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 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). But 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, ancient Stoicism, 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 later by Plato and the Stoics, who assumed that the world was an evolving, living organism.
“Though the logos is common, the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own”
Here Heraclitus uses for the first time the word “Logos”, which is, arguably, the most fundamental concept in western philosophy.
“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,”
“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 topic. 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.
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 applied the term to sacred forests, 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 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:
“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.”
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.
“Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine. This universal soul, he calls Reason: it is not mine, or thine, or his, but we are its; we are its property and men. And the blue sky in which the private earth is buried, the sky with its eternal calm, and full of everlasting orbs, is the type of Reason. That which, intellectually considered, we call Reason, considered in relation to nature, we call Spirit. Spirit is the Creator. Spirit hath life in itself. And man in all ages and countries, embodies it in his language, as the FATHER.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson,
“The true philosopher and the true poet are one, and a beauty, which is truth, and a truth, which is beauty, is the aim of both.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson,
Emerson had a powerful and passionate delight in real concrete natural things: woods and sunsets and warm days and melons. Emotionally and practically, his position appears to be one of pantheistic nature-worship.
But he was also a Platonist: he believed that the outward world was only appearance or dream, and had no real substance. It was the manifestation of the spiritual world, the solidified thoughts of God.
John Robinson Jeffers (January 10, 1887 – January 20, 1962) was an American poet, known for his work about the central California coast. Most of Jeffers’ poetry was written in classic narrative and epic form, but today he is also known for his short verse, and considered an icon of the environmental movement.
“The tides are in our veins, we still mirror the stars, life is your child, but there is in me
Older and harder than life and more impartial, the eye that watched before there was an ocean.”
― Robinson Jeffers
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 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.”