From Vol. 3, Issue 4, April 2021
How Religious Were the Stoics?
Posidonius was admired and recognized for his scientific endeavors by the Greek astronomer and mathematician Ptolemy, the Roman physician Galen, the Greek geographer and historian Strabo, along with the Roman statesmen Seneca the Younger, Cicero, and Pompey. He was also a strong believer of the Stoic god. It is thus not an exaggeration to state that his theological position drove his scientific enquiry rather than hindered it.
Stoics and religious practices
That is not to say that the Stoics viewed all religious practices as scientific. Seneca in On Superstition (a book that has since been lost) is vehemently critical of “godappeasing” practices that invoke mutilation and other forms of physical punishment. As Augustine states:
Seneca was quite outspoken about the cruel obscenity of some of the ceremonies: “One man cuts off his male organs: another gashes his arms. If this is the way they earn the favour of the gods, what happens when they fear their anger? The gods do not deserve any kind of worship, if this is the worship they desire. - Augustine, City of God 6.10 (modified by authors, based on translation by Bettenson and Evans, 2003).
The wise would recognize superstition
Augustine then quotes Seneca’s position on how the wise man [sic] would recognize superstition for what it is and understand that cultish customs have little connection with the truth. He concludes that:
Doubtless philosophy had taught him (Seneca) an important lesson, that he should not be superstitious in his conception of the physical universe; but, because of the laws of the country and the accepted customs, he also learnt that without playing an actor’s part in theatrical fictions, he should imitate such a performance in the temple - Augustine, City of God 6.10 (modified by authors, based on translation by Bettenson and Evans, 2003).
Augustine’s acknowledgement that the Stoics participated in religious customs, as their role dictated, shines some light on how Marcus Aurelius, as the Roman Emperor, honoured every god and cult he was expected to but reflected on the Stoic theological position in his own personal diary (e.g., his exploration of “providence or atoms” in Meditations 4.27, 5.24). The need for Stoics to be flexible when it comes to assimilating certain religious beliefs and cultural matters is also stated by Epictetus in chapter 31 of the Enchiridion.
Stoics are free to choose
While there were certainly religious aspects to ancient Stoicism, it was by no means a religion, at least not in the conventional sense. The Stoics qua Stoics did not argue that any particular book or building was sacred, nor that any theological belief should be set in stone (Clement, Stromata 5.12:76 (= SVF 1.264); Diogenes Laertius, The Lives of Eminent Philosophers 7.33-34). In fact, any Stoic who was committed to and properly understood the fundamental principles, was free to question or reject earlier Stoic ideas on the basis of reasoned argument, as Seneca the Younger makes clear in his Letters to Lucilius (33.11). Even the divinations offered by the Oracle in Delphi, whose advice led Zeno of Citium to establish Stoicism in the first place, were to be considered in a measured manner.
Kai Whiting is the author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In. He is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium. He Tweets @kaiwhiting and blogs at StoicKai.com
Aldo Dinucci translated Epictetus´ Enchiridion and Epictetus´ Discourses Book 1, among other works into Portuguese. He is Professor in Ancient Philosophy at Federal University of Sergipe, Brazil. He blogs at Estoicismo Artesanal.