Stoicism’s God: The God of Nature

(Today’s article is by guest writer Kai Whiting. For brief bio, see below.)

The ancient Stoics would not have recognised the modern distinction between religious thought and scientific inquiry. This is because the Stoic God, as the very essence of Nature, was envisioned and arrived at through a naturalistic and rational framework that, apart from forming the basis of Stoic virtue ethics, provided practitioners with the rationale to study the natural world and the wider cosmos, including the celestial bodies (which were often referred to as gods). For the ancient Stoics, the provisions and care offered by God was a sign that the universe was worthy of reverence and respect. God’s nature was also something that could become apparent through dedicated study and application of natural philosophy (a discipline that combines natural sciences and philosophy). This understanding of the universe led the Stoic polymath Posidonius to argue that:

[The objective of  life is]  to live engaged in contemplating the truth and order of the universe, and forming himself as he best can, in nothing influenced by the irrational part of his soul.   .” — Posidonius, as cited by Clement of Alexandria in Stromata 2.21

Nothing outside Nature forms any part of what the ancient Stoics believed to exist. The ancient Stoic understanding of the universe, including God, is entirely grounded in natural phenomena that can be scientifically explored. In other words, the Stoic God is envisioned in the pantheistical sense, which means that God is embedded in Nature and does not exist outside of it. As with most pantheist beliefs, the transcendental experience is one that is deeply interwoven with natural processes. It is obtained through the leading of an environmentally sensitive way of life that is both self-aware and conscious of the needs of other humans, non-human animals, and plants. Personally, I find that this is the most direct and sensible way to interpret the Stoic founder, Zeno of Citium’s call to ”Live according to Nature”.  That said, and as I discuss in the open access paper “Whiting and Konstantakos,” philosophically speaking, although there are some similarities, the Stoic God is not analogous to Spinoza’s god, the deep ecology spirituality envisioned by Arne Naess, or James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis.

The Stoic God is the universal pervasiveness of the universe’s mind—its commanding faculty—and thus the force of fate and the necessity of future events. It is the creator of the whole, immortal, perfectly rational, perfectly happy and perfectly benevolent—in that the universe generously provides all that is required to support life and allow that life to flourish. The Stoic God is provident toward the world and its occupants and does not create or admit the existence of evil. It is not anthropomorphic, but it does exercise an anthropocentric divine providence, which is best understood by humankind through carefully and methodically observing Nature, which reveals its divinity (perfect rationality) in physical processes. 

A Stoic’s reverence for Nature is thus a product of Stoic theology, which emphasises the providence of Earth’s natural system, as the giver and sustainer of life (words typically used to describe God). It also highlights the duty of care that Stoics have towards the environment. An environmentally considerate lifestyle also aligns with Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus’ calls for simplicity and frugality – actions that don’t give rise to the environmental destruction we now see, caused as it is by greed and caprice. 

Stoicism is not a faith, nor does it call us to have a faith in science. Instead, it calls us to act virtuously, as dictated to us by our roles and the facts at hand.  To obtain facts, we must be committed to observing reality and collecting empirical evidence. Under a Stoic framework, collecting facts is not an end but rather the means with which we can all seek the harmony that Zeno dreams of in the utopic visions that constitute his Republic. Acknowledging facts helps us to understand what is at stake and prevents us from mistaking false impressions for truth. This is what Leonidas Konstantakos and I explain in Chapter 1 of our book Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In:

As we try to make the right decision, we need to reassess our choices as and when more comprehensive information comes to light. The important thing to remember is that in Stoicism wisdom isn’t about being all-knowing or always right. Wise people make decisions based on the information  they have at the time, but they know they might not have all the information they need. They also know circumstances change, and that not everything turns out as expected. This means that a wise person might take an action that seems prudent, given the evidence available, when in actual fact it is not. However, the factual mistake wouldn’t mean that the decision taken wasn’t reasonable, that it was morally wrong, or that the person taking it lacked good judgment. For example, a wise person might choose to recycle all their plastic packaging in order to avoid harm to the environment. However, a lot of recycled material in the United States, for example, is either landfilled or dumped illegally. Yet the wise person is hardly at fault if they have no reasonable way of knowing whether this is the “recycling” standard of their local waste collector. That said, upon learning new facts, we are all morally obliged to change our behaviour, though the best thing to do will depend on who we are and our circumstances. In Stoicism, there is no single right answer or universal solution beyond a commitment to continually re-evaluating and learning how to live out the four Stoic virtues of courage, justice, self-control and  wisdom. In this respect, our work is never done  – Modified excerpt, Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In  [p15]

In my mind, reflecting deeply on the universe’s interconnected and interdependent web frees us to pursue truth based on respect for Nature, which is surely the foundation for a more accurate, fairer, and kinder path to happiness. Can we progress along such a path by removing God from the mix? Perhaps. But the ancient Stoics didn’t seem to think so and I remain unconvinced. 

Every morning my alarm goes off before sunset. I get up, rinse my hands, splash water over my arms, then my face, hair, and feet. I then pat myself down and proceed to a prayer mat where I remember who God is and what “He” has done for me. It’s a practice of gratitude and involves physical movements of standing, bending over and prostrating with my forehead on the floor. For anyone who has ever done it, they will instantly recognise it as the Islamic practice of Salat, or ritual prayer. At this point, you might be wondering what this practice has to do with Stoicism. I will not spend time here identifying the convergences and divergences between Islam and Stoic philosophy, but I do think that a reverence emerges when you literally get called to prayer. Those calls aren’t random, nor based on how you feel. Instead, they are in tune with the rhythm of the day and the seasons because the times you are called to each prayer varies according to the sun’s position in the sky.

Tying your day, at least in part, to Nature’s patterns, does make you realise how out of sync you can get when you are not grounded in reality. This is particularly true if the COVID pandemic has restricted your interactions to online meetings. The act of stepping away from such meetings and placing my head on the floor is both grounding and humbling. It provides a literal connection with Earth and reminds me how small I am.

 Praying to God, not because you are frightened of hell or desperate to taste heaven is a very liberating experience. Gone is the need to prove a point or plead a case. Prayer ceases to be about you and more about God. Tranquility abounds. A sense of harmony is instilled. The prayers work for me because by moving my body while focusing my mind on God, I feel that I can obtain a more comprehensive understanding of Marcus Aurelius’ advice regarding the “view from above”. 

More than anything God has taught me gratitude. How can I not be thankful to the God who gave me life, everything I need for happiness and a share in the Divine Rationality (logos) that pervades the whole universe? Cleanthes’ words capture my sentiments on the matter when it comes to my reasons for gratitude:

O Zeus, giver of all, shrouded in dark clouds and holding the vivid bright lightning, rescue men from painful ignorance. Scatter that ignorance far from their hearts and deign to rule all things in justice.  – Cleanthes, Hymn of Zeus, as translated by Ellery (1976)

 Gratitude is a powerful thing. It keeps you rooted and on your toes. It keeps you reflecting on whether your impressions are close to reality or whether you have lost yourself in an ego trip of self-pity or excessive grandeur. Gratitude stops you from falling under the illusion that you are responsible for all your successes or failures. Gratitude highlights to you the strength of the God’s eye view, which Marcus Aurelius writes about in his personal diary, which later become known as Meditations. By taking such a view, only with willful ignorance can we fail to understand how we are all connected and how much we depend on Nature and each other in our daily lives.

Beauty is another thing that, only recently, I have begun to more fully appreciate. Belief in God and the fact that I have become more acquainted with the story of the Stoic philosopher Posidonius, who found God in his observations of Nature, has made me think twice about pulling down the shutter on an aeroplane or complaining about the rain while out on a walk. I have also contemplated more deeply on the beauty of a person’s character, including the things we humans often get right and the things we tend to get wrong. 

Believing that my life isn’t just a random accidental event gives me a sense of purpose. It tells me that the universe has purpose too and that I am subservient to it, not above it. This appreciation humbles me as much as it makes me feel grateful. It really is wonderful to be able to reflect on our differences and know that deep down we are connected because we all share in God’s wisdom. If that isn’t a beautiful thing, then I am not sure what is! 

Simply put, Stoicism points to a much bigger picture, full of patterns that we miss when we look to our belly button rather than up at the sky.

 

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Bio: Kai Whiting is a co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In. He is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium. He Tweets @kaiwhiting and blogs over at StoicKai.com

5 thoughts on “Stoicism’s God: The God of Nature”

  1. It is a lovely perspective of stoic thinking, but sadly, by appropriating it to god is summarily offensive to the stoic atheist. If one were to remove all references to god in this beautiful article, it would have totally described the stoic.

    Reply
  2. Thanks Brigitta for reading and commenting my article. I think if an atheist would to get offended by this piece, they would certainly be upset with Epictetus, Seneca and Cleanthes. They would not be able to read the Stoics without being offended. Also, it’s weird to say appropriation whenthis article describes the orthodox traditional Stoic position and the ancients use of the term God. If anything, it would be that the atheist appropriates – although this is certainly not how I see it either. For more details I co-authored an open access academic paper “Stoic Theology: Revealing or Redundant?” you can search for it on Google. Hope this helps!

    Reply
    • Thank you. I am far more ignorant of this subject than you, but I do wonder what it is that atheism appropriates.

      Reply
  3. Which god?

    This particular one is called Zeus, is entirely physical and finite and hot and does not do magic or grant wishes…there is no creation and no afterlife…

    Can I place a bet, you were thinking about Jehovah weren’t you?

    You can drop that idea completely…doesn’t fit.

    The Stoics weren’t Jews and predate Christianity by 300 years and would say that Jehovah is impossible…

    Reply
  4. “Just a smidgen of biological insight makes it clear that, although the natural world can be marvelous, it is also filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death—and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things. The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.”
    ~ David P Barash ( God, Darwin and my College Biology Class ) ~

    Reply

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