Friday, January 4, 2008

The Stoics

I recently finished the chapter on the Stoics in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. It was a chore, one of his longer chapters. But I enjoyed it and learned a few things…

I wasn’t aware that Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor portrayed at the beginning of the movie Gladiator as Joaquin Phoenix’s father, persecuted Christians. If you lived through a good liberal arts college education, you probably read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

I wasn’t aware that the Stoics originate in Syria, not Greece. Russell presents the Stoics as something of a bridge between the Eastern philosophy of Asoka’s proselytizing, Buddhist India and European thought.

Most of my life I’ve been involved in Evangelical Protestant Christianity. And over and over I’ve heard teachers in Church suggest that I go back to the Bible and examine my beliefs and try to sort out “Eastern influences” in my Christian thought. So I found this chapter interesting because the Stoics influence early Christianity.

If I say stoic, you probably think of the absence of emotion. Stocks view emotion as destructive and self-control as a virtue. My perspective is that they were half right: self control is a virtue. The stoics were big on virtue; but virtue was internal, introspective. You can’t take it from me because I have it inside of me. Externals, like wealth and power, can detract from virtue (though some of the Stoics, like Seneca, were both wealthy and powerful.

Stoics also believed in determinism – to a greater extent that Greek philosophy had previously embraced that idea. Things are what they are because, well, they’re just bound to be that way.

So a contradiction developed, and it remains in many Western worldviews. On the one hand, things are the way they are because they’re supposed to be that way for some reason. When it’s your time, it’s your time (I don’t believe that). And so on… On the other hand, you should try and do good, make a difference in someone else’s life. The question is, if the life of Bob over there is predetermined to be that way, how does me trying to do good things for him change anything. The answer of the Stoics was, it doesn’t – but it’s virtuous of you to try. That makes virtue a pretty selfish concept.

I see that kind of selfish virtue in Christian circles some time. I see a determinism I don’t believe is Biblical in the mind of the Church. I see confusion about the place of emotions.

I thought the chapter was interesting. Thought provoking. Next I’ll probably read the chapter on the Cynics and the Skeptics (I’m jumping around)…

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