RtO: Chrysippus’ Pneuma

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Each week, author and poet Y.S. Fing looks at the state of baseball, the movements of the game, the ebb and flow and soul of America’s pastime in Roaming the Outfield. This week: “Chrysippus’ Pneuma”

I’ve always been attracted to Stoic philosophy, in the sense that I knew stoicism was popular in Rome at the same time that Jesus was a gleam in his father’s eye. That made it an alternative. So I was attracted to the idea of a perfectable soul that didn’t have to submit to pious Christian morality. I was attracted to the idea that one had to endure life’s struggles, not to gain entrance into heaven, but to take advantage of the senses and reason with which nature equips us.

But I have long struggled with ‘soul’ and I’m sure we’ve already considered that in a previous essay. So when I came across the Confucian Taoist notion of The Supremely Profound Principle, and Chrysippus’ pneuma, I found myself again reconsidering, what is the soul? How is a human being animated? Where does its spirit come from?

Well, a strong clue comes in the derivation of each of those words, animate and spirit, both of which mean, at root, ‘breathe.’ The earliest Stoics, Zeno and Cleanthes, posited the pneuma as breath, as both the inflation of our bodies with energy, and also as a representation of the divine mind (nous) through reasoned speech (logos). That is, our spirit, our breath, is the animation of our wooden and clay bodies.

The physicality of the idea of pneuma is what strikes me most readily. The idea of God as an intelligent fire also sets me to thinking of the physical body as something like a marionette puppet, which lays stiffly and awkwardly on the floor until the breath of life comes into it through a puppeteer. The idea here is that we are inert until something in us activates us. And I’m looking for that activating stimuli.

I’d like to think that activation can come from baseball and the practice of virtue. Of course, others may not take to baseball. They prefer knitting, or music, or art. It’s all good. The truly important thing is to convince one’s self to be virtuous. And the reason for that is Chrysippus.



He went further than Zeno and Cleanthes. He didn’t just say that humans were animated by pneuma. He said the entire universe was animated by pneuma. This from Josiah Gould”s Chrysippus and the Pneuma, from 1970: “…there is an unqualified matter or substance through which a pneumatic current pulsates and though these two elements can be separated in thought, they, in fact, do not exist independently. They are so closely wed and interpenetrated to such a degree that they are, as it were, the two aspects, the passive and the active, of an eternal, unified mass, in terms of which the cycles, the ever-recurring life and death of the universe and all that occurs in it, can be explained.”

This meant that pneuma blended into everything, the macrocosmic and the microcosmic, that all of the universe is divine, not just some. Our breath is the breath of divinity. We are in direct contact with the divine, and we are animations of the divine. This is a solid foundation for an atheistic morality, and a good way to approach the vulgar divinity of baseball.

Just look at the last two Nationals victories in Philadelphia after Labor Day. They were both ugly and enthralling, awkward and thrilling, uncomfortable and (well, not triumphant, but) hopeful. We can’t separate out the individual causes of bad or inspired baseball. The difference between success and failure is infinitesimal. Who knows?!?! The sincerest thing we can do is to be aware of our good fortune and to give thanks for it, to pay attention to virtue.

That’s why Chrysippus’ pneuma is so important to baseball. Our breath connects us to the perfect wisdom and flow and structure of the universe. If we are under control, connected to the universe’s turning, and playing a game we love and are disciplined to, we can be virtuous. We can let to result take care of itself. To watch Steve Lombardozzi, Jordan Zimmermann and Jhonatan Solano making such brilliant defensive plays late in the September 4 game is to see it all come together.

Zimmermann was not even looking directly at the ball, as he scooped it up at full gallop, while he properly tagged first base! Please watch that play repeatedly. The intelligent fire was in him. And Solano’s flat-out dive was both desperation and beauty. The energy he let out in the play and the celebration were pure. Sparkling pneuma. The Supremely Profound Principle. A wonderful thing to see.

To hear Ray Knight tell it that Wednesday night, the Nats had to go 19-4 in their last 23 games, while the Cincinnati Reds had to go 12-10 in their last 22 (or some permutation of those records), in order to make the playoffs. I don’t think it’s a question of belief. I think it’s a question of performance. And I know that this Nats team has the ability to perform such a feat. I’ve seen it many times before.

But I still want to be Stoic about it. The odds are poor. Pressure through most of the season has caused them to tighten up. Perhaps this is where the puppeteer, Davey Johnson will be most effective. There’s still reason for hope, but let’s take it one game at a time.


Y.S Fing loves baseball the way that his parents wish he loved Catholicism.