Stoic ethics—practical wisdom, justice, moderation, and courage—centers on the idea that the only things I really control are my chosen values, goals, and my deliberate thoughts and actions. Nothing else is up to me, and I must accept that.
Related to this is knowing what belongs to me and what does not belong to me—and not touching what’s not mine while guarding what is mine.
But I’m not a Sage. Stoics say the mythical Sage only needs virtue to flourish—and no one has ever achieved Sage status. I also need basics such as food, shelter, and safety (per Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) to flourish.
God is a loaded word. It means different things to different people. The ancient Greek idea of the Logos—the organizing principle of the universe—is what I mean by God. Neither I nor anyone else can claim special knowledge here—we must always admit a degree of uncertainty.
And I choose to believe that the Logos entails a moral order. I have no special knowledge of the specifics. Like everyone I must strive to be a good person, and primarily this means rigorous self-criticism. The key issue for me is that without universal morality we can’t say certain things are inherently wrong regardless of what some people might think. This is not proof of universal morality, but a rationale for belief.
But none of this implies that God is all-powerful or intervenes in mundane affairs. There’s too much suffering in the world for me to believe in an interventionist God.
To understand the operations of the natural world we must use our sensory perceptions to test theories, and then draw logical conclusions. Certainty is proportional to evidence.
I’ve been an atheist for 20 years. Or more specifically, an agnostic atheist. That’s not a redundancy. Nor do I think that “agnostic Christian” would be an oxymoron, though I’ve never heard anyone describe themselves that way.
Agnosticism is about what we know or don’t know. Religious belief or atheism is about what we believe or don’t believe. You can say you don’t know if God exists. But this agnosticism says nothing about whether you believe God exists or not.
I became an atheist because there were too many supernatural beliefs—the virgin birth, resurrection, walking on water—that I could not honestly say I believed. On top of that, none of the alleged proofs of God’s existence actually prove anything. They may provide reasons that God might exist, but proof is a much higher standard.
So I decided that while I don’t know if God exists, it seems unlikely. I could not truthfully say I believed in God.
Of course, you can believe in God without believing that some dude walked on water. Perhaps God chooses not to suspend the laws of nature. But the biggest problem with believing in God is evil: if God were all-powerful He could stop evil, and if He were perfectly good He’d have to. Maybe there’s a bigger plan—which requires quite a leap of faith. Or God isn’t perfect. Or there is no God.
But a major objection to atheism is the question of why there is something rather than nothing. And while that raises the question of who created God, one strand of Christian theology holds that God is not a thing that exists but instead is existence itself.
In a previous post I argued that without God morality must be relative. This doesn’t mean atheists are less moral than religious people. No one (except psychopaths) believes that everything is permitted. But a relativist cannot say that certain things are wrong no matter what anyone thinks.
In a similar way, without God life has no meaning beyond what each individual might assign to it. Put differently, self-constructed meaning has no meaning beyond one’s ego.
Note that moral relativity and lack of universal meaning could be true. And we can’t say that God exists just because we want meaning and morality to be universal.
Further, even if God exists this does not automatically prove other Christian beliefs. I think Christians too often leap from “God exists” to “and therefore all Christian beliefs are true.” Instead, each claim must be taken separately. And this is a monumental task considering the Bible’s numerous contradictions and fantastical claims.
Earlier I wrote that we should trust no one who claims special knowledge about God, including whether God exists. And we should distrust our own beliefs about God most of all. The temptation for self-justification is too great.
I’m still doubtful of a personal God. Or if there is a God then I find it hard to believe that God is all-powerful.
On the other hand, the ancient Greeks articulated logos—the organizing principle of the universe—which pantheistic Stoics identified as God. This is perhaps more palatable in our modern scientific age. But we shouldn’t mistake this for a scientific viewpoint. And for many people I’m sure this is a doubtful abstraction.
The universe’s organizing principle—which I see as impersonal—is the closest I can get to something I could call God. But I don’t expect anyone to agree with me. It’s a personal opinion.
Marcus Aurelius on reason and the mind: “It’s not external things that trouble you but your judgement of them – and this you can erase immediately” (8.47).
From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
You are what you think
“All is as thinking makes it so” – Monimus the Cynic (2.15). The mind has no needs except for those it creates. It is undisturbed, except for its own disturbances. It knows no obstructions, except those from within (7.16). It’s all in how you perceive it. You’re in control. You can dispense with your judgments at will (12.22).
Respect your ability to control your thoughts – it’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions (3.9). The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts (5.16).
Disciplining your mind
Four habits of thought to watch for, and erase from your mind when you catch them: Thoughts that are unnecessary, destructive to those around you, saying something you don’t really believe, and allowing self-indulgence to override the more divine part of you (11.19).
Two kinds of readiness are constantly needed: to do only what the logos of authority and law directs, with the good of human beings in mind; and to reconsider your position, when someone can set you straight or convert you to his. But your conversion should always rest on a conviction that it’s right, or benefits others and nothing else — not because it’s more appealing or more popular (4.12).
When you feel pain be sure it doesn’t disgrace you or degrade your intelligence — that it doesn’t keep you from acting rationally or unselfishly (7.64).
Remove your judgement of anything that seems painful and you’ll remain completely unaffected. Don’t let reason be injured. If any other part of you has a problem then it can form that judgement for itself (8.40).
It’s not external things that trouble you but your judgement of them — and this you can erase immediately. If the problem is something in your own character, who’s stopping you from setting your mind straight? And if it’s that you’re not doing something you think you should be, why not just do it? “But there are insurmountable obstacles.” Then it’s not a problem. The cause of your inaction lies outside you (8.47).
Learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference (11.16). The cucumber is bitter? Throw it out. There are brambles in the path? Go around them. That’s all you need to know, nothing more. Don’t demand to know why such things exist (8.50).
Reason has no obstacles outside of yourself
Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it — turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself — so too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal (8.35).
Mind and reason have the power, by their nature and their will, to move through every obstacle. Remember the easy capacity for reason to carry through all things, and stop looking for anything more (10.33).
Our inward power, when it obeys nature, accommodates itself to what it faces, to what is possible. It pursues its aims as circumstances allow. It turns obstacles into fuel (4.1).
Pride is a master of deception: when you think you’re occupied in the weightiest business, that’s when it has you in its spell (6.13).
Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds (6.53).
Reason is aligned with nature
To a rational being, an action that conflicts with reason is unnatural (7.11). The right path for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or obscure impressions, to direct its impulses toward social action, and to direct its desires and aversions only to things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it (8.7).
A healthy pair of eyes should see everything and not say, “No! Too bright!” A healthy sense of hearing or smell should be prepared for any sound or scent. So too a healthy mind should be prepared for anything. Worries such as, “Are my children all right?” or “Everyone must approve of me” are like eyes that can only stand pale colors, or teeth that can handle only mush (10.35).
To erase false perceptions, tell yourself: I have it in me to keep my soul from evil, lust and all confusion. To see things as they are and treat them as they deserve. Don’t overlook this innate ability (8.29).
All is in order whenever something can be done in accordance with reason, which is shared by gods and men. There’s the possibility of benefit when things move in step with nature, so there’s nothing to fear (7.53).
Reason & our shared humanity
All rational things are related, and to care for all human beings is part of being human. Which doesn’t mean we have to share their opinions. We should listen only to those whose lives conform to nature. And the others? Bear in mind what sort of people they are. Care nothing for their praise if they can’t even meet their own standards (3.4). Don’t be put off by other people’s comments and criticism. If it’s right to say or do, then it’s the right thing for you to do or say (5.3).
If thought is something we share, then so is reason — what makes us reasoning beings. If so, then the reason that tells us what to do and what not to do is also shared. And if so, we share a common law and thus are fellow citizens — fellow citizens of something. In that case, our state must be the world. What other entity could all of humanity belong to (4.4).
What is rational in different beings is related like the individual limbs of a single being, and meant to function as a unit.This will be clearer to you if you remind yourself: I am a single limb of a larger rational body (7.13).
Reason is like sunlight
The sun’s light extends extends in a straight line, striking any object that stands in its way, but not the space beyond it. It stays there without vanishing or falling away. That’s what the universal mind is like — not an exhaustible stream but a constant radiation. There’s nothing forceful or violent about its impact, nor does it fall away. Rather, it illuminates whatever receives it. Anything unreflective will deprive itself of that light (8.57).
Reason and spiritual growth
Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as the capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us. See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare — as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name — the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return (3.11).
Just as those who try block your progress along the straight path of reason can’t keep you from doing what’s right, so too you must not lose your good will toward them (11.9).
The rational soul
The rational soul is capable of self-perception, self-examination, and the power to make of itself whatever it wants. It reaps its own harvest and reaches its intended goal no matter where the limit of its life is set. It delves into the endlessness of time to extend its grasp and comprehension of the periodic births and rebirths that the world goes through (11.1).
The rational soul knows that those who come after us will see nothing different, that those who came before us saw no more than we do. It has affection for its neighbors, truthfulness, and humility. It doesn’t place anything above itself — which is characteristic of law as well. There’s difference between the logos of rationality and that of justice (11.1).
Are human rights government creations? Or do human rights pre-exist government – being derived from nature – with government tasked with protecting those rights?
These are important questions because the answers weigh heavily on what rights we have and whether they can legitimately be taken away.
If we have free speech only because the government says we do then we don’t really have the right to free speech because the government can just as easily take this right away.
On the other hand, if human rights are natural rights then the government cannot legitimately deprive us of these rights. But what’s the basis for saying human rights arise from nature?
These questions have come to the forefront because the perspective of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch gives us clues about how he might rule on various issues.
Reason.com says the debate centers on the question, “What is the good?” One position is that life is inherently good. Another is that human flourishing is the primary good, and human rights are necessary for this flourishing – what Thomas Jefferson called the “pursuit of happiness,” or what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia (which is often translated as happiness even though that doesn’t fully capture it).
This matters, Reason goes on to say, because if life is inherently good with no further explanation needed then abortion and assisted suicide are not rights. But if human flourishing is the good, and life is in service to this flourishing, then a woman’s flourishing gives her the right to choose.
Stoicism and human rights
What would ancient Stoic philosophers think of this debate? That’s hard to say. Eudaimonia is important in Stoicism. But eudaimonia cannot be achieved unless we live virtuous lives. So for Stoics, virtue is more important than happiness.
Natural rights wasn’t a concept in the ancient world, however. Had it been, ancient Stoics might have connected natural rights to justice, which they saw as part of Nature. Perhaps they even would have claimed Logos as the source – the providential universal reason that orders all things.
I wrote earlier that this idea of Logos isn’t as popular with Stoics today because modern science makes it hard to justify. Instead, I suggested that the elusive “theory of everything” – the underlying principle of the universe from which every other scientific principle follows – might be the closest we can come to Logos. But this is not a conscious or providential force – it’s an impersonal force of nature.
So a modern Stoic who rejects the ancient view of Logos can’t argue that natural rights exist as an objective scientific principle.
What I’m left with is my opinion that human rights pre-exist government because every person must have rights in order for human flourishing to be possible. While my position lacks an objective, scientifically provable standard, I argue that the same is true for those who disagree with me.
If you attend well, you will find that whatever happens, happens justly. I don’t mean only in an exact order and destined connexion, but also according to justice, and from one who distributes according to merit. Go on in observing this, as you have begun: and whatever you do, do it so as you may still remain good, according to the intellectual and true notion of goodness. Observe this in all your actions.
This could be used to justify terrible things. Is every murder and rape in accord with justice and distributed by merit?
Such attitudes were common in ancient times, though. Elsewhere, Marcus says we should welcome whatever happens to us, even if it’s cruel, because it’s for the benefit of the universe (5.8).
His viewpoint is consistent with the ancient Stoic belief in Logos – that divine reason orders the universe, that it’s providential, and what follows from it is our fate.
In 1759 Voltaire made fun of the idea that everything is for the best in his short book Candide. Despite a series of tragedies, Dr. Pangloss comically denies reality and remains childishly optimistic. Before the movie Pollyanna, a naive person with rose colored glasses was called Pangloss.
Many modern Stoics don’t agree with Logos in the ancient sense. But this greatly alters Stoicism. No longer is the universe ruled by reason, though the exercise of reason is still a human ability that is central to Stoic philosophy.
And there is no providence. In my view, if Logos is even a useful concept in the modern world it must be brought in line with science. The laws of nature, as we currently understand them, follow from four forces of nature: the strong and weak nuclear forces, the gravitational force, and electromagnetism. Physicists are searching for a “theory of everything” that will bring these together to reveal the underlying principle of the universe.
But this will not be a conscious, providential principle like Logos. Instead, the universe is indifferent to our existence and is unaware of whether we suffer or not.
Natural disasters, then, are not unjust because there’s no intention behind it. Justice and injustice are human products, the result of the actions of billions of people. And this is where Stoicism is still relevant. The only thing one controls is one’s deliberate thoughts and opinions, and virtuous actions can only follow from virtuous thoughts and opinions. So everyone has a responsibility to contribute to justice and avoid injustice.