God is Nature

Stoicism and God

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

🏛️ Theory

To watch the courses of the stars as if you revolved with them. To keep constantly in mind how the elements alter into one another. Thoughts like this wash off the mud of life below.

Meditations 7.47

Sometimes the ancient Stoics talked about God. Not the traditional monotheistic God, but God as Nature.

Modern Stoics have different opinions about how to interpret this today. Some adopt the ancient beliefs wholesale, but most choose to treat them as metaphors. Whatever route one takes, it’s important to understand what the ancients actually thought. So, let's do some of that today.

The Stoics saw God as Nature. Not something that stands apart from the word, but something that fundamentally orders and animates it. Just as our breath animates our bodies, God is the cosmic breath that animates everything. The Stoics viewed our world as an organism, with God as the life force that powers it.

I think of this life force as having two fundamental aspects: order and purpose. First, God provides structure to the world. It’s the reason the universe isn't pure randomness. Marcus Aurelius references this idea when he writes:

But examine the matter from first principles, from this: If all things are not mere atoms, it is nature which orders all things: if this is so, the inferior things exist for the sake of the superior, and these for the sake of one another.

Meditations 11.18

Second, God provides a purpose to the world. The ancient Stoics talk about this as providence or Fate. Nature is an intelligent force that strives toward something. Our ability to reason is a microcosm of Nature’s ability to reason. Just as we choose how to respond to the world and shape it accordingly, God decides how the universe will unfold.

This part of Stoic teaching is more controversial and can be difficult to get one’s head around. Because the world is intelligent, everything happens for a reason. This is why you find Marcus Aurelius talking about Nature like:

Nor would it ever, through inability or incompetence, make such a mistake as to let good and bad things happen indiscriminately to good and bad alike. But death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these happen to good and bad alike, and they are neither noble nor shameful—and hence neither good nor bad.

Meditations 2.11

In other words, Marcus Aurelius sees the world as fundamentally just. That belief leads him to conclude that externals – things outside of our control – are not truly bad, only our thinking makes them so.

Whether or not one believes in the Stoic God, it's a powerful idea because it causes us to look for useful interpretations of whatever happens to us. Look to turn whatever happens to your advantage. The obstacle is the way.

Apart from that, this idea has a beauty of its own. It reminds us of the fact that we play a part in a much greater whole. There is a reality that is outside of our control and it’s often better to align ourselves with it than hopelessly push against it. As the Stoic saying goes:

Fate guides the willing, it drags the unwilling.

🎯 Action

Pause today and take the view from above – remind yourself that you are a part of a much greater whole.

🏛️ We just launched a new course on the Stoic God in the Stoa app. Michael Tremblay, a cofounder of Stoa, put together five bite-sized lessons on the Stoic God and why it matters. Here’s the direct link to the course for iPhone and a link to the app for others.

🎧️ Listen to Michael and I take a deep dive into the idea of the Stoic God in our podcast here.

☁️ Even more important than these theoretical issues is Stoic ethics. As Epictetus says:

“Does it make any difference to me,” he asked, “whether things are made out of atoms or particles or fire and earth? Isn’t it enough to know what is essentially good and bad, the limits of desire and aversion, and of inclination and disinclination, to use these as rules to manage our lives, and to bid farewell to things that are beyond us?”

Fragments

The translator, Robin Waterfield, says: 

Epictetus asks whether there is any point to studying physics, and by the end of the fragment it is clear that he expects the answer “Yes, it is worthwhile—but don’t get lost in the details.”

“Physics” here means the study of Nature, part of which is the study of the Stoic God. For Epictetus and many other Stoics, practice is primary.

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