The Religious Nature of Stoicism

The Religious Nature of Stoicism

Many people introduced to Stoicism by twenty-first-century popularizers are surprised by the religious nature of the philosophy. The deafening silence on this topic leaves most people unaware of the deep religious piety of the Stoics.

This silence belies the copious references to divinity and providence in the Stoic texts and the extensive scholarship, from a variety of fields, acknowledging the religious nature of Stoicism. As examples, the distinguished classicist Edith Hamilton claimed Stoicism provides proof of Aristotle’s conception of humans living to the highest within their nature and declared.

[Stoicism] was a religion first, a philosophy only second.

Likewise, the classical scholar Gilbert Murray wrote,

Stoicism may be called either a philosophy or a religion. It was a religion in its exalted passion; it was a philosophy inasmuch as it made no pretence to magical powers or supernatural knowledge.

Stoicism may be called either a philosophy or a religion. It was a religion in its exalted passion; it was a philosophy inasmuch as it made no pretence to magical powers or supernatural knowledge.

Scottish philosopher Edward Caird called Stoicism a religious philosophy,

From the first, Stoicism was a religious philosophy, as is shown by the great hymn of Cleanthes, the successor of Zeno as head of the school—a hymn which is inspired by the consciousness that it is one spiritual power which penetrates and controls the universe and is the source of every work done under the sun, “except what evil men endeavour in their folly.”

Finally, German philosopher Eduard Zeller points out the impossibility of understanding Stoicism apart from its theology,

It would be impossible to give a full account of the philosophy of the Stoics without, at the same time, treating of their theology; for no early system is so closely connected with religion as that of the Stoics. Founded, as the whole view of the world is, upon the theory of one Divine Being… There is hardly a single prominent feature in the Stoic system which is not, more or less, connected with theology.

While Stoicism was never a religion in the modern sense, with temples and altars, its spiritual nature evoked reverence and piety in the ancients and in many who practice it today.  In its traditional form, Stoicism was a personal religion where “the fundamental doctrines of the Stoa were such as to create a kind of spirituality and to raise men’s souls toward the cosmic God.”

However, most modern popularizers of Stoicism are themselves atheists or agnostics. Therefore, they reject or ignore the deeply religious sentiment woven into Stoicism. They either disregard Stoic physics and theology altogether or dismiss it as an anachronism from a less enlightened, pre-scientific age. This is truly unfortunate because this deeply spiritual, philosophical way of life is a legitimate option for moderns seeking a reasonable form of spirituality not tied to organized religion. Stoicism offers a meaningful and reasonable spiritual alternative to the existentialism and nihilism of our modern age.

Nevertheless, instead of the powerful and deeply spiritual Stoicism which inspired the lives of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, most moderns are offered a popularized, atheistic version of Stoic ethics. For those who appreciate the holistic nature of Stoic theory and its philosophical way of life, these formulations appear to be little more than Cognitive Behavioral Therapy mixed with mindfulness techniques and a few Stoic aphorisms. Such criticism may appear harsh; however, as demonstrated below, many scholars of Stoicism offer equally severe criticism of those who attempt to minimize the Stoic conception of cosmic Nature found within their holistic system.

Unfortunately, words like “religion”, “religious”, and “God” are burdened with a tremendous amount of baggage which causes many people to recoil almost instinctively from them. Therefore, it is important to clarify what we mean by the religious nature of Stoicism and how it differs from what commonly comes to mind with such words. The word spiritual applies equally well; however, it also carries baggage from many “new age” forms of spirituality. Roger Walsh, professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Irvine, offers the following definitions of religion and spirituality which fit the religious nature of Stoicism nicely,

We need to distinguish between two crucial terms: religion and spirituality. The word religion has many meanings; in particular it implies a concern with the sacred and supreme values of life. The term spirituality, on the other hand, refers to direct experience of the sacred. Spiritual practices are those that help us experience the sacred— that which is most central and essential to our lives— for ourselves.

Stoicism offers such a direct experience of the sacred through the recognition that God, as pneuma, is immanent in all of Nature and humankind.

Moderns popularizers discount or disregard the numerous references to divinity and providence within the extant texts, and ignore the scholars who argue that removing cosmic Nature (physics) from Stoicism degrades its effectiveness as a philosophical way of life. They ignore the “crucial link between Stoic cosmo-theology and Stoic ethics.” Likewise, they turn a blind eye to the fact that Stoicism is a holistic philosophy where each part—logic, physics, and ethics—is dependent on the context of the whole. As Brad Inwood reminds us,

We do well to take the Stoics at their word when they say that no part of their philosophy can be separated from another and that its exposition must at all stages draw on all three branches.

Moreover, those who remove cosmic Nature (physics) from the Stoic system fail to heed the scholarly warning that it is a “serious mistake” to “tone down the cosmic dimension” of  Stoicism because any version of Stoic ethics which removes this cosmic Nature will be “broken-backed.” Likewise, they overlook the “ethical and emotional support” provided by the Stoic worldview. As Julia Annas affirms, These ethically transformative conclusions are indeed strengthened when they are seen not independently, but in the context of and integrated with physical conclusions about Providence and the rational ordering of the world. Thus ethics is better understood and more stable in the agent’s psychology when integrated with physical conclusions about Providence.

Ignoring the divine and providential nature of Stoicism arguably reduces its effectiveness as a philosophical way of life. That may be the only option available to the committed atheist who wishes to apply Stoic ethical principles and practices in their life. However, they should keep in mind that an atheistic version of Stoicism may not deliver on the promise of Stoicism they are seeking—eudaimonia (a good flow in life). Stoicism was not designed around an atheist worldview. The Stoic path relies on a divine and providential cosmos for its ethical prescriptions, and psychological consolation. At some future date, we may find that an atheist version of Stoicism is effective. However, until an atheistic, non-teleological version of Stoicism produces exemplars like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, it seems reasonable to consider it an unproven path.

The Stoic conception of God

The Stoic conception of the divine has little in common with the God of Western monotheistic religions. The Stoic God is an all-pervasive, immanent, active force in the cosmos, and is equivalent to and often called “Nature.” Zeus, pneuma, and logos are also used to refer to this active force. The Stoics used many names to refer to the divine principle in the cosmos. Cleanthes, the second head of the ancient Stoa, pointed this out in the opening lines of his Hymn to Zeus:

Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful,
Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,
Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you,
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God’s image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.
Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.

As Brad Inwood points out,

The themes of Cleanthes’ hymns lie at the heart of Stoicism and help to flesh out the doctrine of Chrysippus that theology is the culmination of physics… Like every branch of philosophy, physics is intimately concerned with the place of human beings in the coordinated whole which is run by Zeus.

The Stoics are most frequently considered pantheists; however, deist, theist, and panentheistic qualities are found in the surviving writings. It is important to keep in mind that all of these labels are modern creations; therefore, none applies perfectly. The God of Stoicism does not fit neatly into any box. Johan Thom highlights this difficulty about Stoic prayer and religion in his analysis of Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus,

The cause of the difficulty regarding Stoic prayer, and indeed Stoic religion in general, may be ascribed to the fact that Stoicism was, from the very beginning, not purely pantheistic, but an amalgam of pantheism and theism.

Theistic leanings are quite prominent in the Hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes, who is considered the “most religious”[ of the early Stoics. Thus,

According to Cleanthes’ Hymn, the philosophical life is a religious life, and vice versa.

Likewise, the Discourses of Epictetus are rich in theistic language. The logos of Stoicism is not a personal God; nevertheless,

In the history of the Stoa, God will tend to assume more and more spiritual and personal traits, religiousness will tend to permeate more and more strongly the system, and prayer will begin to acquire a precise meaning… The Stoa will turn, especially in the last stage, towards theism, but without arriving at it fully.

Even though the religious nature of Stoicism evolved over the course of its five-hundred-year history, the “vivid religious sense” was there from the founding of the Stoa and already found “full expression in the well-known Hymn to Zeus.”

Nature may be the easiest way for many people to conceive of the Stoic God. This Nature is not limited to plants and trees, although they are certainly included. Nature, for the Stoics, means a divine cosmos, and it is equivalent to God because pneuma—the active principle—permeates the entire cosmos and everything in it, including us humans. This divine cosmos is providential to the extent that everything works out for the good of the whole rather than the good of any particular person.

The religious nature of Stoicism is more than religious-sounding language, and the Stoic God is more than a mere metaphor. When we read the writings of Seneca, the Discourses of Epictetus, and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and find within them a source of inspiration and moral guidance, we are wise to remember each of these men trusted a divine and providential cosmos as a part of their Stoic practice. The same psychological consolation is available today for the practitioner who integrates the metaphysical assumptions of the Stoics into their philosophical way of life.