Stoicism: Good or Bad? (Part II)
So, is Stoicism a good philosophy for the modern man dressed in a Roman toga and standing in his back yard? Henry Gruber says, “No.” But in Part I of this article, I tried to show that Gruber’s argument is weak. I did not analyze Iskra Fileva’s opinion that Stoicism is problematic for both ancient and modern people.
Why problematic? Two reasons, according to Fileva. First, if you control your emotions to lessen the pain inherent in failure, you may also lessen the joy you feel when successful. Second, a fulfilled life depends on forming bonds with other people; and in Roman Stoicism, you are advised to be independent of others. Moreover, you are counseled to practice this independence. So, if practice makes perfect, you won’t feel inordinate love for humankind—even for your husband or wife.
According to Marcus Aurelius, you can show kindness to others; but I suppose that Marcus would consider a deep, passionate love to be “dangerous” to one’s equanimity and independence. And yet Christianity recommends just this kind of love. God is even identified as Love!
Moreover, if you love somebody, you are bound to feel the pain of grief when that person dies or otherwise disappears from your life. Ancient Stoicism is all about avoiding negative emotions like grief.
So, Fileva ends her article with these strong words:
Gut-wrenching as grief may be, it is the price we pay for love,
and the wisdom of a path that proposes to inoculate us against
grief can be questioned. It may be that a world populated by
Stoic sages would be not unlike that described by Aldous Huxley
in Brave New World: one where people don’t mourn the dead
and, instead, use their bodies to fertilize plants.
Of course, modern Stoicism is more flexible than the ancient variety. Ryan Holiday, the preeminent advocate of today’s “pop-Stoicism,” leaves room for strong emotions and social activism. It would seem that some such adjustment is necessary for today’s Stoic sage.
And how do Quakers figure in all this Stoic stuff? Well, I tentatively propose that more reflective Friends have elements of ancient Stoicism in their character. They may be somewhat “turned in” on themselves. Social activist Quakers, in contrast, are more comfortable with an extroverted, emotive Stoicism. That is, perhaps, an over-generalization; but it may be mostly true.
In any case, we need all kinds of Stoic and all kinds of Quaker in our meetings.
~ Richard Russell
Stoicism: Good or Bad? (Part I)
Rumor has it that there are Stoics among the members of Old Chatham Monthly Meeting. I personally consider Stoicism a worthy spiritual path; and in the last decade or so, this ancient philosophy has gained so many converts that it’s now possible to speak of “pop-Stoicism” as exemplified by the Stoic paraphernalia marketed by Ryan Holiday, who also writes a daily blog on the subject.
Of course, popularity is no guide to the essential rightness of a particular spirituality, and Stoicism—especially as practiced by the Ancient Romans—has its share of critics. But what was Stoicism, exactly?
Leaving aside Stoic cosmology, we could say that the Stoics wanted to pursue Virtue, as exemplified in courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. More specifically, Stoics advised their fellow human beings to refuse to worry about or feel anxiety over what they could not personally control.
So, if Vesuvius wiped out Pompeii, Herculaneum, and surrounding environs, there was no point in getting overly upset about the disaster. On the other hand, if a Roman emperor commanded you to do something that was unjust or unwise, you should have the courage to refuse his order in spite of the personal consequences. Your personal Virtue would remain inviolate and untouched even if you were exiled or forced to commit suicide.
Well, Henry Gruber argues that three famous Roman Stoics failed to pursue justice in spite of their philosophy. So, for example, Seneca curried favor with the emperor Nero and even helped him write a speech justifying the murder of Nero’s mother. Epictetus, once a slave and later a philosopher in Rome and Greece, criticized the “slavery” of upper-class Romans to wealth and prestige; but Epictetus never questioned the morality of human slavery itself. And Marcus Aurelius (pictured) abandoned his youthful romanticism for a stultifying sense of duty.
Of course, just because a person doesn’t act according to his own ideas doesn’t mean that the ideas themselves are wrong. Moreover, Gruber’s idea of justice transcends the personal. Social justice was not a tenet of ancient Stoicism. Epictetus, for example, could not be expected to challenge slavery as an institution, especially since slavery was woven into the very fabric of ancient society. Epictetus accepts slavery as a natural, inevitable part of existence. St. Paul had a similar attitude, only exhorting masters to be kind to their slaves. As for Marcus Aurelius, Gruber’s criticism falls flat as he seems to criticize Marcus merely for growing up into a sober statesman.
A more cogent criticism of Stoicism is made by Iskra Fileva, who applies modern psychology to her critique of this ancient philosophy. But we’ll save Iskra for Part II of this little disquisition on Stoicism, in which I’ll also comment on the Stoicism that may be found among Quakers.
~ Richard Russell
The Greek caption says, “They all abandoned him and fled.” “They” were Jesus’ disciples running away from the Garden of Gethsemane while Jesus was being arrested. In fact, they didn’t stop running until they reached the relative safety of their home in Galilee.
We may want to condemn the disciples for their cowardice, but we should praise them for their truthfulness. After all, it was the disciples who told the story to others. Jesus had taught them not to hide their personal failures, not to portray themselves in the best possible light.
Of course, succeeding generations of Christians wrote the disciples’ betrayal out of the story. It was said that Jesus had told the disciples to go to Galilee or that they actually stayed in Jerusalem after his crucifixion. But the truth is—they ran away.
Early Quakers often spoke about Truth with a capital “T.” We, their latter-day descendants, should also capitalize truth in our lives. Whether we are giving a message in meeting or musing during worship sharing, we should share (when appropriate) the truth of our personal lives, both the good and the bad. By risking vulnerability and displaying transparency, we invite our fellow Quakers to seek the Truth in their own lives.
Nothing is gained by presenting a sanitized version of who we are. It’s spiritually deadening to disguise our inner selves, and it’s unhelpful to others. As John says in his Gospel, “…ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (KJV)
~ Richard Russell
To Hold in the Light
It’s customary, at least among Liberal Quakers, “to hold in the Light” someone who’s died, sick, or otherwise in a difficult situation. For some Friends this phrase is the equivalent of “to pray for”; but many Liberal Friends just interpret it as an exhortation to remember someone in distress. A few people may be moved to actually do something for the person held in the Light. Others may simply meditate—perhaps visualizing an actual beam of Light passing through the body of the person so “held.” The meaning of “hold in the Light” depends on the person who says the words.
Interestingly, the expression—according to Western Friend—is only about forty years old. Of course, the “Inward Light” dates from the earliest days of Quakerism and refers to God illuminating or acting upon a person’s spirit. “Inward” indicates motion from God “out there.” So, the Inward Light does not have its origin in the individual soul. God, or the Holy Spirit, is shining the Light.
Early Friends also used the phrase “Inner Light,” which became increasingly popular during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Rufus Jones, founder of the American Friends’ Service Committee, analyzed the phrase in these terms: “The Inner Light, the true Seed, is no foreign substance added to an un-divine human life. It is neither human nor Divine. It is the actual inner self formed by the union of a Divine and a human element in a single undivided life” (pp. 105-6, Friend of Life by Elizabeth Gray Vining).
This definition laid Jones open to the dreaded charge of being a “humanist”; and, in fact, the Quaker use of light is ambiguous. Light could come from a transcendent God, or it could be a metaphor for human personality—one’s most important values and traits. In any case, the historical shift from “inward” to “inner” probably reflects the increasingly secular nature of the society at large AND the secularization of The Religious Society of Friends (progressively less religious, at least in its liberal iteration).
By the 1980’s non-theists—agnostics or atheists—were being regularly accepted as members of Liberal Quaker Meetings. Traditional religious language like prayer and God was awkward for these folk; and so, I hypothesize, “hold in the Light” was born as a phrase acceptable both to theists and non-theists. A religious Friend may interpret holding someone in the Light as praying. A non-theist Quaker may simply regard the words as a motive for mentally attending to a particular person or situation.
In short, the expression is a way of “papering over” an ideological and spiritual divide among Liberal Friends. This phrase may help prevent conflict among Friends, but it may also hinder psychological and spiritual intimacy. Atheists keep their atheism to themselves, Christians cover up their Christianity. Very different Friends with very different spiritualities hide behind these ambiguous words, refusing to reach out to one another in the meeting, never really getting to know their brethren.
I wonder if God approves of this superficiality. Or, put another way, is the lack of spiritual intimacy in our meetings consistent with humanism and morality?
~ Richard Russell
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