Stoicism: God or Atoms?
Can you be a modern Stoic and an atheist (or agnostic)?
Although most (but perhaps not all, as we’ll see below) Stoics appear to have placed considerable importance upon belief in God (specifically, Zeus), there is some indication that others may have entertained a more agnostic stance, something relatively unusual for the period in which they lived. Only about 1% of the ancient Stoic writings survive today, at a rough estimate. We have substantial texts from only three authors: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. They were all late Roman Stoics and we have only fragments from the early Greek Stoics, including the founders of the school. (Also some important ancient secondary sources, especially in the writings of the Platonist Cicero.) None of these Stoics appear to have been agnostics themselves but others may have been. What matters is whether they, and other Stoics, would have accepted that someone else could potentially be both an agnostic (or atheist) and a Stoic.
Throughout history, Stoics, and indeed pantheists in general, have been accused of atheism. Spinoza, who has been called “more Stoic than the Stoics”, and his followers, were attacked as atheists because he said “Deus sive natura“, God is the same thing as Nature. On the other hand, many people would say this was an unfair criticism. However, the Stoic conception of God, or Zeus, which they also equate with Nature, is so unlike most theistic conceptions of God that it inevitably raises questions about whether it makes sense to call it “God” at all. Stoic physics and theology were heavily influenced by the writings of the pre-Socratic Heraclitus, the master of paradox, who wrote that Nature “is both willing and unwilling to be called by the name of Zeus”. In other words, if you asked Heraclitus whether Nature is the same as Zeus he would probably have replied: “yes and no“! The Stoics were materialists (or corporealists) for whom God could not exist as a metaphysical or supernatural entity apart from physical Nature. They were therefore renowned for interpreting Greek myths about the gods allegorically, as metaphors for natural forces and processes. We have a surviving text on theology from the Stoic Cornutus, which elaborates at great length on the symbolic interpretation of the gods, drawing heavily on speculations about ancient etymologies. It concludes:
In the same way, my child, you can apply these basic models to everything else that comes down through mythology concerning those considered to be gods, in the conviction that the ancients were far from mediocre, but were capable of understanding the nature of the cosmos and ready to express their philosophy in symbols and enigmas.
Cornutus still believes piety is important and customary rituals are preserved. However, the traditional myths are to be understood metaphorically as references to aspects of divine Nature.
When the young are being taught to sacrifice and pray, and worship and swear oaths in the right way and in the appropriate circumstances (according to the sense of proportion you adopt for yourself) – you will come to grasp both your ancestral traditions about these things (the gods and their cults and everything that exists for their honour), and also an unblemished account of them, so that they will lead you only to piety, and not to superstition.
Likewise, Henry Sedgwick, in his biography of Marcus Aurelius, summarises the original teachings of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism as follows:
Zeus, Hera and Vesta,
And all the gods and goddesses
Are not Gods, but names
Given to things that lack life and speech;
For Zeus is the sky, Hera the air,
Poseidon the sea, and Hephaestus fire.
Likewise, Seneca makes it clear that he sees the ancient myths as akin to children’s stories and that no educated adult should take them literally.
I am not so foolish as to go through at this juncture the arguments which Epicurus harps upon, and say that the terrors of the world below are idle – that Ixion does not whirl round on his wheel, that Sisyphus does not shoulder his stone uphill, that a man’s entrails cannot be restored and devoured every day; no one is so childish as to fear Cerberus, or the shadows, or the spectral garb of those who are held together by naught but their unfleshed bones. (Letters, 24)
This is the source of much confusion: the Stoics do very frequently talk about Zeus but they clearly did not mean their use of conventional theological and mythological language to be taken at face value. Zeus, and the other traditional gods, are re-interpreted in naturalistic terms, as the personification of Nature as a whole, or certain aspects thereof. This conveniently allowed the early Greek Stoics to escape the charge of atheism, which we should recall was the pretext for Socrates’ execution. However, it also allowed them to radically revise the conventional theological beliefs held by non-philosophers, the “foolish” majority of people. This should come as no surprise because the Stoic school was particularly known for introducing paradoxical doctrines, intended to turn popular beliefs on their head.
Moreover, the Stoic attitude toward religion appears to be derived from the Sophist Prodicus, a friend of Socrates, who was frequently labelled an “atheist” in the ancient world. The famous allegory of Prodicus, called “The Choice of Hercules”, as recounted in Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates, was apparently the text that inspired Zeno of Citium to become a philosopher, and a follower of the Cynic Crates. It ultimately led to the founding of the Stoic school. Prodicus was called an “atheist” on account of his naturalistic reinterpretation of the gods as personifications of the sun, moon, rivers, etc., and things of benefit to our ancestors. The same way of interpreting the gods was explicitly attributed to Persaeus, the most prominent of Zeno’s immediate students, by Cicero in On the Nature of the Gods.
Persaeus says that it was men who had discovered some great aid to civilisation that were regarded as gods, and that the names of divinities were also bestowed upon actual material objects of use and profit, so that he is not even content to describe these as the creations of God, but makes out that they are themselves divine. (On the Nature of the Gods, 1.15)
In his recent book, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, Tim Whitmarsh therefore classes the Stoic Persaeus as an atheist, like Prodicus before him. However, it’s quite possible this naturalistic interpretation of the gods was shared by most Stoics. We can see it clearly in Cornutus, but also in the writings of Seneca and others.
This debate about whether the ancient Stoics would require their followers to believe in God or not, and what they mean by “God”, naturally interests modern Stoics, many of whom are agnostics or atheists themselves and seek to reconcile Stoic ethics and psychological practices with their own contemporary worldview. It’s worth noting that Socrates was sometimes portrayed as a partial agnostic. He admitted that certainty about the gods is impossible but chose to believe in them on the basis of probability. He therefore appears to have been open to the possibility of atheism. Yet the Stoics generally held him in high regard as perhaps the closest historical approximation to the ideal Sage. Moreover, in explaining his view that Stoicism followed Cynicism as part of a direct philosophical succession beginning with Socrates, Diogenes Laertius emphasises the claim that Socrates was the first philosopher to eschew discussion of natural philosophy in favour of ethical questions directly related to problems of living. (Natural philosophy or “Physics” included theology, as Diogenes acknowledges in discussing Socrates.) He says that Socrates “discussed moral questions in the workshops and the market-place, being convinced that the study of nature is no concern of ours.” Elsewhere he notes that despite this Socrates did say some things about “providence”, although the extensive discussions of cosmology and theology attributed to him in the Platonic Dialogues are not his own words but those of Plato, who reputedly being began using “Socrates” as a mouthpiece for doctrines that were actually Pythagorean in origin.
In my opinion Socrates discoursed on Physics [including theology] as well as on ethics, since he holds some conversations about Providence, even according to Xenophon, who, however, declares that he only discussed ethics. But Plato, after mentioning Anaxagoras and certain other Physicists in the Apology, treats for his own part themes which Socrates disowned, although he puts everything into the mouth of Socrates.
It was the early Platonic Dialogues, such as the Apology, and the writings of Xenophon, which reputedly provide a more authentic portrayal of Socrates, which the Stoics modelled themselves upon. This Socrates was the one who expressed agnosticism or uncertainty over ultimate questions about the nature of the universe and the existence of the gods.
Moreover, several ancient Stoics appear to have questioned the importance of belief in God, at least to some extent. Panaetius, the last “scholarch” or head of the Athenian school of Stoicism, who introduced it to Rome, is reported to have stated that discussion of the gods is “nugatory” or of negligible importance in relation to the Stoic way of life (q.v., Algra, ‘Stoic Theology’, in The Cambridge Companion to The Stoics, 2003, p. 154). Moreover, Aristo of Chios, an influential associate of Zeno, who perhaps leaned more toward Cynicism and rejected certain fundamental aspects of early Stoicism, held more sceptical views later reported by Cicero as follows: “Aristo holds that no form of God is conceivable, and denies him sensation, and is in a state of complete uncertainty as to whether he is, or is not, animate” (On the Nature of the Gods, 1.14). His views appear to have been controversial within Stoicism, although they nevertheless had a lasting influence. For example, some scholars interpret sources as suggesting that Marcus Aurelius was “converted” to Stoic philosophy after reading something by Aristo of Chios.
Moreover, philosophers from both the Cynic and Megarian schools, important precursors of Stoicism, reputedly held controversial views about the existence of the gods. There are many passages in which Diogenes the Cynic ridicules religious practices such as praying to the gods for good health, while living in unhealthy ways. He thought the idea of salvation through initiation was ridiculous because it allowed bad people to be rewarded while the good suffered, just because they’d paid a priest. He reputedly burned a wooden statue of the god Heracles to cook his lentils. So it seems clear he thought the religious attitudes and practices of the majority were foolish and hypocritical. He attacks diviners and soothsayers as charlatans, preying on the superstitions of the gullible.
So did he propose an alternative form of religion? No. What does he say, then, about the existence of the gods? He famously said that the long-life and successful career of the notorious pirate Harpalos was proof against the existence of the gods. When asked directly if the gods exist, on one occasion, we’re told he said “I don’t know”, adding that all he knew was that it would be helpful if they did. We’re told someone once asked him “Are you the Diogenes who doesn’t believe in the existence of the gods?”, showing at least that this was his reputation during his lifetime. He replied, “How could I be when I consider you hateful to them?”, which was perhaps merely a joke. You might also say that anecdotes are told about Diogenes in which he various claims the existence of the gods is proven, disproven, or unknown to him. Nevertheless, the Stoics, particularly Epictetus, held Diogenes up as a near-sage and one of their most revered role-models.
We’re told Stilpo the Megarian was asked if the gods exist by Crates the Cynic. Stilpo and Crates were both important teachers of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism. Stilpo replied, “Don’t ask me about such matters in the street, you fool”, implying that the answer would provoke the crowds. When Diogenes Laertius cites this he goes on to say that likewise the Cynic Bion of Borysthenes, a contemporary of Zeno and fellow-student of Crates, when asked if the gods exist, replied “Will you not scatter the crowd from me, wretched old man!” We know from other sources that Bion criticised the gods fiercely and impiously, inspired by the teachings of the famous Cyrenaic philosopher “Theodoros the Atheist”.
Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, appears to have forwarded several arguments for the existence of god. However, he also reputedly proposed that temples and religious sculptures should be abolished. The Stoics in general appear to have fundamentally revised established assumptions concerning the nature of prayer and divination and to have rejected the common anthropomorphic view of the Greek and Roman gods. Hence, even insofar as certain Stoics endorsed a belief in god, they also radically modified traditional religious concepts and practices.
Moreover, even in the sparse literature that survives, the Stoics frequently express negative or sceptical views about traditional Graeco-Roman religion. For example, the Stoic poet Lucan, nephew of Seneca, in his epic The Civil War (or Pharsalia) wrote:
No guardian gods watch over us from heaven:
Jove [i.e., Zeus] is no king; let ages whirl along
In blind confusion: from his throne supreme
Shall he behold such carnage and restrain
His thunderbolts? […]
Careless of men
Are all the gods.
It’s not clear if this was actually Lucan’s personal view, as a Stoic, but it’s nevertheless clearly a profound questioning of established theological assumptions, sounding more Epicurean perhaps than traditionally Stoic. Curiously, Seneca, who may have exerted considerable influence over Lucan’s Stoicism, argues that the traditional Stoic role-model Heracles (the son of Zeus) might be obsolete and better replaced by the more-recent example provided by Cato the Younger in the Roman civil war. Together, therefore, Seneca and Lucan appear to be suggesting, or at least flirting with the notion, that Stoics should model themselves on real historical exemplars, political and military figures like the Republican hero Cato, rather than mythological gods and demigods, like Zeus and Heracles.
Moreover, the fundamental question over the existence of God (or the gods) may have been given a kind of name or label in ancient philosophy. About nine times in The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius alludes to contrasting viewpoints traditionally taken as characteristic of two opposing traditions in ancient Graeco-Roman philosophy: “God or atoms”. Belief that God (or “Providence”) ordered the cosmos was taken to be characteristic of the broad tradition originating with Pythagoras and Socrates, and including Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. By contrast, belief that the universe was due to the random collision of atoms, originating with Democritus, was characteristic of the Epicurean school, the main rival of Stoicism.
In his rigorous analysis of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the French scholar Pierre Hadot argues that the text clearly shows that Marcus views this as an allusion to a well-established line of argument, presumably one taught in Stoic schools of the period. Although Marcus rejected the “atoms” (Epicurean) hypothesis, nevertheless, Hadot concludes that he seems to be arguing that even if someone were to accept this and reject Providence, the core of Stoicism, the Stoic ethical doctrines, would still remain true and compelling.
Marcus thus opposes two models of the universe: that of Stoicism and that of Epicureanism. His reason for doing so is to show that, on any hypothesis, and even if one were to accept, in the field of [philosophical] physics, the model most diametrically opposed to that of Stoicism, the Stoic moral attitude is still the only possible one. (Hadot, The Inner Citadel, 1998, p. 148)
It’s well-established by scholars that the ancient Stoics, probably influenced by the example of Chrysippus’ extensive writings, frequently took it upon themselves to formulate arguments to persuade non-Stoics, or philosophers of opposing schools, of Stoic views, on their own terms, i.e., in their own language and based upon assumptions familiar to them. The notion that Stoic ethics, the central doctrine of Stoicism, could be justified even on the basis of an atomistic and atheistic or agnostic world-view, was probably essential to arguments designed to win over followers from other schools, or non-philosophers, who did not have the same kind of belief in God as the founders of Stoicism and their more orthodox followers.
For example, some of Marcus’ comments about this “God or atoms” argument are as follows:
Recall once again this alternative: ‘if not a wise Providence [God], then a mere jumble of atoms’… (iv.3)
Alexander of Macedon and his stable-boy were brought to the same state by death; for either they were received among the same creative principle of the universe [God], or they were alike dispersed into atoms. ( vi.24)
So Marcus argues that the Stoic’s attitude toward death should be the same whether he believes in God or not. It’s been observed that Seneca says something that resembles this:
What is death? Either a transition or an end. I am not afraid of coming to an end, this being the same as never having begun, nor of transition, for I shall never be in confinement quite so cramped anywhere else as I am here. (Letters, 24)
In another passage, Seneca appears to be alluding to the same distinction as Marcus, between God and atoms (or “chance”):
Perhaps someone will say: “How can philosophy help me, if Fate exists? Of what avail is philosophy, if God rules the universe? Of what avail is it, if Chance governs everything? For not only is it impossible to change things that are determined, but it is also impossible to plan beforehand against what is undetermined; either God has forestalled my plans, and decided what I am to do, or else Fortune gives no free play to my plans.” Whether the truth, Lucilius, lies in one or in all of these views, we must be philosophers; whether Fate binds us down by an inexorable law, or whether God as arbiter of the universe has arranged everything, or whether Chance drives and tosses human affairs without method, philosophy ought to be our defence. She will encourage us to obey God cheerfully, but Fortune defiantly; she will teach us to follow God and endure Chance. But it is not my purpose now to be led into a discussion as to what is within our own control, – if foreknowledge is supreme, or if a chain of fated events drags us along in its clutches, or if the sudden and the unexpected play the tyrant over us; I return now to my warning and my exhortation, that you should not allow the impulse of your spirit to weaken and grow cold. Hold fast to it and establish it firmly, in order that what is now impulse may become a habit of the mind. (Seneca, Epistles, 16)
In other words, Stoic philosophy is just as relevant, he appears to be claiming, whether or not we believe that events are causally determined by unthinking Fate, by the Providential Will of God, or by blind chance.
Marcus returns to the theme several times, though, and refers repeatedly to the notion that it is indifferent which one of these opposing metaphysical views (“God or atoms”) we accept, because Stoic Ethics leads us to the same conclusions either way.
If the choice is yours, why do the thing? If another’s, where are you to lay the blame for it? On gods? On atoms? Either would be insanity. All thoughts of blame are out of place. (viii.17)
That is, whether a Stoic believes in God or not (in mere random atoms), either way he should not think in terms of “blame”.
It may be that the World-Mind [God] wills each separate happening in succession; and, if so, then accept the consequences. Or, it may be, there was but one primal act of will, of which all else is the sequel; every event being thus the germ of another. To put it another way, things are either isolated units [atoms], or they form one inseparable whole. If that whole be God, then all is well; but if aimless chance, at least you need not be aimless also. (ix.28)
So the Stoic reminds himself that even if the whole universe is composed of aimless chance, or random atoms, rather than being steered by God, in any case, he should himself not act aimlessly. In other words, we should make it our constant goal to pursue the good, to pursue wisdom and the other virtues, whether or not we believe in Providence.
Either things must have their origin in one single intelligent source [God], and all fall into place to compose, as it were, one single body – in which case no part ought to complain of what happens for the good of the whole – or else the world is nothing but atoms and their confused minglings and dispersions. So why be so harassed? (ix.39)
Whether one’s fate is the product of an intelligent God or the mere random collision of atoms, in either case, the Stoic should not feel personally harassed. (Because our only true good is virtue, which is under our own control, and external matters are morally indifferent.)
No matter whether the universe is a confusion of atoms or a natural growth, let my first conviction be that I am part of a Whole which is under Nature’s governance; and my second, that a bond of kinship exists between myself and all other similar parts. (x.6)
So the Stoic principle of kinship to all mankind, and to Nature as a whole, holds good, whether or not we believe in a provident God. Likewise:
There must be either a predestined Necessity and inviolable plan, or a gracious Provident God, or a chaos without design or director. If then there be an inevitable Necessity, why kick against the pricks? If a Providence that is ready to be gracious, render thyself worthy of divine succour. But if a chaos without guide, congratulate thyself that amid such a surging sea thou hast in thyself a guiding rational faculty [hêgemonikon]. (xii, 14)
[Thou must have this rule ready for use:] to realize that all that befalls thee from without is due either to Chance or to Providence, nor hast thou any call to blame Chance or to impeach Providence. (xii, 24)
Note that in this passage, Marcus appears to say that he must always have a rule ready-to-hand in his mind that says that events may be due either to Providence or, alternatively, to mere Chance. That would appear to mean always accepting the possibility that Providence is not responsible for events, which arguably amounts to a kind of agnosticism.
In summary, Marcus appears to be trying to persuade himself:
- That whether we are dissolved into God or dispersed among random atoms, either way all of us, whether kings or servants, face the fate in death.
- That whether the universe is rule by a provident God or due to the random collision of atoms, either way it makes no sense to blame others for our actions.
- Whether the universe is governed by God or due to the “aimless chance” movement of atoms, either way “you need not be aimless also.”
- Whether the universe is governed by a single intelligent Providence or it is nothing but random atoms, in either case on should not be “harassed”.
- Finally, whether the universe is a “confusion of atoms” or the natural growth (of a provident God?), either way I should be convinced that I am part of something bigger, and a kinship therefore exists between me and other parts.
Scholars disagree over Marcus’ intention in presenting himself with this dichotomous choice between “God and atoms”, however. One common interpretation is that he is reminding himself that whether a creator God exists, or whether the universe is simply ordered by blind chance, in either case the practical (ethical) principles of Stoicism should still be followed. For the Stoics, who were essentially pantheists, theology was part of the discipline of “physics”, because they were materialists, who viewed God as pervading, and ordering, the whole of nature.
Moreover, I believe that a remark made by Epictetus, whose philosophy Marcus studied closely may be read as shedding further light on the contrast between “God or atoms”. In one of the fragments attributed to Epictetus (fr. 1) we are told he said the following:
What does it matter to me, says Epictetus, whether the universe is composed of atoms or uncompounded substances, or of fire and earth? Is it not sufficient to know the true nature of good and evil, and the proper bounds of our desires and aversions, and also of our impulses to act and not to act; and by making use of these as rules to order the affairs of our life, to bid those things that are beyond us farewell? It may very well be that these latter things are not to be comprehended by the human mind, and even if one assumes that they are perfectly comprehensible, well what profit comes from comprehending them? And ought we not to say that those men trouble in vain who assign all this as necessary to the philosopher’s system of thought? […] What Nature is, and how she administers the universe, and whether she really exists or not, these are questions about which there is no need to go on to bother ourselves.
It’s not clear how we’re to interpret this passage, and it may perhaps not be authentic. However, if it comes from one of the two lost books of the Discourses, this may be the source of Marcus Aurelius’ comments about “God and atoms”. What is clear is that in this passage, Epictetus says that questions concerning Nature (Phusis), which the Stoics use as a synonym for God, are unnecessary and potentially distracting elements of philosophy. He even says that whether Nature (God?) really exists or not, is a question about which there is no need for Stoics to bother themselves. He also says that specific questions such as whether the universe is made of atoms or of elements such as “fire and earth”, are fundamentally indifferent with regard to Stoic ethics. The Stoics believed that the universe is composed of a divine fire-like substance with causal powers (aka “pneuma”), identified both with God and the “spark” or fragment of divinity within humans, and the inert earth or matter upon which it acts.
Epictetus goes on to say that the elements of nature are “perhaps are incomprehensible to the human mind, but even if one should suppose them to be wholly comprehensible, still, what good does it do to comprehend them?” As the Stoic thought God to be material, this might be read as a kind of agnosticism, which questions whether knowledge of God is comprehensible or necessary to the practical aims of Stoic philosophy.
Overall, I would say that the literature of ancient Stoicism suggests that Marcus Aurelius and perhaps also Epictetus believed that agnosticism or even atheism may have been consistent with the Stoic way of life. What I haven’t attempted to do here is to argue at length for the philosophical consistency of an agnostic (or atheistic) form of Stoicism. However, in this regard, I would begin by pointing to the argument that the central principle of Stoicism, that the only true good is wisdom (the cardinal human virtue or excellence), acceptance of which arguably does not require belief in God, and from which other Stoic principles may derive without the need for belief in God as an additional premise.