Just like we agnostic and atheist Stoics have to struggle to reconcile our beliefs with the Stoic tradition we have claimed for our own (see “Zeus for Atheists“), Christians who become interested in Stoic literature also have to navigate the question of how their tradition and doctrines mesh with philosophy.
Both questions are deeply interesting to me, in no small part because I have a Christian family and I’m in an interfaith marriage (aside: shoutout to Dale McGowans’ excellent book, In Faith and in Doubt!)—and so I regularly engage with Christianity, Humanism, and Stoicism, sometimes all at the same time!
In fact, the title of this blog—Euthyphroria—is a subtle shoutout to exactly the question of how humanistic and religious morality do or don’t mesh together (a question that Socrates discusses in Plato’s Euthyphro).
The question of Christian-Stoic compatibility comes up frequently in social media. The topic has been treated a number of times in Stoicism Today, and severalrelevantfull-length books have been published in the last few years—but perhaps a brief explanation would be more helpful to you than a long scholarly treatise!
Not atheism this time. A bigger and more practical way that people differ in their interpretation of ethical practice is this: is your way of life an ascetic practice?
Depending on who you ask, Stoicism is either the most chill and normal thing in the world, or it’s an austere moral discipline worthy of St. Ignatius himself. Stoicism Today has published a round of debate on the issue, there are unconfirmed rumors that the word “monastery” originated in late Roman Stoic practices, Anna of A Stoic Remedy points out that Musonius Rufus has been called the world’s first ascetic theorist, and the ongoingarguments we contemporaries have about what the label “Stoic” really means for practice often implicitly require interlocutors to stake out a position for themselves somewhere on a continuum between “ascetic” and “enlightened hedonist” (though the latter is usually just a polite way of accusing someone of Epicureanism—the horror!).
I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately, because—unlike many of the theoretical issues that every tradition is constantly tempted to debate—the idea of “ascetic” or “not” has big implications for how I actually put Stoic teachings into practice in my life.
I will explore Stoic asceticism in three parts over the next week or so:
For this first post, I just want to focus on the reasons we have for being worried about the damage that asceticism (and Stoic teachings that look like asceticism) can do if used improperly! I believe laying out these concerns ahead of time gives us important context for the conversation ahead.
The Alarm Bells
If you’re like me, the word “ascetic” immediately triggers an array of instinctive defenses.
I cried as I lowered the flag at our site today. I can’t imagine raising my daughters in this world. I don’t know what to do.
This comment showed up in my company’s online LGBTQ group this morning, where employees around the country gathered to process this weekend’s horrific shooting.
Another wounded soul had this to say:
I’ve been feeling similar waves of helplessness. This tragedy is heartbreaking and it made me linger this morning and not want to leave my wife and our young son. I hope we can take comfort in each other, knowing there are other parents like us everywhere teaching our children about love and respect and peace, and one day hopefully the love we teach today will prevail tomorrow. And I know this is silly, but I dug around my desk when I got in this morning and found my rainbow bracelet from last June. Somehow putting it on made me feel a little better.
At times like this, some Stoics also turn to Social media: “how should a Stoic respond to such horrible tragedies,” we ask. While we usually speak of virtue in solemn, respectful tones—tragedies like this shake us. “How can we—how can anyone—maintain anything resembling equanimity in the face of such, let’s call it what it is, evil?”
I just want to say one thing, though: Maintaining equanimity and tranquility is meaningless if we achieve it through detachment and avoidance.
Don’t ignore the news. Don’t avoid thinking about what this massacre means, emotionally and existentially, for Orlando and for the LGBTQ community in particular. Let yourself feel the horror, feel the fear, feel genuine empathy and compassion.
A Stoic feels everything. Making “right judgments” about “externals,” moreover, is meaningless if we fail to first appreciate and engage earnestly with the human condition. There is no virtue in remaining strong and unfazed simply because we have failed to care about the suffering of others. Caring comes first.
Then, if you feel the need, you may turn to the Stoics for comfort and advice on how to respond. I recommend #91 of Seneca’s Letters, which is a summary of a consolation he wrote to Liberalis after the the city of Lyon was destroyed by a fire.
The Golden Rule is fantastic. All the world’s major literary cultures—Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, ancient Egyptians, and, especially, Confucians—have at some point recognized that, if you had to choose just one short proverb to live your life by, “treat others the way we want to be treated” is pretty much the best you can do.
The Golden Rule is powerful because it is universal: it captures most of morality in just a single sentence.
I think that a good piece of philosophy, however, has to be more than broad-reaching. A good proverb has to jump out at you with specifics. It needs to immediately suggest to you the ways that you can take action to improve your adherence to virtue—not just in some hypothetical scenario in the distance future, but right now.
In its common, general form, the Golden Rule doesn’t really meet this criterion. For the Golden Rule to be useful as a philosophy—as a self-monitoring tool, as a meditation practice, as a way of life—it needs to be operationalized.
This is why I love the post that Rob Thompson wrote this weekend over at Prokopton.com:Why Stoics should Love the Golden Rule. Rob collects no less than 7 variations of the Golden Rule from ancient Stoic literature—and the interesting thing about them is that they are all situation-specific.
When you study ancient Stoicism, you can’t help but start to see all manner of cultural conversations differently than you did before.
I’m finding this especially true of movies (and I’m not alone—Massimo Pigliucci has felt compelled to write a number of Stoicmoviereviews this year), but boy oh boy is it true of Angry Birds, which premiered this weekend in the US.
In many ways it’s your standard film about a charming, imperfect, and all-too-relatable hero. Angry Birds is a delightful story about an awkward denizen of Bird Island who has an anger problem. The film tracks his progress from a dysfunctional member of the avian Utopia who is ordered by a judge to anger management class to the role of a hero: his anger turns out to be the critical tool that the birds need to protect themselves against the eggsistential threat of the big bad pigs!
At the story’s hinge moment, the entire bird community realizes that they are in over their head—and they turn to the outcast students of the anger management class (of all people!) as their teachers. In order to fight for justice, the birds want to be taught anger.
“This is not the time to be calm and detached!” announce the heroes, as a giant red bird with a violent past too horrible to describe points to a chalk board, showing the innocent birds how to be angry. This is the time to be non-calm, this is a time to care. By the end of the story, the birds have absorbed the film’s moral lesson into their mythology: a group of chicks sing a minstrel song about their hero, listing his virtues: “Bravery, humility, an-gaa-ry!”
The film is charming and heart-warming—by now you have seen many cartoons like it. I never knew there were so many ways to make anger look so cute and harmless!
At the same time, however, as a Stoic, I fundamentally disagree with the film’s moral premise: that if we care, if we want to fight for justice, we must be angry.
Anna over at A Stoic Remedy has written a lovely post on habits and practices that newcomers to Stoicism can engage in—like reading the ancient texts, looking back over passages that you’ve highlighted as powerful to you, and finding a meaningful method of meditation.
I want to add just one idea to her list: memory verses. I’ve already written about how I find certain passages from Seneca and Epictetus helpful for battling procrastination and self-doubt. I’ve recently taken this a step further, by starting to memorize passages that I find morally powerful, as a kind of (secular) spiritual exercise.
Exercise (askesis) is more than a metaphor in ancient philosophy—we form the soul into something good in much the same way that we strengthen the body.
Memorizing sacred texts is something most of us left behind with our religious youth groups—but memorization need not be a strictly religious activity. Memorization can in some way be more powerful than other kinds of study and meditation.
The ancients took memorizing maxims very seriously: it was viewed as a first-rate spiritual exercise for moving principles into one’s character. The Epicureans, for instance, boiled down their entire philosophy into the famous fourfold remedy, which students could easily recall whenever they were faced with difficult situations:
The gods are not to be feared,
Death is not to be dreaded,
What is good is easy to acquire,
What is bad is easy to bear.
Now that I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading Stoic books, I’ve decided that memorizing a few encouraging maxims is the best way for me to take my practice to the next level. Because mindfulness and virtuous action are the most interesting parts of Stoicism to me personally, here’s the one I’ve chosen to get started:
Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live. The inescapable is hanging over your head; while you have life in you, while you still can, make yourself good.
—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.17.
A text like this, I think, is especially powerful as a morning meditation: it’s motivational, it inspires me to think about what virtues I will need to practice today, and to throw myself into them full force.
It’s also a great one to recite out loud while exercising physically! It spurs me to action, but also turns physical exercise into a symbolic ritual: I should attend to my mind and character in the same way that I attend to my body.
Work is not a good. So what is? Not minding the work.
—Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 31.4.
Just how much will power is it reasonable to expect of myself?
Since discovering Stoicism at the beginning of this year, I am finding something extremely powerful in Stoic mindfulness.
At its most basic level, philosophy calls me to think about very good ways to spend my life. This is what it means to live as if you could die tomorrow. “Pretty much every decision I make has a moral dimension,” says Massimo Pigliucci in his New York Times piece on his modern Stoic practice, “and needs to be approached with proper care and thoughtfulness.”
For me, this has meant that I have consciously identified several areas of my life where I would like to function more reliably:
Call my parents and grandparents more regularly.
Send birthday cards to my friends and family (on time!).
Do nice things for my fiancée spontaneously.
Work diligently every day.
Respond to emails quickly.
Be reliable for others: Be punctual, and get tasks done early—especially those little ones that are easy to put off!