Did the ancient Stoics believe in a living cosmos? Does it matter?

[photo: Hubble Space Telescope, NASA]

Stoicism needs an update, a 2.0 version, if you will. That’s because it is an ancient philosophy which began (around 300 BCE) and flourished (up until the second century CE) during a period in which modern science didn’t exist and our understanding of the world (natural philosophy) was very limited. Unlike other philosophical traditions (e.g., Buddhism), Stoicism got “interrupted” by the rise of Christianity in the West, which means that it hasn’t had the opportunity to continue to develop organically across the intervening centuries.

Of course, one could reasonably argue that all we need to do is to get rid of parts of Stoic metaphysics that no longer work, retain the many that do (e.g., universal cause-effect, materialism, compatibilism about free will), and be done with that. But it’s not that simple, because the Stoics themselves argued that their philosophy was a coherent unified system, made of three parts:

Philosophic doctrine, say the Stoics, falls into three parts: one physical, another ethical, and the third logical. … They liken Philosophy to a fertile field: Logic being the encircling fence, Ethics the crop, Physics the soil or the trees. …  No single part, some Stoics declare, is independent of any other part, but all blend together. Nor was it usual to teach them separately. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.39-40)

In other words, if we tweak the “physics” (i.e., metaphysics and natural science) there will be repercussions on the ethics, the bit that we really care about, because it concerns how to live our lives. This doesn’t mean that tweaking cannot or should not be done. Only that it should be done with care, re-balancing things throughout the system so that the whole is still as internally coherent as possible. This is philosophy, after all! Indeed, some Stoics have argued that we very much should update things in order to keep the pace with new discoveries and the general growth of human knowledge:

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. (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

Since, from the point of view of Seneca, I am one “yet to come” who may be privy to new truths, I dared writing a book, A Field Guide to a Happy Life, that boldly updates the philosophy of Epictetus and, with it, the entire Stoic system. My attempt is of course partial and debatable, and I’m sure — indeed, I hope — it will eventually be superseded by more advanced writing of others yet to come.

For now, though, I have to take care of one predictable criticism I have already received, concerning a crucial change I proposed to the Stoic view of things. Consider the following passage 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)

This is an example of Stoic “amor fati” (love of fate), even though the phrase itself was coined much later, by Nietzsche. The idea is that we shouldn’t simply endure whatever “fate” (meaning, the universal web of cause-effect) throws our way, on the grounds that we don’t really have a choice. We should go beyond endurance and actually embrace fate, being positively glad about whatever happens to us. This is why Epictetus famously tells us to keep in mind that our spouse or child are mortal, so that if they die we would not be “perturbed” (Enchiridion 3).

How monstrous, right? Were Epictetus and the other Stoics a bunch of psychopaths? No. They simply followed through the logical implications of their metaphysics. Notice Epictetus’ analogy of the foot that steps into the mud. If the foot thought of itself as an isolated entity, it would find it disgusting to have to step into the mud. Like we find it horrifying that our spouse or child may die. But if the foot realizes that it is connected to a whole organism, that the organism has to step through the mud in order to get wherever it is going, and that it is therefore the foot’s duty to make this possible, it would not just endure the experience, it will be genuinely happy to be able to do its part.

This is the powerful, and beautiful, concept of Stoic providence. It is also, alas, wrong, to the best of our knowledge. Modern physics and biology tell us that the universe is not a sentient living organism endowed with reason (Logos), so that that part of Stoic metaphysics has to go. But before I get to the consequences of such update for the ethics, is it really the case that the Stoics understood the nature of the universe in the way I just described?

Some commentators on my book don’t buy it, with a few going so far as suggesting that I perhaps purposefully mischaracterized, or at the very least, misunderstood the Stoic position. This sort of objection has already surfaced in internet forums frequented by so-called traditional Stoics, i.e., people who profess to be pantheists and to accept the original Stoic way. So far, I’m not aware of any actual review of the book that raises the issue, but my friend and colleague Rob Colter, of the University of Wyoming, has recently challenged me on this point on our co-hosted show, Stoa Nova Conversations. Now, when Rob wishes to discuss something with me about ancient philosophy I take him very seriously, as he is a thorough, constructive critic.

So what is my evidence that the Stoics really did conceive of the cosmos (which they also called, interchangeably, Nature, God, and Zeus) as a living, sentient being endowed with reason? To begin with, Diogenes Laertius:

[The universe] is a living thing in the sense of an animate substance endowed with sensation; for animal is better than non-animal, and nothing is better than the world, ergo the world is a living being. And it is endowed with soul, as is clear from our several souls being each a fragment of it. (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.143)

Interestingly, the second bit — about the universe being endowed with soul because it contains several souls as fragments of the whole — is a logical fallacy, known as the fallacy of composition. We find it in Zeno as well as in Marcus Aurelius, as I detail here. One simply cannot infer the properties of a whole from those of its parts, or vice versa. For instance, a body of water (under the proper conditions of temperature and pressure) is wet. This doesn’t imply that every molecule of water is also wet, since wetness is a property of the whole, not of its parts. Conversely, individual molecules of water have a particular spatial configuration of their constituent atoms, but a body of water doesn’t, because it is not “made” of atoms in the same sense.

But perhaps that’s just what the Stoics meant, then? That the universe is sentient because it contains sentient organisms? That interpretation would render the whole point trivial, and it is not supported by modern scholarship. For instance, Michael White writes in The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics:

The Stoics … followed the precedent of various Presocratics and of Plato in holding that the ‘whole cosmos is a living being (or animal: zôion), ensouled and rational, having as its ruling principle (hêgemonikon) aether [typically equated with fire by the Stoics]’. According to Chrysippus and Posidonius, ‘reason (nous) extends to every part of it, just as soul does with respect to us. (Chapter 5, Stoic natural philosophy)

Note that “the whole cosmos” is a living being, not just parts of it. And that reason “extends to every part of it,” not just to us. Another modern scholar, Keimpe Algra, also writing in The Cambridge Companion, says:

The existence of god involves the fact that he governs, or rather is, the cosmos, which explains why some of the proofs for the existence of god simply amount to proofs that the cosmos itself is a rationally ordered living being. … According to a famous common Stoic description of god, god is an immortal living being, rational, perfect and thinking in happiness, unreceptive of anything bad and provident with regard to the cosmos and the things therein. But he is not of human form. He is the demiurge of the whole. (Chapter 6, Stoic theology)

Algra is referring to this bit from Diogenes Laertius, which is pretty self-explanatory:

The deity, say they, is a living being, immortal, rational, perfect or intelligent in happiness, admitting nothing evil, taking providential care of the world and all that therein is, but he is not of human shape. He is, however, the artificer of the universe and, as it were, the father of all, both in general and in that particular part of him which is all-pervading, and which is called many names according to its various powers. (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.147)

How did the Stoics arrive at such conclusions? Very reasonably, actually, as I discuss in two essays devoted to Cicero’s account of the Stoic position in On the Nature of the Gods. Essentially, they used what we nowadays refer to as an argument from design. For instance, Cicero puts these words in the mouth of Balbus, one of his interlocutors who belongs to the Stoic school:

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? … [Cleanthes’] 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. … 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. (On the Nature of the Gods, II.2, 5, 14)

So both Cleanthes and Chrysippus, the second and third head of the Stoa, used — among others — the argument from design to establish the divine-intelligent nature of the cosmos. And that’s also why we need to reject their conclusions, as the argument from design has been dealt a fatal double blow in modern times, first by David Hume (1711-1776) and then by Charles Darwin (1809-1882).

Although there could be much more to be said, and many more quotes could be brought to bear — both from ancient sources and modern scholarship — I rest my case as far as Stoic metaphysics is concerned. The next question is: why do we care? Because, as I said above, the Stoic system connects (flexibly, not rigidly, and that’s a crucial point!) metaphysics, logic, and ethics.

Recall that Epictetus gets his amor fati from the notion of a providential universe, understood not in the Christian sense of a loving God-father who cares about us individually, but in the sense of us being bits and pieces of the cosmic organism, each with our part to play and duties to carry out. If we reject the metaphysical premise, the ethical implication is that we need to abandon Stoic amor fati. If we do so, what’s left? Is it still Stoicism?

I argue in A Field Guide to a Happy Life that much is left, and yes, it is still Stoicism. 2.0, that is. We cannot be glad when tragedy strikes, but we can still endure it. We can, and should, still prepare our mind for the fact that we will, eventually, lose loved ones, or they will lose us. It is natural, it is inevitable, and therefore it has to be accepted. The alternative to a serene acceptance is emotional turmoil, which will cloud our minds and make us miserable. 

As hard as it is to bear certain losses in life (trust me, I’ve lost my grandparents, with whom I grew up, both of my parents, as well as a few friends), we have a duty to keep going in the best way we can. That duty is toward ourselves first and foremost, as well as toward others who rely on us for help and support — from relatives to friends, from colleagues to the human cosmopolis at large. Seneca, the Stoic who was most open about his own failures and limitations, sums it up beautifully:

No one denies that it is sad: but it is the common lot of mortals. You were born to lose others, to be lost, to hope, to fear, to destroy your own peace and that of others, to fear and yet to long for death, and, worst of all, never to know what your real position is. (To Marcia, On Consolation, XVII)
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