Sunday, 10 May 2015

Stoicism and old Inuit Christians

Philosophy does not promise to secure anything external for man, otherwise it would be admitting something that lies beyond its proper subject-matter. For as the material of the carpenter is wood, and that of statuary bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person's own life.
-Epictetus, Discourses 1.15.2, Robin Hard revised translation

When asked if I believe in G*d I tell people that I'm a believer in the Gospel of Christ. I get all kinds of interesting reactions, but they always confirm to me the basic human nature of courtesy and civility. Normal people usually just want to leave it at that; I want to leave it at that.

Like Epictetus, I believe that the subject matter of faith and "the art of living is each person's own life". I think that this is the central message of the Gospel, after all.

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about the philosophy of the Stoics in trying to find a level of equanimity in my life. I have a reputation of being a "hot-head" but whether it is well-founded or not (I think it is) this searching for equanimity is a lifelong project.

I sometimes fail to live up to the standards I admire and feel a deep desire to subscribe to but I'm slowly coming to realize that these "shortfalls" in ethics and morals are and can become rarer if acknowledged when they happen and a re-commitment to try again is made in that acknowledgement. This "art of living" is the definition of teshuva (Hebrew: תשובה‎, literally "return"). Aharon E Wexler gives us a good and serviceable primer on the idea of teshuva in this link: http://www.jpost.com/Not-Just-News/On-teshuva-375740.

I, in fact, believe the personification of teshuva (as spoken of by Wexler) is the key to interpreting the wondrous opening lines of the Gospel of John.

I was, for the longest time, a completely natural defeatist. Every perceived and real disappointment in life was cause for great woe-woe-is-me and for gnashing of teeth and ripping up of shirt. So much drama it is embarrassing. And disastrously costly to my personhood and those around me, especially those whom I love and who love me.

As a believer in Christ I have very little if any empathy for mainstream Christianity. I grew up in the faith and have known true "salt of the earth" Christians who were also stoics in inclination that I'm trying to follow in the footsteps of (ie, the older generation of Inuit who truly believed in the Stoic principle of "living in accordance with the divine order of the universe"). But I have as my goal to become less and less like the so-called "evangelists" and more and more like my father's generation of Christianity who seemed more concerned about living the life than mindless moralizing. There are a few of them left still (at home and elsewhere).

I live my life mostly in solitude and I have no interest in attending church so I listen to Charles Stanley and Charles Price. These two Charles, I have found, regard their faith as "...not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims, [but as] a way of life involving constant practice and training" (Cf: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism).

The more I learn about Marcus Aurelius and the personal and historical context of his Meditations the more I'm interested in the Stoic Philosophy. He is said to be the last of the five good Roman emperors. His writings, as anthologized in Meditations, have a lot of self-encouragement and constant reminding of his commitment to Stoicism:

"See that you do not turn into a Caesar; do not be dipped into the purple dye—for that can happen" (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.30)

This certain fastidiousness (or, more precisely, assiduousness) is not surprising given that he held absolute power over one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen. How he did this—how the Christ Himself and the Apostle Paul did, for that matter—is by recasting familiar and seemingly tired spiritual/philosophical principles into personal commitments to live up to them:

Either the gods have no power or they have power. If they have no power why pray to them? But if they have power, why not rather pray that they should give thee freedom from fear of any of these things and from lust for any of these things and from grief at any of these things [rather] than that they should grant this or refuse that. For obviously if they can assist men at all, they can assist them in this. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.40, trans. CR Haines, Loeb Classical Library)

That he came to this conclusion is to be taken in the context of him having lost three children who died early in their lives because the quote immediately above begins: "One man prays: 'How I may not lose my little child', but you must pray: 'How I may not be afraid to lose him'." (trans. Anthony Birley)

Wow.

Jay

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