Monday, July 13, 2015

Providence or Atom? Doesn't Matter!

Having just finished ChrisFisher's and Donald Robertson's essays on Providence or atoms, I've decided to throw my hat into the ring and provide a third choice. Namely, that it doesn't matter.

Let's start with the facts. Yes, the Greek and Roman Stoics believed in Providence. Even if we allowed that some may have been agnostic, like Donald says, it's clear they would have been agnostic theists. Maybe Providence didn't exist, but the Stoics were willing to bet there was one. This alone doesn't clear a path towards atheism. It does, however, provide an opening. If early Stoics were willing to think that maybe there wasn't a god, it stands to reason Stoicism wouldn't be damaged if god wasn't in the picture.

I'll also allow that Stoicism is easier to take if we did believe in Providence, like Chris claims. Why? Because it's easier to think all the suffering of the world happens because it plays a role in the greater good. To paraphrase Seneca, the gods test us to make us better. If we believe that, hardship is easier to endure. However, this doesn't mean we have to believe in Providence.

So what am I getting at? Should the modern Stoic choose atoms or Providence?

Well, like the title suggests, it doesn't matter.

I'll start with a section from Donald's essay:
Panaetius, the last “scholarch” or head of the Athenian school of Stoicism, who introduced it to Rome, is reported to have stated that discussion of the gods is “nugatory” or of negligible importance in relation to the Stoic way of life (q.v., Algra, ‘Stoic Theology’, in The Cambridge Companion to The Stoics, 2003, p. 154).

Nugatory? What the hell is “nugatory”? Well, it means of little to no consequence. If that is true, that ideas about the gods is of little to no consequence, it provides us with a new picture. What it shows is that Providence, and our ideas of it, matter little to the overall philosophy. That one line makes me think this discussion of “Providence or atoms” has been a problem within Stoicism for some time.

If we go a little further, to say that Stoicism is dependent on Providence is to say Stoicism is pretty weak. If my lack of belief in Providence invalidates the rest of Stoicism, that would suggest Stoicism didn't have a coherent belief system to begin with. But as Chris willingly points out, we can have a coherent Stoicism without Providence: CBT is proof of that. To me, what this means is that Providence isn't a foundation of Stoicism, but a component. One that we don't need to be Stoic. If anything, what it shows is one can believe in a god and be a Stoic. But that doesn't mean one has to believe in a god to be a Stoic.

But there is something to Providence that does make Stoicism stronger. Stoics were compatibilists, believing that we had a little bit of free will, but for the most part, fate controlled most everything. I may only be speaking for myself on this, but I do accept this, yet find it hard to justify without thinking that something got the ball rolling. Providence, perhaps? Maybe.

There's also something to be said about Providence testing us with hardship. It's one thing to say that hardship makes us stronger. It's quite another to say the gods are making us stronger. It could explain why the early Stoics seemed so ambitious. If you think your every move, every reaction, is being evaluated by the gods, there's good odds you make different choices than someone who doesn't think that way. Even as an agnostic, the times I said to myself, “Maybe there is a god testing me,” has changed how I reacted. And, I'll be honest, I've felt better thinking I was possibly being tested. And no, I didn't accept I was being tested. Only that I allowed for the possibility.

At the end of the day, I think it's this that matters the most: possibility. Logically speaking, no one can be absolutely sure of their position simply because we can't know everything. Is this an agnostic position? Yes. But this isn't an agnostic atheist or agnostic theist choice. Because I feel Stoicism doesn't make a practitioner choice one or the other. That's up to the individual. But like Panaetius, I feel that, overall, it doesn't matter. Stoicism works regardless.

Edit: Forgot to link to the essays. Should be fixed now.

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