Forgotten Realms? Stoic Philosophy’s Potential For Modern Secular Humanism by Sascha Rother

Studying philosophy should be of great value for all Secular Humanists. It represents a cultural endeavor to examine the human condition seeking answers to existential questions, answers that are not necessarily atheistic, but in many cases non-theistic or at least agnostic in their outlook. Moreover, philosophies, in particular those of Graeco-roman antiquity, offer elaborate world-views, showing people how to lead the “good and happy life”, which makes them especially attractive for adherents of a more practical Humanism.

It is therefore not surprising that, with the growing number of non-religious people, and people looking for ethical values outside (their) religion, there has been another renaissance of books written on that topic, further accompanied by talks, discussion groups in social media, as well as international activities (e.g. Stoicon). Although one can find offerings of this kind on almost every major ancient philosophical school (especially books on living), two schools nowadays particularly stand out: Stoicism and Epicureanism.

Being a Secular Humanist myself, I came across Stoicism about three years ago, and reading the works of the three great Roman Stoics, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, as well as partaking in Stoic Week, I became attached to that philosophical tradition. Since then, I have been trying to communicate the ideas of Stoicism within the Humanist community, but found only a few, interested in this matter. Those with whom I could discuss it in more detail seemed rather skeptical, or even opposed to Stoicism; instead, they quite fervently sided with Epicurus. Looking at material of various Humanist organizations, and books by various authors, I soon realized that this was not by all means a national peculiarity: Stoic philosophy seems to have relatively little place within the Secular Humanist community. In contrast, Epicurean thought seems to thrive, and citations of his philosophical works regularly appear in all kinds of Humanist publications.

In his “Very Short Introduction” to Humanism the philosopher Stephen Law even considers Epicurus to be virtually the greatest among the predecessors of modern (i.e. secular) Humanism, since he adopted Democritus´s atomic model, and because of his criticism of religion and its belief in gods. Interestingly, however, although he does mention Seneca and Cicero, he does not say anything about Seneca´s close affiliation to Stoicism, nor does he say anything about the influence of Stoic thought (at least in part) on Cicero´s philosophical and political works. Given the fact that communities of Secular Humanists are predominantly atheistic in their outlook – in fact many advocate the natural sciences as the best way to understand the human existence, and there is a strain of Humanists who propose what they call Evolutionary Humanism – could it then be that there is some bias in their reception of classic ancient philosophies?

To clarify things, it is not my aim to refute Epicureanism, nor do I want to persuade Secular Humanists not to read his works or those of related authors; as Seneca used to say, “there are a lot of good ideas” to be gained from it, so “one should not trouble themselves where they come from”. Rather, I want to encourage Humanists of all sorts to study Stoic philosophy, as still today it is one major root of our understanding what humanism is about. To do this, I will address the area of physics (without theology), theology, and ethics, putting Epicurean and Stoic perspective side by side, and see if there are misconceptions on both sides.

As I already mentioned, philosophers, such as Stephen Law, but also others (like German philosopher, author, and speaker of the secularist Giordano-Bruno-Foundation, Michael Schmidt-Salomon), argue that Epicurus is the primary source for modern Humanism due to his advocating the atomistic word-view of Democritus. Schmidt-Salomon goes even further attributing him almost first-hand authorship of evolutionary theory. Now, two questions may be asked here: firstly, whether from a scientific point of view these perspectives will entirely stand up to scrutiny; and secondly, whether Epicurus was indeed the only philosopher who could be regarded as an advocate of these ideas.

As to the first point, there is no doubt that the sources, which both Law and Schmidt-Salomon refer to, could be understood in a way that, from hindsight, allows for a modern scientific interpretation. In the letter to Herodotus phrases like “changes (i.e. in the matter) are achieved through rearrangement, adhesion, or dissolution of atoms” sound as if Epicurus is anticipating what we know as modern chemistry; however, other assumptions of Epicurus concerning the origin of atoms, their indestructability, as well as their proposed movements are likely to dampen such expectations.

This is still more the case if we look at Schmidt-Salomon´s claim that Epicurus in fact anticipated Darwin´s evolutionary theory. Again, although parts of De Rerum Natura, in which Lucretius refers to Epicurus natural philosophy and cosmology, can be read accordingly (“Survival of the stronger and more useful animals”), it lacks essential elements of Darwin´s theory, namely the common ancestry of all organisms. Quite to contrary, its vision of extinct (if we can attribute this term to him) animals shows a rather crude and, to a certain degree, almost mythological idea of what the selection process and genealogy of animals (and other organisms) might be like. This, however, is not surprising, as it took Darwin a five-years voyage, and more than 20 years of additional research, until he dared to publish what became to be the most important theory in modern biology.

To do Epicurus some more justice, we must add that Stoicism in this regard does not do any better. Even if we interpret the Stoic concept of the Heraclitian flow of the elements in an ecological fashion (i,e, the interdependency of organisms and matter exchange in ecological systems), something that John Sellars terms the Gaia hypothesis, we are certainly better off without it. Looking further into other areas of both, Epicurean and Stoic natural philosophy and cosmology (e.g. the nature of earth quakes), we perceive similar, but from a modern perspective crude ideas about how nature works. Finally, we have to acknowledge that over-extending the boundaries of philosophical arguments as deductive tools for natural phenomena will likely lead us astray.

So, if ancient theories (Epicurean and Stoic) about nature have only limited value for a proto-scientific, humanist world-view, can anything other be drawn from it? Again, in De Rerum Natura, and Epicurus’ letter to Herodotus, the reader is advised to study nature as a means to realize the rationality of nature and “thus to soothe the soul”. For the Stoics, nature as they perceived it held no miraculous components, as everything was governed by a rational principle, the Logos. So, if there was no need to worry about natural events, could there be any other value to studying nature? It seems that Seneca got it right, when in his treatise “On Earthquakes”(book 6 of his Naturales Quaestiones) he expressed the following:

[…] It is a worthy enterprise to investigate the causes behind these occurrences. What, you ask, will justify this effort? The reward will be to know Nature, and no prize is greater than this. The subject has numerous features which will prove useful, but the perusal of this material contains nothing more beautiful in itself than that by means of its own splendor it engages the minds of men and is cultivated, not for the sake of profit, but for the wonder it excites. […]

“Isn´t it wonderful?” Nothing other than this exclamation by the physicist Carl Sagan (Pale Blue Dot), who is often invoked by Secular Humanists of all sorts to emphasize the beauty and awe-inspiring nature of a world-view based on natural science, could have echoed more this statement by Seneca, which also alludes to the Stoic notion of humans being integrated parts of a greater whole.

If Epicureanism cannot rival Stoicism with regard to natural philosophy, maybe it will do so when we look at their theology? Wasn’t Epicurus an atheist per excellence, whereas Stoics were committed to a belief in a god/God? To be precise, Epicurus never denied the existence of gods. He actually had quite an exact idea what they were like (i.e. made of). And the Stoics?

Considering myself a 9.9 atheist on a 1-10 scale, I have to admit that it took me a while to get over this talking about God/god, especially when I started reading Epictetus; but also the question about a providential universe, as discussed from Seneca on to Marcus Aurelius might be potentially off-putting to strict non-believers. However, one must take into account that by “god/God” the Stoics did not understand a personal (monotheistic) Deity that intervenes into the affairs of human beings. Rather, the more or less equal use of the terms “god,” “logos,” cosmos,” “nature” suggests that everything, including the human condition, could be understood in a rational, yet overarching way.

The transcendent aspects of this might be attractive to some, whereas to others they are not. But do we necessarily have to buy it all? As we have already seen in the case of natural philosophy, we should be careful about any uncritical reception. Nevertheless, one might argue, Epicureanism and Stoicism were meant to be taken as a whole, not cherry-picked for individual doctrines. I whole-heartedly disagree, and as I will now argue in the last part, we even have to do this for the sake of the most important part of Stoic philosophy, its ethics.

Both, Epicureanism and Stoicism were ethics-driven philosophies, meaning that physics (including theology), logic (i.e. cognition, thinking and language) were subordinated to the fundamental question as to how one should live the best life possible. For the Epicureans, pleasure and absence of pain were the ultimate goals in life. Everything else was to be seen in dependence of this principle, including virtue.

We must praise that which is noble, the virtues, and things of this kind, if they create in us the feeling of pleasure. If they fail to please us, we should not bother about them.

I encourage people to strive for endless pleasures, not for futile virtues, the fruit of which one can only hope to earn being full of restlessness.

Although Epicurus and adherents of his philosophy repeatedly tried to emphasize that by pleasure they primarily sought mental, not bodily pleasures (see: Letter to Menoeceus), we know from Cicero (in On Ends) that the ambiguous use of the word “pleasure” (Greek: hedoné) continuously raised problems, and apparently certain sayings by Epicurus also revealed this ambiguity to the term:

The beginning and root of all good lies in the belly; even wisdom and everything derived from it, is related to this pleasure.

Now, the Stoics would be the last to deny physical needs, and they readily acknowledged not only food, but also health as something that is naturally preferred by humans. However, it is also indifferent in relation to leading a good life – meaning for the Stoics a life, in which a person matures to the state, where they feel a strong inclination to care for the need of other human beings as much as for their own. The concentric circles of Hierocles give a good example of this attitude.

Or, as Marcus Aurelius put it:  “Human beings have come into the world for the sake of one another.”  This did not mean they were naïve concerning the potential malice which humans would often inflict upon each other, as he continued: either instruct them, then, or put up with them.”

We also find this attitude in another famous passage of his Meditations (II, 1):

Say to yourself at the start of the day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people. But I […] then can never be harmed by these people, nor become angry with one that is akin (i.e. of the same mind and origin) to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together. […] To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature.

With this Marcus refers to the human nature particularly, but also to the greater nature, of which humans are a part. This is in stark contrast to Epicurus, one of whose fragments might be understood as a direct reply to the Stoic position:

Don´t let yourselves be fooled, you people, not be seduced, nor deceived! Believe me, there is no natural community for those endowed with Reason. Whoever says so, is cheating on you!

It is not surprising that from an Epicurean perspective the best life was conducted outside society, surrounded only by a lose array of like-minded friends; certainly, no philosophy probably had individualism spelled out larger than Epicureanism, and it is not surprising that the “pursuit of happiness” built into the American constitution by Jefferson bears these traits. It might also explain why many Secular Humanists, through their sense of non-religiousness, feel especially attracted to this kind of world-view. However, there is a bit of aloofness and self-indulgence to it, which in a way counteracts the claim of (modern) Humanism to strive for a better society.

But, looking at the US, and though-out world history, we also repeatedly find a strong emphasis on duty and public engagement (see e.g. T. Roosevelt, Citizenship in a Republic), and we encounter individuals like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King, who through their commitments did neither seek pleasure, nor try to avoid pain. Instead, and regardless of any cost, they decided to do what they felt was right.

…but if we imagine, I say, that they (i.e. the gods) take no counsel about our affairs, it is still possible for me to take counsel about myself, and it is for me to consider where my own benefit lies. And the benefit of every being lies in what accords with its own constitution and nature. Now my nature is that of a rational and sociable being. As Antoninus, my city and fatherland is Rome; as a human being, it is the universe. So, what benefits these, is the sole good to me.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VI, 44)

As Marcus Aurelius rightly recognized, the Stoic tenet of virtue as the basis of a good human life stands firm with or without a divine stamp of approval (see also: W. Ferraiolo, 2015). His saying also reflects the notion that the fabric into which our individual existence is woven is not only affected by our relationships at a communal level, but that as human beings we also contribute to the well-being of all humans, as well as our planet.

Given the many global challenges we are facing today, there is great need for public engagement, and a renewed cosmopolitan outlook. In this regard, Stoicism has a lot to offer that modern Humanists might want to get to know and then incorporate.


Sascha Rother is a natural scientist by training and got his PhD in Biochemistry. Living with his family in the city of Hannover, located in northern Germany, he is currently working as a teacher at an integrated secondary school. In his free-time he volunteers for the German Humanist Association (HVD) of Lower Saxony, where he currently holds the office of the local chairman.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

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