Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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5. Cosmology and theology
The Stoic world is a living creature with a fixed life cycle, ending in a total ‘conflagration’ (ekpyrōsis). Being the best possible world, it will then be succeeded by another identical world, since any variation on the formula would have to be for the worse. Thus the Stoics arrive at the astonishing conception of an endless series of identical worlds – the doctrine of cyclical recurrence, according to which history repeats itself in every minute detail. (For the leading Stoic dissenter on this, see Panaetius §1.)
Although a conflagration terminates each world phase, this is not its collapse into ruin but its achievement of perfection. That is because ‘creative fire’ (pyr technikon) is the purest, the most divine and the most creative form of divine pneuma, to be associated more with the light and warmth that promote growth than with flame. In our present world phase, the strongest concentration of creative fire is the sun, which some Stoics identified as the world’s divine ‘commanding-faculty’ (hēgemonikon). During the conflagration what exists is in effect pure intelligence, which plans the next world phase in every detail. There follows a process by which the fiery stuff differentiates and stratifies itself into the four elements. It already at this stage contains the ‘seminal principles’ (spermatikoi logoi), which may be viewed as blueprints for the individual organisms and other entities which will eventually emerge. Both the dominant role assigned to fire and its association with divine ‘reason’ (logos) owed much to the influence of Heraclitus (see Heraclitus §4; Logos §1).
By ‘god’ the Stoics meant, primarily, the immanent principle governing the world, variously also identified with ‘creative fire’, with ‘nature’ or with ‘fate’ (on which see §20). Second, the world itself was also called ‘god’. But – characteristically of Greek religious thought – this apparent monotheism did not exclude polytheism. Individual cosmic masses were identified with individual gods: for example the sea and the air were linked with Poseidon and Hera respectively, and the remaining traditional gods were likewise assigned specific cosmic functions. By means of allegorical rationalization, Stoic theology incorporated and interpreted traditional religion, rather than replacing it. Etymology (sometimes highly fanciful) was one tool used in this process. For example, two common forms of the name Zeus were ‘Zēn’ and ‘Dia’, which could also mean respectively ‘Life’ and ‘Because of’: this made it easy to interpret the traditional head of the pagan pantheon as symbolizing the Stoic primary deity, who was the world’s life-force and causal principle.
The world, then, is itself divine, and is from first to last providentially planned and governed by an immanent intelligence. This thoroughgoing teleology owed much to Plato’s Timaeus, but also to his Phaedo, where (96–9) Socrates had been portrayed as advocating a teleological physics, while admitting his own incapacity to develop one. We can here glimpse one of the many ways in which Stoicism sees itself as working out in full technical detail what was already implicit in the thought and life of Socrates.
Since the world is god, in his most manifest form, there is no distinction in Stoicism between proving the existence of god and proving the perfect rationality of the world. These proofs, most of which are variants on the Argument from Design, generated massive controversy between the Stoics and their critics (see especially Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods II–III). They include the following lines of argument. First, the world (especially the heaven) is like a giant mechanism, vastly superior to the most elaborate human invention. If must therefore, a fortiori, have an intelligent designer. Second, the creation of such a world by mere accident (for which see Epicureanism §8) is as unlikely as producing a literary masterpiece by shaking out letters randomly onto the ground. Third, the world is full of beneficial structures which cannot have been invented by its inhabitants: for example, the cycle of seasons, the temporal uniformity of the heavenly rotations, symbiotic relationships between species, and the food chain – including that miraculous foodstore the pig, created as a living being purely in order to keep the meat fresh. Fourth, the world is supremely beautiful, and therefore the work of a consummate artist. And fifth, any imperfections are either merely apparent (for example, wild beasts, which encourage the virtue of courage in us), or inevitable concomitants of the best possible structure (for instance, an example borrowed from Plato, the fragility of the human head). Sometimes localized sufferings are justified by the greater good they serve, even if it is not always evident what that good is. Chrysippus remarked, ‘If I knew that I was fated to be ill now, I would set out to be ill. So too the foot, if it could think, would set out to get muddy’.
The syllogisms used to further this theology contained some highly controversial premises, for example: if there is anything which human beings cannot create, whoever did create it is superhuman. Or again: if a thing has rational parts (as the world does – namely us), then the whole must be rational too.
Sedley, David. Cosmology and theology. Stoicism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/stoicism/v-1/sections/cosmology-and-theology.
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