'Providence or Atoms? Atoms!' – Donald Robertson

Stoicism: Providence or Atoms?
Can you be a modern Stoic and an atheist (or agnostic)?

by Donald Robertson


Editorial note: this piece is best read alongside another by Chris Fisher which takes the same starting point, but comes to the opposite conclusions.

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 others may have adopted a more agnostic stance, something relatively unusual for the period in which they lived.  This debate 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 world-view.  It’s worth noting that Socrates was sometimes portrayed as a partial agnostic.  He admitted that certainty about the gods is impossible but chose to believe in them on the basis of probability.  He therefore appears to have been open to the possibility of atheism.  Yet the Stoics generally held him in high regard as perhaps the closest historical approximation to the ideal Sage.  Moreover, in explaining his view that Stoicism followed Cynicism as part of a direct philosophical succession beginning with Socrates, Diogenes Laertius emphasises 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).  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 sources as suggesting that Marcus Aurelius was “converted” to Stoic philosophy after reading something by Aristo of Chios.  Moreover, 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, 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.

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)

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’… (iv.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. (vi.24)

So Marcus argues that the Stoic’s attitude toward death should be the same whether he believes in God or not.

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. ( viii.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. (ix.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? (ix.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. (x.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.  Likewise:

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].  (xii, 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. (xii, 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.

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 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.

It’s not clear how we’re to interpret this passage, and it may perhaps not be authentic.  However, if it comes 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.

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.

Donald Robertson is a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, trainer, and author who specialises in the treatment of anxiety and the use of CBT and clinical hypnotherapy. He is the author of many articles on philosophy and psychotherapy in professional journals. Two of his more recent books include Teach Yourself Stoicism and the art of Happiness (2013) & Build your Resilience (2012). Read more about Donald’s work on his blog, The Philosophy of CBT.

17 thoughts on 'Providence or Atoms? Atoms!' – Donald Robertson

  1. Nigel Glassborow says:

    Donald’s piece is full of if’s and but’s and maybe’s.
    For instance, two of his uses of quotes do not support his attempts to cast doubt where there is none.
    “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”
    Quite clearly, regardless of the ‘science’, there is a belief in a conscious oneness that governs – that is the Divine Fire.
    “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”
    Anyone fully versed in Stoic teachings will know that Chance and Providence are just other names for different aspects of the Divine Fire as it impinges on our lives.
    The doubts expressed by the Stoics of old regards ‘the gods’ was not regards the existence of ‘the One God’, namely the Divine Fire, but regards the superhuman beings of the Greek and Roman legends.
    By the teachings of Stoicism, atheism is irrational for it is contrary to the thoughts of the wise throughout the ages and it is also contrary to modern science. But most of all atheism is devoid of any foundation for it is contrary to the experience of numerous individuals around the world. As said before, even Socrates had his Daemon that guided him.
    Donald’s theorising does not stack up against that of observation and experience.
    I offer the following story as an example of the Divine Fire seen as Providence:
    In the late 1980’s a driver was on a long trip when he came to a town he had not visited before. It was about lunchtime so he decided to park up and get some food. He wandered into the town centre and saw the abbey ruins. He felt compelled to go in and look around.
    Some months earlier he had started to read about and accept the Christian faith and, with so many denominations, was trying to work out which path to take. He had visited various Christian establishments and felt like an outsider as he saw that most of them did not reflect the simplicity of faith that he had been reading about and had felt drawn to.
    He was a little confused as to why at this time he should feel so compelled to look round a ruin rather than the many churches in the town, especially when he should have been getting his food and continuing with his journey. At first he couldn’t see what the ruins had to offer him, albeit that he felt that he was being guided. Then he saw a man at the top of the ruins sat in quiet meditation. He found himself approaching him, apologising for interrupting him and explaining that he felt a little foolish and hoped the man would understand. He explained his predicament. He said that he felt sure that he had been guided to talk to the man and he believed that the man had the answers he had been seeking.
    His heart dropped a little when the man explained that he was not Christian, however the man then went on to draw the driver’s attention to the chapter in the Bible about not needing to stand up in the temple as part of the throng in order to be seen to be praying, it being better to pray when no one else was about. The man pointed out that if the driver needed a building he could enter any church when it was empty and pray, if he needed an altar any ‘un-hewn’ rock in a field would do, and that the Christian scriptures did not require a person to approach God through a priest. The man suggested that the driver did not ‘need’ to find a ‘church’, but rather should follow his own path according to his own readings and beliefs and only share the path with others when it felt right to.
    The lorry driver thanked the man and left. While it was obvious to the man that the driver felt more at ease regards his lone path, he realised that the driver was also left to ponder, just as the man was, just what had compelled the driver to enter the ruins and to approach the man as he did.
    On the same day, about ten minutes before the lorry driver set sight on the town where he was to stop, I was sat at my desk in my home when I got an irresistible feeling of being ‘asked’ to go out. I lived just off the High Street, and felt compelled to walk down it. I had the uncanny feeling that I was about to meet a friend, yet I got all the way down to the bottom of the hill without bumping into anyone I knew. At the bottom of the hill I was, what I can only describe as, still being ‘led’ and as a result I found myself by the abbey ruins. I went in. Not quite sure what had been going on or why I was there, I wandered up to the top of the ruins and decided to make the most of a sunny day and sat down to have a quite meditation.
    About five to ten minutes later the lorry driver approached me, and it just so happened that having studied Christianity I had the answers he was looking for.
    Now I know this happened because I was there. I therefore have first-hand knowledge that ‘Something’ intervened and arranged for me to meet with the driver so he could get the answers he had been praying for, while at the same time demonstrating to both him and me that It is ‘out there’ and that It does take an interest in our individual paths through life. I had been ‘invited’ to the meeting at the abbey even before the driver knew he was going to enter the abbey grounds.
    ‘Another’ had intervened and made sure that we met.

  2. I find it odd that the Divine Spark, or whatever, should concern itself with arranging for something as trivial as two people meeting. I also think that what is missing in debates about the Divine Spark or God is an agreement on the character and nature of the Divine Spark. or God.
    Is the God who created and rules the Cosmos the God who has the characteristics of humans? According to my Christian friend we are made in God;s image so I assume he looks like us. Why a God needs arms, legs, a heart, eyes etc in a cosmos I can’t imagine. God seems to me to have been created, or imagined, by people. Our fantasies feed our egos.

  3. John Bonnice says:

    It seems to me that, after adding up Marcus’ remarks, the agnostic or “don’t know” position is possible. Also, Epicurus did think virtue was necessary, (for the sake of a pleasant life) so for both positions one should be pursuing virtue and so the either/or is not that strong.

  4. Nigel Glassborow says:

    I find it odd that you talk of the Divine Spark when I talk of the Divine Fire – you clearly have not studied Stoicism in any great depth. The individual is the ‘spark’; the Divine Fire is everything. As such it would be odd if the ‘Consciousness’ that permeates everything were not to be involved in the actions of two of its ‘sparks’.
    As to the nature and character of the Divine Fire, proper study of Stoicism ought to have been sufficient to have informed you of the Stoic view. As to the ‘in god’s image’, according to Stoic teachings the Divine Fire permeates the whole physical Cosmos so it is foolish to imaging that we resemble the whole physical Cosmos, let alone to discuss such a concept. All that Stoicism claims is that we get our consciousness from being part of the Consciousness that is behind the manifestation of the Cosmos – just as science is beginning to demonstrate.
    You say, “God seems to me to have been created, or imagined, by people.” People cannot create what pre-existed them for the god of the Stoics is the Cosmos. If you wish to follow atheistic beliefs and hold to the Stoic teachings, if you deny the existence of the Cosmos, you deny your own existence.
    As to your “Our fantasies feed our egos.” You have not disappointed me – I expected such a response. This is a case of, when all rational arguments have failed resort to insults.

    • Elijah says:

      Nigel, thank you for your eloquent responses. I appreciate your depth of knowledge concerning orthodox Stoicism and our Physics.

  5. J. Adkins says:

    Can you be a modern Stoic and an atheist (or agnostic)?
    Moving on.

    • Nigel Glassborow says:

      Can you be a modern Christian and an atheist (or agnostic)?

      • J. Adkins says:

        I thought about the same analogy during this discussion.
        If I met a person who consistently ‘turned the other cheek’ when harmed by another person, and when asked “Why?” cited the example of Jesus Christ, while disbelieving him to be the “Son of God.”
        Could that person reasonably described as Christian? Could a third party follow that train of thought and see it’s logic?
        I would say “Yes.”
        What is more important for the person trying to make their way in the world? The belief in a particular brand of metaphysics or their daily habits.
        What would be the more telling and accurate description of exactly who they were?

  6. Nigel Glassborow says:

    My congratulations to J Adkins – a well thought out (and prepared) answer. But it makes the point I have been trying to make. Atheists are illogical when it comes to such matters.
    One may turn the other cheek but that does not make one a Christian by any logical argument – all one has done is to carry out an action that may be described as Christian inspired. (Mind you, most Christian ‘practices’ are common to most world faiths.)
    Following one practice that is inspired by Christianity and then claiming to be a Christian is irrational. Following two practices that are inspired by Christianity and then claiming to be a Christian is irrational. Following three practices …. And so on.
    How many Christian practices and beliefs must one follow before being able to claim to be a Christian?
    The very title Christian states that one believes that the Nazarene was Jesus ‘the anointed one’ – that is an ‘anointed king’, as in ‘the messiah’. Being ‘a Christian’ involves believing in the whole ‘son of God’ bit.
    True, there are Judaic Christians who believe that the Nazarene was a Jewish prophet – but then that is understandable in so far as Jesus was a Jew – at least on his mother’s side. 
    But even the Judaic Christians believe in God. God is part of the package of being able to call oneself a Christian.
    I admire the atheist who simply does not believe in any god whatsoever and gets on with their lives without any need to deride the beliefs of others. If you cannot believe then it is right to be honest about it. If you want a philosophy, set up an atheist or agnostic philosophy (maybe you could call it Humanism ). But, please, do not try to subvert the philosophies of us believers.
    To the Atheists (capital A) I would say, admire our philosophies and borrow what you want, but don’t destroy our philosophies by laying claim to them and then ‘editing’ out the very foundation of our beliefs. You do a disservice to those you try to profit from by way of selling your books and your therapies for you do not offer them the whole ‘product’.
    Just look at what harm the side effects of some medicines can cause when the chemical companies extract just one aspect of a medicinal plant, when all the time the plant had within it a balance of chemicals that, if taken whole, would have avoided the unwanted side effects and so would have been more beneficial to the ‘patient’.
    I would ask of the militant atheists, why do they try to browbeat all believers because of their beliefs? Is it because of a subconscious realisation that their religion of Atheism does not offer them all that they need? Are they jealous of the ability of believers to believe?
    If so look to your own. I would suggest a humanist organisation – provided they do not actively try to do down those of other faiths. Try D T Strain’s Humanist Contemplative site – he is trying to incorporate all of ‘the trappings of religion’ into a form of atheist church, as are many others. A simple search of the Web will bring to light many other would be atheist priests willing to say ‘payers’ at your weddings or funerals.
    If the atheist feels that something is missing from their lives and so feels the need to look at other philosophies in order to fill the gap in their lives they need to ask themselves, which is the false belief – atheism or a belief in God, Allah, Yahweh, the Divine Fire or whatever one want’s to call that State of Being that is central to all the world faiths?
    All that said, back to the question raised, “Can you be a modern Stoic and an atheist (or agnostic)?”
    If these are your two choices, you are either a Stoic or an atheist. You either believe in the Consciousness that is the Divine Fire or you don’t. You can’t have it both ways – unless you are irrational and into self-delusion.
    So the answer is an emphatic, logical and rational “No”!!!

  7. Stephen Murphy says:

    As a relative newcomer to the Stoicism Today site, and a Christian as well, may I start by saying that it is very refreshing to find a site where people debate and discuss deep matters so eloquently and fairly.
    On the question of God, I have yet to find a better definition of what/who/the how, of God than in Exodus – where God names Himself as Yahweh, usually interpreted as ‘I am what I am’ or ‘I shall be what I shall be’.
    The problem with both theists and atheists alike is that all of us tend to construct an image of God – and then use that image to fight our corner. Hence ‘militant atheists’ tend to (rightly) dismiss and ridicule those who believe in the ‘big man in the sky’ image of God; that often appears to be the atheist image and they cannot understand how theists can believe in such a God. Yet, no thinking Christian of my knowledge does think of God in this way. Ironically, atheists often reject what we too reject.
    I personally have no idea whether ‘God’ exists or not, despite being a Christian. If I did, it would no longer be the Christian ‘faith’, but the Christian ‘fact’, which it isn’t. What I do have, and have had most of my life (63 now), is a strong sense of ‘other’; simply, that there is more to creation than the physical stuff. Other than the biblical definition of God, I find theological concepts such as ‘the divine in our midst’, ‘the ground of our being’ – and St Paul’s concept ‘that in which we live, move, and have our being’ as the most helpful when it come to imaging ideas of ‘the other’, or God. The Stoic idea of providence fits those notions very well.
    But at the end of the day, to lead a ‘good’ life, both for oneself and for the sake of others, seems to be the highest ideal open to us humans – maybe that is why St John seeks to cap it all by blurting out ‘God is Love’.
    I find Stoic philosophy incredibly helpful as I seek out to live my, at times, far from perfect Christian discipleship.
    I have even bought the Stoicism Today book and am following the course – what more can I say?

    • Nigel Gassborow says:

      So well put.
      I was struck by you reference to “St Paul’s concept ‘that in which we live, move, and have our being’.” So I looked it up and the following is it in context.
      St Paul talking to the Athenians – Acts 17
      24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
      25 Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;
      26 And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;
      27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:
      28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.
      29 Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.
      This is a beautiful example of the ‘cross-pollination’ of faiths.
      Verses 24 and 25 is classic Stoic teaching, such teaching having been derived from the ‘common perceptions’ that the Stoics of old had studied. Basically, when all faiths are compared it is seen that ‘God’ makes manifest the whole Cosmos.
      Verse 26 refers to the kinship of all humanity. Again, through the study of the ‘common perceptions’ the Stoics had already formulated their ideas about cosmopolitism.
      Verse 27 can be read as the Stoic teaching that ‘the Divine Fire permeates the whole Cosmos’ and that we ought to seek harmony with Phusis (the living conscious Nature seen as God) and it will be seen that we Stoics are saying the same thing.
      Verse 28 can be read as the Stoic teaching that ‘We exist within and are sparks of the Divine Fire’.
      And verse 29 is confirmed by the Stoic teaching that God is not to be seen as the mythical beings in human and animal form that atheists also rile against.
      All of this shows that regardless of our faiths we can all learn from each other, just as verse 28 has St Paul quoting the Greek (probably Stoic) poets confirming a common belief that we are all the ‘children of God’ or in Stoic terminology, ‘We are all sparks of the Divine Fire’.
      As Seneca said, we need to see past the individual words and see the whole picture. When we do this it is seen that all people of faith are of one faith. Stoicism and Christianity are but two schools of the one teaching – the way of harmony with the whole.
      Christians say ‘let my will be thine.’ Muslims are taught to surrender to Allah (God). Stoics are taught to live in accord with Nature (Phusis, the Divine Fire). All faiths teach the same – to be truly selfish be selfless and seek out the good of the whole. And it is through an understanding of the nature of the whole that we can learn how to live.
      Contentment is not to be found through the egotistical belief that humanity is the highest form of consciousness, but through harmony with the Consciousness that permeates the whole Cosmos.

  8. Stephen Murphy says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. The only thing I would add, is that rather than saying Stoicism and Christianity are two schools of the one teaching, I would stress that they are one teaching but proclaimed by two cultures. Hence, Jesus saw the world, and expressed his ideas and ideals, through his Jewish upbringing. And his message was then likewise discussed and debated (whether agreed with or not) largely by those within the same culture. Those outside his culture (the Romans) were, as one would expect, largely indifferent.
    The difficulty with any philosophy/religion is to propagate the message outside the original culture. That is one of the fascinations of reading the New Testament – seeing the ‘Good News’ weaving and wending its way between Jewish, Greek and Roman culture, and then, as the centuries move on, between eastern and western world-views.
    What I find so interesting in today largely secular culture is that people seem so unaware that they are indeed seeing the world through their own particular culture. And because of that, so incredibly intolerant of other viewpoints. We lose the ‘bigger-picture’ continuously because society seems now to have a real inability to see that ‘a good life’ – the life of virtue – is not just about individual freedom to do and have whatever we want; freedom unrestrained by a sense of duty, ethical values and responsibility is no freedom. It leads to a rudderless society and a shrinking from much that is essential to the human spirit. To feel at ease as a child of the cosmos, we first need to feel at ease as a child in our village, our town, our country and continent. Remove common values – once underpinned by a common faith (a generalisation I agree..) and we become aliens to each other. Or – the common values become so unpleasant that we live in fear of each other!
    Christianity may have had its day because to bridge that cultural gap is, for most, too much. Stoicism has a better chance in that – from my meagre understanding – it is not creedal and its language transcends the centuries in a much more understandable format.
    It speaks more to 21st century culture (‘Divine spark’ makes sense to people – ‘the God of Moses’ doesn’t!)

  9. Nigel Glassborow says:

    Your point about cultures is so right.
    In the Quran it states that had it been Allah’s wish he would have made us all of one faith. It also says that Allah has given each people their own book (scriptures). This clearly states that all people should be tolerant of each other’s faiths for all have the one source. (Unfortunately there are some false-Islamists who turn against Allah by ignoring this and other parts of the Quran and try to destroy those who follow the faiths that Allah has passed down to them.)
    What applies to faith also applies to culture.
    The oft quoted statement, “Say not that you are an Athenian, but say you are a citizen of the Cosmos” needs to be balanced by the concept of increasing rings of responsibility to self, family, friends, village (tribe), etcetera.
    Mother Nature ensures that life thrives and evolves through diversity. So while we should encourage tolerance we also need to ensure that a variety of cultures and faiths exist. The more we are driven into a global society by ‘big business’ the more isolated the individual becomes. The more faiths are eroded by the so called ‘secular society’ the more the individual loses all sense of any meaning to their lives.
    ‘Multiculturalism’ erodes culture. Tolerance allows cultures to thrive. Multiculturalism waters down beliefs and culture by discouraging the ‘holding to’ of any one faith or culture. Tolerance allows cultures and faiths to thrive and allows the ‘cross pollination’ of ideas that helps to ensure that all faiths and cultures keep up with the current awareness and wisdom of the age.
    I do not believe that Christianity has had its day. I am content here in Britain to have the link between the State and the Church of England – at least then faith is kept to the fore. Many people of other faiths also feel that their faiths will be respected if the State recognises the importance of faith to the wellbeing of its citizenry.
    I am not a Christian because I cannot accept some of its doctrinal claims that have been ‘enacted’ by leaders of the Church and have little or no foundation in the scriptures. I also find that most churches concentrate too much on ‘Jesus’ and not enough on God – too much on who they claim Jesus is and not enough on what he said.
    Faith can be a matter of taste as well as culture. 
    Which brings us back to Acts 17 verse 28. Just as St Paul said “as certain also of your own poets have said, “For we are also his offspring” Christianity can still learn from Stoicism.
    Remember ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. The first words are ‘Our Father’ – Jesus did not teach his followers to pray to ‘his father’ but rather to the Father of us all. Jesus did not teach his followers to pray to him, but to ‘the Father’ that is God.
    The Stoics teach that one should see the ‘image’ of a man-like God for what it is and see the truth of the statement “For in him we live, and move, and have our being.” (Also Acts 17 verse 28). Faiths can have their images, idols and icons if that helps, but their followers always need to remember what all faiths teach – no matter how one visualises God or ‘the gods’, in the end all gods are One and the One God is beyond description.
    This is why the Stoic framework that envisages the Divine Fire and has many names for this Oneness is just a framework we Stoics need to be able to visualise our place in the scheme of things. It has no more and no less validity than other attempts to visualise the Consciousness that manifests the Cosmos – but it suits us.
    It helps us to formulate the rational that demonstrates that we should live for the good of the whole by living the virtuous life regardless of how this might disadvantage us from the point of view of the deluded ‘secular’ view of the world.

  10. Stephen Murphy says:

    Thank you for another thoughtful and well summed-up reply.
    I am mindful of not turning this into mini-sermons on Christianity (it can be a fault of mine..) – so I will mention a couple of things, and then finish and enjoy my explorations into Stoicism.
    The reason churches tend to talk more about Jesus than God is precisely because ‘God’ is such a vague and cultural notion. Is God an actual being, albeit spiritual? Is He/it/She best seen as ‘life force’, or, as Stoics say, ‘Divine Fire’ or ‘spark’? Is God simply (!) a philosophic ideal of perfection, or a linguistic construct (as non-realist would argue)? Are we talking Deism or Theism when we get down to theology (‘god-talk’)? The list, as you know, is endless!
    David Jenkins (Bishop of Durham in the 80s) had a lovely expression that, for Christians, ‘God is, as He is in Jesus’.
    Those first disciples, and the early church, thought, for whatever reason (we weren’t there – we can never know) that somehow, in the person of Christ, God was with them and among them.
    That caused countless philosophical and doctrinal problems – how can God be in heaven – and on earth? If Jesus died on the cross – how could He still be with us? Yes, He rose again – but he disappeared again! In short, as a best answer, the Trinity is born. But as with all theology, it is but a model. Is God really a ‘trinity’? No, not really – but as a way of tying up the complexity of God, Jesus, and ‘the Spirit is with you’, it does it’s best!
    It is why, to this day, the central proclamation of faith in Christendom is that ‘God was in Christ reconciling Himself to the world’. The ‘I am what I am’ became flesh.
    Myth? Story? Half-truth? Actually-the-way-it-was-and-is? Who knows – but as a way of rooting human life into something meaningful, it is (at its best) something very profound and very beautiful.
    I really will say no more – and concentrate on my new Stoic reading material!
    I’ve greatly enjoyed this exchange of ideas. Thank you.

    • Nigel Glassborow says:

      Its been a pleasure to have such a rational exchange of views. I’ve enjoyed it very much. Enjoy your journey of discovery.

  11. Melville R. Alexander says:

    When it is all said and done about “Providence or Atoms”, Marcus Aurelius hits the mark, because he took the “Choice of Hercules” thereby empowering himself to do the work required to have eudemonia as it’s result. When we cast aside hope for “good fortune” or a hidden desire for providence to turn our way, we feeble ourselves and impose a handicap on applying Courage, Justice, Temperance and Wisdom as remedies to when we go astray i.e.; learning from our mistakes.
    No matter how much good fortune comes our way or providence consoles us into believing in the gods to watch over our intentions, we are never has strong and fulfilled as when we take the reins by attention to our thoughts since they lead to actions that enable our habits, which manifests has our character that eventually becomes our destiny. So, Either Providence or Atoms become moot…when we are not tested, challenged or provoked into sculpting our live towards what is worthy of our endeavors that gestate into deep peace within the mind.

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