Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods

A series of short audio meditations on Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, on the nature of the gods. I focus particularly on book II, which discusses the Stoic view. As you will see, the ancient Stoics believed in an intelligence pervading the universe, and their reasoning was essentially what today we call the argument from design. That argument, while acceptable two millennia ago, has been demolished by David Hume and Charles Darwin (see here and especially here).

II.3: We begin the study of book II of Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods, and we see that the Stoics begin with deploying what is nowadays known as an argument from design.

II.3: The ancient Stoics believed in divination. They were obviously mistaken about it. And yet the general principle they adopted was very much akin to the one underlying modern science.

II.4: We need to demystify the Stoics somewhat. We moderns should value and respect ancient wisdom, but not to the point of mindless worship. This episodes provides two pertinent examples.

II.5: Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoa, advances four bad arguments for the existence of the gods.

II.6: Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa, constructs an argument for the existence of god that is unsound, that is, based on a faulty premise.

II.8: Zeno of Citium puts forth a compact argument to conclude that the universe as a whole, as distinct from individual beings within the cosmos, reasons. But the argument is based on a fallacious premise.

II.8: Zeno claimed that life can only come from life, and reason from reason, so he concluded that the universe was alive and endowed with reason. It’s a beautiful idea, but one that has not withstood the test of modern science.

II.14: Cicero summarizes a beautiful argument by the Stoics to the effect that the world itself is wise. Unfortunately, the argument is based on unsound premises, and its conclusion is incoherent.

II.17: Cicero has one of his Stoic characters very explicitly state a notion about the nature of the cosmos that does not hold up to modern philosophical and scientific scrutiny.

II.20-21: The complex patterns drawn by the planets in the sky seem to indicate the existence of a higher intelligence. But of course modern physics has other ideas.

II.28: The Stoics rejected the gods of the Olympian pantheon as obvious projections of human psychology. But modern thinking leads to doubts even about the Stoics’ own more sophisticated conception of God as Nature.

II.30: The Stoics put forth a three-pronged argument to arrive at the conclusion that the universe is governed wisely and providentially. Unfortunately, their argument is both invalid and unsound.

II.35: The Stoics make an argument against the Epicureans about the nature of the universe. For once, it is the Epicureans who got closer t the truth.

II.37: The ancient Stoics advanced an argument for the intelligence of the universe very similar to the one deployed by modern creationists. The difference is that – given the advances of science – creationists ought to know better.

II.57: The ancient Stoics used their knowledge of human, animal, and plant anatomy to argue for the intelligence and wisdom of the universe. Similar arguments were still advanced at the beginning of the 18th century.

II.65: The ancient Stoics believed in divination, because the world works by cause-effect. They were wrong on the specifics, but correct about the general idea, which is what still today underpins modern science.