Friday, June 29, 2007

The Stoics rise again in recent books

Look at this partial list of books released so far this year regarding the Stoics. Consider their the "self-help" orientation to these particular titles:

Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom by William O. Stephens
Stoic Serenity: A Practical Course on Finding Inner Peace by Keith Seddon
The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, and Fate by Tad Brennan

In recent years, even more self-help books have appealed to the Stoics, including this outstanding title from 2004: Don't Worry, Be Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Troubled Times by Peter J. Vernezze.

I've been very curious about the Stoics recently, reading up on them when I ought to be reading and doing other things. (I haven't read any of the above books; I'll list my bibliography below.) My interest has a simple need at its root: I need more soundness of thought, more stability of mind, more perspective to help me accomplish the things I need to do, more guidance to navigate my way in the world.

Apparently, some of the Stoics intended to answer those types of needs. In the later part of Stoicism's influence in the ancient world, Stoic writers were "presenting Stoicism as an attitude or way of life," says the Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. "They tend to edifying and moralizing discussion and give little indication of the philosophical structure of their positions."

My presumptuous belief that I will find benefits in the Stoics creates a split personality in me as I consider it over against my Christian faith.

First, I realize that the core of my faith is the starting point from which I evaluate the assets and liabilities of other schools of thought.

Second, I don't feel like I've been given enough of what I need from the Christian perspective.

Sometimes that feeling came from a reading experience in which a Stoic expressed an insight in a clearer and more impactful way than I had read it before, while the content of the expression might be found directly or indirectly in the Scriptures. For example, this quote from Seneca's Epistles certainly echoes passages from the Bible:

Men do not care how nobly they live, but only how long, although it is within the reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man's power to live long.

I hoped to find more of such gems, to allow myself to read deeply in the Stoics, and yet I did not want to jump in without some context. So I dove into some books that addressed Christian history and the New Testament and read the sections on Stoicism. I'm not offering anything new here in the strictly academic sense, just synthesizing some of my reading.

No doubt, many scholars identify a Stoic influence in parts of the New Testament. Saint Paul was writing within the Hellenistic culture in which Stoicism had been influential.

F.F. Bruce wrote, "Too facile a distinction between Palestinian and Hellenistic phases in primitive Christianity is unwarranted....The Hellenistic elements in the New Testament should not be written down as accretions or intrusions; they are of the essence of Christian life from the beginning."

So there was my persmission to be interested in the Stoics and glean from them. However, as I began in a very cursory fashion, something stood out to me. The thing about the Stoics and their influence was that they completely left out love in the grand, universal, Christian sense of the term. Paul Tillich opposed the Christian view, cosmic redemption, to the Stoic view, cosmic resignation.

For the Stoics, it seems to me, knowledge of the divine and the role of reason were simply for the cultivation of individualistic virtue, which isn't a bad thing, but their methodology did not emphasize the cultivation of emotionally intimate relationships, or the role of love beyond a rather emotionless duty, a kind of redemptive love that trascends all limitations of social and cultural roles.

Then again, as a matter of cultural history, whether theologically astutue or not, Western Christians have been drawn to the Stoics throughout history. Richard Brookhiser, describing influences on George Washington, makes this remark: "...Seneca's earnest moralizing has always made him popular with Christians." The redemption and love of the Gospel are more important than moralizing, considering that Saint Paul said God's kindness leads to our repentence, yet an understanding of sin and an exhortation to self-control are part of the New Testament's message, too.

The Stoics were brilliant in advocating and demonstrating the possibility of self-control, a virtue that seems to be considered a mere fantasy in our time, even assumed to be an unlikely exercise in a culture of convenient self-indulgence. Maybe that's why some authors and publishers can offer Stoicism in our time.


Books I looked at for these cursory thoughts:

The Oxford Companion to the Bible, edited by Metzger and Coogan

Christianity and Western Thought, Vol. I, by Colin Brown

New Testament History, by F.F. Bruce

The Fourth Book of Maccabees

The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1, by Jaroslav Pelikan

101 Key Terms in Philosophy and Their Important for Theology, by Kelly James Clark, Richard Lints, and James K.A. Smith

Familiar Quotations, by John Barlett

Invitation to the New Testament, by W.D. Davies

The Courage to Be, by Paul Tillich

The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization, edited by Hornblower and Spawnforth

Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, by Richard Brookhiser

-Colin Burch

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