Mark Vernon argues ‘Yes’, Tim LeBon argues ‘No’.
The Argument For
In Praise of the Logos
Ancient Stoics believed that life was grounded in a benign principle they called the logos. Logos is one of those Greek words that can be translated in numerous ways, as word or reason, discourse or principle, law or activity, allure or attraction. The earliest extended Stoic text to survive the centuries is a hymn to Zeus, penned by Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school. He praises the high god for the logos that “moves through all creation”. He celebrates it as the wellspring of unity, direction, meaning, purpose. Suffering, he argues, arises from refusing the logos. Ignorance of its workings leads men and women into all manner of false hopes and expectations – the pursuit of fame and fortune, of pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Troubles resolve themselves in the letting go inherent in learning to follow the logos.
It’s worth reading this hymn in full, not only because it is the Stoic document closest to the founder, but because it conveys the crucial dimension of ancient Stoicism that, sadly to my mind, is ripped out today.“Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful, Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law, Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you, since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God’s image, we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth. Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might. The whole universe, spinning around the earth, goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you. So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands, your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt. By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established, and with it you guide the universal Logos of Reason which moves through all creation, mingling with the great sun and the small stars. O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth, neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea, except what evil men do in their folly. But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable, and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you. For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one, so that the eternal Logos of all came to be one. This Logos, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches; though they are desirous of good things for their possession, they neither see nor listen to God’s universal Law; and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life. But they are senselessly driven to one evil after another: some are eager for fame, no matter how godlessly it is acquired; others are set on making money without any orderly principles in their lives; and others are bent on ease and on the pleasures and delights of the body. They do these foolish things, time and again, and are swept along, eagerly defeating all they really wish for. 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. so that, honored in this way, we may render honor to you in return, and sing your deeds unceasingly, as befits mortals; for there is no greater glory for men or for gods than to justly praise the universal Logos.”
To put it another way, ancient Stoics did not believe that it is possible to live contentedly by ignoring what you can’t control, as Stoicism is sometimes interpreted today. They did not presume that those most human of feelings, fear and anger, are simply our personal choices, to be turned off and on by some trained trick of the will. They saw that life can gradually be re-ordered to serve a deeper, divine imperative that runs through all things. Let go into that fundamental goodness, and whatever happens will ultimately be shaped after its beneficent, magnificent pattern. It’s a commitment of faith to a changed perception of life, not a commitment to reprogramming aimed at a personality adjustment, again as Stoicism can sometimes seem by its modern advocates.
It was a question of knowing the divine in nature through felt experience as much as reasoned argument. Hence, Seneca, speaks of intuiting the presence of God in nature.
If ever you have come upon a grove that is full of ancient trees which have grown to an unusual height, shutting out a view of the sky by a veil of intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, and your marvel at the thick unbroken shade in the midst of the open spaces, will prove to you the presence of deity. If a cave, made by the deep crumbling of the rocks, holds up a mountain on its arch, a place not built with hands but hollowed out into such spaciousness by natural causes, your soul will be deeply moved by a certain intimation of the existence of God.
Seneca also seems to have felt he had a relationship with God. “God is near you, he is with you, he is within you… a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian. “Philosophy is nothing if not a promise that we can know the deity, and not primarily by our efforts but because God wills to be known to us. In another letter, he writes: “God comes to men; nay, he comes nearer, – he comes into men. No mind that has not God, is good. Divine seeds are scattered throughout our mortal bodies; if a good husbandman receives them, they spring up in the likeness of their source and of a parity with those from which they came. If, however, the husbandman be bad, like a barren or marshy soil, he kills the seeds, and causes tares to grow up instead of wheat.”
Epictetus, too, had a powerful sense of God in his life. This is important to note because it is often from Epictetus that contemporary Stoics lift injunctions about how to live, though leaving the crucially divine setting behind – the metaphysical big picture that is required to make full sense of how we response to what happens. We are “children of Zeus”, he says, before addressing God as father in prayer, acknowledging God’s omnipresence, and God as the source and sustainer of our life. Indeed, our life is but a reflection of God’s life, which is why it makes sense to let go of our own striving and trust life: “If our souls are so bound up with God and joined together with Him, as being parts and portions of His being, does not God perceive their every motion as being a motion of that which is His own and of one body with Himself?” Knowing this fact in every moment of our lives is what secures the Stoic promise of tranquility and freedom. “You are a fragment of God; you have within you a part of Him. Why, then, are you ignorant of your own kinship? Why do you not know the source from which you have sprung? Will you not bear in mind, whenever you eat, who you are that eat, and whom you are nourishing? Whenever you indulge in intercourse with women, who you are that do this? Whenever you mix in society, whenever you take physical exercise, whenever you converse, do you not know that you are nourishing God, exercising God? You are bearing God about with you, you poor wretch, and know it not!” He adds: “Remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within, and your own genius is within.”
Our task in life is not only to know the divinity in the sinews of our being, in every breath we take, but also to fulfill our part in God’s purposes. This engages us in a struggle that is personal, not mechanical; there is a moral element of choice about how we might live, and struggle with yourself as well as with discerning the divine around and about, within and before. We are interpreters of God’s world and witnesses of God’s work. In a climactic celebration of Stoic life, Epictetus declares:
Why, if we had sense, ought we to be doing anything else, publicly and privately, than hymning and praising the Deity, and rehearsing His benefits? Ought we not, as we dig and plough and eat, to sing the hymn of praise to God? ‘Great is God, that He hath furnished us these instruments wherewith we shall till the earth. Great is God, that He hath given us hands, and power to swallow, and a belly, and power to grow unconsciously, and to breathe while asleep.’ This is what we ought to sing on every occasion, and above all to sing the greatest and divinest hymn, that God has given us the faculty to comprehend these things and to follow the path of reason. What then? Since most of you have become blind, ought there not to be someone to fulfill this office for you, and in behalf of all sing the hymn of praise to God? Why, what else can I, a lame old man, do but sing hymns to God? If, indeed, I were a nightingale, I should be singing as a nightingale; if a swan, as a swan. But as it is, I am a rational being, therefore I must be singing hymns of praise to God. This is my task; I do it, and will not desert this post, as long as it may be given me to fill it; and I exhort you to join me in this same song.
Knowing that there is a God is, therefore, the first thing a Stoic must learn. Theology is not an optional extra for a few die-hard theists. It is the very heart and resting place of the Stoic view. Epictetus again:
[Stoicism] says that the first thing we must learn is this: That there is a God, and that He provides for the universe, and that it is impossible for a man to conceal from Him, not merely his actions, but even his purposes and his thoughts. Next we must learn what the gods are like, for whatever their character is discovered to be, the man who is going to please and obey them must endeavour as best he can to resemble them. If the deity is faithful, he also must be faithful; if free, he also must be free; if beneficent, he also must be beneficent; if high-minded, he also must be high-minded, and so forth; therefore, in everything he says and does, he must act as an imitator of God.
Today, it is religious scholars of the ancient world who understand this essential aspect of Stoicism and aren’t embarrassed to write about it. In his recent book on St Paul, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, NT Wright summarizes Stoicism, observing: “Once one has this knowledge, one is ready for the philosopher’s specific active vocation: to be dispatched like a scout or a spy in a time of war, to search out what is really going on, and then to come back and explain to people that they are mistaken in their perceptions of good and evil, and to point out the truth of the situation whether people want to hear it or not. Philosophers… are to be like owls who see in the dark – and then like heralds who announce the message with which they have been entrusted.”
I’ve laboured the point about the theology, and included several key texts, because this is what you will miss if you read most introductions to Stoicism today. To be frank, I think it is dishonest to sideline the divine foundations. It turns Stoicism into an atmosphere without air, a sea without water. Such reductionism is doubly misleading when it comes to Stoicism because the Stoics prided themselves on their rational approach to life that adds up because all its different parts link together – physics, ethics and metaphysics. Drop one element and they felt you are on the way to losing the lot.
That, I fear, is what today’s atheistic interpreters of Stoicism risk doing today. Unfounded and ungrounded, Stoicism loses its promise, its efficacy, and its divine energy.
The Argument Against
In Praise of Modern Stoicism
How many twenty-first century readers can accept the claims made in the following ancient Stoic passage quoted approvingly by Mark Vernon?
“The whole universe, spinning around the earth, goes wherever you [Zeus] lead it and is willingly guided by you.”
How many of us can believe that the universe spins round the earth? How many of us believe that Zeus is in charge of our fate?
I imagine that very few modern-day readers will accept these and some of the other metaphysical claims made by ancient Stoics. Logic therefore dictates that we have a choice. We could discard Stoicism on the grounds that it is based on claims that we can no longer believe. The title of this article – “In Praise of Modern Stoicism” – suggests an alternative. Rather than abandon Stoicism we can and should develop and a modern, acceptable and helpful form of Stoicism. In this article I will be using the term “Modern Stoicism” to refer to the Stoic Programme developed by the Stoicism Today team since 2012, as described in the various Stoic Week Handbooks and associated material.
Two key questions for the modern practitioner of Stoicism are consequently:
1. Which parts of ancient Stoicism can be accepted? and
2. Which Stoic practices turn out to be helpful?
The first question has been well explored in an article on this site by Antonia Macaro. Macaro argues that a ”lot of [Stoicism’s] foundational beliefs, such as the ideas that our rationality is a fragment of the divine … clash with what we in fact know about the world.” She concludes however that some Stoic ideas are both acceptable and helpful.
“Most of us could probably benefit from adopting Stoic perspectives like questioning what is really valuable in life, reminding ourselves that a lot of the things we commonly worry about are not that important; the habit of scrutinising our emotions, remembering that we can have a degree of influence on how we feel by changing how we think; and accepting that much of what happens to us in life is beyond our control.”
Such philosophical arguments can be taken stage further by conducting empirical research. This is a key part of the Stoicism Today project. The results so far are encouraging. I have summarized the findings as follows in an article written earlier this year.
“Our findings supported the view that Stoicism is helpful – Stoicism passed its initial test. Participants reported a 14% improvement in life satisfaction, a 9% increase in positive emotions and an 11% decrease in negative emotions [after engaging in Stoic practices for a week].
( Lebon, T. “Does Stoicism Work? Stoicism and Positive Psychology.” )
The development of the SABS (The Stoic Attitude and Behaviours Scale) has enabled us to go further and begin to understand which parts of Stoicism are most beneficial as opposed to the elements which may not really be “active ingredients”. As I wrote in my 2014 article, our findings so far suggest that four elements of Stoicism are the most helpful.
- Stoic mindfulness – making an effort to pay continual attention to the nature of my judgments and actions.
- Stoic disputation of thoughts – reminding oneself that an upsetting thought is just an impression in my mind and not the thing it claims to represent.
- Affinity with others – thinking of oneself as part of the human race, in the same way that a limb is a part of the human body.
- Stoic Premeditation – trying to anticipate future misfortunes and rehearse rising above them.
These four elements of Stoicism happen to be amongst those emphasized in what Donald Robertson has called a “Simplified Modern Approach to Stoicism”. Key parts of this “Modern Stoicism” are the morning Stoic preparation, an evening Stoic reflection on the day, and practicing “Stoic mindfulness” throughout the day. I agree with Mark Vernon that some aspects of Stoic Metaphysics including the idea of a divine purpose feature much less heavily than Stoic ethics and Stoic practices in “Modern Stoicism”. As the research shows, however, this Modern Stoicism has proved to be very helpful to the majority of participants.
The analysis of SABS items also allows us to make a tentative judgment on the extent to which logos-related attitudes and behaviors may be helpful. The analysis of data relating to 2013 Stoic week suggests that logos-related beliefs are moderately helpful, but much less so than the Stoic ideas listed above. The belief that “ There’s no overall plan to the universe” was inversely related to flourishing by a factor of .14, so it would seem it is somewhat conducive to flourishing to believe there is an overall plan to the universe. For the belief that “The cosmos is a single, wise, living thing” there was a similar positive association with flourishing (.16). However, three other Stoic attitudes and behaviours were much more significantly associated with flourishing (factors of .34 and .32 and .31 respectively). These were
I make an effort to pay continual attention to the nature of my judgments and actions.
When an upsetting thought enters my mind the first thing I do is remind myself it’s just an impression in my mind and not the thing it claims to represent.
I consider myself to be a part of the human race, in the same way that a limb is a part of the human body. It is my duty to contribute to its welfare.
These three most helpful Stoic attitudes and behaviours are, of course, taught as part of Modern Stoicism.
Some of Mark Vernon’s comments convey a false impression of the scope and nature of Modern Stoicism. Vernon claims that Stoicism without God and the logos aims to “[turn] off and on [feelings of fear and anger] by some trained trick of the will”. This is not true. Modern Stoicism is a training in virtue, not in willpower. The virtuous Stoic doesn’t have an urge to feel fear and anger which they then repel by willpower. Instead, they form different value judgments about external events, so they don’t feel fear or anger in the first place. Neither is Modern Stoicism a “reprogramming aimed at a personality adjustment” as Vernon suggests. Modern Stoicism involves character change rather than personality adjustment. The Stoic quotations and readings give the participant an understanding of acceptable Stoic ideas, particularly relating to ethics, nature, emotions and what can and cannot be changed. The meditations then give the participant the opportunity to develop the skills to be virtuous – they give you the chance to rehearse and reflect on your behavior. The Stoic Monitoring form is another tool to help people develop key skills, such as noticing what is within our control and what is not and responding appropriately. Use of social media allows people to discuss their progress with fellow participants. A virtuous character is being developed by a process of training and practice, based on Stoic principles.
So far I have argued that
1) Some parts of Stoicism, particularly those that relate to Zeus, fate and a divine purpose, will not be acceptable to many modern readers
2) The parts that remain of Stoicism form a substantial and coherent set of ideas and practices, as illustrated in the Stoicism Today blog and Stoic Week Handbook. This version of “Modern Stoicism” will continue to be refined and already includes some aspects of Stoic Metaphysics e.g. the ideas about nature and humans being social beings help reinforce Stoic Ethics.
3) Modern Stoicism aims to help people lead a flourishing life as well as be virtuous, and is committed to research to see whether its practices actually do work
4) The empirical research we have undertaken so far suggests that Modern Stoicism is indeed helpful
5) Whilst logos-related parts of Stoicism appear to be moderately associated with flourishing they do not seem to be the most “active ingredients” of Stoicism.
I will finish with three further comments in praise of Modern Stoicism and against the idea of including the logos in Modern Stoicism. Mark Vernon blurs the issue by referring to “God” rather than Zeus in his article. The ancient Stoics did not believe in the Judeo- Christian God. The Stoic god is wholly impersonal – it is just nature, doing its thing. You can’t pray to the Stoic god.
Of course Vernon or anyone else is quite entitled to propose a version of Stoicism that includes elements of Christianity, but then they can hardly criticize anyone else for being unfaithful to ancient Stoicism.
Furthermore, were the logos to be included in Modern Stoicism it would make it less inclusive as well as less credible. Many readers would struggle to get past page 1 of the Stoic Week Handbook were it littered with references to Zeus, a divine providential Fate or even God. By diluting the religious component, Modern Stoicism is following the path of esteemed writers such as Viktor Frankl and Stephen Covey. Both Frankl and Covey were religious – Frankl was Jewish and Covey was Mormon – yet their most famous works (Man’s Search for Meaning and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People respectively)– were based largely on principles that don’t require religious faith. You can be religious and follow Modern Stoicism, but you don’t have to be.
A final objection to Modern Stoicism, hinted at by Vernon, is that that it shouldn’t call itself Stoicism. Personally, I like the term “Modern Stoicism”. It accurately conveys the idea that was is being taught is not identical to ancient Stoicism. At the same time the name “Modern Stoicism” also implies that Stoicism is being adapted to be helpful in the modern world. Now it could be argued however that just as Buddhism without Buddhist metaphysics is called “mindfulness”, so Stoicism without the logos and other elements of Stoic metaphysics should be called something else, perhaps “Stoic Mindfulness”. But, as Patrick Ussher has argued “all Stoic mindfulness .. is really about is remembering the key precepts of Stoic ethics and putting them into practice (Ussher, P. Was there a Stoic Mindfulness? in Stoicism Today: Selected Writings (ed. Ussher, P.)). That’s also a good description of what Modern Stoicism is all about – remembering the key ideas of Stoic ethics and putting them into practice.
Mark Vernon’s Response
Mark Vernon adds the following as a ‘right to reply’:On testing the benefits of Modern Stoicism, I would add more scientific caution. For example, my sense is that the experience of empirically investigating CBT increasingly suggests that the harder the evidence, the easier statistics are to amass and the more readily headlines can be produced; but the less insight and quality the supposed findings offer. It seems that the difficulties of doing science in the domains of wellbeing and mental health emerge particularly in qualitative studies and over the long term. On the subject of prayer and God, ancient Stoics most certainly did pray to and praise the logos. Seneca, for one, definitely has God in mind too, and he’s not much informed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, about which he seems to have simply shared common Roman prejudices. I think the problem for us here is not just theological but also physical. The ancient view of nature is not the same as the modern scientific view, which is mechanical and dead, unlike the organic, living, soul-filled cosmos ancient ‘pantheism’ implies. Similarly, Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus needs to be read as metaphysical poetry not modern scientific theory, and perhaps moves even now when related to as such. Moderns need to approach ancient ideas about reasonableness with caution too. For us, reason tends to mean justified deductions or detached proofs, whereas in the ancient world reason implies a harmonious attunement with, and participation in, a pattern – or logos – much wider than humans can fully grasp.
Tim LeBon waived his right to respond further.
About the authors:
Mark Vernon used to be a priest in the Church of England and is now a writer, pursuing the ancient philosophers’ great question, how to live? His books cover subjects from friendship and belief, to wellbeing and meaning, and he edits two series from Acumen, The Art of Living and Heretics. He also writes as a journalist, his work appearing regularly in the Guardian, TLS, Church Times and on the BBC. He is a keen blogger, and has also appeared on a wide range of platforms including at the Hay, Edinburgh International, Oxford and Dartington book festivals. His books have appeared in translation around the world. His studies began with a degree in physics, before two degrees in theology, followed by a PhD in philosophy – an academic journey that took him from the universities of Durham and Oxford to Warwick. Having lived in Germany, the North East of England, and spent extended periods of time in France, he now lives in south London.
Tim LeBon is a UKCP (UK Council for Psychotherapy) registered therapist and works in the NHS in IAPT (the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies scheme) using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which he combines with a private practice as a counsellor and life coach in Central London. He is the founding editor of the journal Practical Philosophy and author of Wise Therapy (Sage, 2001), and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology (Hodder, 2014). His website is www.timlebon.com.
Stoics prayed to God, but not intercessionary prayer – Tim’s right the Logos is very different to the God described by Jesus.
I agree with Tim – I think many people have found Stoicism helpful and healing without believing in God, or without being sure if there is a God. Likewise CBT. Does a doctor ask a person’s religious beliefs before giving them medicine?
As a theist Stoic, I personally believe our consciousness is a fragment of the divine, and I disagree with Antonia that this goes against what we ‘know’ – nothing we know about consciousness has disproved this theory so far.
But again, I’m all for connecting people to healing spiritual wisdom even if they aren’t sure what they believe about God. I mean, who IS sure? Are you sure what you believe about God, Mark? Do you believe in the Trinity, the Resurrection of the body, the coming Apocalypse? What I admire about your approach is its eclecticism and its sympathy for different traditions and perspectives – I don’t see the need to police Stoicism and to say ‘no atheists allowed’.
Who said atheists not allowed? Who said the Stoic Logos is like the God of Jesus? Who said prayer is about intercession? Who said Stoic practices are the same as being prescribed medicine? Who said they are sure what they’re talking about when they’re talking about God? Not me. For what it’s worth, I’d advise against assuming any such quick links.
What I do feel is that modern Stoicism, in suspending or dismissing a connection with the Logos, is suspending or dismissing what Stoics felt was at the heart of their philosophical quest. One can adopt a modern stance and condemn it as superstition, or whatever. But perhaps Stoic practices might actually waken us up to a sense of the cosmos that modernity has got wrong – and perhaps is not unconnected to so much of the alienation and mental ill-health that modern society seems to be so afflicted with – which, incidentally, is not the same as saying believe in the Logos and all your problems go away. Not my experience at all.
As someone who holds that the Stoic Logos is like the God of Jesus (like the Holy Spirit throughout all things or like the Cosmic Christ), I might just mention the opening of John’s Gospel, ‘in the beginning was the Logos…’. Thanks for the debate. Well put on both sides 🙂
You (and Epictetus) said no atheists allowed:
“Knowing that there is a God is, therefore, the first thing a Stoic must learn.”
If Stoicism evolved over time from it’s roots in Greece to later Roman times, that is, it got rid of bad ideas and held on to and improved good ones, I see no reason that if presented with the evidence of modern science Epictetus, Seneca, and Aurelius would update their philosophy.
That last sentence is clunky but hopefully understandable. Sorry about that. It should read:
“I think it’s reasonable to assume that if presented with the evidence of modern science…”
Ah, I see. I think that ‘learning’ doesn’t mean cognitive or creedal assent, but knowing in life – something a confessing theist might fail to do, and paradoxically a confessing atheist might show forth more richly than many confessing theists.
Similarly, ‘first thing’ is a logical not sequential first – first as in basis not as in a list. So the logos might be the last in terms of experience that a practicing Stoic realises, though then would see that the logos was there all along.
Indeed, I fully agree with the last bit, Absolutely no need to police Stoicism. The more people we can lead to virtue and understanding of themselves, the better.
I think it is incorrect to say that nothing we know about consciousness has ‘disproved’ the notion of panpsychism and, which seems to require the latter, pantheism.
There is no room here to ‘disprove’ any more than there is room to disprove the notion of God itself. Panpsychism relies on the idea of qualia within all matter, as a brute fact like the charge of an electron, but which we cannot measure or see as it’s only known via a subjective ontology which we learn of via our own reporting in speech. The main, and in my view weak, argument for such a view is that we can avoid the working out the ‘threshold’ of consciousness. Is an amoeba conscious, an ant, a rat, etc. But to my mind, while this might be interesting, I don’t see how it solved the problem of consciousness itself since we still have to deal with the causal relations even if assuming that the wetware of brains isn’t required. I don’t see how these causal relations will be instantiated in ‘the universe as a whole’.
Logically, I don’t see any reasonable inference to panpsychism, and even if panpsychism is true, I don’t see pantheism being entailed by this without further assumptions. I agree, though, that Stoicism should be available to atheists, and am glad to see it defended.
The concept of eudaimonia places ethics as central, not metaphysics. And, as written by others, the notion of a guardian spirit or tutelary god that the ancients referred to as one’s ‘daimon’ is surely not tenable to most modern minds? So if we can see conceptual evolution even in the ancient world, we can certainly allow it here. The psychologist Alan Waterman gives a wholly psychological account of the concept of ‘daimon’, so already we can naturalise everything worth having in Stoicism in terms of eudaimonia. I agree with the broader and fuller notion of eudaimonia in Stoicism, compared to the Epicureans, but I accept the latter group’s issues with the gods or God.
Mark’s point that God was at the heart of the Stoic quest doesn’t strike me as consistent with the concept of eudaimonia, as discussed by Julia Annas, since the concept involves one’s own life. It begins with one’s feet on the ground first. (The ancients may have thought God central, but I would dispute the logic of this.)
As a atheist Stoic, I strongly agree with Tim & Jules.
I’ve actually given this some thought in the previous year. As an atheist, I find it very hard (not to say impossible) to accept an unprovable god. Worse, Stoic physics being pre-Ptolemaic, it would be severely unwise to replace our modern understanding with that. And Wisdom is one aspect of Virtue. 😉
On closer scrutiny, it does seem possible to accept a weaker form of the Stoic concept of the Logos. It hinges on what the Greeks would have understood by that word. As presumably many readers here will know, in Greek, λόγος means “word, discourse, good or reasoned discourse, reason.” The modern word “word” retain many of these meanings, so it’s not a very far-fetched idea. Now, once we understand it as logical reason, we can move on.
The Logos is supposed to permeate the Cosmos. And arguably, logic does exactly that. In fact, it’s one of the few things that does, along with maths, and physics.
That the world is supposed to have originated in a primordial fire, I regard as happy accident.
Furthermore, Stoicism arose in a polytheist environment, two elements of which are crucial to my understanding. The first is that Mediterranean gods are concept gods. The Stoic Logos fits well with that. Second, gods from one pantheon can be identified with gods with similar attributes in another. The Stoics here seem to take that to its logical extreme by saying all gods are represented in the Logos, effectively creating a religion that’s both monotheistic and polytheistic. It’s basically making itself compatible with all the religions around the Mediterranean. I’m very tempted to call that planned.
So that’s my current idea of the Stoic Logos: the logical organisation of the universe and all its laws and theories. Should be possible for even an atheist to accept, giving it the trifecta: monotheist, polytheist and atheist.
Well done Mark Vernon – my only criticism of Modern Stoicism is that it trips over itself constantly in an effort to be politically correct and not mention God. True you would not have so many followers if you did! Funny how we are all looking for a way to be happy and virtuous! Just follow the 10 Commandments!
I don’t know if modern Stoicism has so many followers , but alot of them are atheists or humanists so that’s why they don’t mention God. Personally, as a theist Stoic, I think of Stoicism as a sort of halfway house or meeting point between atheism and Christianity – and I’m all for keeping that meeting point open friendly and accessible.
The aim is not to provide ‘the’ one form of modern politically correct Stoicism, in a militant atheistic vein, but instead to give people unfamiliar with Stoicism a starting-point, which has a solid grounding in Stoic ethics, from which people can expand either in a theistic or atheistic direction, as they so wish. This would not be possible if Stoic virtue ethics did not stand on their own, which they do.
Totally agree with Mark Vernon, and also find his argument has much more depth. While it’s great that Stoic practices are reaching a wider audience and being helpful, they are borrowed from Stoicism, they do not replace it. The emphasis on the link with CBT is misleading, again it’s a fairly modern practice which draws on Stoicism because it’s useful for mental health. But psychotherapy is not philosophy, nor can its practitioners claim Stoicism as their own and adapt it as they choose, however well-meaning they are. The principles of Stoicism were laid down by ancient Stoics, deviation from their teachings in terms of not accepting a divine hand behind the pattern of the universe alters a fundamental belief of theirs. So perhaps the argument for changing the name modernists use is well-founded, though personally I can live with ‘Modern Stoicism’. I am doing Stoic Week and also did a study course in May and found, thankfully, there is lots of reference to what can be understood as ‘a higher universal power’ – not in terms of a specific religious dogma or belief but in terms of an underlying spirituality whose purpose is for good if humankind live in accordance with it. Without that ancient belief, I would not have grasped the concept of Stoicism so well. And Tim’s pointing to the Ancients lack of scientific knowledge re the earth at the centre of the universe is a red herring! Cleanthes meaning is clear. And Tim’s reference to how many of us can believe Zeus is in charge is also spurious – like ‘Modern Stoicism’, ‘Zeus’ is just a name!
One question for people to think about is whether they would think a good idea if those who developed modern psychotherapeutic approaches to Buddhism (e.g. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course) had insisted on keeping centrality of reincarnation to the whole endeavour?
No conflict for me in being a modern stoic and a devotee of Amida. After a spell in the pure land we volunteer to get reborn to help all. This means helping everyone in the universe. The time span is eternal.
Great respect for other paths including Logos, Christ, Yahwe, Alla , Tao.Brahma et all
All expressions of compassion and wisdom ,
It great humility
If they called it Buddhist Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, then yes, it might be a good idea. But they need not if they call it ‘Modern Buddhism’, perhaps.
That’s a nice point, but, to take a different question, it would surely be fair to say that a lot of Buddhist practitioners in the west today do not believe in reincarnation (I’m thinking of teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, Jack cornfield, Stephen bachelor, none of whom mention it). These people certainly consider themselves Buddhist but are they not so because they do not believe in reincarnation?
They may choose not to talk of it, but this shouldn’t be taken to mean that they reject a concept of reincarnation. The word ‘belief’ is a problem here because it is often used to imply giving credence to something without reasonable grounds. Reincarnation is just not a subject for Buddhism 101.
This is a very useful point Paddy (strictly speaking, ‘rebirth’ rather than reincarnation). I think Siderits, on the Phil of Buddhism, all but sucks the weirdness out of this, since no-self leaves nothing to reincarnate. (The image of a passing flame seems more about karmic meliorism.) It’s not dissimilar from Aristotle’s notion of one’s eudaimonia extending after death.
Buddhism has within itself, by its empiricist philosophy, the resources to reject and allow Batchelor and others not accept spooky stuff. Stoicism should, too. I think this debate is trying to make Stoicism a species of theology, rather than theology a species of philosophy.
Interesting debate, well done gentlemen! If I may add…
I believe that a Logos (God, Zeus) worshiping Stoic will be more successful than one that does not believe in a divine presence.
Consider the novice who decides to adopt Stoic philosophy and encounters difficulty and initial setbacks. The one who believes that the universe is ordered by the Logos and we are following the will of the Logos by living rational, virtuous lives is more likely to persevere and strive toward that aim.
If I truly believe this, there is nothing in life that will stand in my way or take precedence over my quest for virtue.
If I were to look at Stoicism merely one man’s advice I would be quicker to reject it when it doesn’t suit my pattern of living.
That being said, I support Modern Stoicism as it is presented here and in the Stoic Week Manual (which I am greatly enjoying).
I am glad that there is a spiritual component to Stoicism, but focusing on the religious aspects of the philosophy would be a stumbling block and barrier for many who could benefit from Stoic practices.
I completely agree with Stephan Brun.
I find it hard to agree with both original arguments – Mark Vernon’s being too religious, and Tim LeBon’s too scientific. For me Modern Stoicism lies somewhere in the middle. It should not assert religious beliefs or the existence of God, at least not in the conventional sense. Yet, it shouldn’t just be considered therapy or a set of “behavioral adjustments that work most effectively”.
I’m agnostic, and do not reject the spiritual feeling. I feel Stoicism is about developing a relationship with the cosmos, and here I agree with Mark’s reply to Jules Evans. I’ve discovered a deep spiritual connection with the universe as a consequence of studying Stoicism, particularly after reading Meditations.
As a philosophy, Stoicism should be about asking the question “Is there an overall plan to the universe and how do I fit into it?”. We acknowledge that everything in the universe is beyond our control, and thus the universe does carry out a plan – whether it is divine is open for debate, but asserting the existence of a God alienates atheists and agnostics.
My own interpretation of Stoic spirituality is that, if we assume the existence of a God, the substance of the universe is his body, and the Logos or “how the universe works”, his mind.
Quoting Marcus Aurelius, “Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the contexture of the web.” – the only change I would make is to replace “soul” by “mind”.
It does not require us to be a theist to observe and regard the universe and its laws as a living being made up of a substance and a mind. To an atheist, it does not hurt to assume that the universe *is* God – it is all-encompassing and omnipotent, and decides the fate of us all. To a theist, the universe can be regarded as a living being either created by, or itself made up of God, who has one (or more) soul(s).
All of the above arguments relate to the Stoics of classical times and their beliefs. But what of us ‘modern’ Stoics who came to Stoicism through similar beliefs.
Just because ‘many’ people nowadays have fallen under the spell of the New Atheists does not mean that there are not ‘many’, if not more, who find no conflict between modern science and a knowledge that there is a form of consciousness that has over the years become summed up in the word ‘god’ – the One God, the God of many names. Or as the Stoics call it, the Logos, Phusis, Fate, the Divine Fire, etcetera.
For me, God is not a question of belief. It is a matter of common sense. Do not just look at the ‘mechanics’ of the universe as the scientists do. Look at the ‘why’ of it. Just how is the Universe manifested here and now.
What the founders of Stoicism had to say about this is still as relevant today as it was then. There is chaotic matter – the passive principle. And then there is the active principle – that which takes matter and manifests it as the Universe that we can see around us. It is what brings order and individualisation to what would otherwise be a sea of sub atomic particles, forces etcetera. It is a form of ‘consciousness’ that may be seen as being behind the laws of science and nature.
It is claimed that as scientists can explain much about the construction and evolution of the Cosmos then there is no need for a ‘god’. By the same principle, as one can read about how a loaf of bread is made there is no need for a baker.
Arguing that we no longer have need of a god is pure egotism – intellectualism gone mad. It has never been a case of if we need a god. The Stoics of old looked at all the religious ideas they were aware of and concluded that it was reasonable to assume that there was a god – god is a common perception of any reasonable person. Just as we know that we each had a mother, so we also know that there is a god that enables us to be manifested here and now.
But the Stoics of old did not just rely on common perceptions. They looked at the many people, alive and of earlier generations who attested to an experience of god – a sort of statistical approach.
Science needs repeatable events that can be studied under laboratory conditions. Experiences of god are not such events, but the very quantity of individual experiences of the intervention of Another in their lives is statistically significant. And such is still going on today.
James Gill in his article on this site entitled ‘An unexpected friendship: A novice’s journey with anxiety’ said ‘As fate would have it I noticed two books calling out to me one day at my favorite used bookstore’.
I too had a similar experience when Professor Gilbert Murray’s book on his 1915 lecture regards the Stoics ‘called out’ to me. And it is amazing how many people have had similar experiences, especially when they have been asking the Universe to point them in the right direction.
For myself, God is not an intellectual discussion. God is. The intellectual discussion, without any definitive answer, may be ‘What is God?’ But those who deny the existence of God based on human centric egotism and a misunderstanding of what modern science is telling us are pitting themselves against the wisdom of the ages whereby the wise of every age have concluded that there is some form of ‘consciousness’ involved in the manifestation of existence.
The ‘Modern Stoicism’ that Stoicism Today seems to be trying to create as a ‘CBT plus’ therapy is not Stoicism. Any good that might be done will be lost if the Divine Fire is left out of any teachings. Stoic cosmopolitanism is so much more than ‘love thy neighbours’ – it is the realisation that we are ‘sparks of the Divine Fire’ and so should act as such. We are one with all, not just our fellow humans.
“Knowing that there is a God is, therefore, the first thing a Stoic must learn. Theology is not an optional extra for a few die-hard theists. It is the very heart and resting place of the Stoic view.”
Mark, your prescription is much bolder than anything that I have heard from Stoic atheists. It is impossible to prove that God does not exist so atheists (most of us, anyway) are happy to live and let live, especially when we ourselves are treated with tolerance. This is especially true in the Stoic community. “Knowing that there is a God” is a very tall order. It is possible, I admit, to go from belief to non-belief and vice versa, but neither reversal is based on Reason. Convince us and we will turn on a dime, but please don’t ask us to be unreasonable.
I would agree that it is as impossible for prove the non-existence of God as it is to prove the non-existence of Satan. The burden of proof is on those who make the claim that God or Satan does exist. I think there is a distinction between “knowing” and “believing”. For example, I “know” that I have a brain. I do not “know” that I have a “soul”. I do not “believe” I have a “soul”. I see no evidence that convinces me that there is a “soul”. Then you have a tiny problem of linguistic ambiguity. What is meant when referring to God or Soul? The bottomline, for me, is that I live me life as though God nor the Soul exists. I see no neccessity to believe in God. It appears to me that some Stoic philosphers believed in God and some did not. I do not. It may be that I am wrong, it has been happened once or twice before. Maybe when I am dead I’ll find out whether God or soul exist.
Perhaps a first step in that term is the more expansive notions of reason etc; plus the sense of ‘first thing’ as in slowly realised basis or ground, which I should have been clearer about now I see, not as a first test of ‘Stoicism 101’.
I think it is wonderful to be able to choose between the two options. I do not see the Stoic concept of god as the same as the christian God, but there are definitely similarities. Just as I sense similarities between the Stoic Logos and the concept of Tao. To me it isn’t so much about the particulars, but the sense of something bigger than the particulars. To have an all- encompassing source and to know we are contained in that source and the source is contained in us…all of a sudden boundaries have expanded outside of us as well as within us. I hate the word transcend but will use it anyway. It is hard to transcend your self when your boundary does not go beyond the self. To me the concept of god, tao, logos is helpful for that reason. To only be allowed to depend on my current insignificant concept of self has been a stumbling block for me. To read about how the ancient Stoics included a sense of something more gives me some hope. Having said that, I am not convinced that everyone has the same needs as I do. I admire those that can find contentment without it.
If people are being instructed or guided in Stoic teachings, an understanding of the Logos is essential. Thank you Mark for addressing this key element during Stoic week. Followers of a philosophy should be very aware of the route they are taking. Modern Stoicism seems now to have evolved into a kind of “self-improvement therapy” and Tim I am a little concerned as to why it is necessary to “dilute the religious component” in order to attract followers. Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy does not use that method. Improvement of mental wellbeing by following ancient or Modern Stoicism is key, but I do think proper education and guidance is vital. Thank you to all the team as always.
I struggle to see what ‘God’ has to do with eudaimonia in the latter’s sense of living a good life and fulfilling one’s nature. To suppose some divine spark strikes me as entering into dualism, which has never succeeded to resolve its problems.
A post above said it well, since if wisdom is one of the virtues, then it is wisdom that will judge God. Perhaps if we had more extant Stoic writings we would have seen more divergence, such as Stoics dealing with Plato’s Eutyphro dialogue, and perhaps actively expressing atheism as we’d understand it today. (I recall a character in a play by Euripedes doubting the gods.)
For me, eudaimonia deals with the fulfilment of one’s nature, which may be one’s species nature or one’s individual nature. (These are two different forms of eudaimonism.) Either way, I don’t see much room here for God, unless one wants to argue like Jung that we have a God archetype which, even in his work, was itself the form of the self made whole. Consider that when people debate the divinity of Jesus, they usually still say that he was a ‘good man’. So, one’s virtues are more important and seem to not need any ascription of divinity either within one’s nature or without in Nature. This debate is rather like Christians asking if we should have accepted the theological views of Origen or some other retrospective heretic that was once a part of Christianity.
It makes no sense to me to see eudaimonia as ‘necessarily’ involving theistic commitments. In fact, I see eudaimonia as at least mandating agnosticism.
I mentioned above that prior to Aristotle the ‘daimon’ was seen as a guardian spirit, which even Socrates claimed to hear. Do we accept this now? I don’t, but to each their own. I don’t see it as relevant to modern debates on eudaimonia.
Below is a modified version of my response to Mark Vernon’s original post:
I believe the default position of post-modern academia (strident, if not militant atheism) is having a profound and unfortunate influence on the modern, popularized version of Stoicism. I suspect most people who come to Stoicism today, as legitimate seekers of a better way of life, are not aware they are being offered a historically new remix of the philosophy. The versions they are offered through most social media sites and modern introductions to Stoic practice often lack the depth of the original philosophy. Those who read introductions to Stoicism written prior to the current popularization will encounter a different philosophy. Earlier scholars did not shy away from Stoic physics (which included concepts like logos, providence, and God). They understood them as essential elements of Stoic philosophy. For the ancient Stoics, the power of their philosophy, as a way of life and path to virtue and flourishing, comes from aligning ones rational nature with universal reason (God, logos, Nature). One cannot ‘live according to nature’ without a model of what ‘nature’ entails.
I suspect most moderns who are interested in Stoicism are intelligent and educated. The nature of Stoicism attracts such people. Unfortunately, most people educated in Western academia in the last half century are saddled with assumptions about the nature of reality which preclude consideration of God in any form. They have absorbed modern atheism in the same way their ancestors in the West absorbed Christianity, without truly considering it. Thus, from a philosophical perspective, I am puzzled by Tim Lebon’s appeal to what is “acceptable to many modern readers” as a criteria for modern Stoic doctrine. I tremble to consider where that may lead.
I’m not arguing that the existence of God can be proven any more than an intellectually honest atheist will argue that they can prove God does not exist. However, I will argue that belief in the logos was fundamental to ancient Stoicism in such a way that it cannot simply be subtracted without changing the essence of the philosophy. The desire to create a remix of Stoicism which is helpful and appealing to a wider audience than orthodox Stoicism is admirable and justifiable from a psychotherapeutic perspective. However, within the Western tradition of philosophy, popular appeal was never a legitimate criteria for philosophical claims. It’s possible that ancient Stoicism is simply untenable for many moderns. It’s also legitimate to extract from Stoicism what can be useful for moderns. I simply argue that there is a point at which it is reasonable to ask whether what remains bears enough resemblance to the original to warrant a claim to the name ‘Stoicism’.
I close with this appeal to those who are averse to the concept of logos. I think there is tremendous benefit to all who will step into what Charles Taylor refers to as the ‘open space’ between fundamentalist theism and modern atheism, and honestly consider the many possibilities between those two extremes. They may not change their position; however, they will likely realize there are many positions within that ‘open space’, which can be held by intellectually honest and intelligent people. Places where one can find a profound sense of meaning and connection with what the ancient Stoics called cosmos, without abandoning rationality. Personally, I believe ancient Stoicism, which includes concepts like God and providence, is one of those positions. Therefore, I challenge students of Stoicism to temporarily suspend their belief/unbelief long enough to honestly explore and consider Stoicism in its fullness. I think they will benefit from the honest exploration regardless of the conclusions they come to.
What makes belief in a god or beneficent logos so ‘fundamental’ to a project that is about eudaimonia? (I wrote on this elsewhere above or below.) Human beings can have transcendence and awe towards the cosmos without supposing some immanent deity. It’s plain empiricism to see that other religions can either do away with a God, or require multiple gods. If Stoicism requires a position on these points, as fundamental, then probability would entail it will likely be wrong.
Then there are arguments against the idea of a beneficent being, such as the problem of evil. The ethics of Stoicism must float free of the physics or, more correctly, the metaphysics.
I don’t see ‘Stoicism in its fullness’ any more worthwhile a notion than ‘Christianity in its fullness’, which in the latter involved countless examples of historical accidents and arguments that led its theology to its present state. Unfortunately, we don’t ‘have’ Stoicism in its fullness, due to less than 1% of the writings being extant.
My argument is that if Stoicism is about eudaimonia in the sense of the fulfilment of one’s nature, then there is no use in debating God, ghosts, E.S.P., UFOs, or any other weird phenomena. We’d end up having to inquire on the Stoic position on these topics, too. And the ancient world believed in the transmigration of the soul. But do we?
Many Buddhist texts believe in such mental powers as E.S.P. I see this as flatly rejected to date. But secular Buddhists are Buddhists due to their ethics and practices, not due to their beliefs about such phenomena.
You say, ‘Human beings can have transcendence and awe towards the cosmos without supposing some immanent deity’. This is the very point so many miss. The Cosmos IS the immanent deity both according to the Stoics of old and those who ARE Stoics today. Those who shut their minds to this are unlikely to experience its immanence and so will blindly deny the living conscious Cosmos that is the core of Stoicism.
Just because man confuses the issue over the years does not mean the core of all belief is wrong. In the case of understanding the God of all Faiths it is a case of ‘Blame the messenger not the One who sent the message’. As it is said in the Christian bible, mankind tends to follow the traditions of man and not the word of God.
Atheism is yet another ‘tradition of man’ whereby the individual thinks that they are an autonomous individual with no need for the input of Divine Fire. How unwise!
To answer the title’s question: no, I personally, do not believe one needs to believe in any god to be a Stoic. Insofar as one can benefit from Stoic practice regardless of one’s (a)theology, it hardly seems a requirement.
However, where I am disappointed with this debate is that it has presented Stoic theology as a question of monotheism or atheism, which strikes me as incorrect in regards to ancient Stoic thought. Perhaps this stands out to me because I come to Stoicism being a polytheist, whereas most modern Stoics come from monotheism or atheism. It seems a common mistake to conflate Stoic pantheism with monotheism, but nothing I have read from the ancient Stoics leads me to believe that they rejected the polytheism of their contemporaries. The fact that the universe is a divine being does not preclude that universe being inhabited by powerful beings that humans call gods (just as, say, my body is the home to countless lifeforms itself). None of this is meant to assert that a modern Stoic must adopt polytheism—see my first paragraph!—but, in the interest of a more correct understanding of ancient Stoicism, it does need to be pointed out. I also can’t help but see it as a part of a longstanding trend of distancing the philosophers of antiquity from polytheism, something that started with Christians who needed to do so in order to make those philosophers more acceptable to the Christian world, but has continued in academia to this day. The continuance of this need to ‘monotheize’ the Greco-Roman philosopher stems, I think, from the assumption that polytheism is so primitive and backward that the great minds of antiquity who are so beloved of Western civilization must have rejected it in favor of something more ‘advanced’.
“Now since gods exist (given that they do, as is certainly the case), they must inevitably be alive; and not only alive, but also endowed with reason, and united with each other in what we may call civic harmony and fellowship, ruling the universe as a single unit, as if it were some shared state and city.” -Cicero, De Natura Deorum (note this passage is in the work’s chapter on the Stoic presentation of theology)
“He, then, who comes to be instructed, ought to come with this intention: ‘How may I follow the gods in everything? How may I live in happiness under divine governance?” —Epictetus, Discourses
“The first way to worship the gods is to believe in the gods; the next to acknowledge their majesty, to acknowledge their goodness without which there is no majesty. Also, to know that they are supreme commanders in the universe, controlling all things by their power and acting as guardians of the human race, even though they are sometimes unmindful of the individual.” -Seneca, Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium
“To those who ask, “Where have you seen the gods, or what evidence do you have of their existence, that you worship them so devoutly?”, I reply first of all that they are in fact visible to our eyes, and secondly, that I have not seen my own soul, and yet I pay it due honour. So likewise with the gods; from what I experience of their power at every moment of my life, I ascertain that they exist and I pay them due reverence.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
I think you find references to gods and God, particularly in the period after middle Stoicism and the influence of Platonism. I take this as a reflection of the rich spiritual economy of the ancient world, and that behind or within or beyond the many lies the One (to use an overtly Platonic phrase).
I find that the idea of ‘the One’ in Plato, or the use of ‘the god’ ὁ θεός as referring to a specific monotheistic (or monist) conception of god in Greek philosophy to be incorrect. ὁ θεός is referring to divinity as an abstract, the way a modern English speaker might say ‘the divine’. You can find cases where Epictetus, for instance, switches between gods (θεοί) and ὁ θεός in the same sentence, referring to the same thing. So, as I see it, in a Stoic context there is god in the sense of Zeus, or the pantheistic, conscious, divine universe; in the universe there also exist many gods, the gods of polytheistic religions, who are still worthy of worship. On ‘the One’ see here: https://henadology.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/on-the-gods-and-the-good-final.pdf
This is very interesting. I would like to spend some time reading the above, but I can’t just now, so I will append some comments on this matter that I made on the regular FB Stoicism group…
If Stoicism requires a divine logos, then I fear that Stoicism is a non-starter. Given that any stance on metaphysics, particularly if historically based, is likely to be incorrect in the fullness of time, and given that the more metaphysical assumptions added to any philosophy the less probable will be its truth (just like Mormonism is less likely true relative to general Christianity due to extra elements), so it goes that Stoicism will likely be refuted by a philosophy of mind that no longer deems divinity a meaningful ascription. If the philosopher Owen Flanagan can ‘naturalise’ Buddhism, the only route for a live Stoicism is entirely naturalistic. That is to say, we must define Stoicism in that way, and allow people, and the philosophy, to work out the metaphysical questions separate from this definition. Stoicism must be a philosophy for living. There is nothing that a divine logos can add to this that can not be recast to give the same experience, such as transcendence, in natural terms. What does the good for all Nature inherent in a divine logos mean in a Cosmos heading for heat death?
If the concept of ‘good’ is somehow about the unfolding of the universe, I don’t see what that can mean given modern physics. For me, Stoic physics must jettison concepts that endanger the whole project. I’m not opposed here to people believing in God, but it is bizarre to think that we can suppose such a being and then have propositions that flow from that. The history of ‘regular Gods’ shows that this isn’t the case. As does the example of Buddhism. Is this merely Spinoza’s Nature? I would like to know what is so essential about the divine logos such that we can’t do without it.
It seems to me clear that if Stoicism ‘requires’ metaphysical assumptions regarding a creator, and regarding consciousness and matter (since that creator is conscious), not to mention avoiding the problem of evil, then it will become burdened by these commitments and will likely fail. Not to mention that there is the challenge from atheistic religions such as Buddhism.
Moreover, empirically in terms of the psychology of religion, the relations between religious commitment and happiness are not as clear or as strong as one would expect. Sporting activities often have stronger effects on well-being. The correlations for theistic or religious commitments that Tim reports above are ‘weak’ in statistical terms, whereas the other beliefs are more robust. This is hardly evidence for the power of a theodicy, and could also be an artefact of the effect that positive emotion has in inducing a perceived sense of purpose.
Similarly, researchers in the psychology of religion now distinguish between ‘sacredness’ and religion, with religion denoting the institutionalised forms to achieve sacredness, as well as to organise communities and welfare programs that are not necessarily sacred. The human experience of sacredness does not need a logos or any other divine hand, or a cosmos heading for some profound purpose. Aurelius may have wondered and equivocated on whether things were ‘void or Providence’, and even if he chose Providence, I don’t feel that is tenable. Philosophy is not defined by its propositional or metaphysical commitments, but by its method. Likewise, Buddhism claims the same. Stoicism must reject commitments that are undecided by modern philosophy at best, or simply unworkable at worst. What does panpsychism, which seems needed for pantheism, have to say about the mind? Very little.
I don’t see anything to be gained from metaphysical nostalgia in the Stoic project. Such commitments should be a private matter, rather than defining modern Stoicism. Seneca took from the Epicureans, too, so I chose to take their dispute with the Gods. I feel on this point they were correct. I agree with the Stoic methods and aims, but metaphysically I agree with the Epicureans.
That there are many options, many possible ideas about deity that one could place on a continuum between fundamentalism and atheism does not help someone to actually “believe.” An idea might be useful — it might be elegant, but it cannot bring someone from “wouldn’t it be nice if…” to “this is true”. Some people have an easy time with belief; others, not so much. Personally I never understood how someone could consciously convert from one faith to another just because they are about to get married. You can study the theology of your new god, you can join a community of believers, but something mysterious has to happen, in my opinion) to actually make you believe that it is true.
That being said, I have personal experience with conversion — I went from being an atheist to being a fundamentalist Christian. It was a typical teenage born-again conversion. However, actual “belief” was very slow to stabilize and even then, after a few more years, it collapsed. No one convinced me that God did not exist. I simply realized, after a few years of struggle, that no matter how much I tried, I could not make myself believe something.
Belief is easy for some people. I don’t understand it, but I won’t belittle it. It does not come easy for me and I have learned to cherish that. Studying the ancient idea of the logos might be interesting, it might be useful, but it is not compelling. If there could be a valid argument for why it must be true, I would love to listen, though I would doubt my competence to judge the merit of the argument, at least until I have sought guidance from other supporters and critics. Mark Vernon asks us to find a way to know that God exists. If this can be done, it would be good news indeed. But I don’t think it is honorable to suspend disbelief until it simply goes away. There would be no way to know whether or not you have made a mistake.
(I apologize to the world for making such a long, boring post. Chris, if you’d like to discuss this further, I’d love to continue offline.)
I would love to discuss this with you offline, Mark. Like you, I also had a religious conversion to fundamentalism Christianity. Mine occurred in my mid-twenties. It was short lived and I transformed into an ardent atheist over the following few years. For the next twenty-five years, I lived as an atheist, studied atheism, and raised my children as atheists. My first attempt at reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and the Enchiridion during the 1990s ended due to my revulsion over the continued reference to God. Those books gathered dust on my bookshelf for more than a decade. When I began studying Stoicism in 2010, I had the same initial reaction. It took almost eighteen months of diligent study to soften my atheism and arrive at agnosticism. I spent the majority of that time thinking, “wouldn’t it be nice if…” the Stoics hadn’t brought God into their philosophy; “wouldn’t it be nice if…” someone could remove God from Stoicism and keep the philosophy essentially intact. Unfortunately, that was not the reality of what I was facing in Stoicism. I kept looking for the “this is true” version of atheistic Stoicism. I did not find it. I does not exist. I am now convinced that Stoicism, as conceived by the ancient Stoics and maintained by all who laid claim to that name until recently, is incompatible with atheism (the ‘belief’ and commitment to the idea that there is no god and therefore man is the measure of all things).
The closest thing to exclusive humanists in ancient times were the Epicureans, and they were bitter rivals of the Stoics for that reason. I believe the minimum commitment required by Stoicism is to that of a ‘philosophical god’ (yes, that open a wide berth). Otherwise, modern Stoicism becomes indistinguishable from Epicureanism in a variety of ways. I agree with Massimo Pigliucci, we need to remain cautious about “changing and re-interpreting things so much that what you are left with has little to do with anything that can reasonably be called Stoicism.” I also agree with him that, “philosophies (and religions!) naturally evolve over time” and Stoicism did so even in Hellenistic Greece and Rome. Unfortunately, when I see arguments like Tim LeBon’s above, which appeal to acceptability and helpfulness as criteria for what should be included in ‘Modern Stoicism’ I think there is reason for concern about where this train is headed.
I applaud psychotherapists like Tim LeBon for their efforts to extract from ancient Stoicism those ethical concepts and practices which are most useful and palatable to moderns. However, I do not understand their need to label it ‘Modern Stoicism’, implying it’s an updated and therefore improved version of ancient Stoicism. Their predecessors, who created RBT and CBT, did not feel that need. They borrowed from Stoicism and created something new. It was tremendously useful and they did not call it Stoicism. If moderns intend to create a remix of Stoicism for atheists, more power to them. Likewise, if they intend to pitch modern psychotherapeutic concepts and practices as a ‘Modern Stoicism’, that is their right. However, I think it’s fair to ask them to be open and honest about what they are creating. A little more truth in advertising would go a long way.
Until then, out of respect for the ancient Stoics, I will continue to shout caveat emptor.
In terms of a concern about Stoicism vs Epicureanism, and the notion of Stoicism loosing all identity, surely Stoicism is defined not by its metaphysical commitments in the past, but by its vision of eudaimonia which placed the ‘good’ for human beings in virtue, whereas the Epicureans placed it in pleasure, defined as ataraxia?
The quibble between the above traditions on the gods seems of far less significance for their identities, in my view, than their respective notions of what eudaimonia consists in. It is this vision of the good life for a human being that matters, and around which these ancient philosophies revolved.
Presented with myriad arguments today, a Stoicism that defined itself by its metaphysics would be in trouble. However a Stoicism that defined itself by its virtue ethics would still be relevant and resilient.
Non-realism about God views religion as an art, and God as a kind of meditation point: the sum of all human values. This is nice and poetic, though again difficult to square with Buddhism, but at least it is agnostic on the metaphysics. (Some non-realists are apparently atheists!)
We should avoid, with all our efforts, from making Stoicism simply another religion, with unquestioned metaphysics, rather than a reasoned philosophy which it currently is. Those who wish a divine logos can keep it as a private commitment. (And on ‘Zeus’, how did the Stoics come to this? What happened to the polytheism and the recognition in Plato that the capricious gods, including the sexual ravages of Zeus, were not good for character development? I gather the answer is some evolution in the concept. So, modern Stoicism simply continues that conceptual evolution.)
I think the terms God, gods, the divine etc; can only be fully appreciated when one has some altruistic or heroic goal. It is only then, that such texts as these make sense:
Badness you can get easily, in quantity; the road is smooth and it lies close by. But in front of Arete the immortal gods have put sweat, and long and steep is the way to it. [Hesiod]
Whoso nobly yields unto necessity, we hold as wise and skilled in things divine. [Euripides]
THE STOIC is one who considers with neither panic nor indifference, that the field of possibilities available to him is large perhaps, or small perhaps, but closed. Whether because of the invariable habits of the gods, the invariable properties of matter or the invariable limits within which logic and mathematics deploy their forms he can hope for nothing that adequate method could not foresee. He need not despair, but the most fortunate resolution to any predicament will draw its elements still from a known set, and so will ideally occasion him no surprise. The analogies that underlie his thinking are physical, not biological: things are chosen shuffled combined: all motion rearranges a limited supply of energy. He has been typically, at typical points in history, an ethical theorist weighing duty against preference without extravagant expectations, and a hero, aware that in defying the gods he yet fulfils their will. [Hugh Kenner]
I am so glad that at last someone has drawn attention to the elephant in the room, and insisted on its presence. Thanks to Mark Vernon for such a cogent and uncompromising statement.
My challenge to Tim LeBon is – if you don’t like the elephant, why not move to another room? The argument he presents is essentially a case for the value of an a-theistic and recent practice of a certain kind of psycho-therapy (CBT). Why bring the Stoics in at all? Is it just to provide some kind of intellectual glamour?
This debate has highlighted some interesting ideas.
1. The neo, modern or whatever variations of Stoicism that are being suggested tend to be teaching egoistic self-interest, with just a nod to ‘love thy neighbour’. They miss the point within Stoicism that encourages a person to look to themselves only in order to harmonise with the Whole.
2. Honest atheists tend to be agnostics rather than being certain that there is no God. However many atheists are not really rebelling against the idea of a god but rather have an irrational hatred of Christianity and all that it stands for. Their arguments tend to be centred on a mythical view of the nature of the so called Christian God, yet the Christian God is just another view of the One God that is to be seen in all the major faiths.
3. Many so called intellectuals are unable to see past their negative interpretation of the word ‘God’ and will try to put down anyone who uses the word. It is suggested that we who accept the existence of a state of being that is summed up by the word God are intellectually deficient or basing our views on outdated science. There is a blindness that ensures that many in academia, many intellectuals and many scientists refuse to address any inconvenient aspect of science etc where there is a suggestion that there is room within the scheme of things for a ‘consciousness’ that permeates the whole of existence.
Einstein tells us ‘The actual difficulty lies in the fact that physics is a kind of metaphysics’.
And it is reported that Sir James Jeans an English physicist, astronomer and mathematician, stated ‘The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine’ when he was discussing quantum mechanics.
The Stoics told us of the Divine Fire, a simply claim that there is a form of ‘consciousness’ that permeates the whole Universe and that we as individuals are ‘sparks’ of this ‘consciousness’ – not just because we have a brain, but because every particle in our body is manifested by the Divine Fire. And for those who are willing to open their eyes it is to be seen that Professor Cox is right when he is talking about scientists, quantum science and the like and when he states ‘There is something absolutely fundamental that we do not yet understand’.
There are none so blind as those who will not see!
That which so many are trying to air-brush out of the Stoic teaching, that which talks of a ‘consciousness’ is in fact the bit that Professor Cox does not understand and is the part that sets Stoicism apart from CBT and other such therapies.
If Stoicism Today is really interested in finding out just how helpful Stoicism can be they need to take on board the whole teaching and not to just rehash what the founders of CBT have already done. The failings of CBT demonstrate that the practices without an understanding of the end purpose are of limited value.
Instead of blindly claiming that aspects of Stoicism are out of kilter with modern knowledge, it would be better to look to see just how compatible Stoicism and science really are. Stop looking to the mechanics and start asking how the Universe is manifested here and now in this experiential moment.
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May I leave a comment 4 years later….. Maybe someone can help to clarify my thoughts. Thank you very much in advance.
You discuss with words whether or not believing in a “god” will help with stoicism…..
The argumentation and even the word “god” itself, is a pointer to something that is being referenced, as in ferdinand de saussures definitions: signifier is the reference (=the sign) pointing at something and signified is the referenced thing itself. He argued that signifier and signified have no necessary relation and (commonly agreed) meaning is created in the difference to other words of the same system i.e. the english language at a time.
1) The content, the meaning, the “signified” linked to the words (signifier) “God”, “Zeus” is different to the words itself. The same thing / content / meaning can be referenced by different words.
2) The thing / content / meaning “signified” cannot be described in absolute terms through language => words will not suffice for someone to change his feeling and believe of a God or of nothing (as seen in some of the replies). This means, that the experience and feeling of presence or absence of a God is on a different level than words. Maybe a physical one, one that can be sensed = is accessible through our senses.
3) If the word “God” and “Zeus” are relative, I assume they stand for a feeling and experience of sth that relates to us (has an impact on us) and might be bigger / stronger than us, while letting us some freedom to move and decide; Taking this definition, Gravitation might fit to this definition as well. It is an effect (the drawing power of masses), that relates to us (we are pulled towards the earth and minimally pull back). It lets us some freedom to move. To me, hence, saying there is a God, or there is gravitation, might be based both on the same experience, and whether we call it the one or the other (signifier) doesn’t change it’s effect (the signified).
I’d hence conclude, that the question whether there is a god or not, might be replaced, through natures laws, that we already discovered and those we are yet to discover, and that it doesn’t matter which signifier we are using to reference this experience. To me, this is close to an agnostic view, accepting the limitations of our brain, and concluding that we can’t know whether a god exists or not; but that the “signified” – the referenced experience underlying both worlds might actually be the same.
Thank you for reading this far. I’d love to hear you answers.
I had fashioned to leave a comment, man do I have a difficult time
a blog. Im seeking to kick start one on my website and I must say
its challenging at all. I do admire people like yourself
able to write about anything easily. Keep up the good work!
[…] God or the Universe is not transcendental (e.g. in a separate reality,) but is immanent, in everything and everyone. There is not conception of a personal God in Stoicism either. […]
Maybe what is missing is a stoic cosmogony which sees the universe not as the Divine Fire but as the place where conscience arises and develops. Conscience not as the manifestation of a spiritual world, but as a step in the evolution of the material world. Matter gives rise to life and life gives rise to consciousness. And individual consciousness gives rise to collective consciousness and, finally, to universal consciousness. Stoicism should all be about the balance between the material world – including each one of us as a living body – and reason, as the expression of consciousness. With everything which that implies.
[…] read bits and pieces of this Article which I've came […]