BMCR 2009.03.29

Stoic Theology: Proofs for the Existence of the Cosmic God and of the Traditional Gods: Including a Commentary on Cleanthes’ Hymn on Zeus

, Stoic Theology: Proofs for the Existence of the Cosmic God and of the Traditional Gods: Including a Commentary on Cleanthes' Hymn on Zeus. Delft: Eburon, 2007. xii, 256. ISBN 9789059722026. $39.00 (pb).

It is a very well known fact that the works of the Older Stoics are lost; their remains, spread and scattered as they are, are so many that the researcher sometimes feels intimidated when attempting to account for some particular issue in their thought. So by gathering in a single book some of the main arguments the Stoics designed to prove the existence of the cosmic god and the traditional gods, Meijer (“M.”) has produced a welcome addition to the growing stock of studies devoted to the Stoics. This is a rich book full of appealing suggestions and sometimes provocative readings; given its length (256 pages of small and condensed type), however, I shall limit myself to a brief consideration of some points of detail.

M.’s main purpose is to present “the Stoic arguments and the counter-arguments against the existence of the Stoic cosmic god and the traditional gods put forward by the adversaries of the Stoa” (p. xii). The book also provides three appendixes (a translation and running commentary of Cleanthes’ “Hymn to Zeus”; a discussion of whether or not Chrysippus situated the cosmos in the centre of the void; and an examination of Alexinus’ mocking parodies of Zeno’s arguments), and several indexes (of themes, of names, and of places). Although from the very beginning the discussion is very technical, the introductions to each chapter are quite useful for understanding the focus of the chapter as a whole and the value of each argument within it. The book may thus turn out to be appropriate for undergraduate students interested in the foundations of Stoic theology. However, the work is basically aimed at scholars with a good knowledge of the issues under discussion.

As M. rightly remarks, some of the Stoic proofs involve the existence of a cosmic god, i.e. the cosmos as a rational and wise being. This implies that the Stoics were willing to defend a monotheistic stance, although the alleged proofs for the existence of a cosmic mastermind do not strictly speaking aim at proving the existence of the cosmic god, but rather at proving that the cosmic god is rational, animate, and wise. In fact, one of the major purposes of M’s book is to argue that the Stoic arguments presuppose the existence of a cosmic god (cf. p. 11; 24).

M. proceeds to develop his project by a critical exposition of some of the key passages we have for reconstructing the Stoic doctrines. Thus he quotes extensively many passages taken from Sextus Empiricus, Diogenes Laertius, and Cicero, among others. For the most part, he offers the original texts in Greek or Latin along with an English translation in the footnotes.1 M.’s translations are usually very accurate, although I have some doubts about his rendering of logikon by “logical”. It seems a little weird to say that the cosmos is a “logical” thing (see Sextus Empiricus, Adv. Math. 9.104; quoted on 2).2

Chapter 1 is focused on Zeno’s proofs of the existence of god (or gods’); M. attempts to show that the Stoic acceptance of a highest cosmic entity does not necessarily imply the existence of polytheistic gods. M. is keen to show that, the Stoics did not deny the existence of the traditional gods, but were more interested in showing that such gods were not outside their physical system (see Zeno’s proof for the traditional gods on p. 1-2). Although M.’s case for this view sounds reasonable (“they are manifestations of the great powers that permeate the world” [p. 1]. . . “The tradition only needs physical support and [. . . ] etymological explanation which shows their physical aspect or essence” [p. 1]), it is no less certain that, using the names of the traditional gods, did not stop the Stoics from giving them a new meaning. This being so, it might be argued that the Stoics kept the names of the traditional divinities, but the gods they had in mind were entirely different, insofar as they were gods completely rationalized and deprived of the non philosophical aspects of gods in the traditional approach. (This is partially acknowledged by M. when he claims that “Stoic physics is the instrument one needs to see through the mythological veil” [p. 103], or that the traditional gods “were reconsidered from a Stoic point of view”; p. 193). Thus in the Stoic view Zeus becomes a name to refer to the rational principle that rules and pervades the whole.

The focus of M.’s argument in this chapter, however, is that Zeno was not particularly interested in proving the existence of gods or that the cosmos is a god, but rather that the cosmos is animate and “logical” or rational (24-25; see also 122). The point is relevant, since if M. is right one should infer that Zeno took the existence of the cosmos (which, according to Chrysippus, is god himself peculiarly qualified, and consists of the entirety of substance; see DL 7.137, and Stobaeus, Eclogae 1.184, 8 ff. ed. Wachsmuth = SVF 2.527; this is a stance accepted by M.; see 54) to be a matter of fact, and hence thougth that what one should do is to explore which kind of existent it is (animate and rational). The other important feature in M.’s reconstruction is focused on his analysis of Sextus’ assertion that Zeno took Xenophon as his starting-point. After an extensive examination of Xenophon, Memorabilia I 4, 2-9 and 12-14, M. reasonably concludes that the comparison between Xenophon’s excerpt and Zeno’s argument is at best that a universal mind is present in both authors, but while in Zeno the cosmos is a thinking mind, in Xenophon such a mind is in the cosmos, apparently as something different from it (25).

The brief Chapter 2 deals with the role the traditional gods played in Zeno’s system. Zeno identified his philosophical god with the fiery mind, and, as M. emphasizes, he appears to have rejected the idea that the cosmos is god (32). Guided by his general thesis that the Stoic proofs did not demonstrate the existence of gods, M. argues that the only thing that Zeno proves is that the cosmos is a “logical thing” as well as the cosmos is the ousia of god. The innovative aspect of this chapter is found in the evidence provided to try to show that Zeno was worried about introducing the traditional gods into his system (33-34). But as M. himself recognizes, there is a problem here, since Cicero reports that Zeno did away with people’s ordinary ideas about god, which seems inconsistent with Zeno’s proofs of the existence of the traditional gods (discussed on 2-3). M. solves the problem by suggesting that the speaker in Cicero De natura deorum 1.36 (hereafter ND) is Velleius, an opponent of the Stoics who is summarizing Zeno’s view (35). This is a nice way out, although the strong argument M. offers is that it is questionable, if not improbable, that Zeno was willing to state that the gods were lifeless and mute things. In fact, neither air nor fire (ingredients with which Stoic gods are frequently associated) are assumed to be lifeless (36).

Chapter 3 tackles Cleanthes’ proofs of the origins of the notion of god (as reported by Cicero, ND 2.13-15), and deals with the four causes explaining the formation of the ideas of a highest power: (i) foreknowledge of future events, (ii) the temperate climate and fertility of the earth, and abundance of commodities, (iii) terrifying phenomena, and (iv) the uniform and beautifully ordered motion and revolution of the heavens. Once again, M. is particularly interested in proving, contrary to the prevailing scholarly view, that these Cleanthean causes are not arguments for the existence of gods:3 they “aim at understanding the growth of the concept ‘god’ rather than the idea of existence” (38; see also 41).

I think M.’s view is right, as Cicero’s text explicitly maintains that “our own Cleanthes said that the notions of the gods ( deorum notiones) are formed in men’s souls by four causes” (my translation), and there is no trace in Cicero’s report of arguments intended to prove the existence of the gods (Cleanthes’ conclusion is not “so god exists”, but “so the notion of god arises” [47]).

Although all M.’s interpretations of the four causes are interesting, I find the analysis of cause 4 (see 45-52) especially important. Here M. offers some arguments to show that all four of Cleanthes’ causes are derived from an Aristotelian background (cf. 100; this is a thesis that already had been advance by Dragona-Monachu, as M. says). However, the fact that some of his evidence presented is based on the testimony of later authors4 makes me think that we have reasons to suspect that the “Stoic evidence” M. sees in the fragmentary Aristotle is actually due to the probable Stoic influence on those authors, who are often influenced by Stoic ideas. A more promising view might be to think that the author behind Cleanthes is Plato, as M. in fact suggests when quoting the Laws and its assertion that the belief in god is explained by the priority of the soul with respect of the body and the beautiful order in the universe (see p. 51, n.285). M. insists that, given his own arguments that the cosmic god and the popular gods are clearly distinguished in the early Stoa, Cleanthes must be seen as considering the notion of ‘god’, rather than the notion of ‘gods’, as Cicero and other sources note (52). By defending the thesis that god and the cosmos do not coincide (as Chrysippus later assumed), Cleanthes would thus have accepted what M. calls “a cosmic dualism”, i.e. a sharp distinction between god and the cosmos (54).

In one of the final sections of the chapter, M. attempts to show again that Cleanthes was not interested in demonstrating the existence of nature (understood as a power trying to bring itself to perfection), but rather that such a nature is intelligent and wise (60-61). This is clear, M. argues, because the existence of god is tacitly assumed in the argument (see Cicero, ND 2.33-36, cited in full in 59-60). I’m convinced that Cleanthes is not interested in proving the existence of god; however, within the Ciceronian passage reporting Cleanthes’ arguments that the cosmos is intelligent and wise, it is said that god is the universe ( ND 2.34: supra hominem putanda est deoque tribuenda, is est mundo, [quoted again and commented on by M. on 61]). If I understand the passage correctly, Cleanthes seems to be saying that god and the cosmos (the mundus) are the same. This reading challenges M.’s assertion that, unlike other “later Stoic texts”, Cleanthes maintained a dualism whose components were god and the world (54, referring to SVF 528; 636). In his comments on this line in Cicero, M. claims, strikingly, in my view, that the thesis that the cosmos is god is not present in Cleanthes (although he allows that it is present in Cicero; see 67). As far as I can see, there is a sort of “hermeneutic circle” here, insofar as M. treats Cicero as a reliable source while reconstructing Cleanthes’ arguments that the world is intelligent and wise, but as unreliable when he suggests that Cleanthes might have thought (as Chrysippus did) that the world is god. It is true that we know from other sources that Cleanthes identified god with the ether and maintained that Zeus leads the world. But this is not enough to disqualify Cicero’s report attributing to Cleanthes the view that the cosmos is god (see 69-70).

Chapter 4 parallels Chapter 2 in being concerned with Cleanthes’ attitude towards the traditional gods. M. highlights the fact that, like later Stoics, Cleanthes applies the etymological method to account for Homer’s gods. Conveniently M. shows that, although Zeus might be taken to be the sun, in Cleanthes’ “Hymn to Zeus” he handles the thunderbolt, and therefore, cannot be identified with the sun (72). In any case, the merit of this chapter is to remind us of the way in which Cleanthes incorporated some traditional divinities into his philosophical version of the gods (73-74). In this connection M. stresses that Cleanthes’ religious attitude must have been acceptable in the eyes of the Greek people, although one may suspect that “the Greek people” did not share or fully understand the philosophical framework Cleanthes used to re-present the traditional gods. As I suggested above, however, it does not matter that Cleanthes kept the names of the traditional gods; what he is presenting under such names is a highly refined and philosophical version of the traditional gods. If this is right (and I think it is), I am not so sure that Cleanthes would not be willing to deny the existence of the traditional gods: if he just kept the names but understood them under different descriptions (as I think he did), I cannot see how putting in doubt the existence of the traditional gods would affect his highest God (76).

Chapters 5 and 6 are devoted to Chrysippus’ proofs and his treatment of the traditional gods, respectively. Chrysippus’ proofs, as reported by Cicero ( ND 2.19; 37-39), are presented and divided into three arguments. Unlike Cleanthes (his predecessor), Chrysippus was interested in proving the existence of god (the first argument concludes by saying “therefore god exists”). But, as M. is keen to show, Chrysippus was not only interested in the existence of the cosmic “supergod”. In fact, he was also worried about his properties, as argument 2 shows (81). One of the properties the cosmos (which is now identified by Chrysippus with god) has is perfection: the cosmos is perfect because it lacks nothing and embraces all things. Since this is, as M. says, an idea that cannot be found earlier in the Stoa, Chrysippus must also be the person who introduced the argument for the wisdom of the world based on the principle that what is mature is better than the imperfect (a sort of scala perfecti, see argument 3; 82-3). The novelty of M.’s approach here is to consider arguments 2 and 3 as a whole, which yields a nice reconstruction of what Chrysippus seems to have thought about the properties of his cosmic god. In his comments on one of the premises of argument 3, M. remarks that “The Stoic God has much in common with the wise man, who has absolute virtue” (83; M.’s emphasis). Actually, the order is, it seems to me, the opposite: the wise man has much in common with the Stoic God, insofar as a wise person is a microcosmic part of what the whole is. In fact, the inner rational harmony is the same for the individual and the universe, but the former is subordinated to the latter. The last part of chapter 5 deals with the important theme of pneuma, an issue whose importance in Stoic physics and cosmology cannot be exaggerated. M. thinks that the concept of pneuma is characteristic of Chrysippus’ thought (89); the point is relevant insofar as the notion of pneuma allows to account for the Stoic thesis that the cosmos is a unified body and an entirely coherent system (M. discusses both matters on 85-88).

Chapter 6 is devoted to explain the place of the traditional gods in Chrysippus’ system. M. believes that Chrysippus was interested in the existence of traditional gods, but he recognizes that some of the arguments we can find are extremely condensed (see on 95: “There are gods, because there are altars”, quoting SVF 2.1019). As a result, he proposes to reconstruct the argument, which must have been something like Zeno’s proof (96). M. makes the interesting point that what concerns Chrysippus here is not a matter of definition but of the existence of god. This is a nice suggestion; however, if this is the case, it is hard to understand some of the arguments from the accidens, which seem to be Chrysippean.5 The other important point stressed by M. is that in theses arguments what emerges is not the cosmic god, but the traditional gods (98; Cic., ND 2.17). Like Cleanthes, Chrysippus applies the etymological and allegorical method to interpret the traditional gods.

Chapters 7-9 are focused on other Stoic proofs, some further apparently Stoic arguments supplied by Sextus, and some polemics against the Stoic arguments for the existence of god. (The treatment of Alexinus’ parody of the Stoic arguments in Chapter 9 is especially rich.) An important point stressed by M. is that one of the arguments presented in chapter 8, like some other arguments already discussed in previous chapters, concerns the traditional gods rather than the Stoic cosmic god (118; see also 147, n.772). M. also shows that the cosmic god is implied in the arguments where the conclusion is “therefore, there is god” — i.e. the singular is usually connected with the cosmic “supergod” (98; 148). (M.’s translation of Sextus, Adv. Math 9.132, cited on 145, is mistaken. Where he renders “the signs given to men by god, the Greek reads “given to men by gods : ὑπὸ θεῶν.) A third set of passages such as Sextus, Adv. Math. 9.75-76 (cited and commented on by M. at 123-124) concentrate on the account of the Stoic cosmic god as a “self-moving power”, which also provides arguments attempting to prove its existence. At the end of chapter 8 the author offers a general conclusion which is valid for almost all the previous chapters (126-128).

The five final chapters (10-14) deal with Sextus’ responses to the Stoic arguments, i.e. a set of arguments against the existence of god, including Carneades’ use of the sorites. I cannot go into the details of these rich chapters; I will just note, as M. points out, first, that the bulk of such arguments reach the conclusion that the gods are perishable (149), and, secondly, that there is no trace in Sextus’ arguments that they are directed against the cosmic god (193). To the first objection the Stoics might reply that, even though the celestial bodies “disappear” during conflagration according to Chrysippus, there is no destruction in the strict sense. Chrysippus is said to have argued that the cosmic fire (conflagration) is not different from god, but a phase in god’s life. The permanent passing away of the cosmic order is thus not destruction; if death is the separation of the soul from the body, the world soul is not separated form the world body — rather, it goes on growing until it becomes co-extensive with the matter. Therefore, the world is not destroyed (Plutarch, Stoic. repug. 1052c). M. remarks that in Plutarch we find the duo Zeus and the cosmos as two different things; but as the argument summarized above shows, there are other passages in Plutarch where they seem to be the same (as M. also notes on 150). In the conclusion of the chapter, where the so-called “atopical arguments” for the existence of the gods are dealt with, M. claims that for the Stoics the existence of virtue presupposes the existence of the gods (146). Perhaps I did not understand M.’s remark, but I cannot find a Stoic passage where this is clearly established, and I see no argument by M. for this claim.6

I would like to conclude this already long review by briefly commenting on Appendix 1, where M. offers a running commentary on Cleanthes’ “Hymn to Zeus”. This — along with J.C. Thom’s papers (see note 8 below) — is, to my knowledge, the most detailed examination of the Hymn to date. M. begins by pointing out the advantages of making use of poetry to explain the relations between the cosmos and man: “Poetry is nearer the divine” and it is easy to memorize (209). M. is right to stress that Cleanthes’ work is vital not only because it is the only complete text we have from the Old Stoa, but also because it contains important views about providence which cannot be found elsewhere. M. suggests that under the “hymnical style” there is “Stoic stratum” that has to be taken into consideration, because nearly all the traditional words admit of a Stoic interpretation (210). M. proposes a reasonable methodology for reading the Hymn, consisting of a balanced philosophical and philological approach. But there is a familiar problem here. As he has elsewhere, M. quotes the Greek text of the Hymn in the footnotes and the translation in the body of the text (210, and n.1074).7

Let me list some remarks from M.’s commentary: (i) The epithet “Chief of nature” for Zeus is a genuinely Cleanthean name which indicates a Stoic flavor. (ii) M. points out that there is no trace of conflagration in the Hymn; this is important since it shows that the epithet “most honored of the immortals” cannot be explained by arguing that Zeus is the only god that survives conflagration. (iii) M. continuously shows the Homeric and Heraclitean background of the Hymn. In my view, this is important since it reminds us of Cleanthes’ interest in giving certain features of the traditional divinities, on the one hand, and in offering an entirely new version of Zeus, on the other hand. M. suggestively shows that the thunderbolt is not only Zeus’ weapon, as traditionally understood, but also a bearer of Logos in Cleanthes’ redefinition of Zeus (214). There are many other important points in M.’s remarks on the Hymn, but I need to stop here.

The book has a full bibliography (though see the two important papers by J. C. Thom on the “Hymn to Zeus” cited in note 1).8 Although in general the volume is well produced, I have detected a few misprints.9

I have no doubt that M. has provided an aid to our understanding of Stoic theology by offering a comprehensive exposition, account, and discussion of the Stoic arguments on the issue. No matter how much we may disagree with M., we should recognize that his views are supported by accurate readings of the texts and are well argued.10


1. One detail that may be misleading is that the citations of original texts often include lines that are not translated in the main text (see 14, n.67; 17, n.78; 18, n.82; 151, n.794; et passim). M.’s intention was probably to translate only what he regarded the authentic words of each philosopher, but this sometimes complicates the identification of the original Greek or Latin, especially when he cites long portions of the text.

2. M. argues that the neuter form logikon in Zeno’s conclusion points out that the world is assumed to be a logical thing, and that Zeno did not have a god in mind, but his interest was confined to the world and its “logical’ aspect” (11). But this is, to some extent, circular and derived from M.’s own interpretation of the Greek logikon. If one renders logikon with the more conservative ‘rational’, it is much clearer in what sense Zeno might have assumed the cosmos to be a logikon : it is a rational thing because it is an ordered structure (a meaning of logikon admitted by M. in 126).

3.He is mainly thinking of the seminal work by Dragona-Monachu, The Stoic Arguments for the Existence and Providence of the Gods, Athens 1976, which M. cites extensively.

4. Such as Sextus or Philo (see M.’s discussion of frr.12a, 12b, and 13 of Aristotle’s On Philosophy).

5. Such as the one cited on 97, from Cicero ND 2.12; cf. 97 and n.508).

6. M. is probably thinking of some passages, such as SVF 3.149 (see also SVF 3.248; 250; 251; 370), where virtue is said to be proper to human beings and gods; but it seems to me that this does not imply that the existence of the virtues demands the existence of the gods.

7. Unfortunately, however, although he prints the controversial verse 4 (p. 210, note 1074: ἤχου μίμημα λαχόντες), he translates his conjecture: “who have the honor of logos” ( λόγου τίμημα λαχόντες), but the reader learns about M.’s conjecture of this verse on 212 (M. devotes a two-page appendix to this controversial verse 4 of Cleanthes’ “Hymn to Zeus” (see 227-228).

8. “Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus and Early Christian Literature”, in A.Y. Collins and M.M. Mitchell (eds.) Antiquity and Humanity. Essays on Ancient Religion and Philosophy (presented to Hans Dieter Betz on his 70th Birthday), Tübingen 2001, 477-499. “Doing Justice to Zeus: On Texts and Commentaries”, Acta Classica XLVIII (2005), 1-21.

9. E.g.: Halm instead of Hahm (8, n.43); compos rationis instead of conpotesque rationis (90); Sedly instead of Sedley (148); “do not join in in the song” (212). There are also some mistakes in the Greek: ἔμθυχον for ἔμψυχον (3); ἐν αὐτ” for ἐν αὐτῷ (6); νοερός ἄρα instead of νοερὸς ἄρα (14 and 28); ἐπαγωγικώς instead of ἐπαγωγικῶς (15); συμβεβεκότος instead of συμβεβηκότος (95-96); and πράγμα instead of πρᾶγμα (96, n.498).

10. I am grateful to the anonymous referees for their improvements to my written English and for urging me to clarify some points of detail in this review.