Sunday Sermon on Tuesday – The Stoic Path – R. McNeil

A “sermon” in the broadest sense is a discourse on morality. And by morality I mean the rules of engagement in life – in other words the manual for living rightly (as opposed to wrongly). The incentive for living rightly – the carrot for following the rules in the manual – will of course be some sort of reward – heaven. The disincentive for disregarding the manual – living wrongly – will take the form of sort of punishment – hell. Virtue and vice represent the choices we face in approaching the rules. Virtue (following the rules) leads to heaven; and vice (disregarding the rules) leads to hell.

That’s also Stoicism in a nutshell. Follow the rules or suffer the consequences. Easy!

 Well it’s easy I suppose if the rules can be found between the pages of an anointed Holy Book (and we believe in the “divine” character of those rules), and if we accept the premise that all this rule following really does have a pay day, and if we have faith that the threat of some serious hell-time is more-or-less guaranteed for not sticking with this morality program. But what are the rules, and what is heaven, and where is hell?

Stoicism – a philosophy – differs markedly from the religious systems that espouse what seems on the surface to be a similar program to what religious traditions espouse. At first blush there are many parallels. There are rules, one rule really ( I’ll get to that in a moment) – but it is not written or encoded or delivered in Sunday sermons. There is also a heaven – of sorts – but it is not a place reserved for living a life of virtue. And there is certainly a hell – but again, it’s not a place but rather a very real existential experience.

The central rule of Stoicism is not so much a command, but a strong suggestion. We “ought” – I love that word – to “live according to nature.” Or, if you prefer this Stoic injunction in its inverted form, we “ought not live contrary to nature.” If we live according to nature we will be “happy” – that’s the heaven part. And, if we live contrary to nature we will be “unhappy” – that’s the hell. There’s is no afterlife as a conscious surviving entity and there is no God.

Yet, there is divinity (I’ll try to explain what I mean by divinity below). And this is why I am attracted to the Stoic program. There is divinity in this universe, and I can discover this divinity all by myself, and I can be convinced that this discovery is indeed divine, and this convincing that I can experience is something I can do in my own way, and on my own terms, and at my own speed, and I can do so using my native “reason.”

And – this is the carrot – it is the temporal act of living according to nature that exposes the divine. I will witness the divine in living in this way; and what I witness fills me with awe. It fills me with awe because is it is incontrovertibly beautiful. And it is incontrovertibly beautiful because it is incontrovertibly perfect. And that which is incontrovertibly perfect is incontrovertibly divine – this is how define divinity: that which is perfect cannot be improved upon, and that which cannot be improved upon fills me with joy, and peace and serenity.

It really does not and cannot get any better than this. And it need not last forever because this apprehension of the divine – in nature – is the recognition that I – and you – are intertwined with, and emergent from, and will shortly return to the perfect regulatory apparatus that we observe when we live according to nature. When we see that we are not only from nature, or momentarily in nature but instead understand that we are integral with nature, we understand the meaning of existence. There is no longer a need to prolong our individual existence – individuality is no longer necessary when we experience the nature of our unity with the cosmos.

The apotheosis of our human experience occurs with our recognition that the divinity observed in the flowering of a rose, or the cascade of a waterfall, or the birth of a robin, or the explosion of a supernova is regulated by the same Law that is operative in the process we invoked in our very act of being witness. And yes, we can express this Law using mathematical formulae and we can describe and investigate this Law empirically using the tools of natural philosophy (physics). The “reason” that takes us to this realization – this hard won, and hard worked reason – is a manifestation of the self-same Law that reveals itself in the act of living with nature. My mind operates with the same Law; my mind comes from this same place; my mind is itself capable of transcending and penetrating and turning over all that it sees. The mind too is divine.

This is what is so cool with Stoicism. We humans are not fallen creatures; we humans are divine elements distilled from the stars and destined to return to those stars. Plato was right.

Hell? It is alienation from nature– nothing more. If we choose to live outside of the Law – we will miss this beauty; we will fail to see this perfection; we will fail to recognize our own divinity; we will miss the point of our existence. We will feel despair and loneliness. Life will seem mean, painful, dreadful, brutish, meaningless and short.

But it’s a choice we are free to make.

32 thoughts on “Sunday Sermon on Tuesday – The Stoic Path – R. McNeil

  1. You write, “Plato was right” – can you say more about what you have in mind? As a rationalist and a dualist, Plato seemed to believe that this world was not real, that our senses were misleading us, and that Reality is transcendent, other worldly; and for Plato, essence precedes existence!


  2. I’m not sure how the religious term “divine” functions in the sermon. Does it mean “that in the natural world which we ought to value”?

    Sob1989, I’m with you – there is a tension (this world vs. other world) as soon as Russ introduces Plato.


  3. Okay – here I go again. I think I was forgetting to log in before commenting.

    The reference to Plato is more a quip than a serious element of the sermon. Plato – I think in the Timaeus – associated the human soul with the stars.

    I try to define “divine” in the sermon as that which is perfect. Generally perfection is associated with the “supernatural.” But in Stoicism Nature is perfect – or rather the Law that we observe operating in the natural world is perfect – and hence divine. This perfect Law is operative in us as well since we too are in nature – hence we too are divine. I’m using the word in a hitherto unexpected way. I’ve appropriated and de-sanctified the religious word and brought it down to earth – where it belongs.


  4. I have trouble with re-defining terms like “divine” to mean whatever. Can we just redefine “God” to mean whatever? Isn’t Russell’s sermon an exercise in redefinition?
    1. divine = perfect
    2. heaven = Law
    3. hell = alienation
    And given the above what does it mean to say “we humans are divine”? We are pretty clearly not perfect! In fact, following Plato, the only things that are perfect are lifeless, like triangles and 2 + 2 + 4.!


  5. Frank – I have not redefined divine. I simply argue that the quality we generally associate with divinity (perfection) in actually found in nature. And as a physicist I can’t disagree. Divinity has ALWAYS been associated with perfection. Before Stoicism perfection was associated with the supernatural, and the natural world as degraded (which is why the ancients regarded the stuff of the stars (quintessence) as divine – in the more traditional religious sense – because it seemed to be perfect and unchanging – Galileo set the world right on that in 1609 but that’s another sermon). The Stoics find perfection in the Law of Nature (not the stuff of nature and that is important) – hence it too (the Law) is divine. The apple is not perfection but the Law that regulates the generation, blossoming, growth and decay of the apple is perfect. IF the mass-energy equivalence relationship E=mc*2 truly represents a law of nature, it would make no sense to argue that E=mc*2 is an imperfect law. No one can rationally argue that nature would be a far better place if E=mc*3.

    Heaven is not = Law. Heaven is – if anything – the enlightenment or awe or serenity or simply happiness (such a weak word in English) that comes with the recognition that the (perfect) Law of Nature that regulates the cosmos is in us too. This enlightenment is not all that different from the intellectual transition described to Socrates in Diotima’s discourse on Love in Plato’s “Symposium.” I am not arguing here that Plato and the Stoics are on identical paths, but Stoicism did emerge from the Socratic tradition, and the Socrates of Plato does fit the Stoic mould in many respects – especially in his eschewing of valuing as “good” those things associated with material wealth, personal fame, and the various pleasures of the flesh – as ends in themselves – and his eschewing of pain and death as things “bad” in themselves. Socrates – like the Stoics – presents the good as that which comes to us through acting rightly and the bad as that which comes through acting wrongly. In the Stoic scheme virtue is good (and vice bad) because it is in accordance with (or contrary to) the Law of nature.

    The alienation from nature that is hell – as I describe the experience – is really not all that different from the religious concept. The difference being that in the religious tradition this alienation is through a permanent separation from divine God. The Stoic parallel is also an alienation – but an alienation not from the supernatural God, but the alienation from the perfection of our divine nature. Fortunately the Stoics are a bit more forgiving. Hell is not permanent. Death extinguishes all consciousness. 🙂


  6. Thanks for the read, Russ.

    How do we who are integral to nature, which is beautiful and divine because it is perfect, become alienated from nature and thus experience hell? If we are perfect, which we must be if we are part of nature, are we not also perfect in our alienation from nature?

    What does it mean to “live according to nature?”


  7. In a sense there’s a tension between the active (mind) and passive (body) duality of our nature. In Stoicism we come to recognize that mind takes precedence. But that recognition is not automatic. We come to this realization only through living in accordance with nature. Nature is not divine and perfect – as you say – but the Law is. All of the elements of nature are in continuous flux – including the body. We need to care for, cherish and enjoy the body – not because it is good or bad (it is neither) but because it is of necessity the temporal vehicle we use to act in the world. I might say the same sort of thing about my bicycle, or camera, or mass spectrometer.

    The body is right there – in our face (I suppose it is our face :)) – at all times., The sensations we experience through the body – pleasures and pains – we associate with and evaluate as good or bad. But the Stoics argue that we need to acquire a degree of indifference toward these sensations when evaluating our actions on the moral plane. The mind – which can apprehend the Law of nature directly – must choose to do so. And it is only through the close and critical study of nature that we can come to know the Law.

    it is entirely possible to miss the boat on this program – to remain ignorant of the Law – and thereby to become alienated from that which is truly divine. But no Stoic will ever blame anyone for doing that. A Stoic will feel it is her duty to point to those things that are of value and explain why it is so. There may be those who choose to ignore the Law wilfully, but from a Stoic perspective this is probably very rare.

    Living according to nature means living in accordance with the Law, It means that all of our consequential actions most be other-directed – these are all also political actions (Stoic action is fundamentally political because of our nature). What does that mean? The primary responsibility that emerges from all of this comes from understanding that we are all – in a very real sense – interconnected (the Laws of nature do not operate in isolation). When we act contrary to nature – which really means acting in self-serving ways – we are ignoring our divine nature and fundamental responsibility to the human community – or indeed toward all sentient intelligence throughout the cosmos.


  8. For Stoics, our only duty is to live in conformity with what the ancient Stoic movement referred to as our “ruling principle” – the native intelligence that lies at the heart of our human capacity to reason. This duty is common to all people, because it comes from a universal and shared intelligence that is the heart of the natural world. This natural world, as the ancient Stoics understood it, is comprised of two material principles (active and passive as I mentioned in a previous comment). These two principles are the basis of an ancient Stoic physics that divided the materials of nature into two different types: ordinary matter and a finer material they referred to as pneuma. Ordinary matter in this old Physics schema is “passive” because matter itself is essentially static. But the intermixed pneuma from the old Stoic scheme was perceived as the agent of animation and is therefore active.

    Everything in nature is a mixture of these two physical materials. In human beings, the old Stoics associated pneuma with the soul (but this is not the soul of the religious models – this soul is actually comprised of “stuff”) or mind, and associated all of the actions of this “soul” with “reason” – the ruling principle of the mind. On a larger scale, the sum total of all the pneuma of the universe (from which the human soul is derived) was associated with a universal or divine intelligence called Logos.

    A parallel passive-active dichotomy survives in the modern age in the division of the world into matter (atoms and molecules – a passive principle) and the laws that govern the complex interactions of matter (including but not restricted exclusively to the forces and fields of physics – an active principle). According to the ancient Stoics, the active ruling principle of the universe (also called divine reason) directs nature – like a god. But – unlike the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition – this principle is not above nature, creating and controlling it, but embedded in and part of nature.

    From the perspective of the new Stoic tradition – the perspective which governs my analysis here – the active principle of nature – the Law you ask about – is nothing more or less than those forces of nature that modern science is beginning to uncover and describe through observation and mathematical modelling. I hesitate to suggest that the Law is nothing more than those force fields modern physics uses to describe the physical interactions of matter – but the Law certainly contains those ideas. I know it exists because I can observe it at work in the machinations of nature – and science is beginning to model its behaviour – albeit with only limited success so far. The power of the Stoic tradition – either in its older form or in its newer form is the assertion that that this Law can be read – as the template for moral guidance, or living rightly.

    The Law certainly exists independently of our individual existence, and our individuality certainly ceases entirely with death. But the Law that governs our temporal existence and which is at the core of our Stoic divinity (and humanity from my reading of Marcus Aurelius) – this Law does survive death (just as gravity animates yet survives the falling of an egg onto a concrete floor).

    Interestingly from the Stoic perspective there is then a sense in which we too survive death. But I digress 🙂


  9. Interesting discussion. Another essay worth reading on the topic is on line here. Hornsby compares Marcus and Nietzsche.

    I believe a form of stoicism is still the official religion of the US Marine Corps: obedience, sacrifice, order, follow the law, approach your duty with no emotion.


  10. The Stoic perspective would fit in a military situation. Marcus Aurelius in fact wrote his Meditations while on military campaign over a ten year period. I’d caution on the notion that Stoics do not express emotion. Emotions are important to the Stoic. The issue is in reading emotions for what they are. Stoics are not unfeeling, and emotional responses are important for physical survival. The challenge for the Stoic is not to allow emotions to override reason. The biggest piece in this is in our attitude toward pleasure and pain which are generally the primary triggers in most of our emotion responses in life. An attitude of fundamental indifference toward pleasure and pain (they are never valued as “good” or “bad”) can go a long way in harnessing emotional over-reaction.


    • The Stoics like Plato and others have a tendency to divide up nature and humans in arbitrary ways to support their take on philosophy. They all have lots of words and lots of concepts that are offered a’priori and are not verifiable or even testable. In that way I agree with Frank (above) – it is another exercise in re-defining terms to fit a preconceived idea.

      What empirical evidence is there that we are made up of three parts as Plato has it? Or the tripartite Freudean stuff? When you do an autopsy on a human do you find an id?? Or the dualisms of the stoics?? Modern science is finding that you cannot separate reason from emotion. Hume’s empiricism is much closer to what we believe today: “Hume’s position in ethics, which is based on his empiricist theory of the mind, is best known for asserting four theses: (1) Reason alone cannot be a motive to the will, but rather is the “slave of the passions” (2) Moral distinctions are not derived from reason (3) Moral distinctions are derived from the moral sentiments: feelings of approval (esteem, praise) and disapproval (blame) felt by spectators who contemplate a character trait or action (4) While some virtues and vices are natural , others, including justice, are artificial.”


  11. Thanks you for your thoughtful and provocative post Harold. These questions are the stuff of philosophy writ large, and perhaps go a bit beyond what I was trying to address in my modest little “Sermon.” But I will try to respond to a few of the ideas that relate directly to the Stoic movement. It is important to recall that the original Stoic movement was actually grounded in and built up from Physics. It is a materialistic philosophy and the dualism you mention above – that nature consists of active and passive parts – wasn’t all that arbitrary. In fact, although this assertion was made nearly 2,500 years ago, it is a division that has survived, and it’s a division that can be mapped onto the modern world view of Physics. Nature does still reflect this duality. There is matter which can be regarded as passive, and there are forces which act on and animate matter. The ancients called this active aspect “pneuma” – we call it by other names today, but the duality survives albeit in a highly nuanced form. The original Stoics never viewed their philosophical approach as a “done deal.” They understood that uncovering the nuances behind their then primitive model of nature would lead to a greater understanding of the mysteries of existence and the so-called “rules of engagement” with nature (as I refer to the moral choices we face in the sermon).

    Stoicism is an empirical approach and the ancient Stoics were not – and the modern Stoics are not now – wedded to this strict duality. If nature turned out to be more nuanced that the early Stoics assumed, then our understanding of the interplay between our human nature and the larger nature from which we are certainly descended would be more nuanced as well. What the early Stoics asserted, and what we modern Stoics (the New Stoics) maintain, is that we still ought to “live according to nature,” and as we uncover the Law of nature in its expanded modern expression (particle-wave dualities, uncertainty principles, unified field theories, quantum mechanics, God-particles, quarks and quasars, etc.) we are not shaken from the original Stoic assertion, because we are still governed by the Law of nature albeit in its richly nuanced modern expression. We do come from nature – as the first Stoics observed; we do live in nature as the first Stoics understood; and the stuff that governs our physical and intellectual existence will return to nature when we die, as the first Stoics maintained.


  12. My mentor used to tell his graduate students that all philosophical systems are limited attempts by humans to “find a vocabulary that provides them peace”.

    I think Harold is right to question the concepts, the dualisms, the testability, of stoicism; as well as any other “system”. Hume is surely correct that most systems begin with a position and then set out to defend it!

    Russell may have turned stoicism into a faith-based religion as soon as he started using capital letters! 🙂


  13. On Nature’s beautiful LAW:

    “Ocean: A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man – who has no gills.” –
    Ambrose Bierce


  14. I used and explained the use of capitalizations (nature and Nature) in my book on Marcus Aurelius to differentiate between a generic reference to nature and Nature as Logos. I’ve done the same with reason and Reason. Those distinctions are consistent within Stoicism as a philosophy and follow from a reasoned argument based upon observations of nature rather than from a faith-based premise.


  15. My favourite Stoic quote is also water-based but is actually from the non-Stoic Islamic philosopher al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE) – yet encapsulates a central notion of Stoicism perfectly:

    “The happiness of the drop is to die in the river”


  16. I once met a philosopher who was deeply devoted to Stoicism. He told me a great story, which I think he said was in Epictetus. But I later searched for it unsuccessfully. I wonder whether anyone here can direct me to it!

    Here’s the story:

    There was once an upstanding Roman senator from a good family who counted among his close friends a famous Stoic philosopher and teacher. One day, the senator received a summons from the (rather insane) emperor. The summons called for the senator to join in a theatrical production at some point in the near future. At this time, as I understand it, appearing in a play (or perhaps this kind of play) was a little like appearing in a kinky porn film is today: not the sort of thing that you, or even perhaps your family, can live down. The senator realized that, if he obeyed the summons, his life in politics would be over. On the other hand, if he refused to obey the summons, he would be tortured to death; and if he fled, he and his family would lose everything. He began to think that the only alternative to appearing in the play was to commit an honorable suicide. But did he, a man of unimpeachable moral character, really have to take his life just because of having received an invitation?

    He couldn’t decide what to do, so he rushed to the home of the Stoic (who often advised him in times of crisis) and told him the whole story. The Stoic listened patiently, and then calmly replied, “I, too, have just received the very same summons.”

    This, of course, made the senator even more upset. “What! How can this have happened to both of us? What a dark day for us — and for Rome! What shall we do?”

    The Stoic replied, impassively, “I shall soon commit suicide to avoid the dishonor. And you shall appear in the play.”

    “Wait a minute,” said the senator. “We are both in the same situation: we received exactly the same summons. What difference is there between you and me, that I respond differently?”

    “The difference is,” said the Stoic, “that you felt the need to think the matter over.”


    • I don’t know where it comes from, but I love it. Moral: the True Stoic does not need to think to know what to do. Sounds like any other religion! 🙂


  17. Oh! Harold I think the moral (given the context in which the story was told to me) was that the Stoic does not fight or struggle against doing the dignified thing. When the Stoic in this story received his summons, he recognized at once that the only appropriate course of action was to commit suicide, so he said to himself, “I see now that I must die.” The senator, by contrast, toyed with the idea of living an undignified life; and it was this deliberation that was objectionable.


  18. O Harold – you are a naughty boy.

    Most religions rely in varying degree on these three elements: 1) a God (or several); 2) Faith; and, 3: Authority (some source of “revealed” truth).

    Does Stoicism meet the religion test? On the first of these Stoicism is by definition atheistic (there is no God in Stoicism) the only reality in existence is physical matter and the laws that govern or animate matter; On the second, faith, Stoicism demands a critical and empirical examination of nature, and any inferences with respect to nature come exclusively from empirical evidence. On the third, authority, Stoicism eschews any authority that claims a truth that cannot be independently verified by intelligence – the sentient mind.

    Stoicism is a philosophy and not a religion.

    The evaluation in the story above is really a no-brainer in Stoic philosophy, but I don’t agree with the conclusion. The Stoic MUST always think over all matters presented to him. And I am not so sure that suicide is the right option here. It seems to be the coward’s way out of this dilemma. A true Stoic would participate in the play but would use the play as an opportunity to educate the audience, by sabotaging the stage directions in various ways. A Stoic must take every opportunity available to defuse ignorance – and a play so designed is based upon ignorance about the Law of nature. Suicide in this case is really a cop-out – probably to avoid torture – a decidedly non-Stoic decision.

    Stoicism is not opposed to rational suicide – “one should live as long as one ought – not as long as one can” to paraphrase a frequently used Stoic aphorism with respect to suicide. But taking one’s one life for the wrong reason is counterproductive – and in this case represents a lost opportunity to exercise virtue.


  19. Thanks for your interesting answer, Russell.

    Harold, I should add to what Russell said that blaming people for deliberating _under particular circumstances_ can be, and is, justified for many reasons that have nothing at all to do with faith. There’s actually quite a bit of philosophical discussion on this topic.

    For instance: suppose that a close family member needs your help, and you rationally deliberate over whether it would be for the greater good if you help her or better if you let her die/get fired/lose her home/whatever. You carefully think through all the pros and cons. At the end of your deliberations, you conclude that it would, all things considered, be far better to help her. So you do.

    Some ethicists hold that this is entirely objectionable (it’s known as the ‘one thought too many’ objection against a number of views): it makes you somehow cold and inhuman if you had to think the matter over before deciding to act.

    Are these ethicists correct? I don’t know! But their objection has nothing to do with religion.


    • Suppose my sister starts wearing western clothes and going out with white guys. Since my religion says this is to dishonour my family I must put her to death. Without deliberation I do so. Maybe I should have deliberated??


  20. What I said the Stoic said: ‘It is sometimes wrong to deliberate.’

    What you seem to think I said the Stoic said: ‘Never, ever deliberate.’


Leave a Reply to Bob Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s