What it Means to Have A Piece of Divinity Within You

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There is an ancient idea in Stoicism that we all have a piece of divinity within us. Later adopted by the Christians, this idea has evolved into Western philosophy as a whole and has even manifested itself into our modern laws. Its clear implication is that all humans have inherent value. However, the concept is a bit abstract in some ways, and certainly can be confusing. How can we understand and think about this idea of shared divinity in a rational way?

Defining “Divinity”

The word divinity is mainly associated with religious circles, and for good reason. Mariam-Webster defines the word as:

Divine — of, relating to, or proceeding directly from God or a god

Being divine, then, means that someone or something is god, of god, or similar to a god. We then run into the near-impossible task of defining what god means. In the West, the word “god” manifests images of a man in the clouds, but that is only because Western society was built on Judaeo-Christian values, which worships the Abrahamic god. Of course, God in Christianity and Judaism isn’t simply a man in the clouds either, but there is certainly a supernatural god from which this imagery arises.

God in Stoicism

The Stoics believed in a pantheistic god. This means that God is nature, in and of itself. Though it’s not exactly the same, a modern way of thinking about pantheism is that it’s similar to the Force in Star Wars — it is everything that exists and is connected through certain laws, and we all share in its power. Perhaps another way of thinking about it is Mother Nature.

Pantheism — a doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the universe

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Of course, many of the Greek Stoics worshipped the Greek gods as well, such as Zeus. However, the philosophy of Stoicism is built upon the pantheistic god.

Abstractly Defining God

The point so far is that what god means is complicated, and it isn’t as simple as many of us are conditioned to believe. Stoic author Kai Whiting made the point on the Strong Stoic Podcast that one could call a tree their god — it gives them life through the air, after all — and how could anyone argue that the tree isn’t real?

In an effort to do the impossible, let’s attempt to define god. Perhaps we can best view it as an ideal, the highest good, or something to aim at. It’s certainly true that we need something to aim at in life in order to be happy. This is true philosophically, as evident by any school of philosophy or religion, but it’s also true in neuroscience — the happy hormone dopamine is released when we see ourselves moving closer to a goal.

You could argue, in fact, that the main question that philosophy aims to answer is:

How should we act such that we maximize our chances of achieving a state of flourishing for ourselves and our loved ones?

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If you could imagine how this person would think and act, then that sounds like an ideal or the highest good. Modern people often phrase this as being your best self. Some branches of Christianity even have the phrase “what would Jesus do?” which is akin to asking “what would the ideal person do?”. Roughly speaking, it’s something like being the most virtuous person despite the most tragic life. These are defined as heroes.

An ideal is the most virtuous person despite the most tragic life.

The Ideal in Stoicism

In Stoicism, this abstract definition of god holds true. The main axiom of Stoicism is to live according to Nature. But recall that the Stoics believed in a pantheistic god, which is nature, so we could equally say that Stoicism is about living according to God. I understand that some modern Stoics may get nervous at such an equation, but even if we dispel with the pantheistic god, Stoicism still aims at an ideal, often defined as the Sage.

A Sage is the “perfect Stoic”, someone who is virtue embodied, and that is exactly what Stoicism is aimed at. The “highest good”, even for a rational, modern Stoic, is an ideal, which is psychologically equivalent to god.

The Purpose of Aiming Up

I mentioned above that we need something to aim at in order to be happy, but it does beg the question: what is the purpose of aiming up? The Stoics have a great answer to this: we aim up so that we can live a flourishing life and create a better world. That is the purpose of having an ideal and trying to act it out — you get to be happier, and the world becomes a better place for your generation and future generations because of your efforts.

What It Means to Be Divine

With god being defined as an ideal or the “highest good”, and divinity defined as being of or like God, we can now map out what it means to be divine. Being divine means that you are your ideal. It means that you are acting in a way that the most ideal person would act. In Stoicism, it means that you are a Sage. In Christianity, it may mean that you are acting as Christ would.

Recall, though, that the idea is of shared divinity. It means that we all have a piece of the divine within us, but that we are flawed human beings at the end of the day. Is it even possible to be divine?

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What we need to be happy in life is not a product, but rather a process. That is, we don’t need to be perfect, but we do need to be perfecting ourselves. We don’t need to be at the summit of the mountain, but we do need to be climbing it. Hence, it is best to think about having a divine spark within you as having the potential to be the ideal. Having the potential to be the ideal means that you have the capacity to become better over time; you have the potential to become virtuous.

Since the purpose of aiming at the highest good is to create a flourishing state of being for yourself and the world, we could say that:

Having a piece of divinity within you means that you have the capacity to be your best self, partaking in the process that brings a better, flourishing world into being.

And I can think of a few sentiments that are as beautiful as that.

Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning more, listen to similar reflections on The Strong Stoic Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.

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