Why Stoic Physics Makes Sense

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I was thinking about how I simply don’t believe that the Stoic physics is all that essential to Stoic ethics. Some people think that there needs to be a rational law throughout the universe for Stoic ethics to work. It’s not enough that we’re trying to be rational and trying to live in accord with our nature, we have to live in accord with some higher nature. I know some in the Stoic community find it important but I don’t believe it really has to be thought of as important. I see all the important interrelationships between humans, other species, and the whole planet, and that’s enough to have a foundation for spirituality. Also, the Stoics believed that humans were social animals and developed into more compassionate beings as they became older and that appears to be sufficient for establishing Stoic virtue. But you know what? I think the Stoic physics is basically true. There’s really no reason to throw it out or discard it or even be concerned about it being wrong even if it were kind of wrong because it’s not far off. I mean, we don’t stop using Newtonian mechanics because it can’t work under all conditions, right? So why would we do that with Stoic physics?

Why do I think Stoic physics makes sense? Well, the Stoics believed in a rational universe from the lowest levels to the highest levels. That’s quite true since lawlike behavior and regularity can be observed from the lowest levels to the highest in our universe. Stars live out their lives in a predictable fashion. Galaxies live out their lives in predictable fashion. Even in the quantum mechanical realm, where particles and atoms appear to be behaving indeterministically, we know exactly how long it will take for uranium to decay into lead. By the way, I’m optimistic that we’ll eventually be able to demonstrate that quantum mechanics is deterministic.

The Stoics were right about physics. Determinism is true. Science operates on the assumption that the universe is orderly and that every happening has a cause. The Stoics believed the same. The Stoic Chrysippus made convincing arguments for why we have self-control or autonomy in a determined universe. The arguments aren’t all that dissimilar to modern day compatibilists on the topic of free will. The Stoics believed that everything was material and it appears to be the case that they’re right.

Here’s the big question though. Is the universe sentient? Sentient might not be the right word but the universe could be thought of as one being that has matured. As the universe began to cool after the Big Bang, the universe began to crystalize and galaxies were formed. The universe certainly matured and has been generated with some kind of blueprint that resides inside it since its birth. It’s almost like the universe has some kind self-generative principle like the Logos. The Stoics believed the universe began in fire and it’s an interesting theory since it comports with the Big Bang Theory. Someone might ask, what if the universe isn’t all that orderly and we’re just imposing our notion of order onto the universe and we only filter data through our narrow lens of order? But why do we have the ability to understand thing in an orderly manner? It’s not like mathematics is purely random and made up. It’s got order to it and the fact that it predicts things so well when applied correctly suggests that the universe is orderly even if we don’t have the full picture of that order yet.

So the Stoics were right to believe that God (or the universe) put into us a rational principle. It created us the same way we say stars create solar systems or how Saturn formed its own rings. It’s honestly not that much of a stretch to think of the universe as a being that self-organizes and matures as it ages, just as amazing as a zygote that divides and forms an embryo out of the blueprints of DNA. It’s actually difficult to classify the Stoics in terms of their view of the universe, but they tended to be either pandeists, who believed that God became the universe, or pantheists, who believed that God is the universe. The way Chrysippus describes God sounds quite pandeistic to me:

The universe itself is God and the universal outpouring of its soul

Chrysippus quoted in De Natura Deorum by Cicero, i. 15

It sounds like the Big Bang inflationary model, the way the singularity sort of pours out space and time and all the matter and events. One might think of the universe beginning as having all the details of how it would unfold inside of it, sort of like how a seed has all the biological details, like DNA, to be able to unfold into a tree.

So regardless of how you might think Stoic physics is essential to its ethics, I think Stoic physics can be maintained approximately as it is.

By Jess W

JW has a B.A. in Philosophy from Drury University. JW has practiced philosophy for years after graduating Drury U, though he hasn't pursued philosophy as a career of choice. JW eventually learned what Stoicism was really all about and decided to adopt virtually all of its precepts. It's served JW well and has helped him through his journey through a life of ups and downs.

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