The following passage from Aulus Gellius‘ The Attic Nights describes the Stoic doctrine concerning involuntary emotional reactions or “proto-passions” (propatheiai). See also Seneca’s On Anger, for a detailed discussion with some different examples, relating to anger rather than fear. The concept is also mentioned in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations – all three of our main surviving sources for Stoicism. Grasping the role of “proto-passions”, which are accepted by Stoics as natural and indifferent, is absolutely essential to an accurate understanding of Stoicism particularly in terms of the distinction between Stoicism (capital S), the Greek philosophy, and stoicism (small s), the “stiff upper lip” personality trait.
Regarding the anecdote below… It concerns a Stoic teacher who was caught at sea in a very severe storm, where the boat was clearly in danger of sinking and the crew of drowning. He turned pale and was frozen with fear, just like everyone else, but unlike the rest he wasn’t crying aloud and lamenting their situation. Unfortunately, we don’t have any indication who the famous Stoic that Aulus Gellius encountered on his sea journey may have been. He says the Stoic possessed a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses and was an important and well-respected teacher in Athens. They were apparently both sailing from Cassiopa, a town in the region of Korkyra, on Corfu, to Brundisium, in southern Italy, possibly en route to Rome. The only famous Stoic we hear much about who was teaching in Athens around the middle of the 2nd century AD is Apollonius of Chalcedon, a tutor of Marcus Aurelius – but there’s no reason to assume he’s actually the man in question. Although, from what we know about Apollonius, he was perhaps slightly haughty like the character being described in this vignette. We can rule out Arrian, incidentally, as he’s mentioned here in passing, and doesn’t seem to have taught Stoicism anyway.
It’s believed the Discourses of Epictetus originally spanned eight volumes, only four of which survive today. The Stoic teacher mentioned here appears to have shown Aulus Gellius a passage from one of the volumes now lost to us, the fifth book of the Discourses. However, Aulus Gellius also remarks that the doctrine of proto-passions described by Epictetus “undoubtedly” agrees with the original Stoic teachings of Zeno and Chrysippus. (Incidentally, this could be read as implying that Epictetus was typically known for following early Greek Stoic teachings very closely.) The Attic Nights were written in Latin, so Aulus Gellius sometimes comments on the fact he is quoting from the Greek language.
The proto-passions are here described as “brief but inevitable and natural”, precursors of full-blown emotions and desires. They are classed as morally indifferent by Stoics. I would add that the Stoics perhaps viewed them as comparable to the primitive feelings experienced by other animals, as a sort of reflex-like antecedent of full-blown human emotion. Aulus Gellius concludes it would be a mistake to interpret the Stoics as teaching that feeling fear for a brief time, and turning pale, is the sign of a foolish and weak person. Rather even Stoics yield to natural human (physiological) weakness in this regard but they do not continue to go along with their initial feelings by giving conscious assent to the impression and believing that events are as terrible as they seem.
For instance, a Stoic who unexpectedly glimpses someone wearing a frightening mask out of the corner of his eye might be startled and automatically become tense and pale, his heart beating suddenly faster. However, if we suppose it’s just a costume, when he realizes this he will no longer go along with the initial impression that something bad is going to happen. He will no longer give assent to the idea that he’s in danger, and his feelings will naturally abate, although he may take a few minutes to regain his composure. The Stoic Sage views all external events as indifferent but he probably has to remind himself of this as his body will automatically create troubling impressions in response to certain typical threats. Rather than trying to suppress these feelings, or feeling ashamed about them, Stoics merely accept them with indifference, and shrug them off, which is a very different response to what people often mean by “stoicism” or having a stiff upper lip.
The reply of a certain philosopher, when he was asked why he turned pale in a storm at sea.
We were sailing from Cassiopa to Brundisium over the Ionian sea, violent, vast and storm-tossed. During almost the whole of the night which followed our first day a fierce side-wind blew, which had filled our ship with water. Then afterwards, while we were all still lamenting, and working hard at the pumps, day at last dawned. But there was no less danger and no slackening of the violence of the wind; on the contrary, more frequent whirlwinds, a black sky, masses of fog, and a kind of fearful cloud-forms, which they called typhones, or “typhoons,” seemed to hang over and threaten us, ready to overwhelm the ship.
In our company was an eminent philosopher of the Stoic sect, whom I had known at Athens as a man of no slight importance, holding the young men who were his pupils under very good control. In the midst of the great dangers of that time and that tumult of sea and sky I looked for him, desiring to know in what state of mind he was and whether he was unterrified and courageous. And then I beheld the man frightened and ghastly pale, not indeed uttering any lamentations, as all the rest were doing, nor any outcries of that kind, but in his loss of colour and distracted expression not differing much from the others. But when the sky cleared, the sea grew calm, and the heat of danger cooled, then the Stoic was approached by a rich Greek from Asia, a man of elegant apparel, as we saw, and with an abundance of baggage and many attendants, while he himself showed signs of a luxurious person and disposition. This man, in a bantering tone, said: “What does this mean, Sir philosopher, that when we were in danger you were afraid and turned pale, while I neither feared nor changed colour?” And the philosopher, after hesitating for a moment about the propriety of answering him, said: “If in such a terrible storm I did show a little fear, you are not worthy to be told the reason for it. But, if you please, the famous Aristippus [the Cyrenaic], the pupil of Socrates, shall answer for me, who on being asked on a similar occasion by a man much like you why he feared, though a philosopher, while his questioner on the contrary had no fear, replied that they had not the same motives, for his questioner need not be very anxious about the life of a worthless coxcomb, but he himself feared for the life of an Aristippus.”
With these words then the Stoic rid himself of the rich Asiatic. But later, when we were approaching Brundisium and sea and sky were calm, I asked him what the reason for his fear was, which he had refused to reveal to the man who had improperly addressed him. And he quietly and courteously replied: “Since you are desirous of knowing, hear what our forefathers, the founders of the Stoic sect, thought about that brief but inevitable and natural fear, or rather,” said he, “read it, for if you read it, you will be the more ready to believe it and you will remember it better.” Thereupon before my eyes he drew from his little bag the fifth book of the Discourses of the philosopher Epictetus, which, as arranged by Arrian, undoubtedly agree with the writings of Zeno and Chrysippus.
In that book I read this statement, which of course was written in Greek:
“The mental visions, which the philosophers call φαντασίαι [impressions] or ‘phantasies,’ by which the mind of man on the very first appearance of an object is impelled to the perception of the object, are neither voluntary nor controlled by the will, but through a certain power of their own they force their recognition upon men; but the expressions of assent, which they call συγκαταθέσεις, by which these visions are recognized, are voluntary and subject to man’s will. Therefore when some terrifying sound, either from heaven or from a falling building or as a sudden announcement of some danger, or anything else of that kind occurs, even the mind of a wise man must necessarily be disturbed, must shrink and feel alarm, not from a preconceived idea of any danger, but from certain swift and unexpected attacks which forestall the power of the mind and of reason. Presently, however, the wise man does not approve ‘such phantasies’, that is to say, such terrifying mental visions (to quote the Greek, ‘he does not consent to them nor confirm them’), but he rejects and scorns them, nor does he see in them anything that ought to excite fear. And they say that there is this difference between the mind of a foolish man and that of a wise man, that the foolish man thinks that such ‘visions’ are in fact as dreadful and terrifying as they appear at the original impact of them on his mind, and by his assent he approves of such ideas as if they were rightly to be feared, and ‘confirms’ them; for προσεπιδοξάζει is the word which the Stoics use in their discourses on the subject. But the wise man, after being affected for a short time and slightly in his colour and expression, ‘does not assent,’ but retains the steadfastness and strength of the opinion which he has always had about visions of this kind, namely that they are in no wise to be feared but excite terror by a false appearance and vain alarms.”
That these were the opinions and utterances of Epictetus the philosopher in accordance with the beliefs of the Stoics I read in that book which I have mentioned, and I thought that they ought to be recorded for this reason, that when things of the kind which I have named chance to occur, we may not think that to fear for a time and, as it were, turn white is the mark of a foolish and weak man, but in that brief but natural impulse we yield rather to human weakness than because we believe that those things are what they seem.
In addition to his comments about proto-passions in On Anger, Seneca also wrote:
There are misfortunes which strike the sage – without incapacitating him, of course – such as physical pain, infirmity, the loss of friends or children, or the catastrophes of his country when it is devastated by war. I grant that he is sensitive to these things, for we do not impute to him the hardness of a rock or of iron. There is no virtue in putting up with that which one does not feel. (On the Constancy of the Sage, 10.4)
In The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius appears to be referring to the proto-passions when he writes that although he tells troubling impressions “Go away”, because they have come according to their “ancient manner”, i.e., in the way basic feelings also arise in animals, he is not angry with the feeling, presumably meaning that he does not judge it to be an evil (7.17).
In the following passage, Marcus tells himself to view rough or smooth sensations that impose themselves on his mind with detachment. He notes that unpleasant sensations are bound to impinge upon our awareness because of the natural sympathy between body and mind but we should not try to resist these natural feelings and we should refrain from calling them either good or bad. Rather we should accept the presence even of these “rough” sensations with total indifference.
Make sure that the ruling and sovereign part of your soul remains unaffected by every movement, smooth or violent, in your flesh, and that it does not combine with them, but circumscribes itself, and restricts these experiences to the bodily parts. Whenever they communicate themselves to the mind by virtue of that other sympathy, as is bound to occur in a unified organism, you should not attempt to resist the sensation, which is a natural one, but you must not allow the ruling centre to add its own further judgement that the experience is good or bad. (Meditations, 5.26)
In passages like these Marcus appears to be referring to bodily sensations of pleasure and pain. However, he also seems to recognize that sometimes these sensations will naturally communicate themselves from the body deeper into the mind, and this too is natural and indifferent. He may be referring here to the anxious reactions we naturally have to pain and discomfort, etc., as in the anecdote from Aulus Gellius above.
Epictetus often told his students to repeat specific phrases to themselves in response to certain challenging situations in life. As Pierre Hadot notes, often (but not always) he uses the word epilegein, which might be translated “saying in addition” to something, or “saying in response” to something, i.e., to verbally add something. (The ancient Greeks occasionally used the same word, incidentally, to mean reciting a magical incantation.)
As the examples Epictetus gives often appear to be concise verbal formulae, it’s not a great leap to compare them to modern concepts such as “coping statements” in cognitive therapy or just “verbal affirmations” in self-help literature. Translating Greek philosophical texts often leads to slightly more long-winded English. For example, Epictetus tells his students to say “You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent.” Those fifteen English words translate only seven Greek words φαντασία εἶ καὶ οὐ πάντως τὸ φαινόμενον. So the original phrase taught by Epictetus is often much briefer and more laconic.
There are many more verbal formulae in Epictetus and other Stoic writings but for now I’ve just collected together some of the key passages where he specifically uses the verb epilegein.
“This is the price I am willing to pay for retaining my composure.”
Is a little oil spilt or a little wine stolen? Say in addition [epilege] “This is the price paid for being dispassionate [apatheia] and tranquil [ataraxia]; and nothing is to be had for nothing.” (Enchiridion, 12)
Epictetus, and other Stoics, very often use this financial metaphor. We should view life as a series of transactions, where we’re being asked to exchange our inner state for externals. We might obtain great wealth, but pay the price of sacrificing our integrity or peace of mind. The New Testament says “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul”. That could easily have been said by a Stoic philosopher and it beautifully captures what they mean. On the other hand, if you choose to value virtue above any externals, you might remind yourself of this by saying that sometimes sacrificing wealth or reputation, or accepting their loss without complaint, is the price you’re willing to pay for retaining your equanimity.
“This is an obstacle for the body but not for the mind.”
Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will [prohairesis]. Say this in addition [epilege] on the occasion of everything that happens; for you will find it an impediment to something else, but not to yourself. (Enchiridion, 9)
There’s some wordplay here lost in translation because the Greek word for an impediment or obstacle literally means that something is “at your feet”, and here Epictetus uses it to refer to something actually impeding our leg from moving. It’s tricky to capture the scope of prohairesis in English, and it’s usually translated as something like “will”, “volition” or “moral choice” – it means something between what we would call volition and choice.
“I want to do these things but I also want more to keep my mind in harmony with nature.”
When you set about any action, remind yourself of what nature the action is. […] And thus you will more safely go about this action, if you say in addition [epileges] “I will now go to bathe, and keep my own will [prohairesis] in harmony with nature.” And so with regard to every other action. Fur this, if any impediment arises in bathing you will be able to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my will [prohairesis] in harmony with nature; and I shall not keep it thus, if I am out of humour at things that happen.” (Enchiridion, 4)
This is also tricky to translate but mainly because it condenses a great deal of Stoic philosophy in a slightly opaque way. Stoic action with a “reserve clause” involves both an external outcome that’s sought “lightly”, in a dispassionate manner, and an inner goal (wisdom/virtue) that’s prized more highly. In any activity, the Stoic should remind himself that his primary goal is to come out of it with wisdom and virtue intact, or increased, and that’s infinitely more important than whether he succeeds or fails in terms of outward events.
“It’s just a cheap mug.”
In every thing which pleases the soul or supplies a want, or is loved, remember to say in addition [epilegein] what the nature of each thing is, beginning from the smallest. If you love an earthenware cup, say it is an earthenware cup that you love; for when it has been broken, you will not be disturbed. If you are kissing your child or wife, say that it is a mortal whom you are kissing, afor when the wife or child dies, you will not be disturbed. (Enchiridion, 3)
What Epictetus starts off with is an example comparable to a “plastic cup”. Something very common, cheap, trivial, and dispensable. There are many examples in Marcus Aurelius of this method of “objective representation”, which involves describing things dispassionately, as a natural philosopher or scientist might. Napoleon reputedly said that a throne is just a bench covered in velvet. The last remark about the mortality of one’s wife and child seems shocking to many modern readers. However, it is probably based on a well-known ancient saying: “I knew that my son was mortal.”
“You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent.”
Straightway then practise saying in addition [epilegein] regarding every harsh appearance, “You are an appearance, and in no manner what you appear to be.” Then examine it by the rules which you possess, and by this first and chiefly, whether it relates to the things which are in our power or to things which are not in our power: and if it relates to any thing which is not in our power, be ready to say, that it does not concern you. (Enchiridion, 1)
This appears to mean that impressions are just mental events and not to be confused with the external things they claim to portray. The map is not the terrain. The menu is not the meal.
“It is nothing to me.”
How shall I use the impressions presented to me? According to nature or contrary to nature? How do I answer them? As I ought or as I ought not? Do I say in addition [epilego] to things external to my will [aprohairetois] that “they are nothing to me”? (Discourses, 3.16)
This abrupt phrase, ouden pros emi, occurs very many times throughout the Discourses. The Greek is strikingly concise.
“That’s his opinion.” / “It seems right to him.”
When any person treats you ill or speaks ill of you, remember that he does this or says this because he thinks that it is his duty. It is not possible then for him to follow that which seems right to you, but that which seems right to himself. Accordingly if he is wrong in his opinion, he is the person who is hurt, for he is the person who has been deceived […] If you proceed then from these opinions, you will be mild in temper to him who reviles you: for say in addition [epiphtheggomai] on each occasion: “It seemed so to him”. (Enchiridion, 42)
Passages like these, dealing with Stoic doctrines regarding empathy and social virtue are often ignored by modern self-help writers on Stoicism for some reason. This doctrine goes back to Socrates’ notion that no man does evil willingly, or knowingly, that vice is a form of moral ignorance and virtue a form of moral wisdom. The phrase ἔδοξεν αὐτῷ could also be translated “That’s his opinion” or perhaps “It seems right to him.”
“This is not misfortune because bearing it with a noble spirit becomes our good fortune.”
Remember for the future, whenever anything begins to trouble you, to make use of the following judgement [dogmata]: ‘This thing is not a misfortune but to bear it nobly is good fortune. (Fragment 28b)
Quoted by Marcus in Meditations 4.49. This is a common theme in the Stoic literature. Adversity gives us the opportunity to exercise virtue, and handled well therefore every misfortune turns into good fortune, for the wise.
“This is a familiar sight.” / “There’s nothing new under the sun.”
What is vice? A familiar sight enough. So with everything that befalls have ready-to-hand: ‘This is a familiar sight.’ Look up, look down, everywhere you will find the same things, of which histories ancient, medieval, and modern are full, and full of them at this day are cities and houses. There is nothing new under the sun. Everything is familiar, everything fleeting. (Meditations, 7.1)
Marcus makes it clear this is a phrase to have ready in mind, memorized, to be repeated in response to all manner of situations.
“How does this affect me? Shall I regret it?”
In every action, ask yourself “How does this affect me? Shall I regret it?” In a little while, I will be dead and all will be past and gone. (Meditations, 8.2)
He goes on to say that all I can ask for is that my present actions are rational, social, and at one with the Law of God.
“Give what you will, take back what you will.”
The well-schooled and humble heart says to Nature, who gives and takes back all we have: “Give what you will, take back what you will.” But he says it without any bravado of fortitude, in simple obedience and good will to her. (Meditations, 10.10)
This sounds like “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away”. However, it also recalls many other comments by Marcus.
“Where are they now?”
There’s a famous Latin poetry trope called ubi sunt and this Stoic phrase seems to say exactly the same thing in Greek: Pou oun ekeinoi?
Let a glance at yourself [in a mirror?] bring to mind one of the Caesars, and so by analogy in every case. Then let the thought strike you: “Where are they now?” Nowhere, or none can say where. For thus shall you habitually look on human things as mere smoke and as naught. (Meditations, 10.31)
This is a recurring theme in his writings but it’s verbal formula is perhaps stated most explicitly in this passage.
“What purpose does this person have in mind?”
In every act of another habituate yourself as far as may be to put to yourself the question: “What end has the man in view?” But begin with yourself, cross-examine yourself first (Meditations, 10.37).
This is also a common theme in Marcus’ Meditations, to examine the motives of others and what they assume to be good or bad in life, as a means to forgiveness and empathy, through understanding.
“The cosmos = change; life = opinion.”
But among the principles ready to your hand, upon which you shall pore, let there be these two. One, that objective things do not lay hold of the soul, but stand quiescent without; while disturbances are but the outcome of that opinion which is within us. A second, that all this visible world changes in a moment, and will be no more; and continually think how many things you have already witnessed changing. “The cosmos is change; life is opinion.” (Meditations, 4.3)
The Greek says very simply: ho kosmos, alloiosis. ho bios, hupolepsis. Literally: “The cosmos, change; life, opinion.” This was obviously meant to be memorized, like slogan or mnemonic. Marcus means that the external world is constantly changing and nothing lasts forever; and that the quality of our lives is determined by our judgments, mainly those about what is good or bad in life.
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An Introduction to Stoic Practice:
The Three Disciplines of Stoicism
See my latest book, Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, for more information.
From its origin Stoicism placed considerable emphasis on the division of philosophical discourse into three topics called “Ethics”, “Physics” and “Logic”. Philosophy itself was unified but theoretical discussions could be broadly distinguished in this way and the Stoics were particularly known for their threefold curriculum. Epictetus is the only Stoic teacher whose work survives in significant amounts, we have four volumes of his Discourses, recorded from his public lectures by his student Arrian, although another four volumes have apparently been lost. We also have a condensed version of his teachings compiled in the famous Stoic “Handbook” or Enchiridion. Although Epictetus lived about four centuries after Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, and by his time the formal institution of the Stoic school had apparently ceased to exist, he appears to have been particularly faithful to the early teachings of the school’s main founders: Zeno and Chrysippus.
However, Epictetus also describes a threefold division between aspects of lived philosophical practice, which scholars can find no trace of in previous Stoic literature. (Hence, another famous Roman Stoic, Seneca, won’t come into this discussion because he basically lived before Epictetus and never mentioned these three disciplines.)
- “The Discipline of Desire”, which has to do with acceptance of our fate
- “The Discipline of Action”, which has to do with philanthropy or love of mankind
- “The Discipline of Assent”, which has to do with mindfulness of our judgements
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic best-known to modern readers, was taught by philosophers who possibly studied with Epictetus, although he never met him himself. One of Marcus’ teachers gave him a copy of notes from Epictetus’ lectures, almost certainly the Discourses recorded by Arrian. Indeed, Marcus refers to the teachings of Epictetus repeatedly throughout The Meditations and it’s clear that he’s primarily influenced by this particular form of Stoicism. He also makes extensive use of the Three Disciplines described in the Discourses, which provide one of the main “keys” to interpreting his own writings.
So how are we to interpret these Stoic practical disciplines? The French scholar Pierre Hadot wrote a very thorough analysis of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations called The Inner Citadel (1998), in which he explores the Three Disciplines in detail, employing them as a framework for his exposition. If we follow Hadot’s interpretation, it actually provides a fairly clear and simple model for understanding the teachings of Stoicism. The way of Stoic philosophy was traditionally described as “living according to nature” or “living harmoniously” and Hadot suggests that all three disciplines are intended to help us live in harmony in different regards, and that they combine together to provide the secret to a serene and harmonious way of life, practical philosophy as the art of living wisely.
1. The Discipline of Desire (Stoic Acceptance)
According to Hadot, the discipline of “desire” (orexis) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of “physics”, which includes the Stoic study of natural philosophy, cosmology, and theology. The discipline of desire, according to this view, is the virtue of living in harmony with the Nature of the universe as a whole, or in the language of Stoic theology, with Zeus or God. This entails having a “philosophical attitude” toward a life and acceptance of our Fate as necessary and inevitable. It’s tempting to see this discipline as particularly entailing the cardinal virtues associated with self-control over the irrational passions, which are “courage”, or endurance in the face of fear and suffering, and “self-discipline” (temperance), or the ability to renounce desire and abstain from false or unhealthy pleasures. (Hence, Epictetus’ famous slogan: “endure and renounce”.) Hadot calls the goal of this discipline “amor fati” or the loving acceptance of one’s fate. This discipline is summed up in one of the most striking passages from the Enchiridion: “Seek not for events to happen as you wish but wish events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly and serenely.” But Stoics are not “doormats”. The Stoic hero Cato of Utica famously marched the shattered remnants of the Republican army through the deserts of Africa to make a desperate last stand against the tyrant Julius Caesar, who sought to overthrow the Republic and declare himself dictator of Rome. Although he lost the civil war, he became a Roman legend and the Stoics dubbed him “the invincible Cato” because his will was completely unconquered – he tore his own guts out with his bare hands rather than submit to Caesar and be exploited by the dictator for his propaganda. Centuries later, the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, despite a devastating plague and countless misfortunes beyond his control, led his weakened army repeatedly into battle to defend Rome against invading barbarian hordes. He prevailed despite the many obstacles to victory. If he’d failed, Rome would have been destroyed. As we’ll see, the discipline of action explains this strange paradox: how can the Stoics combine acceptance with such famous endurance and courageous action in the name of justice? I’ve described this discipline simply as “Stoic Acceptance”, meaning amor fati.
2. The Discipline of Action (Stoic Philanthropy)
According to Hadot, the discipline of “action” (hormê, which really means the inception or initial “impulse” to action) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of “ethics”. Stoic “ethics” which includes the definition of what is good, bad, and indifferent. It also deals with the goal of life as “happiness” or fulfilment (eudaimonia). It includes the definition of the cardinal Stoic virtues (wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline). According to the central doctrine of Stoicism, virtue is the only true good and sufficient by itself for the good life and fulfilment (eudaimonia). Likewise, Stoic ethics covers the vices, opposing virtue, and the irrational and unhealthy “passions”, classified as: fear, craving, emotional pain, and false or unhealthy pleasures. The discipline of action, according to Hadot’s view, is the essentially virtue of living in harmony with the community of all mankind, which means benevolently wishing all of mankind to flourish and achieve “happiness” (eudaimonia) the goal of life. However, as other people’s wellbeing is outside of our direct control, we must always wish them well in accord with the Stoic “reserve clause” (hupexairesis), which basically means adding the caveat: “Fate permitting” or “God willing.” (This is one way in which the philosophical attitude toward life reconciles vigorous action with emotional acceptance.) In other words, Stoics do their best to act with virtue while accepting the outcome of their actions in a somewhat detached manner, whether success or failure. Moreover, Stoics must act according to their rational appraisal of which external outcomes are naturally to be preferred. Hence, Marcus Aurelius appears to refer to three clauses that Stoics should be continually mindful to attach to all of their actions:
- That they are undertaken “with a reserve clause” (hupexairesis)
- That they are “for the common welfare” of mankind (koinônikai)
- That they “accord with value” (kat’ axian)
It’s tempting to see this discipline as particularly associated with the cardinal virtue of “justice”, which the Stoics defined as including both fairness to others and benevolence. Hadot calls this discipline “action in the service of mankind”, because it involves extending the same natural affection or care that we are born feeling for our own body and physical wellbeing to include the physical and mental wellbeing of all mankind, through a process known as “appropriation” (oikeiosis) or widening the circle of our natural “self-love” to include all mankind. I’ve described this as “Stoic Philanthropy”, or love of mankind, a term they employed themselves.
3. The Discipline of Assent (Stoic Mindfulness)
According to Hadot, the discipline of “assent” (sunkatathesis) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of “logic”. Stoic “logic” actually includes elements of what we would now call “psychology” or “epistemology”. The discipline of assent, according to this view, is the virtue of living in harmony with our own essential nature as rational beings, which means living in accord with reason and truthfulness in both our thoughts and speech. It’s tempting to see this discipline as particularly associated with the cardinal Stoic virtue of “wisdom” or truthfulness. Hadot calls the goal of this discipline the “inner citadel” because it involves continual awareness of the true self, the faculty of the mind responsible for judgement and action, where our freedom and virtue reside, the chief good in life. According to Hadot’s analysis, although the Stoics refer to “judgement” in general (hypolêpsis), they’re primarily interested in monitoring and evaluating their own implicit value-judgements. These form the basis of our actions, desires, and emotions, especially the irrational passions and vices which the Stoics sought to overcome. By continually monitoring their judgements, Stoics are to notice the early-warning signs of upsetting or unhealthy impressions and take a step back from them, withholding their “assent” or agreement, rather than being “carried away” into irrational and unhealthy passions and the vices. The Stoics call this prosochê or “attention” to the ruling faculty of the mind, to our judgements and actions. I’ve described this as “Stoic Mindfulness”, a term that can be taken to translate prosochê.
The Goal of Life (Follow Nature)
As you can probably see, these three disciplines overlap considerably and are intertwined, just like the three traditional topics of Stoic philosophy, which Hadot claims they’re based upon: Logic, Ethics, and Physics. However, in unison, they allow the Stoic to work toward a harmonious and consistent way of life, in accord with nature. By this, the Stoics meant a life in the service of the natural goal of human nature, the attainment of fulfilment “eudaimonia”, the good life, achieved by perfecting moral reasoning and excelling in terms of the cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline.
This article is designed to provide a very concise introduction to Stoicism as a way of life, through a simplified set of Stoic psychological practices. The first few passages of Epictetus’ Handbook (Enchiridion) actually provide an account of some fundamental practices that can form the basis of a simplified approach to Stoicism and this account is closely based on those. We’d recommend you treat it as an introduction to the wider Stoic literature. However, starting with a set of basic practices can help people studying Stoic philosophy to get to grips with things before proceeding to assimilate some of the more diverse or complex aspects found in the ancient texts. Both Seneca and Epictetus refer to the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, which happens to provide a good framework for developing a daily routine, bookended by morning and evening contemplative practices.
Zeno of Citium, who founded Stoicism in 301 BC, expressed his doctrines in notoriously terse arguments and concise maxims. However, Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school, wrote over 700 books fleshing these ideas out and adding complex arguments to support them. Let’s focus here on the concise version but bearing in mind there’s a more complex philosophy lurking in the background. For example, Epictetus, the only Stoic teacher whose works survive in any significant quantity, described the central precept of Stoicism to his students as follows:
And to become educated [in Stoic philosophy] means just this, to learn what things are our own, and what are not. (Discourses, 4.5.7)
The practical consequence of this distinction is essentially quite simple:
What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens. (Discourses, 1.1.17)
The routine below is designed to provide an introduction to Stoic practice for the 21st Century, which can lead naturally into a wider appreciation of Stoic philosophy as a way of life. The instructions are designed to be as straightforward and concise as possible, while still remaining reasonably faithful to classical Stoicism. The most popular book for people to read who are new to Stoicism is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, so we recommend that you also consider reading a modern translation of that text during the first few weeks of your Stoic practice.
The Basic Philosophical Regime
Stage 1: Morning Preparation
Plan your day ahead with the Stoic “reserve clause” in mind. Decide what goals you want to achieve in advance and make a decision to try to achieve them but with the caveat: “Fate permitting.” In other words, aim for success and pursue it wholeheartedly while also being prepared to accept setbacks or failure with equanimity, insofar as they lie outside of your direct control. Try to choose your goals wisely, picking things that are rational and healthy for you to pursue. Your primary goal throughout these three stages should be to protect and improve your fundamental wellbeing, particularly in terms of your character and ability to think clearly about your life. You’re going to try to do this by cultivating greater self-awareness and practical wisdom, which requires setting goals for yourself that are healthy, while pursuing them in a sort of “detached” way, without being particularly attached to the outcome.
Stage 2: Stoic Mindfulness (Prosochê) Throughout the Day
Throughout the day, continually pay attention to the way you make value-judgements and respond to your thoughts. Be mindful, in particular of the way you respond to strong emotions or desires. When you experience a distressing or problematic thought, pause, and tell yourself: “This is just a thought and not at all the thing it claims to represent.” Remind yourself that it is not things that upset you but your judgements about things. Where appropriate, rather than being carried away by your initial impressions, try to postpone responding to them for at least an hour, waiting until your feelings have settled down and you are able to view things more calmly and objectively before deciding what action to take.
Once you have achieved greater self-awareness of your stream of consciousness and the ability to take a step back from your thoughts in this way, begin to also apply a simple standard of evaluation to your thoughts and impressions as follows. Having paused to view your thoughts from a distance, ask yourself whether they are about things that are directly under your control or things that are not. This has been called the general precept or strategy of ancient Stoic practice. If you notice that your feelings are about something that’s outside of your direct control then respond by trying to accept the fact that it’s out of your hands, saying to yourself: “This is nothing to me.” Focus your attention instead on doing what is within your sphere of control with wisdom and to the best of your ability, regardless of the actual outcome. In other words, remind yourself to apply the reserve clause described above to each situation. Look for ways to remind yourself of this. For example, the Serenity Prayer is a well-known version of this idea, which you might want to memorise or write down somewhere and contemplate each day.
Give me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The Courage to change the things I can,
And the Wisdom to know the difference.
You may find that knowing you are going to review these events and evaluate them in more detail before you sleep (see below) actually helps you to become more mindful of how you respond to your thoughts and feelings throughout the day.
Stage 3: Night-time Review
Review your whole day, three times, if possible, before going to sleep. Focus on the key events and the order in which they happened, e.g., the order in which you undertook different tasks or interacted with different people during the day.
- What did you do that was good for your fundamental wellbeing? (What went well?)
- What did you do that harmed your fundamental wellbeing? (What went badly?)
- What opportunities did you miss to do something good for your fundamental wellbeing? (What was omitted?)
Counsel yourself as if you were advising a close friend or loved one. What can you learn from the day and, where appropriate, how can you do better in the future? Praise yourself for what went well and allow yourself to reflect on it with satisfaction. You may also find it helps to give yourself a simple subjective rating (from 0-10) to measure how consistently you followed the instructions here or how good you were at pursuing rational and healthy goals while remaining detached from things outside of your direct control. However, also try to be concise in your evaluation of things and to arrive at conclusions without ruminating over things for too long.
Appendix: Some Additional Stoic Practices
There’s a lot more to Stoicism, in terms of both the theory and practice. You might want to begin with a simple approach but you should probably broaden your perspective eventually to include the other parts of Stoicism. Reading The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and other books can provide you with a better idea of the theoretical breadth of Stoic philosophy. Here are three examples of other Stoic practices, followed by a link to a longer and more detailed article on this site…
- Contemplation of the Sage: Imagine the ideal Sage or exemplary historical figures (Socrates, Diogenes, Cato) and ask yourself: “What would he do?”, or imagine being observed by them and how they would comment on your actions.
- Contemplating the Whole Cosmos: Imagine the whole universe as if it were one thing and yourself as part of the whole, or the View from Above: Picture events unfolding below as if observed from Mount Olympus or a high watchtower.
- Premeditation of Adversity: Mentally rehearse potential losses or misfortunes and view them as “indifferent” (decatastrophising), also view them as natural and inevitable to remove any sense of shock or surprise.
Although this notion is seldom discussed in detail, readers of Stoic literature may notice frequent references to animals, often being employed as metaphors for different character types. For example, in A Man in Full (1998), the novel by Tom Wolfe, two of the leading characters become enthusiastic followers of Epictetus’ form of Stoicism. They are particularly inspired by his references to the image of a strong bull who naturally steps forward to protect the weaker members of the herd from attack by a lion. Indeed, one of the chapters entitled “The Bull and the Lion”, contains the following exchange:
“That’s fine,” said Charlie, “but how do you know what your character is? Let’s say there’s a crisis you’ve got to deal with. How do you know what you’re really made of?”
“Epictetus talks about that,” said Conrad, “He says, how does a bull, when a lion’s coming after him, and he has to protect the whole herd – how does he know what powers he’s got? He knows because it has taken him a long time to become powerful. Like the bull, a man doesn’t become heroic all of a sudden, either. Epictetus says, ‘He must train through the winter and make ready.'”
In part 2 of this article, I describe how the Stoics made a division between rational animals (humans and gods) and non-rational animals, further subdivided into wild animals, like wolves and lions, and domestic animals, like cattle and sheep.
Even among non-rational animals, though, some excel in terms of their nature and this is something Epictetus frequently refers to, particularly using the metaphor of the strong bull who protects the rest of the herd. Seneca briefly alludes to this in the play Phaedra, when he writes: “Goaded on by love, the bold bull undertakes battle for the whole herd.”
The Stoics worshipped Zeus and refer to him frequently throughout their writings. Epictetus does not explicitly state that the image of the bull is linked to Zeus and so we cannot assume he has that in mind. However, it’s likely that most of his students would have easily connected the two ideas as Zeus was often symbolised as a white bull, as in the image shown here in which Zeus is carrying Europa. Although cattle in general are sometimes looked down upon in Epictetus’ Discourses, the bull is several times praised as a metaphor for an exceptional or good man, i.e., the ideal Stoic Sage:
It was asked, How shall each of us perceive what belongs to his character? Whence, replied Epictetus, does a bull, when the lion approaches, alone recognize his own qualifications, and expose himself alone for the whole herd? It is evident that with the qualifications occurs, at the same time, the consciousness of being imbued with them. And in the same manner, whoever of us hath such qualifications will not be ignorant of them. But neither is a bull nor a gallant-spirited man formed all at once. We are to exercise, and qualify ourselves, and not to run rashly upon what doth not concern us. (Discourses, 1)
Here one ought nobly to say, “I am he who ought to take care of mankind.” For it is not every little paltry heifer that dares resist the lion; but if the bull should come up, and resist him, would you say to him, “Who are you? What business is it of yours?” In every species, man, there is some one quality which by nature excels, – in oxen, in dogs, in bees, in horses. Do not say to whatever excels, “Who are you?” If you do, it will, somehow or other, find a voice to tell you, “I am like the purple thread in a garment. Do not expect me to be like the rest; nor find fault with my nature, which has distinguished me from others.” (Discourses, 3)
You are a calf; when the lion appears, act accordingly, or you will suffer for it. You are a bull; come and fight; for that is incumbent on you and becomes you, and you can do it. (Discourses, 3)
The bull is clearly equated with the “good man” below, a synonym for the Sage, and the metaphor of a hunting dog is employed in a similar manner:
For who that is charged with such principles, but must perceive, too, his own powers, and strive to put them in practice. Not even a bull is ignorant of his own powers, when any wild beast approaches the herd, nor waits he for any one to encourage him; nor does a dog when he spies any game. And if I have the powers of a good man, shall I wait for you to qualify me for my own proper actions? (Discourses, 4)
In another passage he employs a similar metaphor, equating the role of the bull with that of the queen bee:
But what have you to do with the concerns of others? For what are you? Are you the bull in the herd, or the queen of the bees? Show me such ensigns of empire as she has from nature. But if you are a drone, and arrogate to yourself the kingdom of the bees, do you not think that your fellow-citizens will drive you out, just as the bees do the drones? (Discourses, 3)
Marcus Aurelius, who had almost certainly read the Discourses, perhaps even the four books lost today, mentions a similar metaphor, which he extends to the ram who guards the flock of sheep:
If any have offended against thee, consider first: What is my relation to men, and that we are made for one another; and in another respect, I was made to be set over them, as a ram over the flock or a bull over the herd. (Meditations)
Curiously, Seneca also says something quite similar, perhaps shedding some light on the original meaning of the metaphor in Stoicism:
But the earliest mortals and those of their descendants who pursued nature without being spoiled shared the same guide and law, being entrusted to the decisions of a superiors, since it is natural for inferior things to give way to more powerful ones. Take herds of dumb animals: either the biggest or the strongest creatures have command. It is not the bull inferior to his breeding but the one who surpasses the other males in size and muscle who goes before the herds; it is the tallest elephant who leads the troupe; among men, “the best” replaces “the biggest”. So the ruler used to be chosen for his intellect, and the greatest happiness among nations was enjoyed by those among whom only the superior man could be more powerful. A man can safely enjoy as much power as he wishes if he believes he only has power to act as he should. (Seneca, Letters, 90)
The presence of a similar metaphor in Seneca suggests that he and Epictetus, and perhaps Marcus, are alluding to a common Stoic source from an earlier period.
Likewise, Cicero portrays the Stoic Cato employing the same trope in his account of Stoic Ethics:
Nature has given bulls the instinct to defend their calves against lions with immense passion and force. In the same way, those with great talent and the capacity for achievement, as is said of Hercules and Liber, have a natural inclination to help the human race. (De Finibus, Book III)
However, intriguingly, there is some evidence that Zeno employed the metaphor of a herd of cattle to describe the ideal Stoic community in The Republic, which was quite possibly the founding text of Stoicism. For example, according to Plutarch:
It is true indeed that the so much admired Republic of Zeno, first author of the Stoic sect, aims singly at this, that neither in cities nor in towns we should live under laws distinct one from another, but that we should look upon all people in general to be our fellow-countryfolk and citizens, observing one manner of living and one kind of order, like a flock [or herd of cattle] feeding together with equal right in one common pasture. This Zeno wrote, fancying to himself, as in a dream, a certain scheme of civil order, and the image of a philosophical commonwealth. (Plutarch, On the Fortune of Alexander, 329A-C)
This suggests that Zeno may have introduced the metaphor of the ideal Stoic Republic as consisting of a herd of cattle led by a bull. Indeed, the early Stoic school itself was a small community perhaps intended to be modelled on this ideal to some extent, so Zeno himself, or the subsequent scholarchs of the school, may have been seen as analogous to the bull in this imagery.
In his discourse entitled “we ought not to yearn for things that are not under our control” (Discourses, 3.24), the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, described three steps used to cope with apparent misfortunes. He intended that these should be rigorously rehearsed until they become habitual…
Have thoughts like these ready at hand by night and by day; write them, read them, make your conversation about them, communing with yourself, or saying to another, “Can you give me some help in this matter?”
Later he says:
If you have these thoughts always at hand and go over them again and again in your own mind, and keep them in readiness, you will never need another person to console you, or strengthen you.
Speaking to a group of aspiring Stoic students, he outlines the recommended steps to be memorised and rehearsed as follows.
Step One: Tell yourself it was to be expected.
Your initial response when something apparently “undesirable” happens should be to tell yourself that it was “not unexpected”, and this “will be the first thing to lighten the burden”, according to Epictetus. This is made easier by regularly anticipating potential setbacks that can happen in life, imagining what it would be like to face typical misfortunes philosophically. This is sometimes called premeditatio malorum by Stoics, or the technique of contemplating potential misfortunes in advance. In particular, the Stoics frequently remind themselves that both they and their loved ones are mortal, and bound to die one day, and that life is inevitably transient. Here Epictetus simply says, however, that when adversity comes we should greet it by reminding ourselves not to be surprised but to recognise that we knew all along that this sort of thing can potentially happen in life.
Step Two: Tell yourself that it is indifferent to your wellbeing.
This is sometimes described as the “Sovereign precept” of ancient Stoicism: Some things are under our control and some things are not. Only things under our control reflect on our character and therefore constitute our wellbeing, i.e., our judgements and acts of will are our own business and when they are done well we may be described as being wise and good. Things outside of our control, such as health, wealth and reputation are indifferent with regard to our own character and therefore our happiness and wellbeing. Epictetus says you should consider where the misfortune comes from, and if it is an external event, tell yourself:
It comes from the quarter of the things that are outside the sphere of volition, that are not my own; what, then, is it to me?
The typical answer Stoics give to that rhetorical question is: “It is nothing to me.” In fact, one of Epictetus’ basic maxims is that things beyond our volition, outside of our control, are “nothing to us.” Epictetus also advised his students, perhaps literally, to say very concisely to themselves either “avolitional, not bad!” (aproaireton, ou kakon), to apparent external misfortunes, or “volitional, good!” (proairetikon, agathon), to virtuous responses, and so on.
For Stoics, the ultimate good in life is to possess wisdom, justice, and other virtues, and to act according to them. The vicissitudes of fate, external events, the wheel of fortune that sometimes raises us up and at other times casts us down, is “indifferent” with regard to our own character and virtue and, in that sense, of no concern with regard to our true wellbeing as rational agents.
Step Three: Remind yourself that it was determined by the whole.
Epictetus describes the third and last stage of the Stoics response as “the most decisive consideration”. We should ask ourselves who has ordained that this should happen: “Who was it that has sent the order?” The answer is that it was sent by God, or, if you like, it should be viewed as having been determined by the “string of causes” that constitute the universe as a whole, which Stoics call “Nature”. The Stoic therefore tells himself: “Give it to me, then, for I must always obey the law in every particular.” In other words, he sees events outside of his control as necessary, determined by the whole of Nature, or fated by the Will of God, and he actively accepts them as such. This may simply be another way of stating the importance that philosophical “determinism” has for Stoics, the belief that all things happen of necessity and are caused by the totality of the universe. When we tell ourselves that events come as no surprise, that they lie outside the domain of our concern, and that they could not have been otherwise, and form part of the unfolding pattern of universal Nature, we may achieve the wisdom and serenity in the face of adversity that Stoics aspire to, and call a “smooth flow of life.”
The early Stoics reputedly said that “knowledge is the leading part of the soul in a certain state, just as the hand in a certain state is a fist” (Sextus in Inwood & Gerson, 2008, The Stoic Reader, p. 27). This analogy between secure knowledge, having a firm grasp on an idea, and the physical act of clenching the fist seems to be a recurring theme in Stoic literature.
And Zeno used to make this point by using a gesture. When he held out his hand with open fingers, he would say, “This is what a presentation is like.” Then when he had closed his fingers a bit, he said, “Assent is like this.” And when he had compressed it completely and made a fist, he said that this was grasping (and on the basis o f this comparison he even gave it the name ‘katalepsis’ [grasp], which had not previously existed). But when he put his left hand over it and compressed it tightly and powerfully, he said that knowledge was this sort of thing and that no one except the wise man possessed it. (Cicero in Inwood & Gerson, 2008, p. 47)
The sculpture of Chrysippus in the picture here, from the 3rd century BC, shows him holding his hand out with open fingers, in a similar posture. So we have a series of four hand gestures:
- The hand is held open, at a distance, with palm upwards, to symbolise a superficial impression or “presentation”, prior to assent being given.
- The hand is closed loosely, to symbolise initial “assent” or agreement with the idea.
- The hand is squeezed tightly into a fist to symbolise a firm grasp (katalepsis) or sense of certainty, assent has been given to it as an “Objective Representation” or phantasia kataleptike.
- The fist is enclosed tightly in the other hand, to symbolise the perfect “knowledge” of true ideas attained by the ideal Sage, which is elsewhere described as an interconnection of firmly-grasped principles and ideas, forming the excellent character of the wise.
Marcus Aurelius explicitly refers to the Stoic clenching his fist as a metaphor for arming himself with his philosophical precepts or dogmata:
In our use of [Stoic] precepts [dogmata] we should imitate the boxer [pancratiast] not the swordsman [gladiator]. For the swordsman’s weapon is picked up and put down again. However, the boxer always has his hands available. All he has to do is clench his fist. (Meditations, 12.9)
For the Stoics it was important to memorise the precepts and integrate them completely with one’s character in order to have them always “ready-to-hand” in the face of adversity. It’s possible that the physical act of literally clenching the fist, like a boxer, was used as a mnemonic to recall principles required in difficult situations.
It could be that the Stoics used the gesture of the open hand to symbolize withholding assent from impressions, which is one of the most important techniques of Stoic psychology. Epictetus told his students that when they spot a troubling impression they should apostrophize (speak to) it as follows: “You are just an impression and not at all the thing you claim to represent.” (More literally: You are just an appearance and not entirely the thing appearing.) This is what modern psychotherapists call Cognitive Distancing and it would make sense to recall it by using an open-handed gesture as a trigger or aide memoire.
It’s possible perhaps to construct a modern Stoic psychological exercise out of this symbolic set of hand gestures. First, while repeating a precept of Stoicism (“the only good is moral good”, “pain is not an evil”) the Stoic student might initially hold his hand open as if toying with the idea and then progressively close it more tightly, while imagining accepting it more deeply, until he finally clenches his fist tightly to symbolise having a firm grasp of the idea, and closes his other hand around it, to symbolise integrating it more deeply with his character, and contemplating how the Sage might hold this belief. This might be compared to the use of “autosuggestions” or rehearsing “rational coping statements” in modern psychological therapies.
There may also be an additional use, in relation to false or irrational ideas as mentioned above. A modern Stoic might make the open-handed gesture shown in Chrysippus’ statue when he notices an unhelpful or irrational thought occurring spontaneously, and entertain it a while longer, as if holding it loosely in an open hand, at a distance, while repeating “This is just an automatic thought, and not at all the thing it claims to represent” or “This is just a thought, not a fact”, etc. He might also begin with his hand loosely closed, if he’s already given his assent to an impression, and slowly relax his fingers, metaphorically “letting go” of attachment (assent) to the troubling impression.
We don’t know whether the set of symbolic hand gestures described by Zeno was meant originally as a psychological technique of this kind. However, the quote from Marcus Aurelius above could perhaps be read, if taken very literally, as a description of an actual physical practice employed by Stoic students: clenching their fists to arm themselves, like a boxer, with their philosophical precepts (dogmata) in the face of adversity.
Can you be a modern Stoic and an atheist (or agnostic)?
Your emperor […] never sought to lose himself in sciences useless to man. He soon saw that the study of nature is an abyss, and applied philosophy wholly to morals. (Eulogium on Marcus Aurelius)
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 they may also have accepted a kind of uncertainty about the existence of God, as consistent with their school’s teachings, 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.
Although, the Stoics were known as Dogmatists by their critics, they were not doctrinaire or dogmatic in the modern sense. Indeed, Seneca makes it plain that they refused to treat their founders as gurus and encouraged each other to critically evaluate all aspects of the school’s teachings, and arrive at their own philosophical conclusions. That’s basically why Stoicism was a philosophy and not a religion.
What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover. Letter 33
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, summarizes 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.
Seneca also 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.
For example, in an article entitled The Stoic Worldview, Dr. John Sellars, one of the leading contemporary scholars of Stoicism, writes:
It is difficult to know how serious this talk of ‘God’ was. The early Stoic Cleanthes appears very sincere in his ‘Hymn to Zeus’, for instance, and we have no reasons to doubt his sincerity. However the Stoics were also well known for offering allegorical interpretations of the pagan Gods, including allegorical interpretations of the portraits of the Gods in Homer for instance. Famously, the Stoic Chrysippus once said that Zeus and his wife Hera are actually the active and passive principles in Nature, breath and matter. (In one source, Diog. Laert. 7.147, divine names for Nature are explained on the basis of their etymology.) Much later, in the third century AD, the philosopher Plotinus said that the Stoics bring in God into their philosophy only for the sake of appearances (Enn. 6.1.27). If ‘God’ is simply another name for Nature then it doesn’t really do much work in their philosophy; it doesn’t add or explain anything, so one might easily drop the word without any obvious loss.
Stoicism was a philosophy and not a religion, in the sense that its students were encouraged to be reflective and to critically evaluate the dogmas of the school rather than accept them as articles of faith. The scholars of the Middle Stoa, Panaetius and Posidonius, reputedly modified the doctrines of the early Greek Stoa significantly, assimilating elements of Platonism and Aristotelianism, whereas Zeno himself had been scathingly critical of Plato and Aristotle. Even earlier, we’re told that Chrysippus, the third head of the school, “differed on most points from Zeno, and from Cleanthes as well, to whom he often used to say that all he wanted was to be told what the doctrines were; he would find out the proofs for himself” (Diogenes Laertius).
This included disagreement among Stoics over aspects of Logic and Ethics, but also about Physics and the nature of the gods. For example, according to Diogenes Laertius, Cleanthes taught that the Sun was the ruling power of the world, where the mind of God is centred, whereas Posidonius made it the heaven, and Chrysippus either the heaven or the purest part of the ether that pervades all things. Panaetius said that the world is indestructible, whereas the other Stoics believed it was periodically destroyed in a cosmic conflagration. Zeno, Chrysippus and Posidonius said the substance of God is the whole world and heaven combined, whereas Antipater said it was something akin to air, and Boëthus of Sidon denied that the world was a divine being and said instead that God was the sphere of the fixed stars. Zeno and Chrysippus argued for the reality of divination, as proof for the existence of God, whereas Panaetius denied that divination was real. Cleanthes said that all souls survive after death until the cosmic conflagration, whereas Chrysippus said that only the souls of the wise do. Many more disagreements are reported in the other ancient sources. In short, the Stoic school clearly tolerated divergent views on various fundamental questions of Physics and theology.
Diogenes Laertius stated this striking divergence among the ancient Stoics, over their most fundamental theological dogmas, very clearly. For example:
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, by Apollodorus in his Physics, and by Posidonius. […] Boëthus, however, denies that the world is a living thing. (Diogenes Laertius, Zeno)
In a recent article, entitled What is a Stoic?, John Sellars likewise noting the striking tolerance of these theological disagreements in the ancient Stoic school, concludes:
Who counted as a Stoic in antiquity? There are problems with trying to follow the ‘core set of doctrines’ approach. Even in its original incarnation in Athens, Stoicism was not a fixed set of doctrines adopted by unthinking disciples. The Hellenistic Stoics were philosophers and, like all philosophers, were prone to argue among themselves. The Roman Stoic Seneca famously said “we Stoics are not subjects of a despot; each of us lays claim to his own freedom” (Ep. 33.4).
He adds that “as Seneca’s comment highlights, the Hellenistic Stoics did not agree upon everything and we have numerous reports of later Stoics disagreeing with the supposedly orthodox Stoic view on one topic or another.”
Moreover, this apparently included disagreement as to whether premises derived from Physics were actually required to support Stoic Ethics. It is true that according to Diogenes Laertius, with regard to their threefold curriculum of Ethics, Physics, and Logic, “No single part, some Stoics declare, is independent of any other part, but all blend together.” The fact that some, presumably most, Stoics held that these topics overlapped doesn’t necessarily mean that they thought they depended upon one another, though. However, more significantly, Diogenes here says that only some Stoics, not all, taught that these topics were interrelated. That necessarily means that at least some Stoic teachers must also have presented Physics and Ethics differently, as basically independent areas of study. That passage therefore appears to directly contradict the claim sometimes made today that all ancient Stoics adhered to an orthodox position that held their central doctrines in Physics and theology are necessary to justify their core Ethical doctrines. Diogenes Laertius clearly states that at least some Stoic teachers treated Ethics and Physics as completely separate topics.
Protagoras, the first famous Sophist, was known for his agnosticism. According to Diogenes Laertius, for instance, his book On the Gods began with the words:
As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life.
The Stoic attitude toward religion, as allegorical, appears to be derived from one of Protagoras’ students, the Sophist Prodicus, a friend of Socrates, who was frequently labelled an “atheist” or “agnostic” 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 symbolic personifications of the sun, moon, rivers, etc.
Prodicus of Ceos says that ‘the ancients accounted as gods the sun and moon and rivers and springs and in general all things that are of benefit for our life, because of the benefit derived from them, even as the Egyptians deify the Nile.’ And he says that it was for this reason that bread was worshipped as Demeter, and wine as Dionysus, and water as Poseidon, and fire as Hephaestus, and so on with each of the things that are good for use. (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians)
Persaeus, the most prominent of Zeno’s immediate students, reputedly adopted this agnostic or atheistic way of interpreting the gods from the teachings of Prodicus.
Persaeus appears in reality to be prepared to dispense with a divinity, or at least take up an agnostic position; seeing as, in his treatise On the Gods, he says that Prodicus was not unpersuasive in writing that things that provided nourishment or other help to us were the first things to be acknowledged and honoured as gods, and later that persons who first found new means of obtaining food or providing shelter, or invented other arts and crafts were called names like Demeter, Dionysus and the like. (Philodemus, On Piety)
Cicero also attributes Prodicus’ view of the gods to Persaeus:
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)
This method of interpretation later became particularly associated with the philosopher Euhemerus, a contemporary of Zeno, and was subsequently known as Euhemerism or the “historical theory of mythology”. It typically argues that:
- Some myths about gods are symbolic representations of natural phenomena, e.g., the Egyptians worship the River Nile as a god, the discovery of wine led to its personification in the god Dionysus, and so on
- Others result from the deification of kings and other great men, e.g., that Zeus was in reality ancient Cretan king whose life gradually became mythologized
This naturalistic and somewhat skeptical method of interpreting the myths doesn’t necessarily lead to atheism. However, it was widely regarded as a form of atheism or agnosticism in the ancient world. 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, Persaeus wasn’t the only Stoic to use arguments based on the historical theory of mythology. We can see it very clearly in the Roman Stoic teacher Cornutus’ Compendium of Greek Theology, but there are also traces of similar arguments in the writings of Seneca and other Stoics.
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 interpreted as a partial agnostic. (Speaking here of Socrates as he appears in the early Platonic dialogues and elsewhere and not the more dogmatic mystical and metaphysical views put in his mouth by Plato in his middle and later dialogues.)
Socrates admitted that certainty about the gods is impossible but chose to believe in them on the basis of probability. In Plato’s Apology (40c) he professes belief in the Greek gods. However, he also argues that either death is followed by oblivion or our souls survive in an afterlife and are judged in Hades where they associate with the souls of others who have died before us. At least in this monologue, he appears to consider oblivion after death as a plausible alternative to conventional Greek religious views about the afterlife. Indeed, he makes the fact his agnosticism about the afterlife, what follows death being unknown, a premise in the following moral argument during his defence speech:
For the fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being a pretence of knowing the unknown; and no one knows whether death, which men in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good. Is not this ignorance of a disgraceful sort, the ignorance which is the conceit that a man knows what he does not know? And in this respect only I believe myself to differ from men in general, and may perhaps claim to be wiser than they are: that whereas I know but little of the world below, I do not suppose that I know: but I do know that injustice and disobedience to a better, whether God or man, is evil and dishonourable, and I will never fear or avoid a possible good [death] rather than a certain evil [injustice]. (Apology)
It’s often been said that Socrates’ questioning method necessarily left him open to the possibility of atheism or at least to radical doubt about the nature of the gods and afterlife. Indeed, T.H. Huxley, who coined the term “agnostic” actually claimed “it is as old as Socrates”, i.e., that Socrates was the first agnostic. Yet the Stoics generally held him in high regard as perhaps the closest historical approximation to the ideal Sage. In Xenophon’s Memorabilia, it’s asserted that Socrates was not an atheist but also that he thought metaphysical speculation about the nature of the universe as a whole was a waste of time.
He did not even discuss that topic so favoured by other talkers, “the Nature of the Universe”: and avoided speculation on the so-called “Cosmos” of the Professors, how it works, and on the laws that govern the phenomena of the heavens: indeed he would argue that to trouble one’s mind with such problems is sheer folly. In the first place, he would inquire, did these thinkers suppose that their knowledge of human affairs was so complete that they must seek these new fields for the exercise of their brains; or that it was their duty to neglect human affairs and consider only things divine? Moreover, he marvelled at their blindness in not seeing that man cannot solve these riddles; since even the most conceited talkers on these problems did not agree in their theories, but behaved to one another like madmen. As some madmen have no fear of danger and others are afraid where there is nothing to be afraid of, as some will do or say anything in a crowd with no sense of shame, while others shrink even from going abroad among men, some respect neither temple nor altar nor any other sacred thing, others worship stocks and stones and beasts, so is it, he held, with those who worry with “Universal Nature.” Some hold that “What is” is one, others that it is infinite in number: some that all things are in perpetual motion, others that nothing can ever be moved at any time: some that all life is birth and decay, others that nothing can ever be born or ever die. Nor were those the only questions he asked about such theorists. Students of human nature, he said, think that they will apply their knowledge in due course for the good of themselves and any others they choose. Do those who pry into heavenly phenomena imagine that, once they have discovered the laws by which these are produced, they will create at their will winds, waters, seasons and such things to their need? Or have they no such expectation, and are they satisfied with knowing the causes of these various phenomena? Such, then, was his criticism of those who meddle with these matters. His own conversation was ever of human things (Memorabilia, 1)
Moreover, in explaining his view that Stoicism followed Cynicism as part of a direct philosophical succession beginning with Socrates, Diogenes Laertius emphasizes 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). Although like earlier Stoic teachers he probably did believe in Providence himself, it seems he felt that it was insignificant whether or not his Stoic students did so as well.
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 his letters to Fronto as suggesting that Marcus Aurelius was “converted” to Stoic philosophy after reading Aristo of Chios. There’s some disagreement as to whether Aristo left the Stoa or remained a Stoic, albeit one who departed from the orthodox views of Zeno. For example, John Sellars writes “Aristo is forever labelled a ‘heterodox Stoic’ but the fact remains he did remain a Stoic, and didn’t run off to become a Cynic.”
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. A variety of anecdotes are therefore told about Diogenes in which he claims the existence of the gods is proven, disproven, or unknown to him. In general though, he is portrayed as having a pretty cynical (small c) attitude toward religion and the mystery cults. 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. Both men were 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, who happened to be a contemporary of Theodoros the Atheist, 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 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, according to C.R. Haines, 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. Professor Michael Sugrue discusses this aspect of The Meditations in this section of his popular lecture on Marcus Aurelius.
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)
There’s a very vocal group of people today who very strongly believe that all ancient Stoics strictly adhered to the doctrine that to be a Stoic one must agree with a specific set of “orthodox” theological doctrines from Stoic Physics and that Stoic Ethics necessarily requires belief in these, mainly the belief that Nature is a provident and divine being. When I published the first draft of this article one of them objected very sternly that I’d completely misrepresented Pierre Hadot on this point. So I went back and re-read the section from Hadot’s book very carefully. In fact, it seemed to me to confirm my interpretation. The main objection seemed to be that Hadot affirmed that Marcus himself did believe in Providence.
Whatever modern historians may claim, the dilemma “either providence or chance,” when used by Seneca or by Marcus Aurelius, does not signify either the renunciation of Stoic physical theories or an eclectic attitude which refuses to decide between Epicureanism and Stoicism. In fact, we can see that Marcus has already made his choice between Epicureanism and Stoicism, by the very way in which he describes the Epicurean model with a variety of pejorative terms… (The Inner Citadel, p. 149)
Now, that’s not in dispute. So it’s irrelevant. Marcus certainly rejected Epicurean Physics, “atoms”, and believed strongly in Providence. What’s in question is whether he would also have asserted that all other Stoics must share that belief or that they must believe in Stoic Physics to be virtuous or believe in Stoic Ethics. It seems to me that Marcus repeatedly makes it clear that he does not believe this and that Hadot confirms this interpretation of his text.
Our choice of a model of the universe thus changes nothing with regard to the fundamental Stoic disposition of consent to events, which is nothing other than the discipline of desire. (The Inner Citadel, p. 149)
So “nothing changes” with regard to the Stoic Discipline of Desire, says Hadot, for Stoics who reject belief in Providence in favour of a universe governed by random atoms, because the model of Physics we choose doesn’t matter in this regard.
I hadn’t noticed until I re-read Hadot but he arrived at the same conclusion as me regarding the origin of the “God or atoms” argument: that it was has the appearance of a well-established Stoic doctrine derived from an earlier source.
Such arguments are obviously not Marcus’ inventions. When he first speaks about them, he makes only a brief allusion to them, as if he were speaking of a well-known school-doctrine (“Remember the disjunction…”) without bother to set forth the entire chain of reasoning. (The Inner Citadel, p. 149)
Hadot continues by explaining that for Marcus, based on what appears to be a well-established Stoic doctrine alluded to also by Seneca and Epictetus, “it is impossible not to be a Stoic”, if one reasons accurately about Ethics, regardless of the Physics or theological beliefs one chooses.
When, in other passages, Marcus seems to imply that the Stoic moral attitude would be the same, whichever model of the universe one uses, and whichever physics one accepts, he is trying to demonstrate that, on all possible hypotheses, it is impossible not to be a Stoic. (The Inner Citadel, p. 150)
Hadot then adds that for Marcus, because of the Stoic “God or atoms” argument, right-minded individuals, who have thought rationally about Ethics, should have to “live like Stoics”, even if they agreed with Epicurean atomism, and rejected the notion that Nature is divine and provident.
Even if Epicurean physics were true, we would still have to renounce the Epicurean idea that pleasure is the only value. We would still have to live like Stoics. (pp. 150-151)
And, yet again, Hadot affirms this interpretation of the nine passages in Marcus alluding to the “God or atoms” distinction,
Either providence – in which case we must live like Stoics – or else atoms – in which case we still have to live like Stoics. (p. 151)
Turning to another modern commentator, this time the biographer of Marcus Aurelius, Frank McLynn, we find him arriving at same conclusion as Hadot regarding Marcus’ use of the “God or atoms” argument:
Yet in the end, Marcus admitted that the atoms-versus-Providence conundrum was insoluble by empirical evidence and argued that it actually made no difference to ethical theory which view of the universe was entertained; we can still use reason to impose order on chaos. (pp. 219-220)
The psychologist Kevin Vost’s recent book on Stoicism and Christianity, The Porch and the Cross, arrives at the same interpretation of Marcus’ “God or atoms” comments:
We see Marcus pondering the nature of the universe; whether there is a God or gods, and, if so, whether they intervene in the world; or whether everything is really a matter of atoms, bouncing around by chance with no deeper meaning. He admits that such things are even hard for the Stoics to know for sure, but he has his opinion (in favor of God and purpose) and he advises living a life guided by philosophy regardless of the ultimate answer. (Vost, 2016, 158)
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’… (4.3)
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. (6.24)
So Marcus argues that the Stoic’s attitude toward death should be the same whether he believes in God or not. He repeats something like this in another passage:
Thou hast embarked, thou hast made the voyage, thou art come to shore; get out. If indeed to another life, there is no want of gods, not even there. But if to a state without sensation, thou wilt cease to be held by pains and pleasures, and to be a slave to the vessel, which is as much inferior as that which serves it is superior: for the one is intelligence and deity; the other is earth and corruption. (3.3)
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. (8.17)
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. (9.28)
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? (9.39)
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. (10.6)
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. In the very next passage, Marcus turns to the question of whether we should be shocked by change and loss in the universe.
But supposing that we even put [divine] Nature as an agent out of the question and explain that these things are “naturally” so, even then it would be absurd to assert that the parts of the whole are naturally subject to change, and at the same time to be astonished at a thing or take it amiss as thought it befell contrary to nature, and that thought things dissolve into the very constituents out of which they are composed. For either there is a scattering of the elements out of which I have been built up, or a transmutation of the solid into the earthy and of the spiritual into the aerial… (10.7)
This wasn’t actually one of the nine passages identified by Haines. However, in this tenth instance, Marcus considers two hypotheses: first, that the universe is ordered by a provident and divine Nature, second, that Nature is not an agent, not divine Providence, but merely a blind material process, as we tend to think of it today. In either case, Marcus draws the same ethical conclusion: that we should accept change and loss as indifferent natural events.
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]. (12.14)
[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. (12.24)
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.
Marcus’ biographer, Anthony Birley, notes that although in some passages Marcus seems to express religious sentiments, and he conscientiously carried out the formal rites of the Roman religion, “at times in his writings he seems more like an agnostic”. Another of Marcus’ modern biographers, Sedgwick, concludes that Marcus’ willingness to embrace agnostic doubts explains his enduring appeal to many modern readers:
Like us, he was hedged about with doubts. Like us, he confronted the alternative of a universe which, moved by reason, proceeds toward a rational goal, or of an irrational universe, propelled by its own blind properties upon a purposeless course.
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 in Stobaeus 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.
Stobaeus titles this: “From Arrian the pupil of Epictetus. To the man who was bothering himself about the problem of being.”
If this fragment came 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.
This isn’t an isolated attitude. Marcus says several times that the truth about Physics, the nature of the universe, is uncertain. He even appears, in a passage not unlike the one above, to say that the Stoics admit that Physics is speculative, and our judgements regarding it are fallible.
As for the things of the world, their true nature is in a manner so involved with obscurity, that unto many philosophers, and those no mean ones, they seemed altogether incomprehensible, and the Stoics themselves, though they judge them not altogether incomprehensible, yet scarce and not without much difficulty, comprehensible, so that all assent of ours is fallible, for who is he that is infallible in his conclusions? (Meditations, 5.10)
In the final passage of Book I of The Meditations, Marcus likewise thanks the gods that when he became interested in philosophy he didn’t fall into the hands of sophists nor become distracted by writing about syllogistic logic or celestial phenomena because these are all things for which “we need the help of fortune and the gods”, i.e., subjects where our knowledge is inconclusive.
One possible explanation for these and similar quotes would be if the Stoic school itself had somehow arrived at the position that Physics is valuable but uncertain, whereas the central doctrines of Ethics can be known with certainty. This is speculation: in defending Zeno’s teachings against the arguments of Academic Skepticism, Chrysippus may have been forced to concede that he could not demonstrate the doctrines of Stoic Physics with absolute certainty. He would therefore have been forced to maintain that Stoic Physics provides extremely valuable but not essential support for Stoic Ethics.
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.