Stoic Theology, Science, and Love: Thoughts on Stoic Week 2016
by William O. Stephens
I’ve been studying and writing about Stoicism since about 1988. I’ve been professing about Stoicism to undergraduate students at Creighton University in Nebraska since 1990. When the opportunity to participate in Stoic Week 2016 arose, I figured that it was high time for me take the plunge. I’m glad I did.
When completing the online questionnaire, the first thing that struck me was how clear and well-crafted the questions were. I was also impressed with how the framers of this questionnaire combined items that test one’s beliefs in Stoic doctrines with items that test one’s psychological dispositions. This is as we should expect. Stoic thinking inspired the contemporary psychological theories of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) developed by Albert Ellis in the 1950s and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) developed by Aaron Beck in the 1960s. Thus, the scientific application of Stoic therapies is entirely appropriate. But what surprised me in taking the Stoic Week questionnaire was the item that tested my belief that the universe is an enormous, rational, living being that can accurately be called ‘God.’
On the one hand, the surviving fragments certainly seem to indicate that both the earliest Stoics (Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes of Assos, Chrysippus) held this theological belief. Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus is an earnest expression of this theological belief, for example. What about the later Roman Stoics? To judge from their writings, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius also believed that Zeus was the Right Reason steering the cosmos. Indeed, Epictetus argues that since sheep produce wool and milk, and we can make clothes from their wool and cheese from their milk, divine providence exists. Epictetus believes that Zeus our cosmic Father. Zeus makes plants grow and fruit. Zeus gives us animals so that we can domesticate them and sustain ourselves using them as we wish. Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, seems to grant the possibility that the atomists are right, and that there is no divine providence. But, Marcus reasons that if it is all just atoms swerving together and apart, then morality itself disappears. Marcus cannot countenance such a world, so he clings to the theological belief that the universe is rationally organized by a supreme Stoic ‘God.’
So, must a modern stoic share this theological belief in a god responsible for plants, the domestication of some nonhuman animals, and the organization of the universe? Surely not. Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism was published in 1998. Becker offers a contemporary stoicism (uncapitalized) free of theological commitments. Becker’s neostoicism is about perfecting one’s agency in order to live one’s life as well as possible. To live well means to live virtuously and happily, making the best decisions every day all things considered. The lessons Becker draws from the ancient Stoics are aimed at this practical, entirely secular endeavor. Becker shows that one can adopt the ethics of the ancient Stoics without buying into Stoic theology. A modern stoic who takes science seriously avoids the problems of explaining how Zeus makes trees give fruit and how Zeus makes sheep produce wool and milk for our clothes and cheese. Modern stoics can praise Charles Darwin and the science of evolution in lieu of singing a hymn to the Zeus of Cleanthes.
On the other hand, ancient Stoicism exerted a wide, deep, and lasting influence on early Christianity. My students didn’t know that the Serenity Prayer derives from the ancient Stoics. Thus, the appearance of the Serenity Prayer in Stoic Week is apt:
God, grant me the serenity to accept what I can’t change,
the courage to change what I can,
and the wisdom to tell the difference.
For a modern stoic, prayer is silly. If God helps those who help themselves, then really we have to help ourselves because no one and nothing else will. So, for a modern stoic, the Serenity Prayer really just amounts to urging oneself to be serene, courageous, and wise. It made sense for the early Christians to appropriate the wisdom of the Stoics and theologize it. But a scientific-minded modern stoic needs no theology at all to apply Stoic therapies to her daily living. Psychological health need not appeal to bad metaphysics. The ancient Stoics were physicalists who believed that human souls were as physical as human bodies. But a modern stoic can dispense with the notion of a soul and turn to our best empirical neuroscience instead.
What a modern stoic cannot dispense with is love. That’s why it was so appropriate for the theme of Stoic Week 2016 to be love. The ancient Stoics were, of course, philosophers. To be a philosopher is to be lover of wisdom. Thus, Stoics love wisdom. Indeed, the Stoics argued that our special human ability is reason, and the perfection of reason is virtue. The Stoics further reasoned that a virtuous person has a well-toned soul. Again, Stoic physicalism insists that the soul is a physical thing, not a non-physical phantom as the Platonists believed. The virtuous person, the Stoics believed, has a well-toned, well-conditioned soul, and this psychic disposition is what they called wisdom. Thus, the Stoic wise person—the sage—is possessed of the virtue of wisdom. This wisdom is then applied to all the different spheres of activity in life. Wisdom applied to our appetites for food, drink, and sex is what is called temperance. Wisdom applied to our interactions with other people and the distribution of resources is what is called justice. Wisdom applied to what we ought to be confident about and what we ought to be cautious about is what is called courage. So, then, how is a modern stoic to think about love?
The Stoic Week 2016 theme of love invokes quotations from Marcus Aurelius about benevolence and kindness towards others and treating others fairly and impartially. This is a decent understanding of how Marcus thinks about justice. But the Stoic Week authors go astray when they present Stoic love simply in terms of justice. There are many different kinds of love. Philanthropy, the love of human beings, is only one of them. There is also our love of friends. The love we have for our friends is not modulated by concerns of justice. We give our friends gift and we are partial to them. There’s nothing wrong with our partiality for our friends. We do not violate justice by being partial to our friends. Nor do we violate justice by being even more partial to our closest loved ones, spouses, and children. This love for our spouses, domestic partners, and children is what most non-philosophers regard as “real love.” So it is disappointing that the organizers of Stoic Week 2016 make no mention whatsoever of how a Stoic loves his significant other, children, or parents.
Are there ancient Stoics who discuss the love of parents for their children? Most certainly. Epictetus, the slave turned famous teacher, says that once you have a child, it is no longer in your power not to love that child. The bond between parent and child is both natural and strong, and Epictetus recognizes this. Now Epictetus chose not to marry and have children. Instead, he devoted decades of his life to teaching Stoicism to students. Late in life Epictetus adopted an orphaned child and welcomed a woman into his home to help him raise and care for his adopted child. Was Epictetus derelict in his duty by not marrying and reproducing when in his prime? His master Musonius Rufus argues explicitly that people (including Stoics) have a duty to marry and beget LOTS of children for the good of the state and the good of the human race. So why didn’t Epictetus heed this advice of his teacher? Though we can only speculate, I will make bold to offer an explanation of this.
Epictetus argues that only the wise know how to love. He reasons as follows.
- People are earnest about bad things, or things that in no respect concern them, or good things.
- People are earnest neither about bad things nor about things that in no respect concern them.
- Hence, people are earnest only about good things. [From 1, 2, disjunctive syllogism]
- If one is earnest about a thing, then one loves that thing.
- Hence, people love good things. [From 3, 4, modus ponens]
- If one has knowledge of good things, then one knows how to love (good things).
- If one is unable to distinguish good things from bad things or from things that are neither, then one does not know how to love (good things).
- The wise person has knowledge of good things, bad things, and things that are neither.
- Hence, the wise person knows how to love (good things).
- The non-wise are unable to distinguish good things from bad things from things that are neither.
- Hence, the non-wise do not know how to love (good things). [From 7, 10, modus ponens]
- Therefore, only the wise person knows how to love (good things). [From 9, 11]
This argument is remarkable. Epictetus believes that unless you know that the only truly good thing is virtue, that the only truly bad thing is vice, and that everything else (life, death, wealth, poverty, fame, ignominy, political clout, political powerlessness, health, illness, etc.) is neither good nor bad, then you have no power to love. This is because the only truly lovable thing is goodness, virtue. Non-Stoics who think they love pleasure are mistaken, because pleasure is not a good thing. To think you love beauty is a mistake, since one can only be earnest and take seriously virtue, moral integrity, wisdom. To successfully love, Epictetus argues, is to love good things. Fame, celebrity, health, beauty, and wealth are all fleeting baubles, according to the Stoics. The only truly admirable thing is virtue (wisdom). The only thing that wins the respect of a Stoic is honesty, integrity, courage, justice, temperance, and all the other names we have for the one state of mind called ‘virtue’ or ‘wisdom.’
So, then, this bring us back to the love of others. Many non-stoics believe that the way to love others is to improve their material conditions. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Liberate captives. Treat the sick. Empower the oppressed. (Or: teach the hungry how to fish.) While these acts of humanitarianism are certainly dictated by a Stoic’s commitment to justice, they are motivated by benevolence, kindness, and/or a sense of fairness. Social justice goes hand in hand with philanthropic benevolence. But the virtue of benevolence is directed toward all human beings, not any one or few specific individuals.
Were there individuals that Epictetus loved prior to his adoption of the orphaned child? I think the evidence is clear. These were the individuals sitting in his classroom. Epictetus loved his students. He loved his students as their teacher and mentor. I suggest that in teaching them Stoicism, he believed that he was best equipping them to pursue wisdom and become virtuous. Only by gaining wisdom could his students learn what was good, what was bad, and what was neither. Only by becoming Stoics could they develop the ability to love good things. Thus, the way that Epictetus loved others was by teaching them the Stoic wisdom they had to gain in order to be able to love others too.
Whether we love others and treat them in loving ways is up to us. Whether others love us and treat us in loving ways is up to them, not us. Again, we discover another gem of Stoic wisdom from Epictetus: Love others freely. Don’t make your love of them conditional upon them loving you. What is lovable in others is their goodness, honesty, candor, sincerity, generosity, courage, perseverance, faithfulness, decency, integrity, kindness, affection, warmth, and fairness. Virtue is to be taken very seriously. Virtue is lovable. Epictetus tried to model to his students being serious about becoming the very best person he could possibly become. That is what good role models do. The best teachers inspire us to become better persons. Thanks to his student Arrian writing down the lectures he heard from his master Epictetus, we modern stoics can continue to be inspired by the great teacher Epictetus even today. And while the organizers of Stoic Week 2016 do a good job of featuring generally apt quotations from Marcus Aurelius and to a lesser extent Seneca and Musonius Rufus, it’s unfortunate that the Discourses of Epictetus were so neglected as a source of Stoic wisdom on this year’s theme of love.
William O. Stephens is Professor of Philosophy and Classical Studies at Creighton University. He is also President of the Beta Chapter of Nebraska Phi Beta Kappa Society. He is the author of Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed. Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom, and The Person: Readings in Human Nature, and the translator of Adolf Bonhöffer’s The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus. He has published many articles on such topics as Star Wars and Stoicism, the film Gladiator (2000) and Stoicism, Stoic views of love, death, animals, sportsmanship, travel, and ecology, and on philosophical vegetarianism.