Anyone who has read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius surely can’t help notice how the Good Emperor makes plenty of references to the ancient concept of the Classical Elements. While he does use them as illustrations of the social nature of the human being, it is clear that he also does believe that these elements are not just metaphorical. He clearly seems to believe that all matter is literally made up of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.While this may be the most blatant example of ancient Stoic philosophers writing or saying things that science has since revealed to be patently false – it is by no means the only one. There are enough such instances that some people might wonder why one should take the philosophy seriously at all in the face of all those contradictions to science.
However, to be fair, it isn’t reasonable to expect that people who lived two millenia ago would have known everything about the natural world that we know today. The question, however, isn’t whether or not everything that the ancient Stoics wrote is consistent with modern science – but whether the essence of the philosophy is – as well as what relevance it has in the modern, scientifically-informed world.
The primitive specifics of chemistry and physics that Marcus Aurelius uses to illustrates certain things about human nature are today known to be false. However, that does not mean that the things about human nature that he’s illustrating are also false. It also does not mean that ethical principles that he emphasizes, such as the importance of truth and reason, are not just as valid.
And the same holds true for any other scientific inaccuracy that an ancient Stoic document might articulate. Understanding Stoicism from the ancient documents requires us to sift apart the actual principles of the philosophy from the specific ways that those principles manifested in the sociocultural context in which the ancient Stoics wrote. This sociocultural context includes, among other things, the level of scientific knowledge that people had at the time.
Once you have distilled the essence of the philosophy from the cultural trappings of the ancient Stoa, you will find that what you are left with is not only consistent with modern science, but very relevant to it. There are disciplines within psychology, for example, that draw heavily upon Stoic philosophy. Among these are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Rational Emotive Therapy. As a matter of fact, some of the big names in modern Stoicism, such as Donald Robertson, are not philosophers by trade, but psychologists.
One particularly noteworthy thing in ancient Stoic literature that may at first glance seem to be at odds with the modern, scientifically-informed view is Epictetus’s discussion on the proper use of divination. Briefly mentioned in Part 32 of the Enchiridion and expounded on in greater detail in Book 2 Chapter 7 of the Discourses, Epictetus describes the mindset with which Stoicism teaches that one should approach the divinatory arts. Modern people who have issue with these mentions may object due to the fact that the methods of divination used in those days, which involved observing the flights of birds or the reading of animal entrails, are not regarded as being sound in today’s scientific age.
But what if these discussions were read with a broader understanding of what divination means? What if it includes modern, scientifically-grounded techniques for shedding light on the future, or on other things that are otherwise hidden from us?
Epictetus writes that when we approach a diviner, we should do so as we approach a stranger whom we ask for directions how to get somewhere. He says that we should prefer an unbiased reading from a diviner. He cautions us to avoid the baser attitude of thanking the diviner should they predict something favorable, while scorning them should they predict something less-than-favorable.
But really, this is very good advice on how to approach, for example, your meteorologist. What use is a weather forecast if it’s going to predict sunny skies and comfortable temperature no matter what the weather is actually likely to be? Chances are you’d prefer a weather forecast that gives you the most accurate and nuanced prediction of the weather that is possible with current scientific knowledge. This way you can effectively plan around it.
This discussion of divination is also useful for scientists in general. When scientists test a hypothesis, they shouldn’t do so with the mindset of wanting the hypothesis to be confirmed if it is favorable, but not confirmed if it isn’t favorable. Good scientists understand that a failed attempt to confirm a hypothesis advances science just as much as a test that actually confirms a hypothesis – provided that both tests are conducted properly.
Even a journalist could use the wisdom from this discussion on divination. If you’re a journalist gathering information – you’re not doing your job correctly if you show up looking to confirm a pre-conception of yours or something that you otherwise find favorable. No. Your job is to report on what you find – no matter what it is. But since journalists are, technically, not scientists (though some do specialize in reporting on science) discussing that any further might be going off-topic.
At any rate – some (if not all) ancient Stoics held some beliefs that today we know to be at odds with science. Furthermore, some of those pre-scientific beliefs made it into the ancient Stoic writings. But is Stoicism itself at odds with science? Absolutely not!
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