Episode 44: Esoteric Hermeneutics in Stoicism

The Stoics that we introduced in the previous episode had more going on esoterically than you might think. In particular, they developed a theory of esoteric perennial wisdom which was to be found in the texts of ancient sages, as well as read by the Stoic sage in the universal correspondences within nature which allow the sciences of divination to function. While it is the Platonist movement which contributes most to the western esoteric outlook on esoteric reading, perennial wisdom, and universal correspondence, Platonism owed a huge, and often-overlooked, debt to Stoicism with regard to all of these ideas.

In this episode we look at the evidence across the history of Stoicism and draw some general conclusions. One is that the Stoics had a belief in cosmic correspondences which marks them out as important precursors to western esotericism in a fundamental way. Another is that they held (or at least some of them held) an idea of a tradition of ancient wisdom passed down by primordial sages in the form of philosophic messages hidden within myths, poems, mysteries, and other religious institutions. In other words, the Stoics invented the philosophia perennis.

Works Discussed in this Episode:


  • Chrysippus of Soli: uses the efficacy of divination as a proof of fate: Eusebius Præp. ev. 4.3.1-2 preserves part of the argument; cf. Cic. De div. 11. Uses Homer and esoteric etymology to prove universal fate: Diogenianus cited in Eusebius Præp. ev. 6.8.8-10; philosophic discourses about the gods are τελεταί: SVF 11.1008.
  • Chæremon: testimony to his esoteric interpretations of the mysteries Chæremon test. 9 = Porph. Contra Christ. fr. 39 Harnack = Eusebius Hist. Eccl. VI 19, 8.
  • Cicero on Stoic divination-theory: De div. I 118, trans. Long/Sedley.
  • Cornutus: Compendium Cap. 17.
  • Derveni Papyrus: we paraphrase 7.4-11.
  • Dio Chrysostom: Oration 12, 39-43. A Stoicising take on the philosophical excellence of the ancients, as contrasted with the men of his day.
  • Heraclitus Stoicus: Quæst. Homer. cap. 3, 6, 79.
  • Plutarch: De Pyth. orac. 407e. On the gods’ motives for their esoteric expression in oracles, which is aimed at concealing the truth from ‘despots’ but allowing those who need to know the truth to access it.
  • Seneca: Ep. ad Lucil. 90, 98: Hæc euis initiamenta sunt.

Sixth-century authors reading Homer esoterically: Metrodorus of Lampsacus: DL 2 11; Theagenes of Rhegium: Schol. Hom. B ad Il. XX.67 (That is, a marginal note to a manuscript of Homer’s Iliad reporting Theagenes’ esoteric interpretation of line 67 of Book Twenty of the Iliad).


  • Boys-Stones, G. R., 2001. Post-Hellenistic Philosophy. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Pp. 56-59 on the importance of Cornutus as founder of the ‘eclectic comparative’ method of esoteric exegesis.
  • Faivre, A. (1992). ‘Introduction’. In: Faivre, A. & Jacob Needleman, e. (Ed.), Modern Esoteric Spirituality, SCM Press, citing p. xv.
  • Lamberton, R., 1989. Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. P. 21, with n. 54.

Recommended Reading:

  • Algra, K. (2009). ‘Stoic Philosophical Theology and Graeco-Roman Religion’. In: Salles, R. (Ed.), God and Cosmos in Stoicism, Oxford University Press, Oxford. Gives a good summary of Stoic ideas about the wise ancients pp. 238-47.
  • Beardsley, M. C. and Winsatt Jr., W. K. (1946). ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, Sewanee Review : 468-488.
  • Casel, O., 1919. De philosophorum graecorum silentio mystico. A. Toepelmann, Giessen. The original and still the best: Casel gathers the main primary sources for Stoic allegorical reading.
  • Heath, M., 2013. Ancient Philosophical Poetics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Long, A. and Sedley, D., 1987. The Hellenistic Philosophers. Vol.1, Translations of the Principal Sources with Philosophical Commentary. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Pépin, J., 1976. Mythe et allégorie: les origines grecques et les contestations Judéo-Chrétiennes. Études Augustiniennes, Paris.
  • Sedley, D. and Brunschwig, J. (2003). ‘Hellenistic Philosophy’. In: Sedley, D. (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy, Cambridge University Press.
  • Struck, P. T., 2004. Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of their Texts. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. Good discussion of Stoic literary theories relevant to esoteric interpretation pp. 111-141.


, , , ,