Stoicism and Heathenry
Posted by Byron Pendason on , in Heathenry, Philosophical musings, Reconstruction, Stoicism
Wes hāl!1 I have recently become a student of Stoicism, but as I said in my last blog post Stoicism is not a Germanic philosophy. It was born in the Hellenic world, and was later adopted by the Romans. In this blog post, I want to discuss the relationship between Stoicism and Heathenry. What are the similarities, the differences, and are they even compatible? So let’s dive in!
First of all, I want to reiterate my belief that Stoicism is not a Heathen philosophy. I’m adopting it as a personal philosophy, and will not push it upon anyone else. I will share some thoughts about it, but I’m a blogger and so sharing my thoughts is in my nature. As I use categories to tag my blog posts, it should be easy for anyone who doesn’t want to read about Stoicism to ignore the posts that deal with it.
So the question is, is Stoicism compatible with a Heathen worldview? There are certainly similarities between classical philosophy (i.e., the philosophy of the Greeks and Romans of the classical era) and Old Norse philosophy. Sveignbjorn Johnson points out that the goal of life for both was happiness, and that happiness could only be obtained by living a virtuous life2. The wisdom of the Havamal, in a lot of places, matches the practical wisdom of the ancient Stoics3. I’ve talked to a lot of modern Heathens who use Stoicism as a personal code of ethics, and as I’ve joined their ranks I can definitely see the appeal to it. In the classical world, it was one of the most popular systems of philosophy. It was certainly a diverse school. It represented every walk of life, from the former slave Epictetus to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. It was a comprehensive system that consisted of not only ethics, but also logic and physics (cosmology).
Modern Stoicism seems to downplay the logic and tries to eliminate the cosmology of the ancient Stoics4, but it seems to me that little in even the cosmology would contradict Heathenry, and nothing that can’t be tweaked slightly while remaining true to the core principles of both ancient Stoicism and Heathenry. This may seem like a bold claim, of course, but the biggest issue I see is that of the pantheistic god. The ancient Stoics believed in a single eternal god that was identified as the universe. Some Stoics seemed to believe in other gods alongside this supreme God, but they were merely created beings who were more powerful than humans but neither all powerful nor eternal. Only the supreme God was eternal, all other gods would eventually be absorbed back into God along with the rest of the universe.
While this theology is certainly viable in modern Heathenry, it’s not a theology that very many Heathens would grant their ascent to. I certainly don’t believe that there is an omniscient and omnipotent god. But the point of the pantheistic god was to show that the world was providentially ordered in order to build up the rest of the philosophy. Seeing that God instead as the collective whole of the gods (which I like to term the divine Þing or Assembly of the gods), working together with a unified purpose, does no harm to the philosophy as far as I can tell. I have Providence on my list of topics to write on, so I will leave this topic for now.
The argument could be made that since the theology of Stoicism grew out of Hellenic polytheism, Heathens should discard the theology and just take the logic and ethics of Stoicism. There is a good case for a separation of philosophy and religion. Philosophy deals mainly with our own actions, how we conduct ourselves and how we treat others. Religion, on the other hand, deals with our relationship with the gods and other spiritual beings. The philosophy of the classical era tended to blend religion and philosophy together (and Christianity followed suit once it took over in Europe), but there’s no reason that this necessarily needs to be the case. A Heathen is perfectly free to adopt the philosophy of the Stoics while holding on to their own religion. This is the approach taken by many modern Stoics, and it is just as valid for Heathens. That being said, I’m struck by the reverence that all the ancient Stoic writers had for the divine, so I propose a route somewhere in between, one which fits the Stoic cosmology as much as possible without giving up the polytheism that is inherent in Heathenry
So, what does Stoicism look like once it’s been stripped of its theology? It teaches that the goal of life is eudamaemonia. This is usually translated as happiness, but generally means so much more in classical philosophy (I will deal with this more in depth in a future blog post). The Stoics often defined it as being free of mental distress, and taught it was obtained by living a virtuous life. A big part of this fell under the virtue of prudence, and consisted of recognising that which is in our control and that which is not. Stoicism taught that we should direct our energy and thoughts on those things that are within our control, and not worry about those things which are not. Along with prudence, the virtues also include justice, courage, and temperance. It is these four virtues that the Stoics (along with most of the other schools of classical philosophy) thought should guide our lives.
I see no reason why Stoicism cannot act as a personal philosophy for a Heathen. I actually feel like Heathenry and Stoicism compliment each other quite well. In future blog posts I will elaborate more as my understanding of Stoicism grows5, but until then feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below! Beo gesund!1
Wes hāl and Beo gesund are Old English greetings and farewells that literally mean Be well/whole/healthy. The first seemed to be more common among the Anglian dialects and the second more common among the Saxon dialects. I prefer to use both though, the first as a greeting and the second as a farewell. ↩ ↩2
Johnson, Sveinbjorn. “Old Norse and Ancient Greek Ideals.” Ethics 49, no. 1 (1938): 18–36. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2988773. ↩
The Sunday Stoic. “196: The Ways of the North. The Hávamál with Dr. Ben Waggoner”. Youtube. Sept 13, 2020. https://youtu.be/EIefLqoGqfI ↩
There is a movement within modern Stoicism to reverse this trend, and I’ve been finding my research into traditional Stoicism (as the adherents of this movement like to call themselves) fascinating, and finding a lot of agreement between myself and them. I can’t recommend https://traditionalstoicism.com/ highly enough, especially the first 15 episodes of his podcast Stoicism on Fire and the author’s paper Providence or Atoms- a very brief defense of the Stoic worldview (2015) for those who would like to know more. ↩
Please keep in mind that as I’m still pretty new to Stoicism, the thoughts I will be sharing in future blog posts will be my own understanding of Stoicism based upon my reading of ancient and modern sources and discussions with other Stoics. If anything I say is inaccurate, please feel free to let me know! ↩