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The Religious Nature of Stoicism – Episode 15


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Many people who were introduced to Stoicism by popular books that were written in the twenty-first century are surprised by the religious nature of Stoic philosophy when they first encounter it in the surviving Stoic texts and scholarship on those texts. That is because none of these popular authors address the deeply religious nature of Stoicism positively. Instead, they either ignore it or attempt to discredit it as the unwarranted beliefs of ancient philosophers who lacked our modern scientific understanding of the universe. For some, like Lawrence Becker, Stoic ethics cannot be “credible” if it remains attached to Stoic cosmology (a providential cosmos).[1] Likewise, William Irvine considers this aspect of Stoicism “off-putting to modern individuals, almost none of whom believe in the existence of Zeus, and many of whom don’t believe we were created by a divine being who wanted what was best for us.”[2] Ryan Holiday takes a different approach and justifies ignoring Stoic physics (which includes Stoic theology) by making the unsubstantiated claim that as Stoicism progressed, the later Stoics “focused primarily on two of these topics—logic and ethics”[3] to the exclusion of physics. In a unique approach, Donald Robertson attempts to obscure the modern divergence from Stoicism by making the unsupportable claim that some of the ancient Stoics “may have adopted a more agnostic stance”[4] or may have “believed that agnosticism or even atheism may have been consistent with the Stoic way of life.”[5] Claims like these may satisfy those who are unfamiliar with the Stoic texts and have not read any credible scholarship on Stoicism. Likewise, they will please those atheists and agnostics who wish those claims to be true. However, these claims do not stand up to the textual evidence or credible Stoic scholarship. A more brazen example of a predisposition against the religious nature of Stoicism is offered by Massimo Pigliucci, who combines literary fiction with a bit of scientific hubris to justify the abandonment of the Stoic worldview and its deeply religious nature. In his 2017 book How to Be a Stoic, which should have been more appropriately titled How to Be a Secular Stoic, Pigliucci engages Epictetus in an imaginary conversation. He sits Epictetus down for a friendly chat and educates him about the “powerful double punch” that David Hume and Charles Darwin delivered to the Stoic conception of a providential cosmos.[6] Of course, in Pigliucci’s version of this story, Epictetus does not provide a defense of Stoic providence against the claims of modern philosophy and science. Instead, Epictetus remains silent while the Stoic worldview is laid waste. However, for those who have any familiarity with the Discourses of Epictetus, it is hard to imagine this conversation would be so one-sided if the real Epictetus were engaged with Pigliucci. It is easy to imagine Epictetus countering with something like, my dear philosopher, “The [Stoics] say that the first thing that needs to be learned is the following, that there is a God, and a God who exercises providential care for the universe” (Discourses 2.14.11). Then, Epictetus, in his typically protreptic style, might have asked Pigliucci, “What is the universe, then, and who governs it?” (Discourses 2.14.25). Finally, it’s fair to assume a modern version of Epictetus would be familiar enough with the writings of Hume and Darwin to know that Pigliucci’s “powerful double punch” may be quite effective against the New Atheist strawman version of God paraded into most modern debates. However, a modern, well-informed Epictetus would be able to point out that neither Hume nor Darwin can land a blow on the immanent God of Stoicism that providentially orders the cosmos from within. Unfortunately, Pigliucci is so beholden to the reductionist materialist belief system of nineteenth-century science that he is compelled to declare, as he recently did, that the metaphysical beliefs of the ancient S...

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