Pantheism. The Soul of the world

Therefore, we may consequently state that: this world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence … a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related.  

Plato. – Timaeus

The belief of the Cosmos as a living ‘entity’ endowed with ‘soul’ is a very ancient one. Many ancient cultures and world’s religious traditions are marked by pantheistic ideas and feelings, and Pantheism is probable, after animism, the oldest religion, as well as a contemporary worldview. This is particularly so for example, in Hinduism of the Advaita Vedanta school, in some varieties of Kabbalistic Judaism, in Celtic spirituality, and in Sufi mysticism.

In the west, Anima Mundi (The Soul of the World), was first proclaimed, by some ancient philosophers, to be diffused throughout all nature. The idea is said to have originated with Heraclitus, and developed latter by Plato and the Stoics, who assumed that the world was an evolving, living organism.

dELFOS

HERACLITUS

Though the logos is common, the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own”

This Cosmos, the same of all, no god nor man did create, but it ever was and is and will be: everliving fire, kindling in measures and being quenched in measures.”

This passage contains the earliest extant philosophical use of the word kosmos, “world-order,”

THE STOICS

“Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy.” – Marcus Aurelius

Stoicism is a philosophy of life, but in ancient times Stoics made their philosophy compatible with religion. Stoic physics was a kind of theology, much like that of Spinoza’s pantheism. Stoics prayed, and there are many passages in Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius that are explicit on this tipic. Nevertheless, they didn’t do it in order to change the laws of nature in their favor, but in order to be strong enough to meet the challenges of life, a kind of therapy of the soul. The first Stoic text that has survived is the Hymn to Zeus, a quasi-religious text. They believed not in a personal God, but that Nature, Reason, Cosmos and God were one and the same thing, but only a few wise people were aware of that fact, the rest of us are just insane.

Imprimir

Stoics saw the cosmos as  “one living being, having one substance and one soul” conceived as not simply the aggregate of all material things but also a collective consciousness.

“For it is only the cosmos to which nothing is wanting, and which is knit together on every side, and is perfect and complete in all its numbers and parts. Now since the cosmos embraces all things, and there is nothing that is not contained within it, it is perfect at every point. How, then, can that which is of most excellence be lacking to it? There is nothing more excellent than mind and reason, so it is impossible that these should be lacking to the cosmos”

Chrysippus of Soli (Cicero, Nature, 2.14).

Individual humans souls were like ‘sparks’ of a primordial fire, and individual consciousness was but a small fraction of the greater consciousness of the cosmos. This divine Logos, or law of the universe, centers around the idea of eternal flux, that things within the universe are constantly changing.

“All things are parts of one single system, which is called Nature; the individual life is good when it is in harmony with Nature”  “No part can be sentient where the whole is not sentient; parts of the cosmos are sentient, therefore the cosmos is sentient.”  Zeno of Citium

Although they didn’t believe that anything “supernatural” existed, the ancient Stoics where deeply religious in their own way. They expressed wonder and reverence at the majesty of the Cosmos, which they also called Zeus. Some of their spiritual practices involved imagining themselves rising up to the sky, looking down to their lives from a cosmic perspective, seeing time passing by quickly, realizing how little and trivial most of their worldly anxieties were.

Nature as a Temple

The concept of the Temenos, a meeting-spot for humans and gods, emerged in the classic Mediterranean cultures as a space reserved for worship of the gods. Some authors have used applied to a sacred forest , isolated space of everyday life , while others apply to all urban sanctuaries.

“We worship the sources of mighty rivers; we erect altars at places where great streams burst suddenly from hidden sources; we adore springs of hot water as divine, and consecrate certain pools because of their dark waters or their immeasurable depth.” 

Seneca, Letters to Lucilius XLI. On the God within us

Zeus (God) as the force preserving things in existence

 “The universe itself is god and the universal outpouring of its soul; it is this same world’s guiding principle, operating in mind and reason, together with the common nature of things and the totality which embraces all existence; then the foreordained might and necessity of the future; then fire and the principle of aether; then those elements whose natural state is one of flux and transition, such as water, earth, and air; then the sun, the moon, the stars; and the universal existence in which all things are contained.”

Cicero, De Natura Deorum, 45 BCE.

and he recommended that we “observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things that exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the structure of the web.” Meditations, iv. 40.

The God within

Seneca in one of his letters to Lucilius, tells him t that God is not distant but can be encountered directly in what we experience inside us:

“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. “

Seneca, Letters to Lucilius XLI. On the God within us

“Everything is right for me, which is right for you, O Universe. Nothing for me is too early or too late, which comes in due time for you. Everything is fruit to me which your seasons bring, O Nature. From you are all things, in you are all things, to you all things return.”

Marcus Aurelius Book IV, part 23:

Christian Pantheism

“Spirituality is not to be learned by flight from the world, or by running away from things, or by turning solitary and going apart from the world. Rather, we must learn an inner solitude wherever or with whomsoever we may be. We must learn to penetrate things and find God there.”

Meister Eckhart

Scientific Pantheism

 Our modern life has detached itself so much from Nature, that we seem to be losing the feeling of reverence towards it that our ancestors once had. It is probably inevitable when technology is keeping our sight downwards, to a gleaming screen, rather than to the open sky. Life is much comfortable and secure now than then, but something has been lost in the process,  as if the world has become more profane, a world without a soul.

The word Pantheism comes from the Greek roots pan (all) and theos (God), it first appeared in the writings of the Irish freethinker John Toland (1705).

The experience of awe and almost mystic oneness that some modern scientist describe when contemplate the vastness of the cosmos and its laws, is what many Stoics would have recognize as their religion.

“Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe-a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.”

– Albert Einstein

“A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.”

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot (1994)

Arts and Literature

Another vital source of pantheistic ideas is to be found in literature, for example, in such writers as Goethe, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emerson, Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, and Robinson Jeffers.

 

Zeno and the Stoics

“My voyage turned prosperous when I suffered a shipwreck. It was well done of thee Fortune, thus to drive me to philosophy.”  Zeno of Citium

Having purchased a quantity of purple dye from Phoenicia, (the exclusive colour that only few could afford to wear in their robes), a young merchant from Cyprus called Zeno saw his ship with all his goods go to the bottom of the sea, as he was shipwrecked near Athens. He saved his life by swimming to the shore and made his way from the coast as far as Athens.

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Zeno wandered about the streets of the city, being now about thirty years old, ruined and devastated. Perhaps looking for consolation, he sat down by a bookseller’s stall, took up a book about the life of Socrates and began to read. He became more and more absorbed and amazed by the life and teachings of the man who, as they used to say, “brought philosophy down from the heavens to the earth”. He then asked the book-seller if such men could be found in Athens, the book-seller pointed to a man that was passing by, and said, “Follow that man.” The man walking by with a staff and satchel and looking like a beggar, was Crates of Thebes, a Cynic philosopher. Zeno probably didn’t know he was about to join the most radical philosophic school to be found in the ancient world.

A TRAINING FOR LIFE

From the day Zeno became Crates’s pupil, he showed a strong bent for philosophy, though philosophy under Crates was probably not what he expected. There were no exchange of subtile ideas or lectures, but a rigorous training and a tough life of constant askēsis. The term askēsis, which means “exercise” or “practice,” is appropriated from athletic training.  If he wanted to be a philosopher, he will have to learn to live in accord with Nature and in opposition to conventions.

The askēsis of Zeno as a Cynic philosopher envolved living in the streets, sleeping on the ground, walking barefood, dressing only with a cloak, being exposed to cold, keeping a frugal diet based on lentil-soup and dried figgs, bearing social rejection with indifference and speaking out against iunjustices and social norms. Their shamelessness, and shocking behavior gave them the nickname of “Cynic” the Dog-like.

“Our philosophy is called Cynic not because we are indifferent to everything, but because we aggressively endure what others, due to being soft or general opinion find unbearable.” Crates

Zeno endured the Cynic lifestyle with discipline, but he was a well-raised and shy man, and Cynic shamelessness seemed too much for him. Crates had noticed his sense of shame form the first day and, so desirous of curing this “defect” in him, gave him a potful of lentil-soup to carry through a busy quarter. When he saw that Zeno was ashamed and tried to keep it out of sight under his cloak, Crates broke the pot with a blow of his staff. As Zeno began to run off in embarrassment with the lentil-soup flowing down his legs, Crates chided “Why run away, my little Phoenician?”, “nothing terrible has befallen you!

They repudiated material wealth and social conventions in favor of a life of simplycity.  The reward was  a radical freedom, in three related forms: eleutheria, freedom or liberty, autarkeia, self-sufficiency, and parrhēsia, freedom of speech or frankness. Cynics wanted to correct society, to take it back to a primordial simplicity in which there were no classes nor inequalities, just human beings living virtuously and close to Nature. Their way of doing philosphy was by embodying what they preached.

But not all was physical endurance in their philosophy, they could also be intellectualy challenging. Their sharp and clever use of irony and humor was much feared by sophists and rhetoricians. They called the mental confusion which most people are wrapped-up Tuphos,  which means mist or smoke. The Cynics sought to clear away this fog and to see the world as it really is.

Crates and Zeno would gather at the Cynosarges gymnasium with other Cyinics for debates and lectures. Crates’ wife Hipparchia, had left a wealthy life to follow her husband  and live in the streets of Athens. They had two children that they raised up in the Cynic way, bathing in cold water and using a cradle made from a tortoise shell. She became a famos philosopher, for Cynics thought that both men and women, could be equally tough and virtuous.

800px-Crates_and_Hipparchia_Villa_Farnesina.jpgRoman fresco depicting Crates of Thebes with Hipparchia, his wife and also a cynic philosopher. 

Cynic philosophy was founded by Antisthenes, a disciple of Socrates in a public gymnasium called the Cynosarges, which had a renown wrestling school and a sanctuary dedicated to Heracles. It was common that gymnasiums would offer philosophy lectures and disputations. In fact, there were three great public gymnasiums in Athens; the Academy, the Lyceum and the Cynosarges, each of which rendered famous by association with a celebrated school of philosophy.

 

The remains of a Gymnasium in Pompeii. Not different for those in Athens. 

Although a democracy, Athenian society was aristocratic and elitist. Antisthenes and the Cynics gathered at the Cynosarges because it was the gymnasium for the nothoi, the illegitimate children, the bastards; those without Athenian citizenship because of being born to a slave, a foreigner, a non married couple or a prostitute. Antisthenes was the son of a Thracian woman, and that made him non-Athenian citizen and did not have normal citizenship rights, such as inheritance. Cynicism became the philosophy of the outsiders, those rejected by Athenian society, so Cynics responded by rejecting Athenian values.

Zeno’s teacher, Crates, had left a wealthy life in Thebes to follow his teacher Diogenes of Sinope, the most famous Cynic philospher. He used to live inside a large ceramic jar near the market place. The fame of Diogenes as a philosopher was so great that even Aristotle sent his pupil, the young Alexander the Great to meet him. One morning as Diogenes was relaxing in the sunlight and Alexander appeared, thrilled to meet the famous sage, asked if there was any favour he might do for him. Diogenes replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight”.

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Zeno respected and loved his teacher but his mind was not fully satisfied with such radical way of life. Begging on the streets for a living constructive nor edifying. Living socially and decently was also natural in human beings, and he didn’t . He begun atending Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum. One day as he was attending a lecture in the Academy, Crates apeared, grabbed him and dragged him outside by force. Nevertheless he will continue to study with other schools; the Megarians were famous for their use of logic, the Lyceum for the natural sciences, the Academy for its metaphysics.

THE STOA

Around 301 BCE, Zeno began giving publich teachings in Athens under the painted colonnade next to the Agora. The colonnade was known as the Stoa Poikile in Greek, which gave the name to his schools. It will become the most successful school of thought of Greco-Roman civilization. They will be called the Stoics.

His philosophy could be described as a synthesis of three major branches of Greek philosophy; Heraclian Physics, Megarian Logic, and Socratic Ethics.

 

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Platonist, Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans or Skeptics, offered their students not only ideas, but an integral worldview and expected their students to undertake a coherent way of life, to be consistent, with their principles and the doctrines of their school.

The role of the ancient philosophy teacher was to encourage his students to live the philosophic life, whose end was  eudaimonia  (a flourishing life). Depending of the school, a student would have to learn logic, geometry and dialectic, but he may also have to get used to sleep on the ground, work in a garden, walk barefood, meditate on his own death, or compose poetry.

The purpose of life is Eudaimonia, meaning a good spirit, a flourishing life. Not exatly the same as happiness, Zeno described it as a euroia biou “good flow of life” .

That is achieved by a life acording to Nature, homologouménos têi physei zên wich is the same as according to the Logos or Reason.

That Areté (Virtue, Excellence) is what guides us toward a good flow of life, and it is sufficient for happyness.

To live coherently homologoumenós dsen. 

“I have no desire to suffer twice, in reality and then in retrospect.”
― Sophocles, Oedipus Rex

My general focus in this blog is with Stoicism, becasue it is the best representative of the Hellenistic philosophies, the most infuencial in the Roman world and the one that has left a longer mark in the Western spirit. In this blog I will be exploring the practice of Stoic philosophy as a way of life, since I found to be surprisingly useful for the kind of situations I encountered while traveling around the world.

The Stoics believed that everything in the universe, including mankind, was linked by a divine force (Logos), which they also called Reason. Zeno considered that by living in conformity with Nature, mankind would live in conformity with the Logos, and this was the only way to attain happiness.

Most of what we know about the Stoics comes from the writings of the politicians Seneca and Cicero, the freed slave Epictetus and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism was a major influence in successive centuries for Neoplatonist, Christians and Jewish philosophers. Almost forgotten throughout the middle ages, it helped to ignite the Renaissance, for example in the humanistic philosophy of Erasmus. Its influence is evident in the philosophies of Descartes, Spinoza, Kant and Hegel, being central therefore in the development of western philosophy. In more recent years Michel Focoult and Pierre Hadot advocated for reviving Stoic philosophy as a way of life, through the called “spiritual exercises”.

In our days, philosophy has become an subject of study, a topic for discussion or an academic pursuit. We tend to study philosophy as we study philology. But in Hellenistic times philosophy was meant to be lived.

Henry David Thoreau explained the differece beautifully in his book Walden, Life in the Woods;

“There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.
Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”