until later, when I’ll discuss Hume and Darwin.

Balbus also reports the thoughts of Zeno, the founder of the Stoic sect: “That which reasons is superior to that which does not; nothing is superior to the world; the world, therefore, reasons. … No part of anything void of sense is capable of perception; some parts of the world have perception; the world, therefore, has sense. … Nothing that is destitute itself of life and reason can generate a being possessed of life and reason; but the world does generate beings possessed of life and reason; the world, therefore, is not itself destitute of life and reason.” (II.8) The first of these three arguments assumes that reason is “superior” to non-reason, which is an obviously anthropomorphic position in need of defense. It also assumes that there is a cosmic scale of things that proceeds from inferior to superior ones, but, again, this needs to be demonstrated, and modern science has rejected any such scala naturae.

The second and third arguments share the same mistake, known nowadays as the fallacy of composition, inferring that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some parts of the whole. Yes, it is trivially true that parts of the cosmos are capable of perception (all living beings), and also that part of the cosmos are alive and capable of reason (us, and possibly some other animal species, to a degree). But no, it doesn’t follow that therefore the universe as a whole is alive, capable of perception, or intelligent.

The same fallacy of composition appears again at II.11, where Balbus says: “We see that there is nothing in being that is not a part of the universe; and as there are sense and reason in the parts of it, there must therefore be these qualities, and these, too, in a more energetic and powerful degree, in that part in which the predominant quality of the world is found. The world, therefore, must necessarily be possessed of wisdom; and that element, which embraces all things, must excel in perfection of reason. The world, therefore, is a God, and the whole power of the world is contained in that divine element.” No, sorry, it doesn’t follow.

The argument from design returns at II.14: “For Chrysippus says, very acutely, that as the case is made for the buckler, and the scabbard for the sword, so all things, except the universe, were made for the sake of something else.” Acutely, perhaps, for the time, though even the Epicureans already rejected that argument. It goes on: “The same Chrysippus observes also, by the use of similitudes, that everything in its kind, when arrived at maturity and perfection, is superior to that which is not — as, a horse to a colt, a dog to a puppy, and a man to a boy — so whatever is best in the whole universe must exist in some complete and perfect being. But nothing is more perfect than the world, and nothing better than virtue. Virtue, therefore, is an attribute of the world. But human nature is not perfect, and nevertheless virtue is produced in it: with how much greater reason, then, do we conceive it to be inherent in the world! Therefore the world has virtue, and it is also wise, and consequently a Deity.” Again, remember that analogical arguments are inherently weak, on top of which Chrysippus here is begging the question when he says that there is nothing in the world that is better than virtue.

(Next: the character of the gods.)

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