The Magical Universe Panda of the Stoics

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“Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the contexture of the web.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.40

This week finds us getting deep, I guess, so let’s talk about how the Stoics believed that the universe was a giant panda.

Pause for dramatic effect….

Okay, not really. But they did believe that the universe was an animal. Not an animal like a Camel or a panda or a dragon, but an animal like a Universe; as in, we have camels-type animals, bird-type animals, fish-type animals, and Universe-type animals. As in the Universe itself is a type, a very rare type, of animals.

Is this anthropomorphic magic nonsense? I’m not so sure. Remember, I’m an atheist, but I’m also an atheist who says that the Stoic idea of god doesn’t offend me or, and I truly believe this, I don’t think the Stoic concept of god should offend any atheist because it’s not supernatural… calling it a god, referring to it that way, is hugely frustrating, for me anyway, but that’s because the word god carries a lot of obnoxious baggage for some people. And Stoicism is so ancient that we’re not going to look at the details of the Stoic claim that the universe is an animal, we’re just going to think that the Stoics believe in some big giant sky universe panda because they’re stupid.

Right?

But I want to think about this a little bit with you. I’m not entirely made up on this, I’m not sure how I feel about it, but I’m thinking, why can’t we see the Universe as an animal? Why isn’t that possible? It’s the only sort of its kind, that we know of, and it doesn’t have eyeballs like we think animals do, and it doesn’t have legs like we think animals do, and it doesn’t make noise like animals do… but… well… that’s what I want to talk about because… doesn’t it?

In order to be an animal, let’s say a mammal, science tells us that:

An animal refers to any of the eukaryotic multicellular organisms of the biological kingdom Animalia. Animals of this kingdom are generally characterized to be heterotrophic, motile, having specialized sensory organs, lacking a cell wall, and growing from a blastula during embryonic development.

Okay, what’s a eukaryot?

Organisms whose cells have a nucleus.

Okay, what’s an organism?

any organic, living system that functions as an individual entity

Okay, well, the Universe is certainly organic. I would say also it functions as an individual entity, the only one of its kind maybe (assuming multiverse theory is false). But is it living? What exactly is “living?”

a quality that distinguishes matter that has biological processes, such as signaling and self-sustaining processes, from that which does not, and is defined by the capacity for growth, reaction to stimuli, metabolism, energy transformation, and reproduction.

Now, look, I’m not saying I’m sold, but I am saying that a clever person, more clever than me, could probably put together a coherent statement that described the Universe as being an animal given the definitions we’ve just read. It’s organic, it has stars which might act as nuclei, and seems to fit the definition of an organism, and it most certainly fits the definition of being alive. So then… is it possible that strand of hair is to human body as human body is to universe?

Does the universe have eyes and arms and legs? Well, I mean, we have arms and legs and we’re one of the the things that make up the universe so… in a way, the Universe has a lot of arms and legs, and eyes, and I guess also butt cheeks. I mean, at the very least perhaps it is like a giant globular amoeba? And is that so far off from thinking of it like a singular stand alone animal?

I don’t think it is. It might be a little bit metaphorical, maybe, in the end, but that’s not supernatural is it? We atheist are happy to say someone is a brave lion, or a timid bird, and we don’t think those things aren’t useful in describing people or designing a view of them in our heads… so calling the universe and animal? Even if it’s not a metaphor and we literally identify it as animal-type Universe?

I don’t know, I don’t think that’s too god-like for an atheist. It doesn’t seem to be fore me anyway.

I’d really like to know what you think about this. But I’d like to know in a certain way, because I want to use that audio of your responses in an upcoming discussion on this very subject with someone who knows more than I do about his sort of thing—I’m not sure who that person is, and by that I don’t mean that it’s hard to find someone smarter than me, I mean it might be hard to find someone to talk on a subject that, on the surface, looks like we’re trying to describe the universe as a giant magical panda. But if we really care about talking about Stoicism we’ve got to tackle all the things, right?

So do this for me, go to stoicismpod.com/ask and record your thoughts. I’d like to hear from as many of you as possible, I mean like hundreds, because you must have a reaction to this. I won’t be able to use every response if there are a bunch but I very much want to hear all your thoughts even if they’re not featured. If you’ve got followup questions, include them. Also, if you’ve never left a question for the show in this way, you do not, when singing up to the feature to do so, need to use your real name. So put in a fake name if you’d prefer to be anonymous, that’s fine by me.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to to take out the trash, do the dishes, and take some feed out to the Universe panda. Take care.

About the author

Tanner Campbell

Hi, I'm Tanner. I spend most of my time writing in the philosophy space and I'm the host of the Practical Stoicism podcast. When I'm not writing, I'm reading or recording. In rare moments when I'm not writing, reading, or recording, I'm spending time with my partner and our dogs.

5 comments

  • I truly believe in a rational, divine and conscious Cosmos and believe that it is narcissistic for atheists to believe that “consciousness” comes from random conglomeration of matter as opposed to consciousness pre-existing humans and being part of our interconnected Universe. Instead, it is much more reasonable to believe that the human brain has “tapped into” the universal phenomena of consciousness. Also, quantum physics has proven that consciousness impacts matter which further negates the premise that matter begets consciousness.

    • I think narcissistic is an odd choice of words. You could just say you don’t agree. I know plenty of atheists who think it’s narcissistic for Christians to believe God created an entire universe just for them. My point is just that the insult (I think) you’re attempting to level at atheists is easily turned around on you (or anyone else who would think the universe, or a specific god of creation, cared specifically for them on an individual level). I think it’s better to just say you don’t agree than it is to paint all atheists with the broad brush of “narcissism.”

  • I don’t understand the relevance of the Stoic cosmology, or importance of needing to know what the universe is other than it just being the universe.
    I don’t think of the universe as a animal other than metaphorically. But I can’t prove it isn’t and nobody can prove it is. There for does it matter? It is out of our control. To believe something that cannot be proved is simply faith. Which is a choice of the individual an neither right or wrong. If the original Stoics came up with the theory 2000 years ago, science has moved on and I think it may (or may not) be that they would come to different hypothesis in current time and even others in another 2000 years. We can only make our best educated guess at the time with evidence available.
    However. Why does this matter to the practicing Stoic. How can it inform our decisions, aid our relationships or assist virtue. Should the universe not simply be identified as the universe?

      • Thank you Tanner.
        Is there any practical application?
        Eg. Buddhist reincarnation considers at some time in the past or future everyone at some point will be both your parents and child. Therefore show them that love now. Regardless if you believe in reincarnation or not it can be a good practice to build comparison.
        Does Stoic cosmology have any similar practice? Or can it be set aside without impacting practical Stoic learning?
        Thanks again. Love the show.
        Very much enjoying Practical Cynicism and looking forward to Practical Buddhism.