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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

2 ½ Cheers for the Stoics!

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 30, 2008


            Granted, there’s nothing very sexy about the Stoics. Unlike the other two great schools of Hellenistic (or ancient Greek) philosophy—the Epicureans and the Cynics—the Stoics seem to be eternally cast in our minds in grayscale. They’re an old black and white illustration from a dusty, musty, long-unused manuscript buried deep in some old library’s stacks.

 

            Mention Epicureans and the image is one of Julia Child and candlelight dinners and a buffet table groaning with luscious, delectable food.

 

            Mention Cynics, and the reviews are more mixed—it’s not always considered a good thing to be “cynical”, after all. But at least there’s some passion there: the rage of a 1960s anti-war demonstrator urging us not to trust anyone over thirty; or the well-honed sarcasm of a W.C. Fields; or the deep wisdom of a keen observer of the world like H.L. Mencken, who refused to cower to the tyranny of public opinion.

 

            There’s a certain sexiness—a certain passion, at least—associated with our ancient Western ancestors, the Epicureans and the Cynics.

 

            Not so the Stoics.

 

            Mention stoicism and, almost inevitably, the picture is one of grinning and bearing it and stiff upper lips, and a dispassionate acceptance of whatever life may bring. At best, stoicism hardly stirs the soul. At worst, it seems like an awfully cold and calculating way of approaching life.

 

            But as is so often the case, the popular impression we’ve received down through the years of what Stoicism is, is not the same thing as what Stoicism is. (The same is true of Epicureanism and the philosophy of the original, ancient Cynics, as well, of course—but we’re not talking about them this morning, and they don’t seem to have quite the same p.r. problem.) So let’s confine ourselves here to considering the Stoics—because, even though they’re not sexy, and they might seem kind of boring, they have been an important influence upon us, philosophically. And I also honestly believe that they do have at least a couple of important insights to add to our understanding of ourselves as spiritual women and men—and to our understanding of this world and this universe in which we live.

 

            So first, the inevitable history lesson. If the Stoics weren’t the ancient counterparts of the “stiff upper lip” Englishmen or the strong, silent Yankees, who, then, were they?

            A reading from the holy gospel according to Saint Wikipedia:

            Stoicism was a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early third century BC. The Stoics considered passionate emotions to be the result of errors in judgment, and that a sage, or person of ‘moral and intellectual perfection,’ would not have such emotions. Stoics were concerned with the active relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will… that is in accord with nature. Because of this, the Stoics presented their philosophy as a way of life, and they thought that the best indication of an individual's philosophy was not what a person said but how they behaved. Later Roman Stoics, such as Seneca and Epictetus, emphasized that because ‘virtue is sufficient for happiness,’ a sage was immune to misfortune… Stoic doctrine was a popular and durable philosophy, with a following throughout Greece and the Roman Empire, from its founding until the closing of all philosophy schools in 529 AD by order of the Emperor Justinian I, who perceived their pagan character to be at odds with his Christian faith.”

            That was the Wikipedia version. Now, here in the Jeffapedia version are the main thrusts of Stoicism:

            1. Our passions can blind us to what’s really going on.

            2. Virtue consists in maintaining a will that is in accord with nature.

            3. The important thing isn’t what people believe, or say, but how they act—how they live their lives.

            So, the Stoics were a philosophy of reason, virtue, oneness with nature, and “deeds, not creeds”. Sounds pretty compatible with who most of us are religiously, don’t you think? The reason they were called the Stoics was because they preached their philosophy at the Stoa Pokile, or the painted porch, overlooking the marketplace in Athens . They didn’t believe that philosophy should be confined to the academy or the temple, but that it should be right out there in the market—right out there in the everyday world.

            The Stoics believed that the best and most accurate way for us to apprehend the world was through the use of reason. Through reason, truth can be distinguished from falsehood-- even if, in practice, you could never arrive at the “truth” with 100% certainty. But reason could give you a pretty good idea of what’s going on.

 

According to the Stoics, our senses are constantly receiving sensations: pulsations, energy, which passes from the things of the world through our senses to our mind, where they leave behind an impression (or a phantasia). The mind has the ability to judge each of these impressions, to  approve or reject it—thus  distinguishing a true representation of reality from one which is false. Some impressions can be assented to immediately (that’s verifiable data) but others can be approved only partially or hesitantly (that’s belief or opinion). Our beliefs or opinions then become clearer and firmer when we trade data with one another—when we see our experience of reality verified in the experience of others, and affirmed by  the collective judgment of humankind. Stoicism is a philosophy which (quite literally) says “Come, let us reason together.” It doesn’t say: Build up your own little kingdom of thought inside your head and cling to it for dear life. It does say: Use your mind to understand the world; but constantly test what we believe is true in the light of the new things you learn—from life, from dialogue, from what others tell you and teach you.

 

As the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, himself a Stoic philosopher, wrote in his Meditations:

 

Make for yourself a definition or description of the thing which is presented to you, so as to see distinctly what kind of a thing it is in its substance… in its complete entirety, and tell yourself its proper name, and the names of the things of which it has been compounded, and into which it will be resolved. For nothing is so productive of elevation of mind as to be able to examine methodically and truly every object which is presented to you in life, and always to look at things so as to see at the same time what kind of universe this is, and what kind of use everything performs in it, and what value everything has with reference to the whole.”

 

Now, that may not be sexy—but doesn’t it offer a fresh and liberating way of looking at life? Rather than constantly bursting forth from one emotion to the next; rather than letting the whole convoluted and tangled web of our passions influence any and all of the decisions we make; rather than looking at the days of our lives as oblivious mysteries we’ll never understand—as either devilish plots against us from on high, or random, unrelated, fleeting moments without meaning and without purpose—we can, instead, take a step back, and use our minds to discern what’s going on (in our lives, in the world), how everything is connected to what came before, how it will influence what will come next, and then act in life on the basis of what we discern.

 

So, a great big cheer for Stoic rationality.

 

And another one, I think, for Stoic virtue.

 

This is the area where the ancient Stoics are often misunderstood. As we’ve said, the word stoic has come to mean unemotional, or feeling no pain, because the Stoics taught that the free person became free from passion by following reason. But this isn’t the same thing as saying that we should try and extinguish all of our emotions. It’s one thing to be “stoic”; it’s another thing to be emotionally dead.

 

Rather, the Stoics sought to transform their emotions in the light of clear judgment and inner calm. I think it’s fair to say that the ancient Stoics would have agreed that our emotions, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad. Feelings, of course, just are. We can’t control having them; we can, however, control how we act on them—and that’s a very important distinction. Through the self-discipline of logic, deep personal reflection, and even meditation and prayer, Stoicism teaches that we can attune our feelings toward inner wisdom and self-control. Our feelings give us signals about what’s going on inside ourselves. We need to listen to those signals—take them seriously, not ignore them—and then use our reason to decide how to act on them for the best of all involved. Stoic ethics stressed the rule: "Follow where reason leads." It is through clear judgment that true peace of mind is achieved.

 

For the Stoics, reason meant not only using logic, but also understanding the processes of nature — the logos, or the universal reason, inherent in all things. Living according to reason and virtue, they held, is to live in harmony with the divine order of the universe, in recognition of the inherent worth and dignity of all people (they actually used those terms, or pretty near). The four cardinal virtues of Stoic philosophy (heavily influenced by Plato) are wisdom, courage, justice and temperance:

 

Wisdom—a deep, inner balance between what’s going on within one’s own soul and in the universe.

 

Courage—a willingness to act according to what our inner reason dictates.

 

Justice—the recognition that all people have their particular role to play, and are thus entitled to opportunity and respect.

 

Temperance-- “Nothing in excess”—moderation-- an old virtue we need in our profligate culture more than ever.

 

Following Socrates, the Stoics held that unhappiness and evil are the results of ignorance. If someone is unkind, it is because they are acting without the full knowledge of the impact of their actions. Likewise, if they are unhappy, it is because they have forgotten how nature actually functions; they have forgotten where they fit in the great unfolding of life.  The secret of life lies inside of each of us, the Stoics taught; and we have been given the mental and emotional tools we need to discover that great Truth—one tiny, little truth at a time.

 

Finally, I think the Stoics deserve at least another half cheer for their radical acceptance of life. For here, too, I think they offer us important lessons about how to live—and how to die.

 

As my colleague Rev. Scott Alexander writes: “Life is an eternally flawed and difficult gift.” He goes on:

 

“No matter how lucky or blessed we are, we end up limping in this life. We fall down. We face all kinds of loss, sorrow, and limitation, including—in the end—our own death… Because this is the way life eternally and intractably is (here on this mortal and imperfect planet), the most valuable spiritual possession any human being can have is a stoical and supple heart.”

 

“What the ancient Stoics knew was the truth that life… is not here to devote itself to our ease and happiness. Life is here simply to be what it is, to be what it must be, naturally, chaotically, randomly [even].” We can’t ask life to be something it is not. It is we who must learn to change in the face of life, not life in the face of us.

 

Stoicism teaches that if we put ourselves—our own little, prone-to-error selves—at the center of the universe, we create a very fragile and uncertain universe. But when we accept that we are part of life’s mysterious unfolding, and learn bravely to remain open to what life will deal us, and move with the actual flow of life (and not with that we might fantasize for ourselves), then life blesses us with wondrous, momentary miracles too numerous ever to tell.

 

There is both great joy and great pain in any of our lives. Once we have accepted, deep within our souls, that the pain is part of the deal, then we are free to experience fully the joy when it comes our way, and to live in eternity’s sunrise at last. “Life is difficult,” wrote M. Scott Peck in the opening lines of The Road Less Traveled:

 

“This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult--once we truly understand and accept it--then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

 

Once we know that life is life, then we are free to know the full array of experiences this wondrous life will offer us: in the full spectrum of its reality.

 

When we glimpse that full spectrum, then we can face life with hope and with courage; with cool heads and warm hearts and open arms. Then we can know the preciousness of life—and its glories and its depths—more deeply than we ever imagined possible.

 


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