[2.2.6] Stoic Cosmology

For the Stoics, the universe:

  • is a unitary spherical body located in the void, with properties resembling those of a living being,
  • can be entirely explained by two principles, the active pneuma and the passive matter,
  • has a life cycle consisting of three ever-repeating phases, characterized by the dominance of fire (conflagration), of elements, and of bodies (in the present period).

The stoic cosmological model is using concepts from stoic ontology [2.2.5] and psychology [2.2.1].

The OntoUML diagram below presents the structure of the stoic universe:

Stoic cosmology
Universe“The governing metaphor for Stoic cosmology is biological, in contrast to the fundamentally mechanical conception of the Epicureans. The entire cosmos [universe] is a living thing and God stands to the cosmos as an animal’s life force stands to the animal’s body, enlivening, moving and directing it by its presence throughout. The Stoics insistence that only bodies are capable of causing anything, however, guarantees that this cosmic life force must be conceived of as somehow corporeal.”
“Just as living things have a life-cycle that is witnessed in parents and then again in their off-spring, so too the universe has a life cycle that is repeated. This life cycle is guided by, or equivalent to, a developmental plan that is identified with God. There is a cycle of endless recurrence, beginning from a state in which all is fire, through the generation of the elements, to the creation of the world we are familiar with, and eventually back to the state of pure designing fire called the conflagration’” UniversOnFire,
are all phases of Universe
PneumaGod is identified with an eternal reason or intelligent designing fire or a breath (pneuma) which structures matter in accordance with Its plan. The designing fire is likened to sperm or seed which contains the first principles or directions of all the things which will subsequently develop. The biological conception of God as a kind of living heat or seed from which things grow seems to be fully intended. The further identification of God with pneuma or breath may have its origins in medical theories of the Hellenistic period…
More specifically, God is identical with one of the two ungenerated and indestructible first principles (archai) of the universe.”
contained in the PresentUniverse
Pneuma comes in gradations and endows the bodies which it pervades with different qualities as a result. The pneuma which sustains an inanimate object is a tenor (hexis, lit. a holding). Pneuma in plants is, in addition, physique (phusis, lit. nature). In animals, pneuma is soul (psychê) and in rational animals pneuma is, besides, the [central] commanding faculty (hêgemonikon) – that is responsible for thinking, planning, deciding. The Stoics assign to ‘physique’ or ‘nature’ all the purely physiological life functions of a human animal (such as digestion, breathing, growth etc.) – self-movement from place to place is due to soul. Tenor, Nature, Soul,
CentralCommandingFaculty are subkinds of Pneuma;
Tenor is contained in the Body;
Nature is contained in the Plant, Animal and Human;
Soul is contained in Animal and Human;
CentralCommandingFaculty is contained in Human
Matter “One principle [of the Universe] is matter which they regard as utterly unqualified and inert. It is that which is acted upon.” is contained by the Universe and Body
Body “Only bodies (σώματα, sômata) have being, or exist. Slogan: to exist is to have causal powers. Plato in the Sophist (247d–e): ‘Now, I say that what has some power to make something else into something, or to suffer the slightest, even once, this has real being. For I define being as nothing but power (δύναμις).’ The Stoic conception of existence is thus dynamic. Matter as such is passive, but bodies are not, since they are also infused by logos, which is active… only bodies can act or be acted upon” is part of the PresentUniverse
Inanimate object;
these are BodiesInanimate object,
Plant, Animal,
Human subkinds of Body
ElementElements are continuous, infinitely divisible substancesis part of Matter;
is contained by UnverseOfElements
Fire; Earth; Water; AirFire, Earth, Water; Air are subkinds of Element;
Fire is contained by Universe in Fire


  • All citations from: Baltzly, Dirk, “Stoicism”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • Suzanne Bobizen, Early Stoic Determinism, Presses Universitaires de France | Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 2005/4 – n° 48

First published: 28/11/2019
Updated: 20/1/2022

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