2023 Symposium 1: The Stoic God – contributions by Will Johncock, Nigel Glassborow, Judith Stove

At Stoicism Today, we are pleased to publish the first selection of contributions to our Symposium on The Stoic God. Will Johncock, Nigel Glassborow, and Judith Stove offer varying perspectives! The Symposium remains open, and readers are warmly invited to submit a contribution (see the guidelines for further information).

Without further ado, we hope you enjoy this thought-provoking selection.

Will Johncock

How Are Humans Different from the Stoic God?

 God is the world

The world is God according to the Stoics. Early school heads, including Cleanthes and Chrysippus, are reported[1] [2] to refer to “God” and “world” interchangeably. According to this view, what happens in the world is also God. The world’s happenings do not reveal a transcendent creator who, from afar, oversees a world in which things occur. The Stoic God, rather, is understood to be “active” and present in the physical matter of the world, forming the world by being that world. Diogenes Laertius reports that this describes the Stoic physics of both Zeno and Chrysippus.[3] Seneca likewise records how the Stoic universe comprises matter and God.[4]

The Stoics explain the ordered and reliable patterns that the universe exhibits through this belief in God’s presence in them. Cicero observes that for the Stoics, the “usefulness, beauty and order” of the universe can only be attributable to God’s perfect ordering.[5] Epictetus similarly asks, rhetorically, how else could flowers, fruit, and planets behave with such uniformity, if they were not ordered by the internal presence of “God’s express command.”[6] God does not lurk behind the perceivable world, as a separate creator of it. God is the perceivable world.

Each of us humans, on the other hand, does not comprise such a monumental phenomenon. We are small, localised, and particular. The universe, God, conversely is all-encompassing. Any comparison between humans and the Stoic God might consequently seem ridiculous. We must be completely different things, us humans, and that God.

There are, however, features of Stoicism which compel us to interrogate how straightforwardly we can say that humans are absolutely different from the Stoic God. We can consider this by clarifying a difference between types of difference.


Differences in kind versus differences in degree

A useful philosophical insight on types of difference comes via Henri Bergson’s late 19th century study on differences in kind versus differences in degree.

Things differ by degree if they share the same qualities, but not the same size. These things Bergson describes as “extensive magnitudes.” [7] Because extensive magnitudes are qualitatively the same things, their different sizes can be compared. [8] Space as distance is an example of an extensive magnitude, the units of which differ quantitatively or by degree.[9]

Things differ by kind, conversely, if they do not share the same qualities. Bergson calls these things “intensive magnitudes”. This is because he largely associates them with our thinking and emotional experiences, hence what is “internal” or “intensive” to us. “Joy or sorrow” are posited as examples of intensive magnitudes.[10] Unlike spatial states, different states of joy or sorrow are not qualitatively identical things.[11] We misunderstand changes in joy, for instance, if we interpret its different states to be increases or decreases “of one and the same feeling.”[12] What instead manifests in Bergson’s view are different kinds of joy. He supports this claim by positing that there are no definite divisions between where one joy ends and another commences, nor are there measurable units of joy.

The specificities of Bergson’s theory exceed our current concerns. What we can take from Bergson though are the “two possible senses”[13] of difference. The difference between these differences hinges on whether the things being compared are the same kind of thing.


Parts and wholes of the same kind?

So, are humans the same kind of thing as the Stoic God? Surely not?! God, after all, is the entire world. Humans, contrarily, are what Marcus Aurelius,[14] Epictetus,[15] and others refer to as merely “parts” or “limbs” of the world. It is, however, because of this Stoic definition of humans as parts of the world, and therefore as parts of God, that we might question the interpretation that we and the Stoic God are completely different kinds of things.

Think firstly of our physical composition, our human bodies. Marcus Aurelius eloquently forwards the Stoic view that our bodies are of the same “substance”[16] as that of the whole universe. This is a position that builds on preceding Stoic beliefs. Calcidius reports that from Stoicism’s outset, Zeno asserts that what exists is comprised of a common substance.[17] This substance is God, as reviewed earlier, whose universal presence is said by Marcus to connect and “enmesh us”[18] together with all other bodies and the universe as the body of God.[19] Individual human bodies share the qualities of the divine world body, for each individual is an effect and an expression of the universal.

Let’s now review our mind’s relationship to the Stoic God. In observing how all things are interconnected and ordered by the same divine and causal thread, how “plants and our bodies are so intimately linked to the world and its rhythms”, Epictetus rhetorically asks “won’t the same be true of our minds – only more so?”[20] He follows by demanding that what you might call “your own” in terms of your mind and rationality, is actually what the universe as God has “granted you”.[21] We originate from a rationally ordered world, whereby our mind, as a portion of that rational order, as a “fragment of God”,[22] shares the same quality.

When we rationalise and think “freely” therefore, we do so for the Stoics with the kind of freedom that accords with God’s ordering. “If you will, you are free”, however your subjective will, Epictetus qualifies, acts “in accordance with what is not merely your own will, but at the same time the will of God.”[23] Humans and God share the same kind of rationality, the same kind of will, we are qualitatively consistent. Each mind is in this regard a “kindred mind”[24] for Marcus Aurelius, reflecting our common and systematised composition. This reflects our divine genealogies for the Stoics. Hierocles (via Stobaeus) is reported to accordingly explain that our biological parents are merely “images” of our fundamental, shared parent, “Zeus.”[25]

As A.A. Long more recently summarises, our minds illustrate our “equivalence” to the rational universe.[26] “Equivalent” does not suggest we are identical to the universe. Our individual rationalities are not indistinguishable from the rationality of the Stoic God, nor are our human bodies absolutely the same as the body of God (the universe itself). As just one distinction, we must for Epictetus always be conscious of ourselves as a “part of the whole” that is “not everlasting” in the way that God is.[27] Nevertheless, “equivalent” here does denote how we share a qualitatively common substance and rationality with the Stoic universe/God.

Does this mean that each human, as a fragment of the world, simply exists as a smaller degree/size of God’s substance and rationality? Are we the same kind of thing as God, but just a quantitatively much smaller version?

Probably not. Let’s consider the distinction that Epictetus raises between God’s everlasting time, and our relatively limited time. This is also a theme addressed by Seneca. Whilst a human’s life “spreads out” before them “as does all eternity to a God”, for Seneca it is undeniable that the latter “will live longer”, because God made the human as a “full likeness” of the divine that is “confined…to the limits of a miniature.”[28] Accounts like these might be read as comparisons of qualitatively identical, but quantifiably different, amounts of time. If we reinvite Bergson to the discussion though, we find he says we make an error regarding time when we conceive of it only according to its quantifiably differentiated forms (as represented on clocks and calendars). Time is also something that we each consciously experience differently, through unmeasurable and uncomparable states.[29] Likewise then, reducing our differences from God to parameters of size/quantification could make the same error of ignoring the qualitative differences between the human rationally ordered mind, and the world’s divinely all-encompassing, rationally ordered mind. I nevertheless open, rather than definitively answer, the question of whether distinguishing humans from the Stoic God means focusing on quantitative or qualitative differences?



[1] Pearson, The Fragments of Zeno and Cleanthes, 22.

[2] Cicero, The Nature of The Gods, 1.39.

[3] The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, 7.68 (Bohn edition; cf. 7.134 in Loeb)

[4] Letters from a Stoic, 65.23-24.

[5] The Nature of The Gods 2.14-15.

[6] Discourses 1.14.3.

[7] Time and Free Will, 3.

[8] Time and Free Will, 75.

[9] Time and Free Will, 77-79.

[10] Time and Free Will, 7.

[11] Time and Free Will, 8.

[12] Time and Free Will, 11.

[13] Time and Free Will, 121.

[14] Meditations, 7.13.

[15] Discourses, 2.10.4.

[16] Meditations, 7.19.

[17] Calcidius in Long and Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers: Volume 1, 44D.

[18] Meditations, 7.9.

[19] Meditations, 7.19.

[20] Discourses 1.14.5.

[21] Discourses 1.25.3.

[22] Discourses, 2.8.11.

[23] Discourses 1.17.28.

[24] Meditations 9.22.

[25] Hierocles the Stoic, 83.

[26] A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, 166.

[27] Discourses, 2.5.13–14.

[28] Epistulae Morales I: Books I-LXV, 53.11. Thank you to Judith Stove for instigating a discussion with me regarding the relevance of this epistle.

[29] The Creative Mind, 137-38.

Will Johncock is the author of the books Beyond the Individual: Stoic Philosophy on Community and Connection (2023), Stoic Philosophy and Social Theory (2020), and Naturally Late (2019). He has taught at UNSW Sydney and the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. For more information: www.willjohncock.com.

Nigel Glassborow

The God Issue

In recent years there has been much talk as to whether the Deity is a necessary aspect of the Stoic wisdom system – or for that matter, any other wisdom system.

When it comes to the Stoic wisdom system, the writings of old makes it clear that Stoicism is a theistic teaching.

As presented to us in the extant Stoic writings from the early Stoa, the Stoics are consistently seen to involve a deity in their philosophy.  The ancients tell us that the three pillars of Stoicism are Natural Philosophy, Logic and Ethics, and they claimed that without all three pillars Stoicism would be a failed enterprise. Stoicism’s Natural Philosophy is centred in a belief in God and the oneness of the Cosmos.

From its inception, Stoicism has been a philosophy of life that has involved a belief in God, the gods and other spiritual beings.  Classic Stoicism, and hence the Stoicism that has been passed down to us over the millennia, is a practical theistic life philosophy, albeit that it is open to debate as to what classification of theistic beliefs by today’s academic standards the Stoic theism fits into.  However, as with the Stoics of old, we are told by two of the most authoritative Professors of the Classics that with its theism, the Stoic system falls easily into place and without its theism, Stoicism is broken-backed.

Professor Gilbert Murray in his 1915 lecture ‘The Stoic Philosophy’, tells us that Zeno (and hence Stoicism) makes assumptions when it is claimed that there is a beneficial purpose that drives the state of the world and that the ‘force’ that coordinates Nature as a whole is akin to us and the way we interact with what is around us.  But Murray also tells us that the whole Stoic system ‘falls easily into place’ if we accept these assumptions.

In similar manner, more recently, another renowned expert on Stoicism, Anthony A Long, a classical scholar and Professor of Classics, in his book ‘Stoic Studies’ page 201 (1996 Cambridge University Press), arrives at the conclusion that any attempt to justify Stoic eudaimonic ethics fails if such does not include the Stoic understanding regarding determinism and divine providence – he states that any such attempts would leave Stoicism ‘broken-backed’.

And of course, logically, being fundamental to understanding its ethics, one cannot have the Stoic version of determinism and divine providence without also acknowledging its Deity – the divinity behind the providence.

In Stoicism, its Cosmology, the Universal Consciousness, the Logos, the Deity, Physis (Nature) and how we live our lives are all interrelated.  And following the Stoic investigative methodology, today’s Stoicism still has sound reasonings to support this take – some based on ancient wisdom and some looking to today’s knowledge base.

So, is it logical in this day and age to believe that Stoicism can retain its identity and nature if a key aspect of its Natural Philosophy has been rejected?  Of course not.  But that is not to say that some aspects of Stoicism cannot be useful to the non-theist, such as the Stoic mind training that is today mirrored in cognitive behavioural therapy and the like.  To fully benefit from its training, the Stoic has need to understand and immerse themselves in the whole Stoic wisdom system – a system, that relies on a belief in a deity.

A sound mind achieved through training does not necessarily lead to a good nature. Training needs to have purpose, and that purpose for the Stoic is to become a person of good character, whose every role in life is aimed at serving the greater good because they are aware that they are one with the Cosmos and with God.  Without such aims and principles, the mental training does not a Stoic make.

It is its link to the Stoic principles that elevates the Stoic mind training above that of the various modern day talking therapies.  The Stoic’s purpose in life is guided by the Stoic worldview, a worldview that tells us of our relationship to the Cosmos and to God.

So it is, that while it is unlikely that there will ever be direct scientific proof as to the nature of God, there is much in modern science and Stoicism that offers reason for the belief in the Deity that Stoicism looks to as a foundation to the whole of its wisdom system – a belief grounded in the common perceptions of humankind, observation, experience and reason.

Rationally and logically the scales come down on the side of Stoicism being a theistic based philosophy of life, just as many of those who have studied all aspects of Stoicism, including its Natural Philosophy, come to understand and take on board the Stoic take on theism.  No matter how one looks at matters, even today, God is an integral part of the Stoic wisdom system and the Stoic’s life, and as such, a full-on Stoic path is not the path for those who cannot bring themselves to admit that God exist.

Just look to the ‘Stoic Elevator Scale’ referred to in the ‘Report on Stoic Week 2022.’  This scale was developed by Tim LeBon, the details of which he set out in his post ‘365 Ways to be More Stoic – an elevator to Stoic success?’ (17.12.2022).  Regarding Level 5, Tim tells us that “If you take a ride to the very top of the Stoic elevator, then your views – and practices – may be indistinguishable from Zeno, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus and the other ancient Stoics.”

Of Level 5, we are told that it is the study and acceptance into one’s practices of the Stoic physics and worldview, which of course includes the Stoic theistic beliefs.

Along with these ideas and my own contribution, ‘Without the Divine, there is no Stoicism‘ (15 Feb 2015), there is sufficient support in the extant writings and the academic studies that tells us that to follow the Stoic wisdom system to its ultimate level, one needs to come to terms with and accept the Stoic view of the Deity.

If you don’t believe me, look to Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus:

‘Cease not to think of the Universe as one living Being, possessed of a single substance and a single Soul; and how all things trace back to a single sentience; and how it does all things by a single impulse; and how all existing things are joint causes of all things that come into existence; and intertwined in the fabric is the thread and how closely woven the web.’

Marcus Aurelius Antonius:  ‘The Communings with Himself’ IV. 40; translated by C R Haines 1916; Loeb Classical Library

‘For I regard God’s will as better than my will.  I shall attach myself to Him as a servant and follower, my choice is one with His, my desire one with His, in a word my will is one with His will.’

Epictetus – ‘Arrian’s Discourses of Epictetus’ IV.VII.20; translated by W. A. Oldfather of the University of Illinois 1928; Loeb Classical Library

Nigel Glassborow has been studying Stoicism for about 35 years, having found that Zeno’s system is supportable by today’s sciences.  Nigel is not an academic, rather he is one of those people of ‘the market place’ that Zeno talks to.

Judith Stove

The Stoics and Small Miracles

‘Our’ local chapel was founded in the 1960s by a German order of nuns. Their founder, Father K., was imprisoned in Dachau for opposing the Nazi regime. After the war, his order sent sisters to establish communities in all the countries, including Australia, which had fought against Germany.

One hot day, I saw a young woman, walking down the hill, clearly after visiting the chapel. I pulled over and offered her a lift. A medical student, she had come to pray to Mary for success in upcoming exams. Her married sister had visited the chapel a year before to pray that she would become pregnant, and was now expecting her first child.

This background may help us to understand a key aspect of Greco-Roman culture. Statues dotted the streets leading in and out of towns. Sacred enclosures stood, marked by stones. Each site had a history formed – as was our chapel – by war, tyranny, or exile. People visited to offer the kind of prayers made by the young woman: about family matters, estates, recovery from illnesses and disabilities. At Epidaurus, Antoninus Pius, mentor of Marcus Aurelius, funded a bath and a temple to Asclepius, along with other facilities (Paus. II.27.6). A ‘small miracle,’ such as a cure, was sought, in exchange for supplication and a donation for the shrine.

How did the Stoic philosophers regard this aspect of their society? Importantly, the honour paid universally to the gods was a key element in early Stoic arguments for their very existence (Algra 163). Epictetus writes respectfully of sacrifice and prayer (Disc. III.21.12-14; Ench. 31.5).

The situation, however, as Grant (in the 1952 locus classicus) and most recently Algra have shown, was complex. Seneca himself represents more than one tendency. At times appealing nostalgically to simple ancient worship (when the gods were ‘moulded in clay,’ Letter 31.11), he can also denounce the foolish outcomes for which people pray (Letter 60.1). At the same time, the Stoics were ridiculed for ascribing divinity to so many entities such as the constellations, and a range of traditional and local figures (Cotta in Cic. DND III.xvii-xix), and even for elevating the virtues to divine status (III.xxiv).

‘[In Stoicism] there are no divine interventions, so no favouritism and no miracles,’ declare Whiting and Konstantakos (7). There is a technical, etymological sense, in which this claim is true. A miraculum in Latin is something at which it is reasonable to marvel, mirari. This could be anything from an eclipse, to a chicken with two heads. One classical view is that it is foolish to be surprised by events (Marcus, Meditations 12.13), so a Stoic would not have marvelled at such occurrences.

Secondly, for the Stoic, the world is – properly perceived, tanquam spectator novus, as if with fresh eyes (Seneca, Letter 64.6) – striking in its beauty and order. Everything is a miracle, to which the appropriate human response is profound gratitude rather than amazement. Marcus explains that the deeper one’s insight into natural phenomena, the more pleasure they give (III.2.3). Perhaps a Stoic worshipper would not wish any event – even an illness – to be other than as it is, although this seems to risk descending into the ‘lazy argument’ – that rigid determinism would prevent one even seeking medical help – against which Stoics had to defend their worldview (Cicero, De Fato 28-30).

There is a third way in which the Whiting-Konstantakos claim might seem accurate: that the Stoic God would not interrupt the ‘laws of nature’ to perform a miracle. On one classical view, there are no ‘laws of nature’ separable from the cosmic processes overseen by the Stoic God, who is – we are reminded in the very first line of Cleanthes’s Hymn to Zeus – ‘all-powerful, always’ (pangkrates aei). Yet the Roman Stoics seem to have believed, as did most Romans, that ‘the gods often manifest their power in bodily presence’ (praesentes saepe di vim suam declarant, Balbus in Cic. DND II.ii.6).

A century and more after Cicero, imperial historians Tacitus, a Stoic-adjacent writer, and Suetonius seem to have accepted that the deified emperors could and did achieve spectacular results. The divine credentials of Vespasian – a career soldier known chiefly for bloody-minded pragmatism – were established at Alexandria, as Suetonius writes:

A man of the people who was blind, and another who was lame, came to [Vespasian] together…begging for the help for their disorders which Serapis had promised in a dream; for the god declared that Vespasian would restore the eyes, if he would spit upon them, and give strength to the leg, if he would deign to touch it with his heel. Though he had hardly any faith that this could possibly succeed, and therefore shrank from making the attempt, he was at last prevailed upon by his friends and tried both things in public before a large crowd; and with success (Divus Vespasianus 7).

Vespasian retained a Stoic adviser, Euphrates (possibly a fellow-student with Epictetus: Gill note to Disc. III.15.8). There was, in other words, Stoic presence, even tacit endorsement, at these impressive events.

By the time we reach the 170s CE, we find Marcus and his associates implicated in a rather large miracle. Cassius Dio records:

For when the Romans were in peril in the course of the battle [against the Quadi], the divine power (to theion) saved them in a most unexpected manner…The Romans…were in a terrible plight from fatigue, wounds, the heat of the sun, and thirst, and so could neither fight nor retreat, but were standing and the line and at their several posts, scorched by the heat, when suddenly many clouds gathered and a mighty rain, not without divine interposition, burst upon them. Indeed, there is a story to the effect that Arnuphis, an Egyptian magician, who was a companion of Marcus, had invoked by means of enchantments various deities and in particular Mercury, the god of the air, and by this means attracted the rain (Epitome LXXII.8).

Small miracles such as a cure, pregnancy and children, timely rain, and military or career achievements, remain passionately desired; and are dispensed throughout the world in ways which, even now, tend largely to elude our ‘scientific’ understandings.


Primary Works

Cassius Dio, Roman History, LCL 177, transl. Earnest Cary, 1927.

Cicero, De Fato, LCL 349, transl. H. Rackham, 1942.

Cicero, De Natura Deorum, transl. H. Rackham, LCL, 1933, repr. 1967.

Cleanthes, The Hymn of Cleanthes, text and transl. E.H. Blakeney, London, 1921.

Epictetus, Discourses, Fragments, Handbook, translated Robin Hard, introduction and notes by Christopher Gill, Oxford World’s Classics, Kindle edition, 2014.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, translated Gregory Hays, 2002, Modern Library eBook Edition, 2012.

Pausanias, Description of Greece, LCL 93, transl. W.H.S. Jones, 1918.

Seneca, Epistles, Vol. I: Epistles 1-65, LCL 75, transl. Richard M. Gummere, 1917.

Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, LCL 38, transl. J.C. Rolfe, 1914, revised 1997.

Secondary Works

Algra, K. (2003). ‘Stoic Theology.’ In B. Inwood (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy, pp. 153-178). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grant, Robert M. Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Thought. 1952. Wipf and Stock/Google Play, 2011.

Whiting, Kai and Leonidas Konstantakos, ‘Stoic Theology: Revealing or Redundant?’ Religions, 2019, 10, 193; https://doi.10.3390/rel10030193.

A writer based in Sydney, Australia, Judith Stove is Assistant Editor of Stoicism Today.







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