Stoic Q&A: what is the role of faith?

D. writes: I was wondering, from a practical perspective, is there a place in Stoic practice for faith? By faith I'm not referring to the kind of blind faith, for example held by some fundamentalist Christians that the Bible is the true word of God. In my younger days I was participating in a discussion about this very matter as several friends were trying to persuade me that this was the case. I soon became a non believer. Anyway, I noticed that Epictetus in his discourses refers quite often to God, for example, this quote from Book 4.7, on Freedom from Fear:

"For my part I’ve enquired into them, and no one holds any power over me. I’ve been set free by God, I know his commands, no one has the power any longer to enslave me, I have the right emancipator, I have the right judges."

From my understanding he seemed to have a high degree of faith which must have been a strong motivation for him to practice, and to have that sense of fearlessness that he demonstrates in his teachings. However, as someone who doesn't believe in God, is there a place for faith in Stoic practice? When one practices mindfulness and the keeping of precepts, one can see how this practice leads to a better quality of life, for example in our relationships with those around us. From a personal perspective this gives me confidence in the teachings of those who I respect and look to for spiritual guidance, whether it be the Buddha, Epictetus or a well respected Buddhist monk, such as Ajahn Chah. I find that this confidence gives me further incentive to practice, especially during times when the going gets tough.

The short answer to your question is no, but it's a bit more complicated than that. "Faith" to me means exactly the sort of blind allegiance to an idea that you rejected when you were a Christian. The unconditional commitment of faith is what differentiates it from reason, whose commitments can (and should!) always be subject to revision, if new evidence demands it. By contrast, when some Christian practitioners, or even theologians, say that they would believe in God even despite the evidence, they are displaying blind faith. And it's a no-no for a Stoic, including ancient ones.

Stoicism is based on the interconnection of three areas of study: "logic," "physics," and "ethics," meaning, respectively, good human reasoning, factual understanding of the world, and how to live one's life. The idea is that ethics ought to be informed by the best reasoning possible, as well as by our best understanding of how the world actually works -- as distinct from our wishful thinking. There is no place for faith in this system. Indeed, if we look at the basics of Stoic epistemology, we see that the Stoics were very careful before making claims to knowledge, almost as careful as their rivals, the academic skeptics. Here is how Cicero explains the famous metaphor of the hand used by Zeno to summarize the Stoic take on knowledge:

'Zeno professed to illustrate [the Stoic theory of knowledge] by a piece of action; for when he stretched out his fingers, and showed the palm of his hand, 'Perception,' said he, 'is a thing like this.' Then, when he had a little closed his fingers, 'Assent is like this.' Afterwards, when he had completely closed his hand, and held forth his fist, that, he said, was comprehension. From which simile he also gave that state a name which it had not before, and called it katalepsis. But when he brought his left hand against his right, and with it took a firm and tight hold of his fist, knowledge, he said, was of that character; and that was what none but a wise man possessed." (Cicero, Academica II.XLVII)

Which means that the sequence from less trustworthy to more trustworthy understanding goes like this: raw impression (perception, including a preliminary judgment leading to opinion) > (reasoned) assent > kataleptic impression (comprehension, understanding) > knowledge.

You correctly note that Epictetus (and, in fact, Seneca, and Marcus) mentions God quite often. This, however, has nothing to do with faith, because the Stoics arrived at the notion of the existence of God by way of reason. Specifically, they deployed what modern philosophers call an argument from design. We find this, for instance, in Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoa:

"[Cleanthes'] fourth cause [for the existence of God], 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." (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods II.5 -- see here for more on this topic)

Epictetus also puts forth an argument from design, as I discuss in chapter 6 of How to Be a Stoic:

"Who is it that has fitted the sword to the scabbard and the scabbard to the sword? Is there no one? Surely the very structure of such finished products leads us commonly to infer that they must be the work of some craftsman, and are not constructed at random. Are we to say then that each of these products points to the craftsman, but that things visible and vision and light do not? Do not male and female and the desire of union and the power to use the organs adapted for it—do not these point to the craftsman?" (Discourses, I.6)

I don't think I need to go into a detailed rebuttal of the design argument to conclude that the double punch it got from David Hume and Charles Darwin put it to rest (see here). The point, though, is that before the 18th century, that argument was appealing, and was based on precisely the combination of reason and factual observations that Stoics prize. No need to get on Epictetus', or Cleanthes' case for having gotten that particular thing wrong. (For that matter, most Stoics also believed that the seat of the human mind was the heart, and they got that wrong as well.)

Then again, what kind of God were Epictetus & co. thinking about? Nothing like the Christian one, who created the universe from the outside, and for a (albeit inscrutable) purpose. Here is Diogenes Laertius:

"God is one and the same with Reason, Fate, and Zeus. ... The doctrine that the world is a living being, rational, animate and intelligent, is laid down by Chrysippus in the first book of his treatise On Providence." (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.135, 142)

In other words, the ancient Stoics were pantheists, believing that God is one and the same with the world, and that the world is a sentient, living organism. This is important because it makes sense of a lot of what Epictetus says about God. Consider, for instance, his famous analogy with a foot having to step into the mud:

"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 highly revealing: for Epictetus God doesn't actually care for us individually (as distinct from the Christian God), because we are just individual organs of the cosmic being. As such, we are replaceable, just like the individual cells of our own bodies are. When we are tasked with something unpleasant, it isn't for our own future benefit (again, as in the case of the Christian God), but simply because the Organism has to get something done, like crossing a muddy path, that requires our discomfort or even sacrifice.

This is why the famous Stoic Providence is far less providential or comforting than the Christian one. Yes, you do get some psychological relief from the notion that whatever happens to you is going to benefit the Cosmos at large. Which is why Epictetus says that we shouldn't just endure, but embrace whatever comes our way, including disease and death.

But it is a relative minor comfort, in my opinion. And when you do without it -- as modern Stoics should, given that science rejects the pantheistic notion of a living universe -- you don't really lose much. Instead of loving your fate (as Nietzsche famously encouraged us to do), we just bear it. My next book, out in September, will in fact carry out part of this project of updating Stoicism for the 21st century, by reimagining the Enchiridion, section by section, without some of the notions that were reasonable then and are no longer so now.

So you are correct that we can draw on the wisdom of ancient and modern sages -- from Buddha to Epictetus to, in fact, Jesus -- without having to buy into the parts of their metaphysics that we no longer think are tenable. The Stoics themselves clearly encouraged such an attitude of inquiry and revision based on facts and reason:

"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 to Lucilius, XXXIII, On the Futility of Learning Maxims, 11)
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