The Stoic Teachings of Zeus

The Stoic Teachings of Zeus

Zeus-BustCopyright © Donald Robertson, 2012.  All rights reserved.

It is wise, not listening to me but to the Logos, to agree that all things are one.

The one and only wise thing wishes and does not wish to be called by the name of Zeus. – Heraclitus, On Nature

Heraclitus’ cryptic Greek, in the passage above, can be read as implying that it is as though the voice of Nature, or Zeus, were calling us saying “all things are one”, and that wisdom consists in echoing this, in our own thoughts and words.  Is he attributing these words to the divine Logos, to the voice of Zeus?  The Stoics, who followed Heraclitus in many regards, also appear to attribute certain doctrines or phrases to Zeus, to God, or to Nature – all broadly equivalent terms in their pantheistic worldview.

For example, Musonius Rufus taught his students that Zeus “orders and encourages” us to study philosophy.

Stated briefly, the law of Zeus orders the human being to be good, and being good is the same thing as being a philosopher. (Lectures, 16)

He says this “commandment and law” of Nature is that humans should be “just, righteous, kind, self-controlled, magnanimous, above pain and pleasure, and devoid of all envy and treachery.”  However, his most famous student, Epictetus, is our source for many more references to Stoic laws or directions attributed directly to Zeus:

For the Zeus at Olympia does not show a proud look, does he?  No, but his gaze is steady, as befits one who is about to say: “No word of mine can be revoked or proved untrue.” (Discourses, 2.9.26)

However, the following passage is perhaps the most striking example of a Stoic-sounding maxim being put into the mouth of Zeus:

This is the law which God has ordained, and He says, “If you wish any good thing, get it from yourself.” (Discourses, 1.29.4)

It appears to express perhaps the most fundamental doctrine of Stoicism: that “the only good is moral good”, or that the essence of the good is virtue.  Being a good person and having a good life are synonymous for the Stoics, in contrast to the other philosophical schools of their period.

So Zeus says: ei ti agathon theleis, para seautou labe or “If you wish any good thing, get it from yourself.”  That obviously resonates with what Shaftesbury called the “Sovereign” precept of Epictetus’ Stoicism: “Some things are under our control and some things are not.”  From this a twofold doctrine emerges: (1) the good resides squarely within our sphere of volition, in moral excellence or virtue (2) external events, beyond our control, are indifferent with regard to our happiness and wellbeing (eudaimonia).  As we shall see, this twofold doctrine is repeatedly attributed to Zeus himself by Epictetus, alongside the claim that it is something that anyone may discern through considering the basic “common sense” facts of human nature.

For example, Epictetus elsewhere uses the rhetorical strategy known as apostrophe (“turning away”) when he breaks off from his dialogue with students into an imaginary conversation with Zeus himself in order to put the following words in the god’s mouth:

But what says Zeus? “Epictetus, if it were possible, I would have made both your little body and your little property free and not exposed to hindrance. But now be not ignorant of this: this body is not yours, but it is clay finely tempered. And since I was not able to do for you what I have mentioned, I have given you a small portion of us, this faculty of pursuing an object and avoiding it, and the faculty of desire and aversion, and, in a word, the faculty of using the appearances of things; and if you will take care of this faculty and consider it your only possession, you will never be hindered, never meet with impediments; you will not lament, you will not blame, you will not flatter any person.” (Discourses, 1.1)

The “law” of Zeus is elsewhere defined as (1) to guard what is our own, our reason and faculty of choice, and make good use of it; and (2) to not claim as ours what is external, or yearn for what fate has denied us, but to be willing to give up what fate has temporarily “loaned” us, as Epictetus likes to put it.

And what is the law of God?  To guard what is his own, not to lay claim to what is not his own, but to make use of what is given him, and not to yearn for what has not been given; when something is taken away, to give it up readily and without delay, being grateful for the time in which he had the use of it – all this if you do not wish to be crying for your nurse and your mammy!  (Discourses, 2.16.27-28)

Elsewhere, Epictetus talks about how, when death or misfortune strike, he wishes to be found obeying the commandments of Zeus.  This are likewise described as (1) to use the powers, perceptions, and preconceptions, granted to him, wisely and (2) to be contented with whatever fate Zeus sends him:

For I wish to be surprised by disease or death when I am looking after nothing else than my own will, that I may be free from perturbation, that I may be free from hindrance, free from compulsion, and in a state of liberty. I wish to be found practising these things that I may be able to say to God, Have I in any respect transgressed thy commands? have I in any respect wrongly used the powers which thou gavest me? have I misused my perceptions or my preconceptions have I ever blamed thee? have I ever found fault with thy administration? I have been sick, because it was thy will, and so have others, but I was content to be sick. I have been poor because it was thy will, but I was content also. I have not filled a magisterial office, because it was not thy pleasure that I should: I have never desired it Hast thou ever seen me for this reason discontented? have I not always approached thee with a cheerful countenance, ready to do thy commands and to obey thy signals? Is it now thy will that I should depart from the assemblage of men? I depart. I give thee all thanks that thou hast allowed me to join in this thy assemblage of men and to see thy works, and to comprehend this thy administration. (Discourses, 3.5)

Again, Epictetus insists that Zeus himself has given them guidance.  Perhaps recalling Heraclitus (“Listening not to me but to the Logos…”) he therefore insists the students present should listen to the guidance of Zeus and not to their mortal teacher.  Again, the word of Zeus, embodied in human nature, clearly encapsulates the basic Stoic doctrine (“Follow Nature”), which divides into the twofold injunction: (1) Protect that which is your own, your reason, volition, and virtue; (2) do not grasp after that which is external, and belongs to another, or to God.

Has not Zeus given you directions?  Has he not given you that which is your own, unhindered and unrestrained, while that which is not your own is subject to hindrance and restraint. What directions, then, did you bring with you when you came from him into this world, what kind of an order?  Guard by every means that which is your own, but do not grasp at that which is another’s.  Your trustworthiness is your own, your self-respect is your own; who then, can take these things from you?  Who but yourself will prevent you from using them?  But you, how do you act?  When you seek earnestly that which is not your own, you lose that which is your own.  Since you have such promptings and directions from Zeus, what kind do you still want from me?  Am I greater than he, or more trustworthy?  But if you keep these commands of his, do you need any others besides?  But has he not given you these directions? (Discourses, 1.25.3-6)

However, although these passages suggest that the Stoics mainly attributed their central Ethical precept to Zeus, Epictetus also bemoans the fact that even Zeus has been unable to teach mankind about the nature of good and evil:

[To teach people not to pity you unnecessarily] is ineffectual and tedious – to attempt the very thing which Zeus himself has been unable to accomplish, that is, to convince all men of what things are good, and what evil. Why, that has not been vouchsafed to you, has it?  Nay, this only has been vouchsafed – to convince yourself. (Discourses, 4.6.5)

Moreover, there are a couple of other cryptic passages in which Epictetus appears to attribute certain doctrines or sayings to Zeus.  First, “let the better always prevail over the worse”, which seems to be taken by the Stoics to mean that the Divine Spark in man, his volition (prohairesis), is inherently able to overcome external impressions, through the faculty of judgement.

[…] nothing else can overcome volition, but it overcomes itself.  For this reason too the law of God is most good and most just: “Let the better always prevail over the worse.” […] For this is a law of nature and of God: “Let the better always prevail over the worse.”  Prevail in what?  In that in which it is better. (Discourses, 1.29.13)

The second passage suggests that a Divine Law says that he who falsely claims to be a Stoic, or who, in general, claims things outside of his control as his own, is doomed to suffer and injure himself as a result:

For what does this [divine] law say? Let him who pretends to things which do not belong to him be a boaster, a vain-glorious man: let him who disobeys the divine administration be base, and a slave; let him suffer grief, let him be envious, let him pity; and in a word let him be unhappy and lament. (Discourses, 3.24)

There’s also a peculiar passage in Book Nine of the Stoic Lucan’s epic poem Pharsalia, about the Great Roman Civil War.  The Stoic hero Cato marches his beleaguered troops through the deserts of Africa, where they endure many hardships, and suffer many casualties.  However, they are inspired to persevere in the face of great adversity by Cato’s example.  At one point, Cato’s army come across the only temple to Jupiter (or Zeus), under the name of Ammon, in the surrounding lands.  A general who had defected from Caesar’s army, Labienus, urges Cato to consult the oracle about their fate in the civil war.  However, Cato refuses to do so, because of his Stoic principles, and instead becomes a kind of oracle himself, delivering a short speech on Stoic doctrine to reproach and inspire his men.

He, filled with the god he carried in his silent mind,
poured forth from his breast words worthy of the shrine:
’What question, Labienus, do you bid me ask?  Whether I prefer
to meet my death in battle, free, to witnessing a tyranny?
Whether it makes no difference if our lives be long or short?
Whether violence can harm no good man and Fortune wastes her threats
when virtue lines up against her, and whether it is enough to wish for
things commendable and whether what is upright never grows by its success?
We know the answer: Ammon will not plant it deeper in me.
We are all connected with the gods above, and even if the shrine is silent
we do nothing without God’s will; no need has deity of any
utterances: the Creator told us at our birth once and always
whatever we can know.  Did he select the barren sands
to prophesy to a few and in this dust submerge the truth
and is there any house of God except the earth and sea and air
and sky and excellence?  Why do we seek gods any further?
Whatever you see, whatever you experience, is Jupiter.
Let those unsure and always dubious of future events
require fortune-tellers: no oracles make me certain,
certain death does.  Coward and brave must fall:
it is enough that Jupiter has said this.’  So declaring
he departed from the altars with the temples credit intact,
leaving Ammon to the peoples, uninvestigated.

So Cato is portrayed as saying that he does not need to consult Zeus in a temple.  Zeno reputedly said that the ideal Stoic Republic, incidentally would have no place for temples.  Zeus is all around us, in whatever we see or hear.  Moreover, he has planted the seed of virtue, knowledge of our goal in life, within us, including the clue that death is certain for all men.  It’s only what we can know from within, without depending on external sources of information, that’s of absolute moral importance – otherwise such knowledge would lie in the hands of fate rather than within our own power.  Perhaps because we depend only on ourselves for knowledge of the good, we can grasp it with complete certainty, which provides wisdom with a special security or stability, once attained.

Finally, the famous Hymn to Zeus of Cleanthes.  Epictetus quotes this repeatedly, although never more than the first four lines below, and sometimes the first line only.  This doesn’t tell us any more about the laws or commandments attributed by Stoics to Zeus but it’s the perfect expression of their commitment to “Follow Nature” or “Follow God”, namely Zeus, in all they do:

Lead me on, O Zeus, and thou Destiny,
To that goal long ago to me assigned.
I’ll follow readily but if my will prove weak;
Wretched as I am, I must follow still.
Fate guides the willing, but drags the unwilling.

– Cleanthes, Hymn to Zeus

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