Universal Reason – The Guide to Stoic Practice
What defined a Stoic above all else was the choice of a life in which every thought, every desire, and every action would be guided by no other law than that of universal Reason. ~ Pierre Hadot
The Stoics placed a rational and divine cosmos at the center of their philosophical system and relied on it as a guide for their every thought, desire, and action. For the Stoic, Nature is the measure of all things. As an expression of universal Reason (logos), Nature provides the norms we must live in accord with to live an excellent (virtuous) life and experience good flow (eudaimonia). Thus, Stoicism does not help us get what we desire in life. Instead, it provides a systematic, philosophical way of life that teaches how to get what we need—virtue—so we can experience happiness. As I pointed out in a previous post, Stoicism has limited power to effect change when we simply add it atop a life filled with emotional angst and driven by desires and aversions. Stoic practice is not a topical balm. Instead, it works from the inside out. Stoicism is the plow that digs deep and turns the soil of troubled psyches upside down to expose our misguided thoughts and misdirected desires and aversions. However, turning our lives upside down is no simple task, it requires a complete paradigm shift. We must come to see the life directed primarily by self-centered thoughts, desires, and actions for what it is from the perspective of Stoicism—unnatural. Hadot suggests this requires “a complete reversal of our usual way of looking at things” and argues,
We are to switch our “human” vision of reality, in which our values depend on our passions, to a “natural” vision of things, which replaces each event within the perspective of universal nature.
This transformation of vision begins when we step beyond theory and begin to practice what Hadot calls the “spiritual exercises” of ancient philosophy. Hadot recognized that modern prejudices may cause some to object to the term “spiritual” in philosophy. However, as he points out, no other term covers the breadth of these ancient practices, which extend beyond mere thought to encompass “the individual’s entire psychism.”
These exercises, involving not just the intellect or reason, but all of a human being’s faculties, including emotion and imagination, had the same goal as all ancient philosophy: reducing human suffering and increasing happiness, by teaching people to detach themselves from their particular, egocentric, individualistic viewpoints and become aware of their belonging, as integral component parts, to the Whole constituted by the entire cosmos.
For the Stoic, these exercises include the attitude of attention (prosoche), and the three Stoic disciplines (assent, desire, and action). I wrote about this previously in a series titled The Path of the Prokopton. Through the practice of these spiritual exercises, “the individual raises himself up to the life of the objective Spirit; that is to say, he re-places himself within the perspective of the Whole.” This cosmic viewpoint, often referred to as a view from above, provides the practitioner an entirely new outlook on the events in their life. Seen within the context of their whole life, and the Whole of the cosmos, events once considered harmful, or even tragic, take on new meaning. From this vantage point, we begin to understand the Stoic principle that it is not events that trouble us, but our thoughts about those events (Encheiridion 16). Hadot describes the effect of this cosmic viewpoint:
Our perspective is changed once again when the self, as a principle of freedom, recognizes that there is nothing greater than the moral good, and therefore accepts what has been willed by Destiny, that is to say, universal Reason.
In the opening quote of this post, Pierre Hadot asserts that “universal Reason” guides each of the Stoic practices. To proceed, we need to understand what Hadot means by this universal Reason and how it can serve as a guide for Stoic practice. In The Inner Citadel, Hadot defines universal Reason as:
- The source of “reason which is common to all mankind and assures its relatedness” (p. 40)
- “the transcendent Norm which posits the absolute value of morality.” (p. 121)
- “the logos [reason] which extends throughout all things.” (p. 146)
- The “direct” or “indirect” cause of all “things and events” (p. 153)
- That which “wills” our Destiny. (p. 180)
In other words, universal Reason is the “law” inherent in objective reality, which can be known to some degree because our human minds are the product of that same universal Reason. The Stoics asserted there is objective truth (law) and an objective standard of morality, and we are subject to that law and moral standard. Of course, making such a claim immediately opens the door to fundamentalists in both religion and science who claim they have exclusive access to such truth. Nevertheless, that is a necessary risk considering the alternative which pervades the modern West—the complete denial of objective truth. The Stoics accepted that objective reality, and, therefore, objective truth, exists. Likewise, they argue that our happiness can only be found in an attempt, however imperfect, to understand and live in accordance with that universal Reason. This is the quest of perennial philosophy, found in all wisdom traditions.
The Stoics accepted that universal Reason (logos) is the cause of the cosmos, and our human minds are formed by that same Reason in such a manner that allows us to understand the world in which we live. These unprovable assumptions (axioms) underlie modern science as well. Science necessarily assumes, but cannot empirically prove, that reality exists. In other words, this is not a dream or a trick by a Cartesian demon. Likewise, science assumes reality is understandable, and we are capable of understanding it to some degree. Without these assumptions, we are forever stuck in solipsism, or lost in a vacuous relativism. With confidence in those fundamental axioms, mankind has explored and thoughtfully considered the cosmos. We have accumulated volumes of knowledge, and we have improved human life in a myriad of ways. Nevertheless, the practice of science, by its very nature, is limited to the ‘how’ questions about reality. It is incapable of answering the big ‘why’ questions like: is there any meaning or purpose to all of this? Is our consciousness, which can question and explore itself, the result of intelligence or serendipitous chance? Are we free to choose our responses to our environment and therefore morally accountable?
The Stoics struggled with those same questions in ancient times. One example of their struggle to answer ‘why’ questions is exhibited in the debate over the nature of the cosmos. The ‘providence or atoms’ disjunction in Stoicism highlights the questioning and existential choice between two distinct world-views. Marcus’ repeated handling of that disjunction in his Meditations demonstrates three undeniable truths. First, providence did matter to Marcus and the Stoics. If it didn’t matter, Marcus and Seneca would not have repeated it as they did. Second, Marcus’ repeated handling of this disjunction demonstrates a humility toward what is knowable with any degree of certainty. In a few passages, Marcus even appears to express uncertainty about which of the world-views is objectively true. After all, neither world-view—providence or atoms—can be ‘proven’ via the empirical method. The textual evidence suggests that the Stoics openly considered the possibility that they could be wrong, and the Epicurean world-view could be correct. Finally, in spite their uncertainty, the Stoics made the existential choice to commit themselves to a providentially ordered cosmos as an axiom and then build their philosophical system around that assumption.
In his conclusion of The Inner Citadel, Hadot draws these considerations together in a thought-provoking passage (pp. 308-9). Hadot argues that Marcus’ repeated assertion of the ‘providence or atoms’ theme was “traditional within the Stoic school” and not his invention. The Stoics, Hadot argues, used this argument to “establish irrefutably that, even if Epicureanism were true—a hypothesis which they excluded absolutely—one would still have to live as a Stoic.” In other words, even if the Epicureans are correct, and the universe is the result of serendipitous chance, one must still “act in accordance with reason, and consider moral good to be the only good.” As Hadot points out here and elsewhere, “Such a position does not imply skepticism—quite the contrary.”
By imagining that their physical theories might be false, and that people would still have to live as Stoics, they revealed that which, in their eyes, was absolutely essential to their system. What defined a Stoic above all else was the choice of a life in which every thought, every desire, and every action would be guided by no other law than that of universal Reason. Whether the world is ordered or chaotic, it depends only on us to be rationally coherent with ourselves.
Hadot then provides the most succinct and insightful assessment of the ‘providence or atoms’ theme I have found. He states that “all the dogmas of Stoicism derive from this existential choice.” He is referring to the choice between the providential cosmos of the Stoics, and the random universe of the Epicureans. The Stoic path relies on the existential choice to view the cosmos as intelligent and purposeful. How, a modern might ask, can the Stoics support such an assumption? According to Hadot, the Stoics asserted,
It is impossible that the universe could produce human rationality, unless the latter were already in some way present within the former.
Ironically, when we fast forward twenty-three hundred years we find ourselves faced with the same existential choice. Moreover, the same divide exists today among modern philosophers and scientists as they attempt to explain, or explain away, human consciousness and the apparent order of the cosmos. Reductionists argue that consciousness is nothing more than what the brain does. Thus, it is an epiphenomenon, a side effect, or an illusion created by neural processes. Fortunately, an ever increasing number of thinkers are challenging this materialist model by positing that consciousness must be a fundamental aspect of reality itself. Some of these thinkers are making arguments which sound remarkably similar to Stoic theory.
So, what does all of this mean to for a 21st-century practitioner of Stoicism? It means you have the same essential choice today as the ancients did—either providence or atoms. Either there is an unseen intelligence within the cosmos or the universe is the result of chance. Neither option is provable and placing our confidence in either requires a leap of faith. However, the choice is not between science and religion; that is a false dichotomy presented by fundamentalists on both sides to persuade people in the middle to their extreme position. Many intelligent people, past and present, assent to the existence of intelligence within the fabric of the cosmos without subscribing to any formal religious belief or practice. There is an open space between traditional religion and atheism held by many intelligent thinkers past and present. Einstein made it quite clear he was neither an atheist nor a believer in any formal religion. Like the Stoics, Einstein did not believe in a personal God; nevertheless, he asserted that individuals could rise to a “third stage of religious experience” he called “cosmic religion” where,
The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole.
We could insert the above quote by Einstein into the Discourse of Epictetus, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, or the Letters of Seneca without raising any question about its compatibility with Stoicism. Likewise, we could do the same with the following assertion of Einstein,
[E]veryone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.
Einstein famously wrote that he believed in “Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists.” Ironically, Spinoza’s God is the pantheism of Stoicism. Another brilliant thinker, William James, once described “religion in its broadest sense” as,
[T]he belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. This belief and this adjustment are the religious attitude in the soul.
Again, that could have been written by any one of the ancient Stoics. Now, we can return to the fundamental existential choice of the Stoic as expressed by Pierre Hadot,
What defined a Stoic above all else was the choice of a life in which every thought, every desire, and every action would be guided by no other law than that of universal Reason.
We humans do not like ambiguity and uncertainty; therefore, we tend to gravitate toward extremes which provide false certainty. We see this in the modern science vs. religion debate, which is dominated by fundamentalists from both sides. Unfortunately, reasonable people who attempt to hold onto a rational, yet spiritual, position in the no man’s land between those entrenched extremes tend to take fire from both sides. Neither atheists nor traditional religious believers find the Stoic conception of divinity to their liking.
The piety of the Stoics was not based on superstition or myth. Nevertheless, the theory and practices of Stoicism are built around the existential commitment to a providentially ordered cosmos. Many moderns get hung up on the idea that they have to ‘believe’ in providence. It is not about belief; it is a choice—an existential commitment. Everyone makes that commitment consciously or subconsciously. Those who recoil at ‘belief’ in providence often overlook the fact that they, by default, ‘believe’ the cosmos, and human consciousness is the result a series of astronomically improbable accidents. Like it or not, a leap of faith is necessary either way. That existential commitment was important to the Stoics; it provided Marcus the psychological confidence and consolation to assert,
Everything suits me that suits your designs, O my universe. Nothing is too early or too late for me that is in your own good time. (Meditations 4.23)
Seneca pointed out the difference these world-views make in a practical, yet poignant manner,
No matter which is true, Lucilius, or even if they all are, we must still practice philosophy. Perhaps the inexorable law of fate constrains us; perhaps God, the universal arbiter, governs all events; perhaps it is chance that drives human affairs, and disrupts them: all the same, it is philosophy that must preserve us. (Letters 16.5)
Philosophy provides the only source of help for the existential question. However, the choice between those world-views makes a difference in one’s stance toward reality and their resulting psychology. Seneca points out the difference in unambiguous terms,
Philosophy will urge us to give willing obedience to God, and but a grudging obedience to fortune. It will teach you to follow God; to cope with chance. (Seneca, Letters 16.5)
Willing obedience to a providentially ordered cosmos or grudging obedience to the chance circumstances of fortune. In other words, we must, like the tethered dog in the famous Stoic analogy, follow the cart of fate. Our choice is to do so willingly or grudgingly. We all make that choice—consciously or unconsciously. Most people get dragged through life kicking and screaming; some grow tired of being dragged and look for an alternative. Stoicism provides an alternative.
The Stoics considered the evidence and concluded universal Reason, an unseen force, a divine rationality is immanent in the cosmos. Reasonably, they concluded the wise person must bring their life into accord with that universal Reason. Thus, for the Stoics, a life in accordance with Nature provides the only path to moral excellence and an even flow in life. Modern man, as a whole, possesses more knowledge and material wealth, suffers less hunger and privation and lives longer with less physical hardship and pain than any other time in recorded history. Nevertheless, as a whole, we are unhappy and suffer from profound existential angst. Why? Because we have disconnected ourselves from our source—Nature—universal Reason. Modern man insists that he is the measure of all things; he is the only source of rationality in the cosmos; and happiness can be found in more knowledge, more possessions, and more dominion over Nature. The Stoics thought otherwise and provided humankind with a prescription for a better life—a life where “every thought, every desire, and every action” is “guided by no other law than that of universal Reason.”
 Hadot, P., & Chase, M. (1998). The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 308
 Hadot, P., & Davidson, A. (1995). Philosophy as a way of life: Spiritual exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Malden, MA: Blackwell, p.83
 Ibid, pp. 81-109
 Hadot, P., & Chase, M. (2013). Philosophy as a way of life: Ancients and moderns: Essays in honor of Pierre Hadot. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, P. 3
 Hadot (1995), p. 82
 Hadot, (1998), p. 180
 Ibid, p. 308
 Ibid, pp.308-9
 Einstein, A. in New York Times Magazine, 9 November 1930, pp. 1-4. Reprinted in Einstein, A. (1954) Ideas and Opinions, New York: Random House, pp. 36-40
 Aczel, A. (2014) Why science does not disprove God. New York: HarperCollins. P. 104
 Einstein’s response to Rabbi Herbert Goldstein, New York Times, 25 April 1929, p. 60.
 James, W. (1902). The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics. P. 57
 Hadot (1998), p. 308