Stoic Serenity 4.1: Universal Nature, God, & Fate

In the previous chapter, we discussed the Greek term phusis meaning “physical” or “nature.” We mentioned how the Stoic motto: “Live according to Nature” encompasses two meanings:

  • Live according to human nature.
  • Live according to the nature of the Universe.

We spent some time in the last chapter talking about human nature, how it relates to the (“preferred”) indifferents, and what the concept of “the Simple Life” has to do with all of it. Author Keith Seddon of Stoic Serenity says that simply put, to “live according to human nature” means to “live a life in which you pursue the preferred indifferents by undertaking your actions rationally and virtuously.”

In this new chapter, we will take a look at the Stoic motto in terms of living according to the nature of the Universe.


God and Matter

We begin by reading the an excerpt of Seneca’s Letter 65, “On the First Cause,” starting with the second paragraph:

Everything is made up of cause and matter… In the case of a statue, “the matter is bronze and the cause is the artist.”

As you know, our Stoic philosophers declare that there are two things in the Universe which are the source of everything—cause and matter. Matter lies sluggish, a substance ready for any use, but sure to remain idle if no one sets it in motion. Cause, however, which we mean to refer to “reason”, molds matter and turns it in whichever direction it wills, thus producing various results. Therefore, every single thing must have something from which it was made, and an agent by which it is made. The former is its material, the latter its cause.

…Think of a statue for example. A statue is made up of matter which “underwent treatment” at the hands of the artist, and the artist gave form to the matter. So in the example of the statue, the matter was bronze, and the cause was the artist. This is how it is with everything. Everything consists of that which it was made and of the maker.

(Seneca, Letters from a Stoic Letter 65 “On the First Case [second and part of third paragraph])

Seddon says that “the Stoics were [pure] materialists,” meaning that “they believed that there is just one type of thing that makes up the universe.” This is in contrast to many other traditions and religions, such as Christianity, which believe in spirits and spiritual forces that interact with the material world. Such a theory is called a “dualist” theory, because it maintains that two types of things exist: matter and spirit. Stoics, however, were “monists,” because they believed that only one type of thing exists: matter.

Dualist: believing that two types of things exist in the universe. Matter and spirit.
Monist: believing that only one type of thing exists in the universe: Matter.

Wait. In the excerpt, Seneca wrote that the philosophers declared that there are two things in the universe: cause and matter. So how can the Stoics be called “monists”?

The ancient Stoics understood both “cause” and “matter” to be material. “Matter” by itself cannot make or do anything. “Cause” was understood by the Stoics to refer to God/God’s will/nature/reason/Fate. And when this second type of matter, called “cause,” is mixed with the first matter, it becomes active. This is how everything becomes the thing that it is.

How can the Stoics say that only matter exists in the Universe, yet they consider God a type of matter? Isn’t God a spirit?

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The ancient Stoics believed that God permeated the Universe. Everything is “of” God, and God is in everything. It’s all one and the same.

Without going into too much detail or debate, the ancient Stoics had a sort of pantheistic view of God, believing that God permeated the entire Universe—everything is “of” God, and God is in everything. You could liken it to Hinduism’s concept of “Atman is Brahman,” or “The individual soul is the cosmic soul.” So if we see that the ancient Stoics believed that God permeated the Universe, then we can understand how they believed that it was only possible that the Universe was made up of one type of thing.

Now consider these quotes:

God, intelligence, Fate, and Zeus are all one, and many other names are applied to him.

(Diogenes Laertius 7.135-6)

[The Stoics] say that god is mixed with matter, pervading all of it and so shaping it, structuring it, and making it into the world.

(Alexander of Aphrodisias, On Mixture 225, 1-2)

[The Stoics] think that there are two principles of the universe, that which acts and that which is acted upon. That which is acted upon is unqualified substance, i.e. matter. That which acts is reason [logos] in it, i.e. god. For this, since it is everlasting, constructs every single thing throughout all matter…

(Diogenes Laertius 7.134)

[Balbus, the Stoic spokesman] I therefore assert that it is by the [will] of the gods that the world and all its parts were first [fused] and have been governed for all time.

(Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 2.75)

From the time of Zeno, the Stoics maintained that God was a sort of fiery breath throughout the cosmos. Thus, God was considered to be everywhere and in everything. God is responsible for creating the stars, planets, trees, animals, and people by turning unformed matter into an actual thing. He controls the fates of humans. The matter and the cause. God is considered the cause. cosmos_desert_by_behaire-d4rxpaa

So if God is in everything, then how is my individual person any different from the God that permeates the universe?

The way the Stoics conceived of it was that every person has a “material soul” which controls the body, as opposed to God who was “soul of the universe,” which controls the universe. God was seen as an immediate force within the world itself, not as “transcendent,” or above and outside of the world.

The Roman philosopher Cicero wrote that Cleanthes, second head of the Stoic school, maintained that there are four main reasons that humans believe in God, or a divine force:

  1. Soothsayers were considered to be divinely inspired. (Think of prophets).
  2. The good things in life (such as temperate climate, fertile soil, etc.) were considered gifts from God.
  3. The terrible things in life (such as hurricanes, earthquakes, plagues, etc.) were considered to be acts of God.
  4. The most compelling reason: “The order, regularity, and beauty observed” in the universe.

Just as it is when someone enters a house, a gymnasium, or a forum, he sees the controlled methodical pattern of all that is going on, he cannot think that these things happen without a cause. Instead, he understands that there must be someone in charge who is obeyed. How much more must he conclude that in the case of these great motions and phases, and of the orderings of things so numerous and on such a grand scale…it is by some mind that these great motions of nature are controlled.

(Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 2.15)

Cicero’s point is that some people believe there must be a reason for the nature of reality. Why do things happen the way they do? The Stoic answer is that God, as the artist, forming matter in whichever way He desires, is the “ultimate explanation for everything.”


“On the God Within Us”

We’re going to conclude with Seneca’s Letter 41:

If you are persisting in your efforts to understand, even as you are writing me, then you are doing an excellent thing for yourself. You must persist with effort, however. It is foolish to pray for this when you can acquire it from yourself. There’s no need to lift our hands toward the sky, or to beg the temple priest to let us approach the idol’s ear. As if doing these things will make our prayers more likely to be heard! God is near you, he is with you, he is within you. This is what I mean, Lucilius: a divine spirit lives within us. It marks our good and bad deeds; it is our guardian. This spirit treats us in the same manner that we treat it. Indeed, no person can be good without the help of God. Can anyone rise above Fortune unless God helps him to rise? It is God who gives noble and honorable advice. In each good person

“a god dwells, but what kind of god, we do not know.”

5827299179_1785a8e014_oHave you ever come across a forest of ancient trees, grown to unusual height, shutting out the view of the sky by a veil of intertwining branches? The loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the place, and your marvel at the thick unbroken shade will prove to you that there must be a god. Or have you come across a cave, built by crumbling rocks, holding up a mountain? Such a place was not built by human hands, but it was hollowed out by natural causes. Such a manifestation of the existence of God would deeply move your soul to believe. We worship the sources of mighty rivers; we build altars where great streams burst from hidden sources; we adore hot springs as divine, and we consecrate certain pools because of their unusually dark waters or their immeasurable depth. If you see a person who is fearless and remains calm in the face of danger, who is untouched by desire, who is happy in adversity and peaceful during the storm, who looks down upon people from a higher plane and views the gods on a footing of equality, will you not succumb to a feeling of reverence for this person? Will you not say, “This quality is too great and too lofty to be considered as resembling the petty body in which it dwells. A divine power has descended upon this person.” When a soul rises above other souls, when it is under control, when it endures every experience as if it were a small ordeal, when it smiles at our fears and at our prayers, it must be stirred by a force from heaven. Something like this cannot exist unless it is the work of the divine. Therefore, an even greater part of it abides in the place from where it came down to earth. Just as the sun’s rays do indeed touch the earth but still abide at the source from which they are sent, so does the great and hallowed soul cling to its origin, although it does indeed associate with us and has come down in order that we might have a better knowledge of divinity. For that great and hallowed soul depends on its source. It keeps its gaze on the source, and it is there that it strives to go. It concerns itself with our doings only as being superior to ourselves.

What, then, is such a soul? It is a soul that is not made resplendent by any external good, but is instead made resplendent by its own good. What could be more foolish than praising a person for their qualities that came from somewhere else? What’s crazier than admiring the characteristics that might be present in a person at one moment and then passed on to someone else in the next? A golden bit does not make a better horse. The lion with a gilded mane, in the process of being trained and forced by weariness to endure the finery, is sent into the arena in a vastly different way than the wild lion whose spirit is unbroken. The wild lion, indeed, is bold in his attack, impressive due to his wild appearance. And it is his glory that no one can look at him without falling to fear,—this is favored in preference to the other lion, that lazy and decorated brute.

No one should revel in anything except that which is his own. We praise the vine if it grows many shoots, if the weight of its fruit bend the very poles holding it to the ground. But would anyone prefer a vine from which hang golden grapes and golden leaves? A vine’s unique virtue is its fertility. And so we should praise the qualities that are unique to humans. What does it matter if a man has a household attended by handsome staff, or a beautiful house, a large farm, and a large income? None of these things is the man himself; they are all on the outside. We should praise the quality in him which cannot be given or snatched away; that is, the quality that is exclusive to the man. Do you ask what quality this is? It is soul, and reason brought to perfection in the soul. For a human is a reasoning animal. Therefore, a human’s highest good is attained if he has fulfilled the good for which nature designed him at birth. And what does this reason demand of him? It demands the easiest thing in the world,—to live in accordance with his own nature. But this is turned into a hard task by the general madness of mankind. We push one another into Vice. And how can a man be called back to salvation when he has no one to hold him back, and all mankind is urging him on? Farewell.

(Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter 41 “On the God Within Us”)

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