On the unitary nature of the cosmos


We often read about the classical Stoics as being monists, with a squirrely dodge of active/passive functions. Yet here, Epictetus seems to clearly be discussing bodies and souls as two distinct parts… right?

We do see the description of the world-soul or God, that we are in some way part and parcel of that nature, but it seems like he’s setting up a dualist perspective here… isn’t he?

“Have the very leaves, and our own bodies, this connection and sympathy with the whole, and have not our souls much more? But our souls are thus connected and intimately joined to God, as being indeed members and distinct portions of his essence.”
— Epictetus, Discourses i.14.1

So, is this a mere short-hand of speech, a way to speak to his particular audience, does it represent a doctrinal position, or is it something else entirely? How does this excerpt jive with the conception of Stoics being strict monists?

Stoic monism can be a tricky thing, for one because all of the Western tradition has been touched by Cartesian Dualism, this fundamental separation of spirit and body, or mind and body (for a more secular twist).  This idea, that we are some sort of spirit-thing inhabiting a body, that there is a core and irreconcilable divide between what’s physical and what’s conscious runs so deep in Western thought that it is difficult even to grasp the notion that there are other ideas, let alone what they’d look like in the mind of a real person.

I admit, freely, this is a challenge for me, the basic tenet of the West (and the East in many ways) is “I am more than this body.”  Even if we, after careful deliberation, come back to this position, it behooves us to give a good-faith attempt at the classical idea, since we are interested in other, related classical ideas.

So, what is Stoic monism?  How do we attempt to parse this cosmos in which we find ourselves?  The classical Stoics posited that nothing exists which is not a body.  This is in direct opposition to the idea of Platonic forms in which there is some ideal version “good,” or as for more mundane things, there is not just this cup, there is an ideal of “cupness” which all cups are in some measure closer to or further from.  Now, there is a category of things which “subsist” rather than exist (incorporeals), but that’s beyond the scope of this essay, and is essay-fodder for another time.

Let us say, then, that every thing in existence is a body.  This is a necessary consequence of a definition, common at the time, whichsaid that a body (primarily, there are other qualifiers) is anything which can act or be acted upon.  The classical Stoics were focused on creating an inclusive theory of the world, in that it needed to account for all it could, be internally consistent, and leave nothing out.  So,then to say that important things like the soul, consciousness, or honor exist, how do we account for them?  Well, what about things like “justice,”  or “liberty,” or “hate.”  Are these bodies too?  Actually they are.  Now hang on a minute, you might reasonably here ask, I thought we didn’t stomach the idea of “cupness” but now you’re telling me that “justice” is a body?

Indeed, that’s the case.  The Stoics would not fall into the rhetorical Platonic trap of saying “all things exist are a body, but ‘honor’ isn’t a body, so honor doesn’t exist.’  Their system confronted this challenge head on.  “Yup, honor is a body too.”  Since the definition of body is “anything which acts or is acted upon” and some folks undertake certain actions or refrain from the based on ideas like honor, liberty, duty, etc. these are necessarily bodies as well.

So, in a previous essay, I discussed that consciousness or mind might be a developmental stage of matter.  This wasn’t just a hypothetical “what if” it’s borne of the need to to posit an idea which meets the data we see in the universe, and is in line with the core doctrines of our School.  If mind is a function of matter, then we do not need to accept that “I am more than this body,” since the body includes this thing which I experientially identify with:  my ruling faculty.  This can be done when we understand ‘the breath of life,’ pneuma.

The Stoics have a conception of a thing called pneuma (Gr: πνεῦμα) or breath.  It is the active type of body.  There are two types of bodies, the active and the passive, but both are still bodies, both are still matter.  Thus, we maintain a monist perspective.  Pneuma is a body which pervades and permeates everything.  Classically these are conceived as one kind of stuff, merely two principle functions of it.  But, as John Sellars does in Stoicism, even if we give the dualists the benefit of the doubt, our conclusion stays the same.

Modern westerners say “but two things cannot coexist in the same space-time.”  The classical Stoics had several ideas of how things mix, and that matters (pun intended) while talking about active pneuma mixing with the passive matter.  Here are the types:

  1. Juxtaposition:  The parts of two substances are next to each other but remain separate when mixed:  take salt and sugar for instance.
  2. Fusion: in which a new entity is created from the mixing: take the use of oils and spices while cooking.
  3. Total blending: That every part of the new mixture contains both the elements of the mixed parts, but such that they retain their qualities, and could in theory be separated again:  take water and wine (extracted with an oil sponge, I’m told this works).

So, if pneuma  and passive matter are indeed separate, but mixed, like third way, we have a homogeneous substance of which its constituents parts can still be extracted, but in the mixture is one whole.  Thus, still a monist perspective.

So, what is pneuma?  It is the active, generative principle of the universe.  Theist or Deist Stoics would say it is God enlivening the cosmos (regular or passive matter).  This mixture of pneuma in passive matter is why the classical Stoics said that the universe was effectively God, being enlivened by this active sort of body.  Pneuma is that which acts, and the rest of the cosmos is that which is acted upon:  the definition of bodies met, and the system whole and intact.

Pneuma has several  quality which occur in various configurations, we’re told, the first of which is called tension.  The amount of pneumatic tension in a body determines its apparent substance.  It’s what makes a stone different from a log, both being made up of the same elements.  Pneuma as ‘physis’ is the enlivening force of the cosmos, which makes living things live.  Then, it has the quality of ‘psychê,’ which gives the basic sort of ‘animal soul’ to things which move.  Finally, we have the ‘logica psychê’ which is the power of reason and judgment in mature humans (and possibly other critters as well).

Pneuma exists across all scales of the universe: on the micro-level, our own ruling faculty, and again on the cosmic scale as the world-soul, the Logos, or God.  In this explanation of passive bodies and active bodies, we maintain that only bodies exist (meeting the definition requirements) with an internally consistent schema, and the core doctrines of the School intact.

“There is but one light of the sun, though it be intercepted by walls and mountains, and other thousand objects. There is but on common soul, though divided into innumerable particular essences and natures.”
— Marcus, Meditations xii.23.

Now, whether you think this pneuma is “woo stuff” of a magic-seeking mindset, or a good explanation of something humans have been desperately trying to understand for millennia, one must recognize the accomplishment of and beautiful structure of such a system which posits an interesting alternative to the basic premise of Cartesian Dualism.

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