Stoicism: Day 23 – Stoicism and Godliness

Because I am in my last week of Stoicism, during my ice bath yesterday I began thinking about my upcoming Ancient Wisdom months. Many of them will be rooted in religion rather than philosophy, and central to religion, is of course, God.

Based on my admittedly amateurish interpretation of Stoic principles, I get the sense that the Stoics were reverent and believed in gods, but they spend most of their time talking about the self, especially the self in day-to-day life. When they do mention the gods, it’s often in the context of fate.

I reread Seneca’s letter “On the god within us” and I like the way he portrays God. We often think of God as the bearded white guy in the sky, Seneca writes about God as goodness, as a spiritual entity.

We do not need to uplift our hands towards heaven, or to beg the keeper of a temple to let us approach his idol’s ear, as if in this way our prayers were more likely to be heard. God is near you, he is with you, he is within you. This is what I mean, Lucilius: a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian. As we treat this spirit, so are we treated by it. Indeed, no man can be good without the help of God. Can one rise superior to fortune unless God helps him to rise? He it is that gives noble and upright counsel. In each good man  

A god doth dwell, but what god know we not.

He then goes on to write about the soul and its divinity, how it is certainly a part of us, but also comes from a heavenly source.

Just as the rays of the sun do indeed touch the earth, but still abide at the source from which they are sent; even so the great and hallowed soul, which has come down in order that we may have a nearer knowledge of divinity, does indeed associate with us, but still cleaves to its origin; on that source it depends, thither it turns its gaze and strives to go, and it concerns itself with our doings only as a being superior to ourselves. 

Because goodness and virtue comes from the soul, which comes from the divine, it does not make sense to praise someone for their external characteristics. He uses the analogy of a trained lion and a wild one.

The lion with gilded mane, in process of being trained and forced by weariness to endure the decoration, is sent into the arena in quite a different way from the wild lion whose spirit is unbroken; the latter, indeed, bold in his attack, as nature wished him to be, impressive  because of his wild appearance, —and it is his glory that none can look upon him without fear, —is favoured in preference to the other lion, that languid and gilded brute. 

We become distracted by the external qualities we observe in others. Their career success, their looks, their fashion sense, their education, and other superficial qualities give us the sense that we have enough information to determine whether that person is “good” or whether we should look down on them.

But really, we should look for signs of God within people, signs of their goodness.

Suppose that he has a retinue of comely slaves and a beautiful house, that his farm is large and large his income; none of these things is in the man himself; they are all on the outside. Praise the quality in him which cannot be given or snatched away, that which is the peculiar property of the man. Do you ask what this is? It is soul, and reason brought to perfection in the soul. For man is a reasoning animal. Therefore, man’s highest good is attained, if he has fulfilled the good for which nature designed him at birth.  

As a secular person, it’s hard to hear the word God and have it really mean anything. It’s as if my brain shuts down and tries to tune out any sentence that contains the word. But when I replace the word “God” with “goodness” or “virtue,” it makes much more sense. That is why I appreciate Seneca’s letter that links God to the internal qualities and character of a person.

I’m not sure how to express my thoughts here; actually it’s more a feeling I’m trying to express. By replacing God with goodness, I am able to better understand what it is people mean when they speak of God.  And when you replace God with goodness, and add in a dose of Stoic values, you can see why aspiring for material wealth and external goods is a empty ambition, and living “according to your nature” or following the direction of your soul is the higher good.

I apologize for being unclear. It’s clear I have more thinking to do about the topic.

  • Arushi

    When we refer to ‘goodness’ in people, it encompasses their habits as well, right?

    • I think Seneca is referring to something more abstract, but it would inevitably manifest itself in real-world behavior as well.