Princeton University Press’s most recent volume, “How to Think About God,” is a handbook of paganism, an antique “Mere Christianity.” While none of its wisdom will get you to Heaven, it will certainly help you lead a better and more fulfilling life here and now.
Over the last several years, Princeton University Press has been issuing its very modern take on the Loeb Classical Library. Still with the Latin on one side and the English translation on the other, Princeton’s versions—entitled, overall, “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers”—are slightly shorter than their Loeb counterparts, more easily read in a single sitting. Not surprisingly, given the passage of the past century, the modern translations are also much less archaic than those of Loeb. As such, the new Princeton books are basically presented as handbooks, guides, or self-help books written by antique authors. Short, compact, and printed on bright paper with tight bindings, the Princeton books are nothing short of snazzy. Each contains the translated text as well as a short introduction and concludes with a short “further reading” section.
Pepperdine University’s Philip Freeman, the Fletcher Jones Chair and Professor of Humanities, has expertly edited Princeton’s most recent volume in the series, How to Think about God: An Ancient Guide for Believers and Non-Believers. It just hit the shelves this fall, and it’s a delight. The text combines two of Cicero’s famous pieces on metaphysics, “On the Nature of the Gods” and “The Dream of Scipio.” The book reads like a pagan version of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.
“On the Nature of the Gods” follows the Stoic teachings of the divine, noting that the Stoics hold four things to be true: that they exist; that they have a distinct nature; that they have a distinct sense of governance; and, finally, that they care about the lives of human beings—individually and as a whole. Admittedly, the Stoic evidence for God and the gods is more interesting than convincing. Such proofs come, according to the Stoics, from contemplation of the vastness and beauty of the universe, the continued belief in the gods (unlike other superstitions, which have fallen out of favor over the centuries), the revelations of the gods themselves in human history, the overheard voices of fauns, and the true predictions of the future. With such proofs, the Stoic argues, one must be either a fool or impious not to believe. “Perhaps someone might say that not all predictions turn out to be true,” Cicero’s speaker admitted, “But we wouldn’t say that because not all sick people get better there is no art of medicine.”
Cicero’s characters also recognize the practicality of belief in the gods. “The good of our country was increased when these generals followed religious practices,” he recorded.
The gods, though, especially touch and affect the soul, according to the Stoics, allowing us to know them intimately.
Cleanthes of our Stoic tradition said there are four ways in which the nature of the gods is made known to our souls. The first, which I just now discussed, arises from the foreknowledge of future events. The second, we receive from the abundant benefits that come to us from our temperate climate, the fertility of the Earth, and many other blessings. The third method of divine revelation is from the terror we feel in our souls from lightning, storms, downpours of rain, snow, hail, devastation, plague, and earthquakes, as well as from rumblings of the ground, showers of stones, and raindrops as red as blood.
The fourth, however, is the best and most convincing, the speaker continued, as it reveals the order present in the divine mind. It “is the uniform and constant movement of the heavens, that is, the variety, usefulness, beauty, and order of the Sun, Moon, and all the stars.” When we witness such things, we recognize the creator as “an intelligent mind at work whose orders are obeyed.” No human would dream that he or she had any part in the creation of such order, and, thus, must conclude that a greater power did. “Therefore, that which created them is superior to man. What would we call this creator other than God?”
In all of this, Cicero’s speaker continued, God speaks to man through a common language, reason.
But that quality we have that surpasses all of these, which I call reason—though you may also call it intelligence, deliberation, thought, or wisdom—where did we discover or obtain that? It is possible that the universe contains these other qualities but not that one thing which is greater than all the rest? Now, it is certain that there is nothing greater than the universe. Not only is there nothing superior and more beautiful, but we can’t even conceive of anything beyond it. Therefore, if there is no human quality better than reason or wisdom, it must also exist in that which we have agreed is the grandest thing of all.
Cicero took this line of argumentation much further—and with much greater depth—in his famous dialogue, On the Laws. Here, though, Cicero’s speaker claimed that through reason the universe is one with God, offering a sort of intelligent pantheism. “Thus we can assume that the universe must possess wisdom and that the element which holds together all that exists excels in perfect reason. From this we see that the universe is in fact God and that the vital force of the universe is held together by this divine nature.” In and through its own reason, the universe also moves toward perfection, order, and harmony. From its beginning, the universe was good and wise, and it only moves towards an even greater goodness, truth, and beauty. In our contemplation of the good, the true, and the beautiful, we humans become better. “Humans have emerged for contemplating and imitating the universe. We are certainly not perfect, but we are a part of perfection.”
Only half as long as “On the Nature of the Gods,” the “Dream of Scipio” is a meditation on piety toward one’s country. “So that you may be more eager to preserve the Republic, know this: for everyone who has saved, helped, or increased the fatherland, there is a special place set aside in the heavens where they may enjoy blessed eternal happiness. For there is nothing on earth more pleasing to that highest God who rules the whole universe than those councils and gatherings under law of people which are called states.”
Metaphysical at times as well, the “Dream of Scipio” claims that all human souls come from the stars themselves, each animated by fire, which is the “first principle.” As such, the individual should strive for justice and piety, appeasing that which is eternal rather than that which is temporary. “Pay no attention to what the common mob might say about you and place none of your hopes in human rewards. Let virtue herself by her own allurements draw you to true honor.”
As noted above, How to Think About God, is a handbook of paganism, an antique Mere Christianity. While none of its wisdom will get you to heaven, it will certainly help you lead a better and more fulfilling life here and now.
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The featured image is “Roman Capriccio: The Pantheon and Other Monuments” (1735) by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.