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

De Natura Deorum was written by Cicero in 45 BCE. Cicero himself narrates, playing the part of a mediator in a discussion on the nature of the gods 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. Last time we have seen some of the arguments put forth by Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus — the first three heads of the Stoa — and how they were based on faulty reasoning, chiefly relying on what we today call the argument from design. I want to continue this analysis here, in order to understand why the Stoics got this part of their “physics” (that is, their metaphysics and natural philosophy) wrong. I have already discussed elsewhere the consequences (not many, really) of this failure for modern Stoics.

After having put forth arguments for the existence of god, Balbus turns to an inquiry into the nature of such god, though in fact he has already touched on that before: “As the previous idea which we have of the Deity comprehends two things — first of all, that he is an animated being; secondly, that there is nothing in all nature superior to him — I do not see what can be more consistent with this idea and preconception than to attribute a mind and divinity to the world, the most excellent of all beings. … It is certain that the world is most excellently perfect: nor is it to be doubted that whatever has life, sense, reason, and understanding must excel that which is destitute of these things. It follows, then, that the world has life, sense, reason, and understanding, and is consequently a Deity.” (II.17) As I pointed out in part I of this essay, assertions about the excellence and superiority of life over non-life, or reason over non-reason sort of beg the question. How, exactly, according to which scale, is such superiority assessed? And on what grounds do we claim that the world is perfect? What do we even mean, here, by perfection? All reasonable questions, which the Stoics don’t really address.

After having given a summary of the movements of the five “wandering stars” (i.e., the planets), Balbus comments: “I cannot, therefore, conceive that this constant course of the planets, this just agreement in such various motions through all eternity, can be preserved without a mind, reason, and consideration; and since we may perceive these qualities in the stars, we cannot but place them in the rank of Gods.” (II.21) Here Balbus commits yet a another logical fallacy, on top of those highlighted in the first part, known as an argument from personal incredulity. He is correct, however, that at the time his inference was reasonable. It is only after David Hume and Charles Darwin that the inference has become untenable, pace the continuing efforts of creationists and intelligent design proponents.

At II.22, Balbus gives us a summary of the Stoic concept of providence: “Such, then, is the intelligence of the universe; for which reason it may be properly termed prudence or providence (in Greek, πρόνοια), since her chiefest care and employment is to provide all things fit for its duration, that it may want nothing.” From this we can infer that Stoic providence is very different from its Christian counterpart. While Christianity claims that god cares about us, individually, the Stoic notion is that the living universe has created its parts in order to serve itself, not the parts. This makes sense of the famous analogy of the foot stepping in the mud, from Epictetus:

“If I in fact knew that illness had been decreed for me at this moment by destiny, I would welcome even that; for the foot, too, if it had understanding, would be eager to get spattered with mud.” (Discourses II.6.9-10)

Epictetus here is in fact quoting Chrysippus, and the message is that we should gain some solace if we have to “step in the mud,” knowing that this is helpful to the cosmic organism. While even some modern Stoics make much of this sort of consolation, I find it not very different from the “consolation” that an epithelial cell of my skin would get if it knew that it’s about to die off so that I can maintain a healthy epidermis. Eh.

Very interestingly, at II.28 Balbus tells us quite explicitly that the Stoics did not believe in the Olympian gods, because they are an obvious human invention: “Do you not see, therefore, how, from the productions of nature and the useful inventions of men, have arisen fictitious and imaginary Deities, which have been the foundation of false opinions, pernicious errors, and wretched superstitions? For we know how the different forms of the Gods — their ages, apparel, ornaments; their pedigrees, marriages, relations, and everything belonging to them — are adapted to human weakness and represented with our passions; with lust, sorrow, and anger, according to fabulous history: they have had wars and combats, not only, as Homer relates, when they have interested themselves in two different armies, but when they have fought battles in their own defense against the Titans and giants. These stories, of the greatest weakness and levity, are related and believed with the most implicit folly.” Men, it seems, have created the gods to their own image.

Philosophy, continues Balbus, has allowed us to separate superstition from religion, leading sophisticated intellects to reject the Olympian gods in favor of a single god coincident with the whole cosmos. It is philosophy, not superstition, that allows us to conclude that “if we are possessed of wisdom, reason, and prudence, the Gods must have the same qualities in a greater degree; and not only have them, but employ them in the best and greatest works. The universe is the best and greatest work; therefore it must be governed by the wisdom and providence of the Gods” (II.31). As I pointed out last time, this is actually a fallacy of composition, whereby attributes of parts (us) are assumed to have corresponding attributes in the whole (the cosmos / god). Philosophy it may be, but sound reasoning it ain’t.

At II.37 Balbus even explains in some detail one of the most famous arguments put forth by modern creationists: “Is it possible for any man to behold these things, and yet imagine that certain solid and individual bodies move by their natural force and gravitation, and that a world so beautifully adorned was made by their fortuitous concourse? He who believes this may as well believe that if a great quantity of the one-and-twenty letters, composed either of gold or any other matter, were thrown upon the ground, they would fall into such order as legibly to form the Annals of Ennius.” In modern parlance, this is known as the tornado in a junkyard argument, according to which to disbelieve that the orderly and complex structures of the biological world are the result of intelligent design is akin to believe that a tornado passing through a junkyard can by chance alone end up building a functional Boeing 747.

The problem with the modern version of the argument — which is supposed to make us reject the Darwinian notion of natural selection — is that natural selection (as the term strongly hints) is most definitely not a random process, which means that the analogy is entirely faulty. In Balbus’ time, however, Darwin’s Origin of Species had not been published yet, so the Stoic line of reasoning had merit.

Shortly thereafter, at II.38, Balbus anticipates yet another modern intelligent design argument: “When we see machines move artificially, as a sphere, a clock, or the like, do we doubt whether they are the productions of reason?” Natural theologian William Paley, writing at the beginning of the 19th century, used precisely the analogy between living organs (such as the eye) and clocks to, again, infer a designer. Darwin dedicated a significant amount of space in his book to explain why Paley’s analogy was untenable (because natural selection is not a random process, but a cumulatively, selective one).

From cosmic matters to earthly ones, Balbus applies the argument from design to plants and animals as well: “Let us proceed from celestial to terrestrial things. What is there in them which does not prove the principle of an intelligent nature? First, as to vegetables; they have roots to sustain their stems, and to draw from the earth a nourishing moisture to support the vital principle which those roots contain. … But what a vast variety is there of animals! And how wonderfully is every kind adapted to preserve itself! … With regard to animals, do we not see how aptly they are formed for the propagation of their species? Nature for this end created some males and some females. Their parts are perfectly framed for generation, and they have a wonderful propensity to copulation.” (II. 47, 51) Here we are even more clearly in precisely the kind of territory that has been account for by Darwin. Obviously, we cannot fault Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus for not having anticipated the theory of evolution by natural selection by 23 centuries. Though we can certainly fault anyone — Stoic or not — who insists in buying the argument from design post-Darwin.

I don’t need to belabor the point further, I think, though Balbus does, moving on (II.53-60) to enumerate at length different perfections of the human body. Finally, he sets out to prove that everything in the world has been made (by the cosmic organism) for our use, presumably because we are the only animals sharing the logos with god.

The argument is far from sophisticated, though, chiefly relying on a lack of appreciation for the power of artificial selection: “Beasts are so far from being partakers of this design, that we see that even they themselves were made for man; for of what utility would sheep be, unless for their wool, which, when dressed and woven, serves us for clothing? For they are not capable of anything, not even of procuring their own food, without the care and assistance of man. The fidelity of the dog, his affectionate fawning on his master, his aversion to strangers, his sagacity in finding game, and his vivacity in pursuit of it, what do these qualities denote but that he was created for our use?” (II.63) It didn’t seem to occur to the ancient Stoics that we are the ones responsible for the sheep’s wool and the dog’s affectionate character, both evolved in a relatively short period of time from wild ancestors of these animals by way of artificial selection.

In the end, though, even Balbus seems to vacillate a bit, since he has to admit that his individual arguments aren’t that strong: “If these proofs, when taken separately, should make no impression upon your mind, yet, when collected together, they must certainly affect you.” (II.65) Well, no, not really, they don't affect me. A collection of bad arguments a good argument does not make.

As I mentioned both above and in the first part of this essay, the Stoic position on the existence and nature of the gods was actually reasonable, by the standards of the time. The standards, however, have changed dramatically because of a relatively recent double punch against the argument from design: David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1739-40) and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859).

Hume mounted a number of critiques to the sort of argument we have seen Balbus repeatedly advance. For one, Hume pointed out that that arguments by analogy are generally pretty weak, and often question begging. But more importantly, this particular analogy, between human and cosmic designers is awfully weak. As Louis E. Loeb put it, explaining Hume’s criticism: “We observe neither God nor other universes, and hence no conjunction [causal connection] involving them. There is no observed conjunction to ground an inference either to extended objects or to God, as unobserved causes.” (Loeb, Louis E., Inductive Inference in Hume’s Philosophy, in: Radcliffe, Elizabeth S., ed., A Companion to Hume, John Wiley & Sons, pp. 106–125, 2010.)

In order words, the only reason we can reliably infer from observing a watch that there must have been a watchmaker is because we have observed plenty of watchmakers making watches. But we have never observed gods making universes, so the analogous inference is invalid.

Moreover, in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) Hume went so far as to suggest that the world as we observe it is the result of natural self-sustaining processes. Modern philosopher Daniel Dennett (Atheism and Evolution, in: Zagzebski, Linda; Miller, Timothy D., eds., Readings in Philosophy of Religion: Ancient to Contemporary, John Wiley & Sons, pp. 614–635, 2009) went so far as to suggest that Hume got as close an anyone pre-Darwin to the explanation we accept today for the presence of orderly and complex structures in the living world.

Which brings me to the second, lethal, punch to intelligent design: Darwin’s. The genius of Darwin was to figure out that a combination of random processes (genetic variation, which we today understand being ultimately the result of the process of mutation) and non-random processes (natural selection, in all its manifestations) provides an entirely naturalistic explanation of precisely the sort of adaptive fit between organisms and environments that have puzzled philosophers since the ancient Stoics.

We modern Stoics, therefore, have no reason at all to endorse Balbus’ arguments, and in fact have positive reasons to reject them. Which means that modern Stoicism has to find a way to do without a living cosmic god and the sort of providence it provided in antiquity. Fortunately, this isn’t too difficult.

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