Stoic Religion

Source: Glenn W. Most, “Philosophy and Religion,” The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy, ed. David Sedley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 315.

“The Stoics define god as ‘intelligent, a designing fire which methodically proceeds towards creation of the world’, but, differently from Plato, they stress that divinity does not transcend a world it creates once and for all, but instead is imminent from beginning to end as a self-fulfilling, self-directed teleological principle within this world, for it provides both a systematic orderliness as its structure and a meaningful life-history in the form of its providential evolution over time (hence the Stoics can equate god with nature, or with fate). Applied to the individual, the recognition that one is inevitably part of this divine structure and evolution must lead to the decision to live in accordance with it; thus ethics too attains its fulfillment as piety. This is a very ambitious and rather abstract view of god; but the Stoics’ firm conviction that all elements within the universe, however trivial or repugnant they might seem to uninformed eyes, must be capable of being recognized to embody at least partially the consummate rationality which governs the whole, leads them to insist upon salvaging what they can of traditional Greek religiosity rather than discarding it wholesale: they devote an extraordinary effort of highly sophisticated allegorical interpretation to the ancient myths and the established cults so as to demonstrate that, rightly understood, they are identical with their own doctrines.”

This quote is good because it summarizes Stoicism, which has been a continual topic in my classes on Judaism in the Greco-Roman period. It reminds me somewhat of Colossians, which contends that following Jesus is abiding by the order of the universe, since Jesus is the creator and fills all things. But I wonder why Christians suffer if they are truly living according to the order of the universe. Can “there’s an overarching plan” account for all the pain Christians experience? Maybe, in the sense that it builds character, but do Stoics believe in an afterlife where people get a reward for being righteous in the midst of adversity?

Another question about Stoicism: my impression from my studies is that the Stoics were rather ascetic. They believed in pursuing virtue, not really the other enjoyable things of life. But Stoics aren’t exactly Gnostics or NeoPlatonists, who are hostile to all things material. Rather, they praise the order of the universe as if it’s divine. So why were they opposed to enjoying the pleasures of life?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Stoic Religion

  1. Lamb and Tyger says:

    James,

    I think that a stoic would be impartial to whether or not there was an afterlife. If it came it came. The philosophy certainly doesn’t require one, and it probably makes more sense that there isn’t one. Individual reward is not sought after (according to Stoic metaphysics, the perception of individual parts and beings within the creation is an illusion). Stoics are impartial to it so a promise of riches or happiness or whatever else in an afterlife would do very little for them. A continued existence would merely allow them to continue practicing virtue.

    I don’t know that Stoics are really opposed to enjoying the pleasures of life, but they seek to understand that that sort of pleasure is ultimately not worth attaining. Again, they are more or less impartial to it. But, I wouldn’t imagine they would altogether avoid it so long as it did not interfere with virtue.

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  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Lamb and Tyger,

    I’ve learned more about Stoicism since I wrote this post, since I read John Sellars Stoicism–an excellent book, though it’s brief. They do seem to seek detachment from looking to externals to make them happy, as you suggest.

    I may write a post today on the afterlife.

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