The Ontology of the Stoics and Epicureans

The Stoics borrowed their arche of the universe from Heraclitus.  Heraclitus believed that the universal element of all things was ultimately fire.  It’s not clear whether he believed this metaphorically or literally.  Heraclitus believed the universe always in a state of becoming, never any substantial being to anything.  Everything was in a state of flux.

One can suppose that Heraclitus believed fire was the primary element of the universe because he saw everything always in a state of process or transience, things going in and out of existence.  A fire starts, burns, and then extinguishes itself.  Similarly things are born, sustain for a little while, and then die.

The Logos, which is the word, law, or order of everything is itself fire and manifestly orders the world.  Heraclitus saw the Logos as containing contradiction: day/night, birth/death, winter/summer, love/strife, war/peace, etc, etc.  The Logos was the unifying principle of opposites and it explained why people had contradictory opinions.  But the Logos was the ultimate truth because it contained all things and all opposites.

The Epicureans borrowed their arche of the universe from Democritus.  Democritus believed that all change in the universe was a result of changeless atoms that moved through the void.  Democritus had the idea that if you kept cutting things into pieces, you’d eventually yield indivisible pieces that could no longer be cut any further:  atoms.

Democritus actually had a pretty good idea about how atoms and the void were real but our impression of sweetness, bitter, cold, hot, color were all in our heads.  Democritus believed that only atoms and the void were real but everything else built from atoms was an illusion.  This is particularly interesting because it seems almost like a time travelling physicist went back in time and told Democritus that this was really how the universe was ordered.

The Stoics basically took the idea of the Logos and made it into a deterministic driving force of the universe not too dissimilar to Heraclitus.  The Epicureans took the idea of the atoms and void and made it into a system of randomness with coincidental order.  The Epicureans believed that everything was pretty much randomly produced from atoms and then dispersed back into atoms.

Because of the Stoic’s notion of the universe as deterministic and orderly, they essentially had to believe free will was somehow compatible with determinism.  Because of the Epicurean’s notion of the universe as indeterministic and chaotic, they essentially believed free will was totally enabled by atoms being able to randomly swerve and thus people were able to freely do things without being dictated by prior causes.

It’s interesting to think that the Stoic notion of determinism and the Epicurean notion of indeterminism basically foretold 20th century physics.  On the macroscopic level, the universe appears to be deterministic.  On the quantum level, the universe appears to be indeterministic.  It really makes you think that physicists from the 20th century told the Epicureans and Stoics incomplete information about the cosmos and told them that was how things actually were.

A drawing of a Lithium atom. In the middle is the nucleus, which in this case has four neutrons (blue) and three protons (red). Orbiting it are its three electrons.pexels-photo-207353.jpeg


Who was right about the Cosmos? Epicureans or Stoics?

Out of the Epicureans and Stoics, who was right about the Cosmos?  Both!  Marcus Aurelius said he’d follow Stoic ethics whether or not the universe was random or providential (specifically deterministic).  Well, it turns out they were both right.

The Epicureans believed that the universe was composed of atoms that swerve randomly/chaotically.  We were just an assortment of atoms and the void.  Well, they were basically right.  Only atoms as we now know them are actually divisible (as opposed to what atom actually means in the Greek “indivisible).  The real “atoms” of today are like quarks and leptons.  On the quantum level, quarks and leptons and even atoms behave randomly.  We can only probabilistically determine what their momentum or position will be.  Quantum mechanics agrees very strongly with Epicureans.

What about the Stoics and their notion of the Logos?  Well, Logos is just a law of the universe.  It turns out that today there are many laws.  Physicists hope to unify all the laws of the universe into one fundamental laws that we can derive all the lawlike equations from.  The Stoics were definitely right to believe there was something lawlike to how matter proceeded through time.  There are lots of patterns in nature that science has now revealed to us.  There’s a rhyme and reason to almost everything today.  We just need sophisticated computers to spit out equations that let us know the rhyme and reason.

What’s more?  The idea of Logos as a fiery animate matter organizing inanimate matter may seem far fetched.  But what if we replaced fiery animate matter with energy?  Energy is the ability of matter to do work on other matter.  It’s not clear exactly what the Stoics had in mind but it sounds kind of like energy when they talk about the fiery Logos.  Not just the lawlike behavior of it but its input of energy.


Why did philosophers of different schools cross the road?

Why did the Epicurean cross the road? Atoms randomly swerving made her do it.

Why did the Stoic cross the road? Because of rigid determinism.

Why did the Cynic cross the road? To go to the market place and shamelessly publicly masturbate.




Stoics: there is only the fiery Logos and its providence
Epicureans: there is only the atoms and the void
Aristotle: there is exactly five elements and earth is at the center of all the elements
Plato: there is only abstract entities and matter is an illusion
Skeptics: it is impossible to know what is
Diogenes the Cynic: there is only this barrel. It’s a really nice urn, it keeps me sheltered at night. It’s made of the finest ceramic.