The Stoic God: A Call to Science or Faith?

A rational belief in the Stoic god can enhance your connection to and understanding of yourself and the world you inhabit.

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This article originally appeared on The Side View in June 2019. 

This essay builds on Brittany Polat’s excellent article[1] on the rational transcendental experience that Stoicism can offer. Specifically, I look at how a rational belief in the Stoic god (yes, you read that right) can further enhance your connection to and understanding of yourself and the world you inhabit. This occurs as you mindfully harmonise yourself with the Stoic god, in recognition that god’s very nature, as the structure and essence of the universe, has given humankind everything they need to think and act with excellence.

This understanding of the universe is in turn causally tied to what Stoics conceived to be the good life, also referred to as human flourishing. This is why, as I discuss below, an agnostic approach to Stoicism, whilst beneficial in helping you better understand the  cosmic connectedness Polat experiences, still does not sufficiently anchor your behaviour into what the Stoic founder, Zeno, referred to as “living according to Nature.”

I will be the first to admit that the concept of the Stoic god feels like a hard sell, not least because most contemporary Stoic philosophers and thinkers don’t seem too fond of the idea. So, at the risk of sounding like a door-to-door salesman, let me explain why I think reflecting on the Stoic god is worthy of your attention.

Arguably, the main problem with the concept of the Stoic god is one of marketing and lack of a target audience. The marketing issue results from the near monopoly Abrahamic faiths have on the word “god.” What I mean is that the term gets mixed up with ideas and concepts that the ancient Stoics, including Epictetus (arguably the most “spiritual” Stoic), would find strange.

The audience issue occurs because the Stoic god straddles a difficult fence. On one side, which you might label “theist,” there are those who find great comfort in the word “god,” “theology,” or “religion.” These people find a sense of love and meaning in belonging to a personal god who wishes to grant them an afterlife. Many of these people have remained loyal to the faith they were raised with and see their faith and connection with god as much a cultural as a transcendent one.

On the other side of the fence, let’s call it an “atheist” side, are those people who through a careful, deliberate, and often painful set of decisions have chosen to move away from god and faith-based beliefs. This move may have occurred once their knowledge in science or philosophy caused them to question and ultimately reject the content contained in what they previously considered to be a sacred text.

This second group can be furthered divided into (1) those who see their previous relationship with god in similar ways to their childhood imaginary friend, helpful at the time but now unnecessary given their better understanding of the world, and (2) those who see a belief in god (and religion generally) as a destructive force that needs to be extinguished in the name of progress. Understandably, few people in either camp would care to see the Stoic god sitting on the fence bridging the divide.

Bridging the divide, you say? That is quite a lofty claim. Yes, it is, so let me explain.

It is first important to understand that the ancient Stoics would not have recognised the modern distinction between religious thought and scientific inquiry. Second, while there were religious aspects to its practice, ancient Stoicism was a philosophy not a religion. There was no religious-based leadership hierarchy nor an appointed authority, place of worship, or sacred books. However, there were various heads of Stoic schools whose ideas followers could openly question or reject on the basis of reasoned argument without fear of being labelled an apostate, even when contesting aspects of Stoic theology. This is because the Stoic god, as the very essence of Nature, was envisioned and arrived at through a naturalistic and rational framework that formed the basis of Stoic virtue ethics and provided practitioners with the rationale to study the natural world and the wider cosmos, including the celestial bodies (which were often referred to as gods).

This is in effect what the eclectic, but Stoic influenced, Cicero explains in On Ends:

Nor can anyone judge truly of things good and evil, save by a knowledge of the whole plan of nature and even of the life of the gods.

Third, whilst it is true that contemporary Stoics might refer to themselves as Buddhist Stoics,[2] Christian Stoics,[3] Hindu Stoics, Muslim Stoics, or even atheist Stoics[4]—so long as they accept that the four Stoic virtues of courage, justice, self-control, and wisdom are sufficient and necessary for an adult human being to flourish—the purely Stoic theological position holds that the Stoic god, as the essence of Nature, is pantheistic.

Further, the immanent nature of the Stoic god will certainly conflict with the fundamental aspects of the aforementioned religious traditions, leading to, at the very least, unusual interpretations of key Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, or Muslim beliefs and doctrine, especially those associated with “miracles” and other supernatural events, states or beings, including heaven, hell, demons, or angels.

Nothing outside Nature forms any part of what the ancient Stoics believed to exist. In other words, the ancient Stoic understanding of the universe, including god, is entirely grounded in natural phenomena that can be scientifically explored (see Levine[5] and Sellars[6] for more details). As such, the Stoic god has a clear philosophical basis, which necessarily must be arrived at and defended via rational argument, not faith or dogma. This is clear from the Chrysippean “proofs” for the Stoic god, which are based on reasoned argument about the nature of the universe as understood by Stoics.[7]  One such argument is as follows:

If the gods do not exist, nothing in the universe can be superior to humans, the only beings endowed with reason. But for any human being to believe that nothing is superior to his or herself is a sign of insane arrogance. There is then something superior to humankind. Therefore, the gods exist.

In other words, the ancient Stoics recognised, through their theology and not in spite of it, that the best possible life a human can be expected to have relies on thinking and acting in accordance with Nature and by the facts Nature provides. In no way does it depend on or imagine divine revelations from a supernatural being that harbours desires for you to join “him” in an afterlife. This is, in effect, what contemporary Stoic Chris Fisher explains whilst reflecting on Seneca’s On Providence, 2.4:

Death, disease, and natural disasters are not punishments from an angry God; they are simply the natural unfolding of events within a web of causes, often outside of our control. Stoics accept that the cosmos is as it should be and they face challenging events as opportunities for growth rather than considering them harmful. This is neither resignation nor retreat from the realities of human existence. Stoics strive to do all we can to save lives, cure disease, and understand and mitigate natural and man-made disasters.[8]

The Stoical theological framework, as with many whose god is envisioned in the pantheistical sense, shares many aspects with modern-day movements and belief systems that emphasise the importance of leading an environmentally sensitive way of life.

Consequently, Stoic reverence for Nature is deeply connected to Stoic theology, which makes it clear that the Earth’s natural system, as the giver and sustainer of life (words typically used to describe a god), is worthy of care and consideration. That said, philosophically speaking, although there are some similarities, the Stoic god is not analogous to Spinoza’s god (see Long for a very depth discussion[9]), the deep ecology spirituality envisioned by Arne Naess, or James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis (see Whiting and Konstantakos for more details[10]).

Rather than get caught up in knots over the exact characteristics of the Stoic god, I would instead like to return to the title question, is the Stoic god a call to science or a leap of faith? And how does the Stoic god offer you an opportunity to deepen your connection with yourself and the surrounding environment, beyond that which Polat described, with her more agnostic approach to Stoic theology.

In answer to the first question, regarding whether the Stoic god is science- or faith-based, it is worth emphasising that both scientists and those Stoics who acknowledge the Stoic god would agree that Nature, as the basis for everyone’s (and everything’s) being and reality, is the cause of knowledge and truth. Even moral truths, which are not founded on scientific fact, but rely on coherence or intuition, are grounded in the subjective experience of our own nature and the objectivity of the natural world generally.

Consequently, Stoicism is not a call to faith, not even a call to faith in science. Rather, it is a commitment to the observations and empirical evidence we require to seek harmony with the universe and within our inner self. In mindfully undertaking such a process, we become primed to understand that we are all part of Nature and should take care in our daily decisions (e.g., what we choose to eat, drive, and throw away) to reduce environmental harms that have caused climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, and the build-up of the plastic waste choking our oceans.

The second question regarding whether an agnostic metaphysics or pantheistic Stoic metaphysics provides you with a deeper connection with yourself and the environment is much more complex. To do it justice, I first need to highlight some of Polat’s affirmations and then carefully explain where the nuances lie. She states:

Cosmic connectedness is a rational form of self-transcendence that does not require specific religious or metaphysical beliefs. Although the ancient Stoics attributed a providential nature to the cosmos, we can practice transcendence today regardless of whether we share their view of providence.

It is true that contemporary Stoics can practice transcendence, even if they do not believe in the Stoic god. However, I would argue that as with Christian neo-Stoics before them (such as Justus Lipsius), who were forced to reject or modify certain parts of the Stoic worldview to fit their allegiance to the Abrahamic god, so many concessions have to be made that it soon becomes difficult to justify the practice or mollify the cognitive dissonances. This is why John Sellars concludes that the description “‘Christian Stoicism’ is, strictly speaking, a contradiction in terms and that the orthodox Christian can never, at the same time, be a Stoic. However, he can admire certain parts of Stoic ethics.”[11]

Now, one may argue that an atheistic or agnostic interpretation holds no contradictions but is simply the rejection and removal of one element of Stoic philosophy. However, the removal of the theological framework is not as simple as “killing off” another god. Rather, it also requires an acrobatic workaround on the nature of the sage, that is to say, of the Stoic moral ideal and the human embodiment of justice, courage, self-control, and wisdom. The sage is also by extension completely at one with the universe, possessing a rationality that is only second to the universe itself. It is within this frame of reference that ancient and contemporary Stoics, who believe in the Stoic god, agree that there are objective moral facts, in other words, that some kinds of actions are right and others wrong, independent of what a human being thinks or decides. If this were not so, Stoics could not explain how it is possible that an individual who has perfected their moral reason is said to be incapable of a moral mistake.

Furthermore, and as Stoic philosopher A. A. Long points out,[12] the Stoic theological framework is integral to Stoic virtue ethics. It follows that those contemporary Stoics who promote a theological approach to morality do so because they believe that a unified cosmic framework is the reason behind the Stoic call to live according to Nature. In turn, they maintain that Nature provides the facts and the corresponding values that the sage upholds and which represents the standard that all other Stoics attempt to reach. Now whilst you could argue that the sage is not necessary to the philosophy, this view starts to deviate quite substantially from Stoicism to the point that, in my opinion, the practice we are creating is not Stoicism, but rather a “New Stoicism,” to borrow a phrase of the late Lawrence Becker who created an atheistic interpretation of Stoic ethics.[13]

Now, I want to make it very clear that this does not mean that we should hold tightly to ancient Stoic texts and reject any kind of alterations. This would make the philosophy a religion. Instead, we should be careful to ensure that we do not change Stoicism so much as for it to be unrecognisable. In other words, to maintain Stoic beliefs or texts just because they are Stoic runs contrary to the spirit of Stoicism and even to a rational belief in the Stoic god, which necessarily dictates that science-based enquiry proceeds faith. This is why the Stoic Seneca the Younger was adamant (and so am I) that:

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 to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

I do not defend the inclusion of the Stoic god because of tradition or nostalgia but rather because the Stoic god provides the rationale behind Stoic ethics. Polat says:

What matters most, I think, is not our specific conception of the divine but the quality of our minds as we practice the hard daily work of becoming wise. Personally, I have found that in those moments when I’m able to get outside myself and come closer to a universal perspective, everything makes sense in a way it didn’t before. It’s a relief to find that all my small problems, which loomed so large in the landscape of everyday life, aren’t so important in the context of existence as a whole. This psychological condition does not require a specific set of beliefs about the nature of god, but rather the proper understanding of our relationship to the world.

On a superficial level it is easy for me to agree with her. As I dig deeper, though, it becomes apparent that the reason why Stoics recognise the value in improving the quality of our minds is precisely because they conceive the divine as the rational structure of the universe that imposes order and meaning. It is thus the very yardstick that Stoics try to approach as they strive for human excellence. In which case, I would argue that Polat, as a practicing Stoic, is unknowingly valuing the Stoic god every time she comes closer to a universal perspective. This is because in consistently trying to live according to Nature she is approaching or revering the Stoic god in such a way that she necessarily gains a better understanding of herself and her relationship to the world.

So, yes, on a superficial level, regardless of whether we more readily assign ourselves to the “theist” or “atheist” camp, reflecting deeply on the universe’s interconnected and interdependent web (that we ourselves depend on) frees us to evaluate our sense of being in line with how the world works, not how we would like it to be or how our interpretation of a sacred text says it works, even in the absence of, or contrary to, available evidence. In other words, pursuing truth based on respect for Nature is surely a more harmonious approach and is the foundation for a more accurate, fairer, and kinder path to happiness.

However, as a Stoic, if you take the time to unpack the reasons why you should appreciate or value Nature (by aligning your thoughts and actions to living in harmony with the universe), it becomes apparent that even though you might not know it or feel comfortable describing your behaviour in such terms, you are, by virtue of following a Stoical ethical system, deepening your relationship with yourself and the environment as you harmonise with the Stoic god’s own nature.

Now, if we could just remove that fence and allow for the Stoic god to live amongst us.


This essay was, in part, derived from my co-authored academic open access paper Stoic Theology: Revealing or Redundant?

[1] Brittany Polat, “On Stoic Transcendence,” The Side View, 2019, https://thesideview.co/articles/on-stoic-transcendence/.

[2] For an in-depth discussion on the similarities and differences on Buddhism and Stoicism, I thoroughly recommend A. Macaro (2018) More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age. I also recommend her Stoicon 2018 speech: “How Buddhist is Stoicism?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAuIDe5d-Cs

[3] An example of combining both faiths would be the neo-Stoic movement of the Late Renaissance. A good introductory text written by Stoic philosopher John Sellars is available here: https://www.iep.utm.edu/neostoic/. A contemporary Stoic example would be K. Vost (2016) The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living.

[4] In fact, Lawrence Becker’s (2017) A New Stoicism is a comprehensive attempt to re-envision Stoic philosophy without the Stoic theological grounding. Please note, this is a highly technical book and newcomers to Stoicism might prefer M. Pigliucci (2017) How to Be a Stoic? Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, which is a far more accessible book that explores Stoic living from an atheistic perspective.

[5] Michael P. Levine, “Pantheism, Ethics and Ecology,” Environmental Values 3, no. 2 (1994): 121–38.

[6] John Sellars, Stoicism, vol. 1 (University of California Press, 2006).

[7] Myrto Dragona-Monachou, The Stoic Arguments for the Existence and the Providence of the Gods (Athens, Greece: National and Capodistrian University of Athens, Faculty of Arts, 1976), 112–20.

[8] Chris Fisher, “The Path of the Prokopton—The Discipline of Desire,” 2016, http://www.traditionalstoicism.com/the-path-of-the-prokopton-the-discipline-of-desire/.

[9] A. A. Long, “Stoicism in the Philosophical Tradition,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, ed. Brad Inwood, Cambridge Companions to Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 365–392, https://doi.org/10.1017/CCOL052177005X.016.

[10] Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos, “Stoic Theology: Revealing or Redundant?,” Religions 10, no. 3 (2019): 193.

[11] John Sellars, “Neo-Stoicism,” Retrieved from https://www.iep.utm.edu/neostoic/.

[12] Anthony A. Long, Stoic Studies, vol. 36 (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[13] Lawrence C. Becker, A New Stoicism: Revised Edition (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017).

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