The Stoic Conception of God

Epictetus was recorded by Arian as saying-

“on the subject of the gods, there are those who deny the existence of divinity outright. Others say that God exists, but is idle and indifferent and does not pay attention to anything. A third group says that God exists and is attentive, but only to the workings of the heavens, never affairs on earth. A fourth group says that he does attend to earthly affairs, including the welfare of humanity, but only in a general way, without worrying about individuals. And then there is a fifth group, Odysseus and Socrates among them, who say that ‘I cannot make a move without God’s notice.’

Discourse 1.12.1-3.

When Judith asked me to co-present this topic on the walled garden ‘understanding the stoic god’ I remember wondering what the hell I would have to talk about. But then I realised that it is one of the aspects of Stoicism that quite interests me, one that seems to provide plenty of controversy and contributes to the division between so called modern and traditional stoicism.

When I say im interested in the Stoic god as an aspect of Stoicism, I think I mean, that it has a tendency to loom into the foreground when im reading or thinking about topics in stoicism that interest me, otherwise, im sure the Stoic god may have remained in the background as a historical curiosity.

For example Im quite interested in learning about what the Stoics thought about responding to lifes difficulties. If you turn to any of the ancient writings that have survived you will find that the philosophical treatment at some point will invoke a providential perspective of the universe.

A case in point, Seneca dishes out practical advice in On Providence writing: “Avoid luxury, avoid effeminate enjoyment, by which men’s minds are softened” but such advice is given as part of a longer prescription in maintaining the health of the soul against the backdrop of a world in which happiness appears fleeting and in which suffering is likely and death inevitable. “God hardens, reviews, and exercises those whom He tests and loves” he writes. And drawing a comparison to an elite soldier who having been selected by a General for a particularly dangerous mission- and being pleased at the selection- Seneca tells us that we should say likewise, “God has thought us worthy subjects on whom to try how much suffering human nature can endure.”

Seneca’s advice is rather dramatic and in this text I think its appropriate to wonder how much Seneca’s God has in common with those of other Stoic writers or communicators. Turning to Epictetus, who early in life was a slave we often see similar language. In discourses 1.6 Epictetus asks his audience what would have become of Hercules if there had been no monsters to battle, “what would he have done in the absence of such challenges? Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules”. Epictetus instructs his audience that it is through crisis and difficulties that we call upon the virtues that have been given to us by Zeus, that it is in their utilization that we develop and discover who we are both in terms of ourselves as individuals and also in our larger purpose. In fact both Seneca and Epictetus lament the person who is unfortunate enough to never meet significant troubles. Where Seneca exhorts misfortunes role in testing our commitment to virtue, Epictetus focuses on misfortunes role in showing us what is ’up to us’. That is, for Epictetus our freedom is often showcased when misfortune come a knockin’. In 1.6 he says “Bring on whatever difficulties you like Zeus; I have the resources and a constitution that you gave me by means of which I can do myself credit whatever happens”… he reminds his audience “God has not merely given us strength to tolerate troubles without being humiliated or undone, but as befitting a king and true father, he has given them to us free from constraint, compulsion and impediment. He has put the whole matter in our control, not even reserving to himself any power to hinder us or stand in our way. And even though you have these powers free and entirely your own, you don’t use them, because you still don’t realise what you have or where it came from”. And in 1.12 instead of being put off at the appearance of misfortune he tells his audience that “you should thank the gods for making you strong enough to survive what you cannot control, and only responsible for what you can”.

In the last quote we can see that the issue is not merely dealing with misfortune. My original interest in finding out what these Stoics thought about building resilience or responding appropriately to misfortune has segued from practical techniques, advice about not allowing myself to get soft, to a view that is concerned with the discovery and development with an inner faculty that is always in my power regardless of the circumstances.

So in the Stoics, God has many simultaneous roles. God is presented as an immanent ordering principle that structures the regularity of the universe, God is a force that selects and tests the souls of individuals whilst at the same time being the whole body of the cosmos and everything in it. God appears as a benevolent exemplar and also as a creator who has given Humans a share of its nature- which accounts for their rational and moral freedom.

The question remains of course, whether we need the Stoic god to make sense of the Stoic worldview or whether we can disregard it as an irrelevant historical anthropomorphisation. It’s tempting to get rid of it and replace it with a more ‘scientific’ explanation, in the parts where doing so is required. So for example, instead of us being parts of a whole body, made by a providential being can’t we just replace oikeiosis with an evolutionary account. Likewise we can preserve virtue as a prosocial development, admittedly by watering it down and making one of many potential goods alongside pleasure and wealth where natural or social selection is concerned. Also, the human soul can be satisfyingly dealt with by making it epiphenomenal activity of our brains.

Probably this is the kind of view I had naively worked out before I encountered the Stoics. Reading the Stoics however gave me a point of contrast, I imagine it to be like having two different coloured circles of cellophane. The first coloured circle was the view that I had satisfyingly and fairly unquestioningly adapted from my culture, upbringing and experiences but when I held the new coloured circle up it showed up many of the imperfections in my default worldview. Such a view, gave me a profound sense of cognitive dissonance, that my scientific and biologically reductionist view was keeping me from a way of seeing that might increase my wellbeing and enjoyment of life.

As you can see I was draw to the Stoic worldview because in its philosophy I see a worldview that is fundamentally therapeutic, that is, it is the best possible account of a world worth living in. This sounds like a pragmatism and its efficacy might be assessed with this such a view in mind. But for the therapeutic account to be optimal it requires the belief in a living ordered and benevolent cosmos that shares a profound connection with each of us.

Such a cosmos gives one the confidence to completely let go of the fear of harm required to continuously live according to reason. A belief in providence is what consoles Marcus Aurelius, whilst meditating on the inevitability of discomfort and death he asks himself,-

“So what can serve as our escort and guide? One thing and one alone, philosophy; and that consists in keeping the guardian-spirit within us inviolate and free from harm, and ever superior to pleasure and pain, and ensuring that it does nothing at random and nothing with false intent or pretence, and that it is not dependent on another’s doing or not doing some particular thing, and furthermore that it welcomes whatever happens to it and is allotted to it, as issuing from the source from which it too took its origin, and above all, that it awaits death with a cheerful mind as being nothing other than the releasing of the elements from which every living creature is compounded. Now if for the elements themselves it is nothing terrible to be constantly changing from one to another, why should we fear the change and dissolution of them all? For this is in accordance with nature: and nothing can be bad that accords with nature.”

Meditations -2.17

Such a view allows Marcus to formulate and hold onto the idea expressed in 4.17-

 “Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought ‘i am hurt’: remove the thought ‘i am hurt’, and the hurt itself is removed”.

Recalling my coloured circles it easy to see the temptation for someone interested in therapy to gravitate towards such a view. We live in a time where trauma as a concern for psychological wellbeing has become common place. I don’t intend to comment on specific cases and I do appreciate that there are legitimate experiences and conditions that may cause acute and chronic trauma reactions, but one thing I have noticed about myself as I gaze through my contrasting coloured lenses is that the Stoic worldview fills me with a tremendous sense of relief and confidence in my ability to deal with difficulties. Over time I have come to believe that my fears are often groundless, and that there are few things that actually cause me harm and therefore worth being negatively concerned about. I trust that I am a part of a much greater living being and that my own personal preferences (although meaningful to me) are often capricious, sometimes mistaken and on rational reflection not ultimately particularly important. What matters to me when viewing reality through this lens is not how much stuff or how much fun I have, but what kind of person I can make of myself and how useful and genuinely caring I can be towards others. Seeing the world providentially helps me to do this. I don’t feel alone, I don’t feel disempowered, I feel free and I’m learning how to exercise that. A providential worldview, the kind the Stoics offer us also encourages us to reflect not merely on our freedom from misfortune but also on the responsibility required to use the rational faculty appropriately. Again without an appropriate ethical worldview, perhaps of the type provided by the Stoics conception of God it would be tempting to use rational freedom to be a narcissist or sociopath- a move potentially fitting in our contemporary hyper-individualistic consumer oriented society. Stoic rational freedom has a profoundly prosocial character as it views human individuality as but a trace of a much larger form of collective and universal reason.

As someone interested in the subject of psychotherapy, I early on stumbled across an article by Don Woollen Jr., a therapist who was proposing a stoic informed approach to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Woollen raised the issue that all therapists really have in relation to helping their clients. What am I helping the client to do? If we are treating psychopathological symptoms then what constitutes a cure? For the CBT therapist it may mean a cessation of symptoms and a return to prior normal functioning. But for the student of Stoicism the therapy that is required will have to inoculate them from the fear that any external thing can harm them, or even that any external thing has any moral value whatsoever, whilst simultaneously inculcating an awareness of our connection with others. The belief in providence as an active form of orienting to the world prevents the convalescent from drowning in their interiority and allows them to actualise their individual reason in a way that is much more likely to serve the needs of the broader community. The cosmic perspective also allows one to take solace in his or her own virtuous conduct as he pursues his rational ends and the actualisation of his own nature even as he or she experiences the upheavals and vicissitudes of life. As a therapist reflecting on the incredible resilience and strength of character of the ancient Stoics as it appears in the literature, Woollen writes-

“It is difficult to see how, in the face of apparent tragedy, one can maintain the level of equanimity espoused by the Stoics without also possessing their corresponding belief in a rational, providentially ordered, and benevolent universe. Yet, by drawing on the work of Seligman (1990) and his theory of learned optimism along with other insights from the positive psychology movement, it could perhaps be argued that such a belief, whether true or not, is demonstrably the most effective strategy for dealing with life’s vicissitudes and therefore, on Stoic grounds, the most rational attitude to adopt.”

The point made about positive psychologists is that optimists statistically fail to accurately predict outcomes (they tend to favour positive predictions despite contrary evidence) however optimism is correlated with better health, wellbeing and relationships. No one is here telling the optimists to quit inaccurately judging reality, in fact it’s quite the opposite. Given the clear benefits of optimism to health, wellbeing and relationships, researchers and therapists have endeavoured to find ways to teach optimism to less optimistic souls.

In the case of Stoicism we don’t even know if it’s not the case that the cosmos isn’t a living benevolent creature, yet the (ancient) literature makes the case that such a belief will prevent you from ever being harmed against your will. To quote Epictetus (speaking as Zeus)

“And since I could not make the body yours, I have given a portion of myself instead, the power of positive and negative impulse, of desire and aversion – the power, in other words, of making good use of impressions. If you take care of it and identify with it, you will never be blocked or frustrated; you wont have to complain, and never need to blame or flatter anyone”

Such a view may make us optimally rational and socially responsive, resistant to psychological disturbance, and promote profound feelings of connection and meaning. I guess we can become the Guinea pigs of our own experiment which starts with turning a sceptical eye to our own inherited worldview. I for one am keen to find out how much better life is living in a providential cosmos perhaps you will join me.






Leave a Reply