This has already been a great deal of specialist theological discussion on the ancient Stoic worldview. This section explores the extent of which modern Stoics can incorporate the Stoic worldview in a coherent ethical framework that aligns with the 21st century understanding of how the world works. We clarify the main two approaches to theology held within modern Stoicism and untangle some of the thornier issues in order to better understand the ethical claims being made.
3.1. The Orthodox View
Various modern Stoic scholars, most notably A.A Long, Christoph Jedan, Gisela Striker and Marcelo Boeri contend that the orthodox Stoic view is not a mere historical detail but essential to the coherence of the philosophy. Jedan
) argues that Stoic theology provides the rationality of apparently paradoxical claims regarding the sufficiency and “all or nothing” status of virtue. Boeri
) puts forward the case that ancient Stoic cosmology provides meaning to Stoic principles and points to the sheer number of texts where the origin of Stoic tenets can be explicitly traced back to the logos
. Likewise, Long
) asserts that the Stoic conviction regarding a human being’s purpose and the attainment of eudaimonia
“is principally grounded in their beliefs about the relation in which human beings stand to a determinate and providentially governed world” (Long 1968
). Similar sentiments are found in Striker
Part of the unease that moderns have with the orthodox view is that this approach uses the term “theology”, which in turn, invokes an association with “religion”, “the nature of god” and “spirituality”. It is, therefore, important that we dispel any common (and fully understandable) misconceptions moderns may have when interpreting ancient Stoic texts and their theological framework. In doing so, we hope that those readers of a more agnostic/atheistic inclination do not come to reject Stoic ideas and their applicability to environmental ethics, before they have had the time to (re)read and (re)consider them. This is particularly important because there are many modern Stoics who were originally attracted to the philosophy and its fellowships precisely because of an aversion to, or a loss of, a contemporary religious belief.
It is essential that moderns understand that the ancient Stoics would not have recognised the modern distinction between religious thought and scientific inquiry. This is why the Stoic god, as perfect rationality, has a clear philosophical basis, which necessarily
must be arrived at and defended via rational argument and not faith or dogma (Clark n.d.
). Furthermore, while there were certainly religious aspects, ancient Stoicism was not a religion. There was no leadership hierarchy nor was there an appointed authority, places of worship or sacred books. It was not heretical to question or reject earlier Stoic ideas on the basis of reasoned argument. Furthermore, no Stoic practitioner was seen as an apostate and ex-communicated for involving themselves in the Roman rituals and traditions (Sadler 2018
). That said, the ancient Stoics, especially Chrysippus and Cornutus, did re-interpret some pre-existing and traditional Greco-Roman religious ideas in order to bring them into their logocentric worldview. The latter, which we have already briefly discussed, was a naturalistic rational framework that formed the basis of Stoic virtue ethics and provided practitioners with the rationale to study the natural world and the wider cosmos, including the celestial bodies (which were often referred to as gods). This is, in effect, what Cicero explains in On Ends (De Finibus III, 73):
Nor can anyone judge truly of things good and evil, save by a knowledge of the whole plan of nature and even of the life of the gods.
We want to make it clear that while it is true that under the modern Stoic umbrella people can refer to themselves as a Christian Stoic, a Muslim Stoic, a Hindu Stoic, a Buddhist Stoic or an atheist Stoic—as long as they accept that the four Stoic virtues are sufficient and necessary for an adult human being to flourish—the orthodox Stoic position is grounded in a pantheistic vision of the universe (Levine 1994
; Sellars 2006
). Furthermore, the immanent nature of the Stoic god will certainly conflict with the transcendental aspects of the aforementioned religious traditions, leading to, at the very least, unusual interpretations of key aspects of Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist beliefs—especially those associated with “miracles” and other supernatural events. This is because nothing outside Nature forms any part of what Stoics believe to exist. In other words, the orthodox Stoic understanding of the universe, including god, is entirely grounded in natural phenomena.
Stoic reverence for Nature or “god” does not come through any profession of faith, i.e., an affirmation dependent on the holding of a belief, such as in existence of heaven, hell, angels and other miraculous signs, even in the absence of, or contrary to, available evidence. This is clear from the Chrysippean “proofs” for the Stoic god, which are all based on reasoned argument about the nature of the universe as understood by the Stoics (Dragona-Monachou 1976, pp. 112–20
). In other words, the ancient Stoics recognised, through their theology and not despite it
, that progress towards virtue relied not on divine revelations from a supernatural being but on living in accordance with Nature and by the facts Nature provides.
The Stoic pantheistic vision has some unique features that distinguish it from Spinoza’s god (see Long 2003
) and the entity created by Arne Naess
). However, it also shares many aspects with modern-day movements and belief systems that emphasise the importance of leading an environmentally sensitive/sympathetic way of life. In Stoicism, this response is simply an acknowledgement that the Earth’s natural system, as the giver and sustainer of life (words typically used to describe a god), is worthy of care and consideration, for its sake and our own.
The Stoic god is the universal pervasiveness of the universe’s mind—its commanding faculty—and thus the force of fate and the necessity of future events (Long and Sedley 1987
, 54A, 54B). It is the creator of the whole, immortal, perfectly rational, perfectly happy and perfectly benevolent—in that the universe generously provides all that is required to support life and allow that life to flourish. The Stoic god is provident toward the world and its occupants and does not create or admit the existence of evil. It is not anthropomorphic, but it does exercise an anthropocentric divine providence, which is best understood by humankind through carefully and methodically observing Nature, which reveals its divinity (perfect rationality) in physical processes, i.e., scientific facts (Baltzly 2003
). God’s body is finite, insofar as the cosmos is finite (Aetius I, 6 = SVF 2.528) and made of a physical creative fire or physical breath. Furthermore, like the rest of creation, the Stoic god is a soul-body composite made up of a passive principle (“matter” or “substance without quality”) and an active principle (logos
, which was likewise corporeal).
The Stoic god’s acts and intentions are not specific to an individual, or a group of individuals. Instead, they operate in line with natural causality and reflect the providentially and fatally ordered sequence of causes and effects in the cosmos—an inescapable and inevitable law of what exists (Inwood and Gerson 1997
). There are no divine interventions, so no favouritism and no miracles (Algra 2003
). Other than thinking and acting rationality in accordance with Nature, so that one can progress towards a eudaimonic state, there are no prescribed acts or words of “worship”. There is no way to “please” or “anger” the Stoic god. There is no divine judgement and god does not send souls to a “heaven” or “hell”. In fact, other than certain speculations regarding the wisest of humans (the sages), the soul, as a physical component of the body, does not survive death (Jedan 2009
; Lagrée 2016
This is what orthodox modern Stoic Chris Fisher
) explains, when reflecting on Seneca’s On Providence, 2.4:
Stoics viewed Nature as benevolent—conducive to human life. Death, disease, and natural disasters are not punishments from an angry God; they are simply the natural unfolding of events within a web of causes, often outside of our control. Stoics accept that the cosmos is as it should be and they face challenging events as opportunities for growth rather than considering them harmful. This is neither resignation nor retreat from the realities of human existence. Stoics strive to do all we can to save lives, cure disease, and understand and mitigate natural and man-made disasters.
It is within this frame of reference, that ancient and orthodox modern Stoics agree that there are objective moral facts, i.e., that some kinds of actions are right and others wrong, independent of what a human being thinks or decides. If this were not so, Stoics could not explain how it is possible that an individual who has perfected their moral reason (referred to as a sage) is said to be incapable of a moral mistake.
The Stoic teleological worldview is evidently and explicitly associated with Chrysippus’ dictum that living in agreement with Nature means engaging in no activity which the common law (god) forbids. Furthermore, the excellent character (arete
) of a flourishing agent (eudaimon
) consists in being in concordance with “the will of the universe”. In which case, as Long
) points out, the theocratic postulate is integral to the Stoic conception of virtue, and in understanding how virtue is sufficient and necessary for eudaimonia
. In a Stoic framework, this requires knowledge of Nature (which is accessed via “physics” and theology) and those morally correct actions (katorthomata
) that necessarily cohere with Nature. It follows that those modern Stoics who promote a theological approach to morality do so because they believe that the logocentric worldview roots facts in a unified cosmic framework and is thus the reason behind the Stoic call to live according to Nature. In turn, they maintain that Nature provides the facts and the corresponding values for normative decision making. Indeed, even if an atheistic-leaning Stoic does show that there is a mechanistic non-rational ordering of the universe that does not mean we should value it, as we will explore in more detail in Section 4
In short, the orthodox Stoic position holds that facts are not the end but rather the means with which to seek harmony with the universe and reason, because the logos is an intrinsic good. They also point to Nature’s providential care as the basis for the Stoic cosmopolitan ethical framework and the Stoic metaphor of the circles of concern, which conceptualise the appropriateness of looking after the self, other members of the universal human tribe and the environment.
3.2. The Heterodox View
Breaking away from certain aspects of Stoic theology/cosmology is not something that is restricted to modern philosophers. The ancient Stoic Panaetius, for example, rejected some aspects of Stoic theology, namely divination and the conflagration (cataclysmic end of the cosmos when all becomes fire), while retaining the Stoic position overall (Testimonia 130–140
). Likewise, neo-Stoics such as Justus Lipsius and Francis Hutcheson rejected elements of Stoic cosmology in favour of Christian doctrine (Maurer 2016
). Lipsius, for example, argues among other things, that the Stoics are wrong to claim that the sage is superior to god, a position justified by their belief that a Stoic practitioner relies on their own efforts, whereas god is virtuous by nature (Man. 3.14, as paraphrased by Lagrée 2016
). In our opinion, while there is nothing wrong with rejecting certain elements
of Stoic theology as untenable, one must be careful to ensure that if some Stoics reject the philosophy’s theological premise in its entirety that their reasons are valid. It also means that whatever replaces it must be consistent and coherent with the uniquely Stoic idea that virtue is the one true “good” and the only thing that is both necessary and sufficient for human happiness.
The heterodox modern Stoic view is an atheistic-agnostic ethical framework. It attempts to provide normative values without reference to Stoic theology. Modern Stoics that hold to this position do so for various reasons. One of them is linked to the issue that moderns have with the Western perception of god (not just the Stoic one) and the concept’s relevance or role in explaining phenomena in the natural world (Cf., LeBon 2014
). As we have already discussed, this discomfort is derived from a cultural understanding of “god” which is dominated by monotheistic interpretations and the superstitious and supernatural baggage that such beliefs imply. The Stoic god most definitely does not coincide with Abrahamic creation myths, nor its descriptions of god’s anthropomorphic character (i.e., angry or jealous) that leads to his capricious actions and an arbitrary or punitive Will. We have also shown that Stoic theology is more like (modern) science than other theological perspectives because the material Stoic god is more aligned with what atheists or agnostics might refer to as the “scientific worldview”.
This brings us to a second, and much more difficult and nuanced, topic to address, which is whether moderns can accept the Stoic’s naturalist theological framework, as a credible scientific account of the natural world. Many leading modern Stoic scholars, such as Lawrence Becker (Becker 2017, p. 6
) and Massimo Pigliucci (Pigliucci 2017a
) argue that we cannot. They contend that, if the integrity of modern Stoicism is to remain intact, we must necessarily make the case that Stoic ethics can be upheld without the need for cosmic teleology. This is in essence why Annas
) and Inwood
) argue that recovering the Stoic theological framework in a modern context would ultimately be a mistake.
) tries to flesh out the practice of Stoic ethics in the modern world. He adopts an atheistic approach in which he replaces the cosmological foundations of the call to “live according to Nature” with an ethical framework built on a call to “live according to the facts”. He states that:
Following nature means following the facts. It means getting the facts about the physical and social world we inhabit, and the facts about our situation in it—our own powers, relationships, limitations, possibilities, motives, intentions, and endeavours—before we deliberate about normative matters. It means facing those facts—accepting them for exactly what they are, no more and no less—before we draw normative conclusions from them. It means doing ethics from the facts—constructing normative propositions a posteriori. It means adjusting those normative propositions to fit changes in the facts.
In rejecting the Stoic linkage between Stoic ethics and cosmology, Becker assumes that Stoic theology, in the ancient world, did not aim to “face the facts”. However, this is mistaken. Stoic theology, and ethics, were supposed by ancient Stoics to be consistent with ‘the facts’, as they understood them, that is the facts about the nature of the universe and the place of human beings and other animals within the universe. Therefore, the position Becker adopts—while presented as being a radical revision of the Stoic view—is actually in line with it. Furthermore, Stoic principles stipulate that practitioners have an obligation to address discrepancies where ancient beliefs contradict modern discoveries or are challenged by scientific pursuits. In other words, Stoic theology is not opposed to the scientific view, but depends on it.
Having identified this source of confusion, it is worth clarifying what exactly is being argued in the modern heterodox call to “follow the facts”. The crux of the issue does not boil down to whether Stoics should follow facts (they evidently should) but whether the orthodox Stoic worldview is an accurate depiction of the facts, as these are understood in the modern world. The question at hand is whether or not it is acceptable for moderns to operate out of the orthodox understanding that the universe acts with benevolent providence, that the logos is an intrinsic “good” and that it dictates what is virtuous, vicious or neither.
For many prominent modern Stoics, including Lawrence Becker, Massimo Pigliucci, Greg Lopez and Piotr Stankiewicz (see Stankiewicz 2017
, for example), the heterodox worldview is compatible with modern science precisely because, unlike the orthodox position, it does not
claim that the universe is good or that it provides objective meaning. For such Stoics, the universe is understood as being mechanistic (quantistic-relativistic). It is most definitely not benevolent and certainly does not work for the benefit of humankind (Pigliucci 2017a
). Consequently, the logos is re-envisioned, or re-defined, as “the (factual) observation that the universe is indeed structured in a rational manner” (Pigliucci 2017c
For heterodox Stoics, given that meaning does not exist objectively, it is simply something that humans construct as social and intelligent beings. It follows that what an individual neurotypical human being ought to do can be derived from facts about human values, preferences, historical events, cultural norms and social conventions (Becker 2017
). These facts are not derived from what an orthodox Stoic refers to when they speak of “living according to Nature”, but instead from our collective accounts of human psychology, history, sociology and biology. Contrary to the orthodox position, there is no absolute moral truth (orthodox Stoics would contend that it is the goodness inherent in the immanent law of Nature) and no objective good outside of human perception. In other words, “virtue” is not an objective intrinsic property of Nature but depends solely on human thought and action. This is effectively what Pigliucci
The idea of mind independent moral truths is rejected as incoherent since ethics is the study of human prescriptive actions. Conversely, relativism is also a no starter because there are objective facts about human nature and the human condition that constrain our ethical choices.
Massimo Pigliucci is certainly right (and in line with ancient Stoicism) in arguing that we should aim to make decisions based on an objective understanding of human nature. After all, we are compelled by certain facts and lack the absolute freedom to choose which facts are valuable to us (e.g., pain, hunger or thirst). Likewise, our capacity for rationality causes us to become aware of other types of facts, such as climate change. Once we are aware of climate change, we are then consciously and rationally compelled to understand this fact for the sake of our own good (Butman 2019
). The problem with Pigliucci’s
) statement and Becker’s
) view on ‘facing the facts’ is that while there may be some connections between facts and norms, for many moderns, including those in the heterodox camp, it is a fallacy to believe that one can derive values from them (Hume 2006
; Moore 1959
). It is also important to recognise that the ancient Stoics did not reduce Physics to “fact hunting” because they were aware that what they might consider a fact might not be. This is the reason why Stoics say that when facts are unclear, but the impression is such that it is reasonable to believe them, then we should only assent to the impression that it is reasonable to believe, and not assert that such and such is the case. In other words, we should assent with reservation as Sphaerus did with the pomegranate (as explained by Diogenes Laertius in the Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book 7, 177
). Furthermore, if we see the world only through the lens of facts, we tend to see things from a reductionist perspective. The latter can have and has had grave consequences for the natural world, which is far more complex than we can understand and does not thrive when reduced to its component parts (Long 2018
Ethics are not only concerned with human actions towards other humans, but also with how the world and non-humans operate. Our freedom to imbue facts with meaning is conditioned by the fact that we live in the world, which is not only dependent on human nature but Nature generally. Together, they both determine the attitude a person ought to have and what action they ought to take. This is why orthodox Stoics maintain that it is in aligning one’s behaviour with how the world works which is conducive to human happiness.
Another major difficulty that surfaces when appealing to the objectivity of facts is that while they can help an individual decide what to think or how to act, they have no bearing, in and of themselves, on whether that thought or act is virtuous or not. To infer virtue or vice from scientific facts requires a proxy ideal for virtue in the objective sense. One way to interpret the heterodox view of virtue is through “harmony”, which is a particularly appropriate Stoic proxy for wellbeing. This is because it incorporates both societal structures and the natural world. Striving for a personal sense of harmony provides meaning for an individual looking to navigate an indifferent universe. In this respect, it would not matter if a person is aligned with the nature of the universe, as it is that person’s sense of harmony or discord that determines their progress towards eudaimonia
. In other words, one can make the case that a Stoic could determine the virtuousness of their thoughts, acts or mental state by gauging how much harmony was created or destroyed either in themselves or within, or between, any of the other relationships represented by the concentric circles of concern. If this is true, Annas
) is correct to assert:
If I am convinced that virtue is sufficient for happiness, then when I acquire the cosmic perspective I acquire the thought that this is not just an ethical thesis, but one underwritten by the nature of the universe. But what actual difference can this make? It cannot alter the content of the thought that virtue suffices for happiness, for I understood that before if I understood the ethical theory. Nor is it easy to see how the cosmic perspective can give me any new motive to be virtuous; if I understood and lived by the ethical theory, I already had sufficient motive to be virtuous, and if awareness of the cosmic perspective adds any motivation then I did not already have a properly ethical perspective before.
Arguably, the biggest challenge to the heterodox position is revealed when attempting to apply harmony as a proxy for societal/planetary wellbeing. For societal issues, this would entail the use of social cohesion as an indicator of the appropriateness of a given thought or action. However, when we equate social harmony with virtue as derived from facts about human values, preferences, historical events, cultural norms and social conventions, we need to recognise that these facts (unlike the essence of Nature) change. Indeed, one of the biggest factors that separate humans from other animals is cumulative culture. The latter describes our unique ability to take advantage of the scientific knowledge and philosophical ideas that are only made possible by our ability to understand and make use of the imparted knowledge and artefacts of others (Caldwell and Millen 2008
; Whiting et al. 2018c
). It explains why social structures and values evolve for humankind while for other animals they do not.
A good example of the problem of relying on societal values to determine virtue is the concept of slavery. The latter was commonplace in the ancient world. Incidentally, two powerful Roman Stoics, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were well placed to modify this practice. They chose not to. Furthermore, their respective writings that now form the Stoic “canon” show that they accepted slavery as an indifferent circumstance (though not one that was preferable) , and believed that it was in the treatment of the slave that virtue could be found. Seneca for example, remarks to Lucilius that:
I do not wish to involve myself in too large a question, and to discuss the treatment of slaves, towards whom we Romans are excessively haughty, cruel, and insulting. But this is the kernel of my advice: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters. In addition, as often as you reflect how much power you have over a slave, remember that your master has just as much power over you.
—Seneca, Moral letters to Lucilius, Letter 47, Chapter 4
Evidently for these Roman Stoics, justice and self-control consisted of treating a slave with kindness, not using them sexually, allowing them to eat at the dinner table and remembering their humanity. It would be very difficult to maintain this position now. This means that either enslaving others was always vicious - even if the Romans did not realise it or could do nothing about it - or that, given the social norms and preferences of Ancient Rome, slavery was acceptable for ancient Roman Stoics but is wrong for modern ones (for a more detailed discussion on the ancient Stoic position on slavery (see Robertson 2017
An orthodox modern Stoic can claim that slavery is objectively unjust regardless of spatiotemporal circumstances. That is, if Roman society required forced labour to function then that structure was not formed in accordance with Nature and those Romans were therefore vicious, regardless of any particular opinion or set of opinions. On the contrary, this is where heterodox Stoics reach an impasse. For if virtue is derived through human social mechanisms, and societal harmony is the litmus test for virtue, then banning slavery would have been unjust because it would have resulted in social breakdown, if not chaos. Additionally, and problematically for anyone looking to “live according to the facts”, there are no facts that state that slavery is bad from a Stoic perspective. One might infer that it is vicious because pain or harm is being caused, but this would be a Utilitarian argument and not a Stoic one given that Stoic principles hold that pain and harm do not prevent a person from flourishing, and therefore do make the moral difference (although the reasons for inflicting pain do make a moral difference).
In this respect, the orthodox framework is far from redundant because it stipulates an objective universal reference point that dictates how we all should live, regardless of how human beings think and act. In which case, Stoic theology can inform us on what we, as a society, ought to do.