Wednesday, July 06, 2005

God and Stoicism

This was a letter I posted recently on the International Stoics Forum...

It seems we have a lot of fragmented pieces of conclusions and positions floating about in several different threads right now, so hopefully my response here will help in consolidating some of them, and serve as a response to both the "Science, God, and Religion" and "Seneca" threads...


We seem to have several different conceptions of God bouncing around here right now, and as Nigel rightly reminds us of, we need to be clear with our terms to avoid unnecessary confusion. It is my understanding that God, Logos, Nature, and Reason are different names for the same exact thing. One doesn't create, inhabit, or control the other. There is simply one system of Nature/Reason/Logos and this is called God.

Whether or not that God has a consciousness which has beliefs and makes plans for our lives in the sense that traditional gods have, or whether that God is a more impersonal "force" has been a point of debate here, as has the importance of that issue to the coherence of Stoic ethics.

Lastly to this topic, I've seen it mentioned several times the likes of, "if they don't want to acknowledge [the Divine Fire, Logos, or God] then they are divorcing Stoicism from its roots." But no one here as far as I know has denied any of these things. I believe in the Divine Fire, in the Logos, and I understand that this is what is meant by the name God. And I believe this concept forms an essential root of Stoic ethics. I believe what Heraclitus wrote about the Divine Fire, and what Zeno established about Stoic ethics. It is merely the nature of that God that is being debated, and whether or not Epictetus and Seneca's rather Christian-like interpretation of Nature/God is the *only* feasible one. As for what I can determine, Epictetus and Seneca are not the only Stoics to ever exist and I don't believe they held the copyright to Stoic thought.


Many here have commented on how ethics would be meaningless without a deity. But it should be noted that there are many people all over the world who live out their whole lives very ethically and happily without such a belief (correctly or incorrectly). To them, the principles of ethics seem well grounded and consistent without that hypothesis. Those who disagree with these folks, and feel the need or presence of a personal deity in their lives should be respected, but to say that such a system is not feasible merely because one cannot comprehend how its structured or on what basis it operates is short-sighted. And, to dismiss such folks as disingenuous or as fools is closed minded and disrespectful.

It has been said that ethics based on self interest is insufficient or somehow lacking in virtue. But ethics that is based on the will or designs of a conscious personal deity does not escape the basis of self-interest in the least. One can ask, "why should I do x" and the answer might be "because God wills it" and the response, "why should I do what God wills" will inevitably lead back to self interest. There is an argument to be made that the self interest involved in the realization that ethical conduct makes for a happier and healthier life, is superior in many ways to the self interest involved in being ethical to obtain the reward of a good relationship with another being. And there is certainly an argument to be made for this over the self interest of avoiding punishments from another being.


It may well be the case that Stoic ethics is founded specifically on God being a conscious person-like being with opinions, plans, and so on. It may well be that Stoic ethics cannot possibly make sense without that very narrow interpretation of the Logos.

However, I've seen no such interpretation of this nature in some Stoic writers. Furthermore, it seems to me that the logic of the Stoic ethical system is based largely on recognizing what is and what is not within our control, and confronting that. Furthermore, the wonder and awe I experience at the universe and its complex and marvelous workings does not require such a being, even if one does happen to exist. Lastly, as a nontheist, the Stoic ethical system still makes complete and coherent sense to me. If it is true that it cannot stand without a personal deity, then why is this so?

I see nothing wrong with those who feel that Stoic ethics and physics is compatible with their more common idea of a deity, and I respect their beliefs. But I have not yet been convinced that Stoic ethics would lose all meaning and basis with an impersonal Complexity-based interpretation of the Force of Nature/Logos. However, I remain open to hearing further argument.


We also face the issue of how we as Stoics are to proceed as a community. I am a rather new member of this community, at least consciously so. But if I'm not mistaken there are others like me who remain agnostic on the improvable and yet find truth in Stoicism and great inspiration and utility in its philosophy, both physical and ethical.

At the same time, there are many who see validation for their spiritual beliefs in the Stoic model. I cannot disprove these beliefs, nor would I try to. I think what is needed is the same thing that is needed within the world at large. And that is to take on the "ethic of diversity" as a central tenant of our current-day ideals. To be capable of expressing diverse views while being willing to hear those of others. To do this without being pigeonholed and without being disrespectful or disrespected, threatening or threatened.

Stoicism will evolve as it has and as it will, according to general consensus and the Natural flow of events. Let us explore it and as "lovers of wisdom" and not attempt to pre-suppose boundaries on any one conception of it. I would hope that we can adopt the position of the United Nations Charter on Human Rights by acknowledging that "a person's religion is what he or she says it is".


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