First Things a Stoic Must Learn
Isn’t it likely that in our case too, it can’t be sufficient merely to want to become a virtuous and good person, but that it is also necessary to acquire some kind of knowledge? (Discourses 2.14.10)
Discourses 2.14 is addressed to a wealthy and powerful Roman named Naso, who apparently accompanied his son at one of Epictetus’ lectures. Epictetus opens this dialogue by suggesting that Naso may find his lecture ‘tiresome’ because he is presumably unacquainted with the process of developing philosophers, which he suggests is analogous to the development of artistic skill in a shoemaker, carpenter, or musician. He points out that the average person observing the development of these artistic skills will find the process ‘none too enjoyable,’ ‘tiresome,’ and ‘most unpleasant’ respectively. Nevertheless, regardless of how unpleasant the development of these arts are to an observer, we find the products of them useful and attractive (in the case of shoes), useful (carpentry), and ‘most appealing’ and a ‘delight to hear’ (music). (2.14.1-6)
Next, Epictetus suggests the same is true ‘in our case’ as we develop the skills to do the ‘work of the philosopher’ (2.14.7). For Stoics, the work of the philosopher is living according to Nature, which is an art of living. The Stoic must develop their skill at the art of living in the same manner as the shoemaker, carpenter, and musician—through consistent, diligent practice. Like these other arts, learning the art of living as a Stoic is a process that requires time, effort, and inevitable failures. Additionally, it will, at times be ‘none too enjoyable,’ ‘tiresome,’ and ‘most unpleasant.’ Why? Because, like the apprentice shoemaker, we will occasionally trim too much here, and not enough there. Like a new carpenter, we will develop a few blisters and smash our thumbs a few times. Lastly, like a novice musician, our coarse touch on the instrument’s strings will create a few screeches. Nevertheless, if we remain diligent at developing this art of living, Epictetus promises we will,
“never be disappointed in [our] desires, or fall into what [we] want to avoid, but will live a life free from pain, fear, and distress, and will maintain, furthermore, in [our] social dealings, both [our] natural and [our] required relationships, as son, father, brother, citizen, man, woman, neighbour, fellow-traveller, ruler, and subject” (2.14.8).
That is quite a promise. It is the promise made by the ancient Stoics to those who are willing to follow the Stoic path and develop a virtuous (excellent) life in agreement with Nature.
The First Thing a Philosopher Must Learn
Next, Epictetus outlines what we must learn to develop our art of living as a philosopher. Like the carpenter and pilot, he argues, we must acquire “a certain kind of knowledge” (2.14.10). Why is knowledge necessary to live virtuously? Epictetus answers this with a rhetorical question: “In view of [the need for knowledge in those other arts], isn’t it likely in our case too, it can’t be sufficient merely to want to become a virtuous and good person, but that it is also necessary to acquire some kind of knowledge?” Therefore, Epictetus asserts, the art of Stoic living does require “a certain kind of knowledge.” Epictetus does not keep us wondering; he lists the essential knowledge a philosopher must acquire. “The philosophers say that the first thing that needs to be learned is the following”:
- There is a God (2.14.11).
- God exercises providential care for the universe (2.14.11).
- What divine Nature is like (2.14.12-13).
The inclusion of the existence and nature of God and the providential nature of the universe in Epictetus’ list of first things that need to be learned may appear odd to many moderns. Mainstream philosophy exorcised theology from its domain long ago. However, that was not the case for the ancient Greeks in general, and certainly was not the case with the Stoics. As Adam Drosdek details in Greek Philosophers as Theologians, the study of the “divine arche” was of “paramount importance for all Greek philosophers.” For the Stoics, Nature = God because pneuma, the active principle that is synonymous with God, permeates the cosmos. Therefore, for the Stoics, the study of physics (natural philosophy) entails the study of God (natural theology). Moreover, until the second-half of the twentieth century a scientist who believed in some version of a divinity did not raise eyebrows in the West.
In fact, many of the brilliant minds who built the foundation for modern science accepted the existence of God. That list includes Copernicus, Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, Newton, Boyle, Faraday, Mendel, Kelvin, Plank, Einstein, Eccles, and Francis Collins. Interestingly, many in that list were deeply religious. If we broaden our horizons to include more esoteric conceptions of a divinity, that list expands considerably. For many of these brilliant minds, studying the nature of reality was synonymous with studying the mind and handiwork of a divinity. Einstein, who famously said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists…” made such a connection between his scientific venture and the divine:
I want to know how God created this world. I’m not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details.
Likewise, physicist Paul Davies argues that science reveals a rationally ordered world and enables us to see into the mind of God. Davies is not defending religion or faith in revealed truth. Instead, he is pointing to the historic scientific endeavor in the West to understand ultimate reality, and the underlying assumption for many that some intelligence or divinity is involved in the rational order we observe.
Nevertheless, the question remains: why does the existence of God and providence constitute a “certain kind of knowledge” the Stoic prokopton (one who is making progress) needs to acquire? There is no mystery here. Epictetus is echoing his predecessors in the Stoa. Again, for the Stoics, Nature = God. Therefore, Epictetus is simply restating the Stoic maxim “live in agreement with nature” in more theological language when he asserts we should “act in imitation of God” (2.14.13).
Chrysippus expanded Zeno’s original definition of a virtuous life, which was “life in agreement with nature” and wrote:
living virtuously is equivalent to living in accordance with experience of the actual course of nature (DL 7.87).
Since the “actual course of nature” for a Stoic is the activity of a divine and providential cosmos, Epictetus formulation, “act in imitation of God” makes sense. Moreover, it dovetails nicely with Epictetus instructions in Discourses 3.10.18, where he asserts we must not lead events with our will (proairesis), but must follow fate closely instead. Everything outside our will (proairesis) is outside of our control (Enchiridion 1); external events are “not up to us.” Therefore, as Stoics, we err when we allow ourselves to be led by desires and aversions. Such behavior represents our attempt to lead events (fate) rather than remain close to what actually occurs in nature. Epictetus warns us this leads to a troubled mind.
Therefore, when that fragment of the logos within us (human rationality) is in agreement with the logos that permeates the cosmos (cosmic rationality) we are able to agree with, love, and follow the providential unfolding of “the actual course of nature” closely. This is what Epictetus means when he declares we should “act in imitation of God” (Discourses 2.14.13). When we follow events closely, assent to them as providential, and love them, we can share in Marcus’ expression of gratitude:
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. All is fruit for me that your seasons bring, O nature. All proceeds from you, all subsists in you, and to you all things return. (Meditations 4.23)
When we imitate God (divine nature), we live in agreement with Nature and become “one mind with God” and will “never find fault with God or man again,” nor will we become victims of desires and aversions (Discourses 2.19.26; Enchiridion 1).
This is where most ‘modern’ popularizations of Stoicism necessarily diverge from the traditional understanding and practice of this philosophical way of life. Because a Stoic considers the cosmos divine and providential, they agree to and love events as if they wanted them to happen the way they did, even those events others might consider tragic. This results from taking a cosmic view of events (Discourses 2.5.24-6 & 2.10.1-6). Nevertheless, the Stoic does not sit idly by waiting for events to happen, quite the opposite. The Stoic has virtuous thought and intentions and acts to affect external events. However, the Stoic understands and accepts the dichotomy of control (Enchiridion 1); therefore, she acts with a ‘reserve clause’ and the realization that events might not turn out as intended. Regardless of the outcome, the Stoic loves it as an act of providence and follows it closely. This empowers the Stoic to remain in the present rather than getting caught up in regret over the past intention or worry about its future implications. The act of providence—the outcome—is outside of our control and itcreates a new ‘present’ situation for the Stoic to begin the cycle with virtuous thoughts, intentions, acts, again.
The cosmic viewpoint and attitude of gratitude toward providence is not available to ‘modern’ atheist Stoics who relies on a reductive materialistic, and mechanistically deterministic universe. Certainly, the atheist can soar above the earth and into the cosmos in his imagination and thereby distance himself from and minimize events in his life. That is far different from the love of providential events resulting from the cosmic viewpoint of the Stoics. Likewise, the grin and bear it ‘stoical’ attitude that enables one to endure the vicissitudes of life, while admirable, is far removed from Marcus’:
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. All is fruit for me that your seasons bring, O nature. All proceeds from you, all subsists in you, and to you all things return. (Meditations 4.23)
It is not my intention to disparage modern popularizations of Stoicism. They have their place, and they are doing good by introducing Stoic principles to a world adrift without any ethical mores. Nevertheless, it is important that people understand the difference between these modern versions and the traditional understanding and practice of Stoicism. Modern iterations will satisfy many people; they are designed to appeal to the masses. However, some will read Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus and be drawn deeper into the richness of the holistic Stoic way of life. The traditional Stoic path is not for everyone, it never was. It is one path among many that promises to lead its practitioners to a virtuous life of well-being.
A Model of Reality (physics) and a Model for Reality (ethics)
In Discourses 2.14.10-13, Epictetus presents two types of knowledge needed for the Stoic path. First, one must have a model of reality—a map of the terrain one intends to travel. That model of reality (physics) is then used to create a model for reality (ethics). If we live in a meaningless, chance universe without a divinity who is concerned with the affairs of mankind, the Epicurean model for reality—withdrawal from society to seek tranquility—is likely to ease our existential angst. However, if there is inherent meaning in the cosmos and for our lives, precisely because the cosmos is divine and we are a fragment of that divinity, then an entirely different model is needed to navigate a life of virtue toward well-being. The divergence between the Epicurean ideal of retreat from society to attain tranquility and the Stoic ideal of engagement with one’s duties in society to develop virtue begins with the difference between their worldviews.
We all operate from a model of reality—a worldview. Often, we are unconscious of our model; nevertheless, we all act based on a particular vision of the way we thinks are in reality. To do otherwise would be irrational. Reasonable, intelligent people will disagree on which model provides the most accurate representation of reality because all models rely on metaphysical assumptions that are not empirically provable. Typically, the people who struggle the most in life are those who are not consciously aware of the model they operate from; they absorbed their understanding of reality unthinkingly from their family, church, school, or society. They are unconscious receptacles of the popular zeitgeist. The beginning of philosophy entails becoming consciously aware of the model of reality we operate from and its implications to our individual well-being and that of the Whole.
Many moderns recoil from the Stoic model of reality (worldview) because of the metaphysical assumptions it entails. They object to the religious implications of this worldview. Unfortunately, they often neglect to consider the implications of their own worldview. Many are so intent on running away from any conception of the divine; they overlook the darkness of the abyss they are running toward. Like the villagers who mock Nietzsche’s madman, they are oblivious to the ramifications of the death of God (the breakup of the hegemony of the Christian church over their lives). They do not understand Nietzsche’s warning about what we have wrought by unchaining the earth from the sun. As a result, many unchained moderns wander aimlessly from one pleasure or distraction to another seeking meaning and happiness and finding none. Thoreau accurately described such persons as those who “lead lives of quiet desperation.” As Einstein noted long ago, some of those freed from traditional religions behave like “slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle.” He further suggests that because of their “grudge” against traditional religions, they “cannot bear the music of the spheres.”
Stoicism involves listening intently to the music of the spheres. We must listen and attune our minds (our rational faculty) to the rhythm of Nature. Only by listening to Nature can the divine fragment within us begin to resonate with the music emanating from the divine cosmos. The Stoics are pointing out an essential, but often overlooked, truth about ethics: if our ethics are not based on an objective norm inherent in the nature of the universe, then man is the measure of all things, and he who has the most gold or soldiers makes the rules. Anti-theists rightfully point to the history of strife and violence resulting from fights over divergent visions of objective truth offered by religions. However, they conveniently overlook the horror that resulted when tyrants in the twentieth century were freed from the accountability of any version of objective moral truth. The modern scientific worldview suggests we lack free will, and possess only the illusion of consciousness. As a result, this worldview suggests we are little more than lumbering robots driven by selfish genes to propagate our survival code into the next generation. The nihilism created by this worldview was articulately expressed by Bill Nye “The Science Guy” during his 2010 acceptance speech as Humanist of the Year:
I’m insignificant. I am just another speck of sand. And the earth really in the cosmic scheme of things is another speck. And the sun an unremarkable star. And the galaxy is a speck. I’m a speck on a speck orbiting a speck among other specks among still other specks in the middle of specklessness. I suck.
We should not be surprised at the current level of existential angst in the world when we consider the fact that the worldview above has been taught in our universities for more than half a century now. The worldview offered by reductive materialist science is soul destroying. As Lothar Schafer writes,
If you have a view of the world that isn’t in agreement with the nature of the world, then that view is wrong. If you follow principles of life that are in conflict with the nature of the world, then these principles are wrong, too. Why would anybody want to live such a life? Similarly, can it be good for your health to live in a state of constant stress, always ready to attack and bite the next person in a selfish life that isn’t focused on the wholeness of reality?
Likewise, as Kant pointed out many centuries after the Stoics, there is a fundamental connection between the starry sky above (physics) and the moral law within (ethics). When we lose sight of that connection, we are at risk individually and collectively.
The Stoic View of Nature (physics)
According to Epictetus, the beginning of philosophical training involves assenting to worldview—a map of reality—that includes a divine and providential cosmos. In this passage, Epictetus skips the array metaphysical positions he offered in Discourses 1.12.1-6 and simply presents the providential cosmos as the first thing a Stoic philosopher needs to learn. At the time the Stoics were formulating their holistic philosophical system, they had several different conceptions of divinity available to them; each entailed a different degrees of involvement by a divinity in human life. Therefore, it is important to understand why the Stoics built their system around a divine and providential cosmos. My post on Providence or Atoms provides a defense of this worldview and provides insight into the psychological and ethical reasons the Stoics considered it essential to their theoretical system and way of life.
Epictetus’ assertion that it is impossible to conceal our actions, thoughts and intentions from God can be easily misunderstood to imply a conception of the divine like that offered by the monotheistic religions. Some insight from Stoic physics is essential to understand what Epictetus means. In A.A. Long’s wonderful book, Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, he suggests the “divine supervision” Epictetus refers to here is “tantamount to ‘conscience’, because of the coincidence he posits between the normative self and the divine.” I cover this concept of the daimon, as a fragment of the divine with us, in my post on The Piety of Epictetus.
Such assertions by a philosopher may appear perplexing to us post-Enlightenment moderns who live in a disenchanted secular age. For those who are inclined to recoil reflexively, as I once did, from any conception of God, I strongly recommend you give the Stoic conception of the divine cosmos some open-minded consideration. The God of Stoicism is not your grandfather’s God. Instead, the divine cosmos of Stoicism is a philosophical God, arrived at through reason, rather than a personal God, made known through divine revelation.
The divine nature of the cosmos cannot simply be ignored or overlooked. The providential cosmos is more than a theoretical concept in Stoicism; it is an integral part of Stoic practice. Christopher Gill argues that Marcus’ repeated use of the “providence or atoms” disjunction in Meditations, serves a purpose in his practice of Stocism. First, it serves “to reaffirm his conviction in the Stoic world-view and thus provide himself with ethical and emotional support.” Additionally, it serves to “reaffirm his confidence in the universe as an ordered and providential whole, and thus support his normal way of life based on Stoic ethical principles.” Likewise, Julia Annas affirms the psychological effect providence has on the Stoic practitioner when she writes,
These ethically transformative conclusions are indeed strengthened when they are seen not independently, but in the context of and integrated with physical conclusions about Providence and the rational ordering of the world. Thus ethics is better understood and more stable in the agent’s psychology when integrated with physical conclusions about Providence.
My task here is not to convince atheists to assent to the Stoic conception of a divine cosmos. No blog post or book can change the mind of a person committed to the metaphysical assumptions of atheism or theism. I am only pointing out the obvious truth made abundantly clear by even a cursory reading of the surviving Stoic texts—a providential cosmos is an integral part of Stoic theory and practice. Certainly, moderns can ignore that fact and modify Stoicism to meet their metaphysical assumptions. However, they should recognize their divergence and realize their mileage on may vary from that of the original. I close this topic with the words of Marcus:
To those who ask, ‘Where have you seen the gods, or what evidence do you have of their existence, that you worship them so devoutly?’, I reply first of all that they are in fact visible to our eyes, and secondly, that I have not seen my own soul, and yet I pay it due honour. So likewise with the gods; from what I experience of their power at every moment of my life, I ascertain that they exist and I pay them due reverence. (Meditations 12.28)
Live According to Nature (ethics)
The connection between the nature of the cosmos (physics) and the practice of Stoicism (ethics) that Epictetus makes in Discourses 2.14 is echoed throughout Stoic texts because of its importance to the holistic practice of Stoicism. In Discourses 1.12.1-6, Epictetus presents the metaphysical positions of atheists, Epicureans, Peripatetics, and Stoics and their implication for humankind. Then he argues,
One who has achieved virtue and excellence, after having examined all these questions, submits his will to the one who governs the universe just as good citizens submit to the law of their city. And one who is still being educated should approach his education with this aim in view: ‘How may I follow the gods in everything, and how can I act in a way that is acceptable to the divine administration, and how may I become free?’ (Discourses 1.12.7-8)
In Discourses 1.20.13, Epictetus responds to an objection that learning to deal with impressions “requires long preparation, and no end of effort and study.” He then continues in his protreptic style,
What of that? Do you really expect to master the most important of the arts with little effort? All the same, what is most essential in the teaching of the philosophers can be stated very briefly. If you want to know, read Zeno’s works, and you’ll see. For does it in fact take long to say that ‘our end lies in following the gods, and the essence of the good in the correct use of impressions’? (Discourses 1.20.13-15)
In above passage, Epictetus distills Zeno’s teaching to what is most essential—‘our end lies in following the gods, and the essence of the good in the correct use of impressions.’ Again, in Enchiridion 31, Epictetus asserts,
As regards piety towards the gods, you should know that the most important point is to hold correct opinions about them, regarding them as beings who exist and govern the universe well and justly, and to have made up your mind to obey them and submit to everything that comes about, and to fall in with it of your own free will, as something that has been brought to pass by the highest intelligence. For if you follow that course, you’ll never find fault with the gods or accuse them of having neglected you.
Some will attempt to write all of this off as nothing more than over-enthusiastic religious language on the part of Epictetus. However, such an objection will not stand up to the evidence; the piety of the Stoics is plainly evident. Likewise, the interdependence of physics and ethics in Stoicism is made clear by the Stoics and those who understood them. The Roman philosopher Cicero, who was not a Stoic, wrote the following about the connection between Stoic physics and ethics a full generation before Epictetus:
‘The same honour is bestowed upon physics, with good cause. The starting-point for anyone who is to live in accordance with nature is the universe as a whole and its governance. Moreover one cannot make correct judgements about good and evil unless one understands the whole system of nature, and even of the life of the gods, as well as the question of whether or not human nature is in harmony with that of the universe. Those ancient precepts of the wise that bid us to “respect the right moment”, “follow god”, “know oneself” and “do nothing to excess” cannot be grasped in their full force without a knowledge of physics. This one science alone can reveal the power of nature to foster justice and preserve friendship and other bonds of affection. As for piety towards the gods, and the proper amount of gratitude we owe them, there can be no understanding of such matters without an explanation of the natural world. (On Moral Ends 3.73)
According to Brad Inwood’s analysis, Seneca thought there were two important reasons to study physics:
We need to do physics to learn to navigate in the moral world and we want to do physics because, well, it is in us to do so, to explore and savour the body of knowledge which reflects our best selves and our kinship with the gods… He thought that the study of physics, especially but not only theology and cosmology, revealed something critically important about our place in the universe. As physical entities we are small and transitory. As thinking beings, as rational animals, we have no limits except those of the divine cosmos. Faced with a choice between allegiance to something limited and transitory and allegiance to something enormous and long-lasting, we ought to know what to do. And Seneca, like Plato and like Aristotle, and indeed like many cosmologists and physicists even today, did know what to do. The unremitting and dedicated study of physics calls to us as rational animals in a way that puts our whole life in perspective and provides a rich and inclusive framework for all those little issues (like my life as a whole and my death) that ethics so mundanely and consistently deals with.
Physicist, Paul Davies agrees with Seneca and asserts, “Something buried deep in the human psyche compels us to contemplate creation.”
The metaphysical assumptions of Stoicism are not an afterthought or window dressing; they are an integral part of the holistic philosophical system that supports the Stoic art of living. The Stoics argued that the chance universe of the Epicureans, which is the metaphysical equivalent of the reductive materialist universe of modern atheism, was inadequate for a life of gratitude and love for all that happens in one’s life (amor fati). Stoic physics and theology are not optional accessories to their philosophical way of life; they are essential elements of Stoicism as it was conceived and practiced by Zeno, Cleanthes, Chrysippus, Seneca, Musonius, Marcus and Epictetus. To that end, Epictetus appropriately instructs us:
The first thing that needs to be learned is the following, that there is a God, and a God who exercises providential care for the universe, and that it is impossible to conceal from him not only our actions, but even our thoughts and intentions. (Discourses 2.14.11)
 Drozdek, A. (2007). Greek Philosophers As Theologians: The Divine Arche. Burlington, VT: Ashgate. P. vii
 Jammer, M. (1999). Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 48
 Salaman, E. (1955). “A Talk with Einstein” in The Listener 54. P. 370– 371. In Jammer, M. (2011). Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology, p. 122
 Davies, P. C. (1992). The mind of God: The scientific basis for a rational world. New York: Simon & Schuster
 I am indebted to Franco Scalenghe for his translation of Discourse 3.10.18, which provided me with new insight about the proper Stoic response to events that occur. His translation reads that we should ‘stick to’ events that occur, while most other translations read that we should ‘follow’ events. I found this subtle distinct provided added insight for me. His translation can be found at: http://epitteto.com/THE%20DIAIRESIS%20TREE%20BOOK%20I.html
 Nietzsche, F. The Gay Science
 Thoreau, H. Walden
 Einstein to an unidentified addressee, 7 August 1941. Einstein Archive, reel 54-927. In Jammer, M. (1999). Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology, p. 97
 Schäfer, L. (2013). Infinite potential: What quantum physics reveals about how we should live. New York: Random House, p. 167-8
 Long, A. (2002) Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 187
 Gill, C. (2013). Marcus Aurelius Meditations, Book 1-6, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. lxix
 Ibid, p. 95
 Annas, J. (2007) ‘Ethics in Stoic Philosophy’, Phronesis 52: 58-87, (p. 71)
 Inwood, B. (2009). ‘Why Physics?’ In God and Cosmos in Stoicism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 222
 Davies, P. C. (1988). The Cosmic Blueprint: New Discoveries in Nature’s Creative Ability to Order the Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 3