Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thanksgiving for Our Four Homes

What Is Ours

I have one daughter, now an adult living in Brea, CA with two young children of her own.  One of my great pleasures is watching her being fully embedded in the timeless art of being a nurturing mother—providing physical care yes, but more passing through the generations love and guidance, while taking joy and satisfaction in her 7 year old son Brett and her 2 year old daughter Bridget.

The year Katie was 9, I was intern minister in Syracuse NY.  We lived in a government subsidized housing complex of town house packed together in a little complex.  The complex was atumble with kids.  I remember most of all the sound of plastic tires—Big Wheels—racing over the asphalt pavement at all hours of the day.

Katie had a lot of playmates in that confined and family-packed place, including several girls her age.  Some were nice and some weren’t.  One girl, her name was Becky I remember, lorded it over Katie throughout the year we lived there.  Becky took every opportunity to tell Katie that whatever she had or did was better than what Katie had or did.

This irked Katie to no end.  However, Katie, even at 9, was able to process Becky’s ways.  Once Becky blurted out, “I like my Mommy, better than your Mommy.” 

Now think of all the possible responses -- different ways of tearing down Becky’s mother and lifting Katie’s own Mom.  But Katie gave a response that is among the wisest responses possible, which I’ve processed among the best insight/advice I’ve ever heard.

Katie said simply, “Of course you like your Mommy better.  She’s your Mommy.”

Now think about that inborn wisdom – that whatever is ours we like the best, whether it’s our political party, or our sports team, or our school, or our whatever…  (Notice that we claim so many things as ours.)

Just because something is ours and we like it the best, doesn’t mean it’s categorically the best, but from within our own experience we tend to like it better than anything, anywhere, else.

This Thanksgiving service we’re going to talk about Home.  Actually I want to talk about our several Homes, because we have many different kinds of Homes, beyond the home in which each of us lives, nurturing and sheltering us.

Church Home

Our church’s first minister William Channing Gannett was famous for writing an essay in the 1890’s in which he described ordinary graces that made a house a home -- what he called the House Beautiful.

This building designed by William Channing Gannett is unique.  From its beginning it was called a Church-Home.  It combines the elements of a Church and a Home in one building.  The room with the fireplace represents The Family, with a hearth (or fireplace) around which a 19th century family might have gathered.  There is a fireplace in the Auditorium to show that the family’s hearth flows into the Auditorium, where our congregation’s services have taken place since 1889, when the building was dedicated with a special hymn written for the occasion by Rev. Gannett– “Here Be No One a Stranger.”  The words were heartfelt then and I believe are still heartfelt now. For nearly 125 years, this congregation has intentionally opened its doors for whosoever seeks a religious home of reason and freedom of belief and conscience.  Not only Welcome, but Welcome Home is our greeting to all visitors.

Whenever I think about the intentional meanings of our Church Home, I remember a famous poem by Robert Frost in which a husband and wife, Warren and Mary, have a conversation about the meaning of home.  

First Warren speaks, then Mary:

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in."

"I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve."

Our City Home

Our family home and our Church Home are in Chicagoland, meaning that we live in the orbit of the city of Chicago.  Chicago is world class, meaning that it has a host of features that only a city of vast resources and concentration of culture can offer.  Think of all the things that Chicago offers: colleges and universities, a symphony orchestra and a civic opera, theaters, museums (the Field Museum, the Art Institute, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Oriental Institute  are among the finest of their sorts in the world), two important zoos, beaches, boulevards, and parks, an Arboretum and Botanic Garden, professional sports teams – football, baseball, soccer, hockey, basketball, no end of restaurants, research hospitals, airports, public transportation, including the El and Metra….

I remember when I first came here in 1983, when Ellie, Katie, and I were part of a springtime, Saturday throng of people flowing and eddying  along the upper part of Michigan Avenue known as the Miracle Mile with its tony stores—a canyon of glittering prosperity towered by great buildings, including one of the tallest skyscrapers of the world.  The surviving Water Tower in the midst reminded me of the momentous history of the city that had risen from the ashes to erect architecture that led the world in the 20th century.  How I felt a surge of pride in my newly chosen home.  I was glad to be here, in this place—my recently adopted home.  It became more and more my home.

I became familiar with Chicago history (and has a rich history) and acquired what I call lore–stories, anecdotes, images.  I haunted neighborhoods and had firsthand experiences that filled my days.

Many years ago, I acquired a poster from the 1933 World’s Fair – The Century of Progress.  Whenever I look at it, all that I know to be Chicago is imagined—the idea of our city, the city that is our home.  Sweet home Chicago!

Our Heartland Home

Our world class city of Chicago is here because of Nature.  A frequent word we use in talking about the region in which we live is Heartland. Heartland evokes a variety of responses:  Heart evokes love. Heart evokes center—and we are in the middle of the country, indeed continent.  Heart evokes the muscle that keeps the body alive. 

For me, Heartland reminds me of the great living organism—the Nature—of our country, indeed continent.  I have been influenced by two great books:  Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon and Sacred Sands by my colleague Ron Engels.

Nature’s Metropolis explains Chicago’s pre-eminence by virtue of being the likely center where the resources of the Midwest were concentrated and processed, not only to build a city, but to build a country.  The past and present greatness of Chicago is a matter of location, originally the course of the Great Lakes and river systems, later enhanced by canals, railroads, and highways.  And the Nature around Chicago is incredibly abundant.

My greatest revelation of our Heartland’s Nature came via Ron Engel’s study of the significance of region known as the Dunes, what he aptly called Sacred Sands, at the bottom of Lake Michigan, sweeping from South Chicago around the lake into Northwest Indiana to and beyond Michigan City.  In this incredibly varied ecosystem all of the nature of North America converges. 

Ron Engel used terms like Axis Mundi (world center/pivot) and God’s Navel to try to describe in mythic language the sacredness of this part of our Heartland Home.

The Ancient Greeks spoke of the spirit of a place—their phrase was genius loci.  For me the spirit of where we live is the spirit of a great, abundant, varied, and beautiful continent.  We live in the ecological center of it, and it is the reason for Chicago’s existence and greatness.

For me the physical representation of the resident spirit of Chicago is an ancient Greek grain goddess.  Ceres stands in Art Deco serenity, atop the Board of Trade building, 40 stories above La Salle Street, the central street of the financial district.
Gladness for Our Several Homes

Let’s be thankful for the several homes I’ve spoken about:

·               --our individuals homes where we make meaning and find deep sanctuary;
·               --our Church Home where we meet  kindred spirits and create community;
·              -- our city home, Chicago that is world class;
·               --and our Heartland home where the Nature of a continent converges. 

How fortunate and blessed we are. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Our Enlightenment Tradition


I truly love a bargain.  My consumer passion is dress shirts. 

Before there were outlet malls I shopped manufacturers’ stores. When I was in college, I travelled 80 miles from Newark, DE, to the Eagle shirt factory in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. Ellie’s New York home was across the lake from Burlington, Vermont, where there was a Hathaway Shirt outlet;   when I was in graduate school UVM, I shopped at Burlington's Hathaway store at least once a week. More recently, I bought shirts at the Bachrach outlet at the North Riverside Mall.  Sadly, it’s been closed for a couple of years.

Not only do I not like to pay full price, I loathe the markups that branding and advertising create. Over the years I shaped an occasional sermon about the role of advertising as the slippery slope of deceit.

I preached one of my all-time favorite sermons in the early 1980s. Do you remember when so called generic products first reached the grocery stores? Visually, generic products had a similar look: white packaging and industrial – stencil lettering. No illustrations. Nothing but the generic name, ingredients, nutritional values, and a bar code. 

Thanks to my daughter who lives in Orange County California and who was born to shop, I've developed a fascination with what are called $.99 stores there and dollar stores here. I often visit the dollar store off of La Grange Rd. in Countryside. Typically, I'll buy every day sundries there, including rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide and even deodorant and toothpaste.  It’s all a buck.

It takes a little energy to sort the good and substantial from the merely cheap, but the process for me is a little adventure – something of a consumer’s meditation about the meaning of stuff – at least that's how I rationalize it.

I've even bought a few books from that Dollar Store – books I hadn’t known about.  I practice discernment. The Dollar Store’s little pile of books usually contains a bunch of unsuccessful self-help guides and a cache of Christian orientated pap. Now and again there's something worthwhile. A couple of years ago I purchased an outstanding book by a Vietnamese woman, a doctor, who kept a personal diary during the war against American invaders; she died in service to her cause.

The basis of this sermon comes from another book I found in the Dollar Store, Garry Wills Head and Heart: American Christianities, published in hardcover by Penguin Press in 2007, originally selling for $29.95.  I bought a first edition this summer for a dollar.

Having once been remaindered by Penguin press, I had considerable compassion for Garry Wills and what I estimate to be a noteworthy and valuable book.  Consigned to a dollar store is heart wrenching for a Pulitzer Prize winning author. 

Enlightenment Religion

Wills, once professor at Northwestern University, is one of my favorite authors of popular history.  He also is an interested commentator on Roman Catholicism. Wills is sympathetic to Unitarians. One of my favorite monographs is his remarkable Lincoln at Gettysburg, which attributed famous Unitarian minister/abolitionist Theodore Parker as an influence for Lincoln’s memorable phrasing:  “of, by, and for the people.”

In Head and Heart Wills charts the scope of the American experience from the Pilgrims to the present day, relative to two opposing religious points of view: A rational or enlightenment point of view (the head) and an evangelical point of view (the heart.) 

I have all sorts of thoughts regarding the remaindered fate of this well considered and important book. The one that keeps coursing through my mind relates to my general impression that the populace prefers their prejudices to substantiated fact – in this instance, well-researched and well-reasoned fact.  At the heart of Wills’ analysis is the religious foundation of the American Republic.  And yes, Wills confirms there is a religious foundation.
Here's what he wrote in the Introduction. He pulls no punches.

Without the 18th century Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, benevolence, tolerance, and secular progress, there would be no Disestablishment of religion in America. Without it, there would have been no escape from the theological monopoly that governments had always imposed, no rapid proliferation of sects that multiplied as soon as this Disestablishment occurred. Without the Enlightenment, Franklin's humanitarian efforts and Jefferson' s intellectual projects would have had no purchase on the citizenry. Without it, Quakers could not have challenged the Bible' s sanctioning of slavery. It was a great stroke of fortune that the American Republic was shaped at the moment when the Enlightenment was having its full effect on the men who did the shaping. Political freedom and religious freedom arrived together, nudging each other forward. Before then, it had been assumed that a national throne and national altar must be an alliance, to command the necessary ad hoc quiescence of the rule. The United States rid itself of the throne and altar in one inclusive gesture.

Though there was no official religion for the nation, the framers had an enlightened religion. Those who have a different kind of religion said in the past and say now that this is no religion at all, simply a cult of reason. It is true that some leaders of the Enlightenment in France were hostile to religion, but that was not true of the main and most numerous followers in enlightened America. They were friendly to religion and were religious themselves. Even the most secular of them, Tom Payne, believed in a personal God, in divine providence, and in the afterlife.

Enlightened religion was such a strong force in all the founding period that it might also be considered the typical American religion. It is true that this form of belief has assumed the moral leadership of the nation at certain crucial times, and one of its forms – Transcendentalism – set much of the intellectual tone of 19th century. But it has rarely been the religion of the mass of Americans. One reason Enlightened religion had such unchallenged sway the late 18th century was that the other characteristic form of American religion – Evangelicalism – was at its lowest ebb in just that. It came roaring back in the early 19th century, and has been adhered to by most Americans in succeeding ages.

Wills's analysis is a mythbuster, reaching a conclusion that a preponderance of today’s Evangelicals don't want to accept. Their common contention, a popular, perhaps even default mode of the culture, righteously contends that the founders were Evangelical like them, Bible-based, Trinitarian believers of a personal and involved God. 

The Founders Were Deists

Accurately, Gary Wills describes the founders as preponderantly Deists. Their God had set the world in motion, then removed Himself from its operations, including human agency.  The Deist God was essentially disinterested. 

Furthermore, at its founding America was hardly a religious culture as we know it now.  In fact, during the founding of the American nation, Americans were largely unchurched; in 1776 only 17% of the population held to a formal religion.

Now, we UUs are interested in Garry Will’s argument, because we are heirs to Enlightenment Religion – a religion centered in reason that is the head.  Ironically, our way has been marginalized in a popular culture whose religion is of the heart.

You may have heard, and Garry Wills mentions it, that Thomas Jefferson among other Deists of his era proposed that Unitarianism, circa 1800, would become the American religion. Now that obviously didn’t and won't ever happen.  
As a consequence, we modern Unitarians have been by default charged with the task of continually reminding the larger culture about values and principles.  These values and principles have allowed for a lively arena for many religions to flourish, including the Evangelical sects. And so we continue to lift up reason, as well as freedom of belief and conscience, while maintaining the Disestablishment of religion with the notion of strict separation of church and state. Not only were these and the like founding values, they are the components of the best soil for Religion to flourish.  The American Experience testifies to this.
This assertion regarding the American experience and the flourishing of religion is not well understood, nor is it often spoke to. It answers an obvious question. Among all the Western nations in the beginning of the 21st-century, why does religion in America remain so vital, so much a part of so many people's lives?             

The answer, repeat after me, is the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment … as it was institutionalized by a generation of Enlightenment geniuses who head the list of those we call our founders. Without a doubt, this is the greatest generation.

As I said earlier, in Head and Heart Garry Wills looks at the sweep of the American experience, from 1640 through these early years of the 21st century. It is an overview, of course, but also dense with particulars he assumes the informed readers have an acquaintance with.  It’s not so much a book for the uninformed.

He does pause to focus and elaborate on a few of the key Enlightenment-besotted players who shaped the American Republic: Thomas Payne, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and George Washington. These individuals were Deists, or strongly influenced by Deist thoughts. These men and their like were, after their own fashion, were religious; but they were not religious from the perspective neither of their contemporary Evangelicals nor of Evangelicals today.

These American Deists did not walk in lock-step, though they generally advocated reason, Disestablishment, and freedom of belief when it came to Religion. 

Wills takes a particular interest in George Washington. He wrote:

One founder is often thought of as “something more than a Deist, “ though there is nothing in his writings to indicate that this is the case. The director of Washington's home in Mount Vernon, James Reese, told me that people often inquire why there are no marks of religion in the building – the crucifix, or holy picture, or prayer displayed, or any religious symbol at all, though  Washington was very shrewd of symbolism and carefully chose signs of peace, Republicanism, and agrarian virtue for his home. Jordan has to tell them that Washington was not a devout man in the way they want him to be. The famous 19th century engraving of Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge is fiction, though bloggers on the religious right protested when it was removed from the classroom. …

The same people who think Jefferson was not religious contrast him with Washington, though Jefferson thought and wrote about religion far more than Washington did. The reverence toward Washington as reverent is not based on history or scholarly treatment but on the early myth mongering including the extraordinary popular (and fanciful) biography by Parson Weems, which ran through 29 editions during its author's lifetime, and extended to many dozens more after he died.…

There is a heavy investment by some modern conservatives in the idea that Washington was devout. This belief has endured despite the work of scholars showing it to be groundless. Washington never himself invoked the name Jesus or Christ in prayer – he referred to Jesus only once, speaking to some Indians. He normally used terms for God that were common parlance of other Deists – “governor of the universe," or the “architect of the universe," or "author of the universe," terms that Thomas Payne would have been quite comfortable with. … There were no clergy called for or prayer said as Washington was dying. "There were no ministers in the room, no prayers uttered, no Christian rituals offering the solace of everlasting life… He died as a Roman stoic rather than a Christian saint."

Furthermore, Washington went to church with his wife, but he always left before communion was served.  When his minister challenged him on that, Washington thereafter conspicuously didn’t attend services on communion Sundays.

In Head and Heart Garry Wills does a commendable job in setting the record straight: doing decent history and a fair job of demythologizing popular misconceptions. That's what a reputable historian tries to do, to set the record straight according to the best evidence available, while providing a compelling narrative. But such history is a hard sell in American culture embedded in its prejudice and righteousness.

We Are Charged

Here's your take away. We Unitarian Universalists are the heirs of an Enlightenment religion that joins reason and freedom of belief, as embodied in the first amendment freedom of religion. We are scrupulous in maintaining the separation of church and state, the result of the doctrine of Disestablishment in which our founders saw wisdom and made America a model for the world. 

In this Enlightenment scheme, all religions flourish.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Stoic Calm

A Philosophy of Life Point of View

Being a Unitarian Universalist minister has been an extraordinary occupation.  

At UU ordinations the charge to the newly minted minister traditionally includes the phrase “to speak the truth in love." As I understand truth, it is all-encompassing and love relates to the intimacies of the human condition.  So, I have been free, indeed charged, to explore and soar among all disciplines. As I’ve soared I have been centered by attention and service to others, thereby coming into greater self-knowledge.

I've been an active minister since 1978.  When I'm reflective, as I frequently am these days, I look back and see a clear progression of my interests in the broad realms of religion and ethics as I’ve sought  “to speak the truth in love.”  Here’s a chronological sketch of my journey.

1) When I studied theology at McGill University in the early 1970s, the psychology of religion – religious experience – was a focus. I read William James's foundational,  The Varieties of Religious Experience, explored mystical experiences through the writings of Evelyn Underhill, and became acquainted with the work of Carl Jung. I found Jung’s scheme of archetypes and what later was called the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, the process of individuation or the lifelong journey of becoming one's true self, a compelling explanation of universal religious questing.

2) When I began as minister of the first Unitarian Church Youngstown Ohio in 1978, I continued my interest in the Jungian scheme.  I also read deeply in the naturalistic mysticism of my colleague Kenneth Patton, a humanist.  I also found a great resonance with Transcendentalism, Emerson in particular. Nature led me into naturalism.

3) When I came here in 1983 I was working intently on developing a coherent scheme of what I called natural religion, religion free of religion, if you can imagine that. I was moving ever further away from institutionalisms, dogma, systematic theology, and other such traditional stuff. I was of a postmodern state of mind.  All rational systems, theologies in particular, I contended, deconstruct.

4)  By the mid-1990s I became deeply interested in the extraordinary  advancements of science, particularly social biology/social psychology and neuroscience in describing the human condition. I became a great fan of the so-called father of the sociobiology, Edward O.  Wilson. His notion of consilience, the unity of knowledge in one realm – that is the natural world encouraged me.  Thomas Wolfe's celebrated essay of the late 1990s, "Sorry Your Soul Just Died," for me, summed up the great shift from supernaturalism to naturalism that has taken place. With brain imaging, we were acquiring the tools to understand the intricacies of the human condition, not by speculation, rather by fact.

5)  Most recently I’ve drifted into the area of what might be summarized as “philosophy of life.”  I’ve had a half century of interest in the eccentric Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, part of an ancient Middle Eastern  Wisdom tradition.  Ecclesiastes offers one of the most enduring and influential philosophies of life of all time.  Two summers ago I did a season-long study of Ecclesiastes and chronicled it in a recently self-published book, Wisdom for the Ages: A Season with Ecclesiastes.

The notion of philosophy of life rather than systematic theology has resonance for me these days.  It meets the needs of an age when more and more individuals are claiming to be spiritual (if they call themselves anything), rather than religious, while becoming non-affiliated with any religious tradition.  In my own experience, Ecclesiastes has been an incredible mentor.  I often muse about the influence Ecclesiastes had in the publication of my five quote collection books by Skinner House, because Ecclesiastes was a famous collector of aphorisms.

Ecclesiastes was compiled some 2300 years ago by a cosmopolitan Jew, who led an assembly or school. It was a yeasty era after the Babylonian exile, in a yeasty place, a crossroads of the world. Those who study Ecclesiastes find diverse influences, including the two popular emergent Greek philosophies, Stoicism and Epicureanism.
While working on Ecclesiastes throughout the summer of 2010, I came across a contemporary philosopher and writer, William B. Irvine, and his recent book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, via a Canadian Broadcast Corporation podcast.
I recommend this book to you for a variety of reasons. It offers an accessible and relevant introduction to Stoicism. For a philosopher, the author has an easy and jargon free/unacademic style. He accurately delivers well organized information about a much-misunderstood and underappreciated philosophy of life.  I particularly recommend his personal and anecdotal introduction, much of which I agree with regarding the significance and value of a personal philosophy of life.

I close this first section of my remarks with an excerpt from Mr. Irvine's Introduction: “A Plan for Living:”

What do you want out of life? You might answer this question by saying that you want a caring spouse, a good job, and a nice house, but these are really just some of the things you want in life. In asking what you want out of life I am asking the question in its broadest sense. I'm asking not for goals you form as you go about your daily activities but for your grand goal in living. In other words, of the things in life you might pursue, which is the thing you believe to be most valuable?

Many people will have trouble naming this goal. They know what they want minute by minute or even decade by decade during their life, but they have never pause to consider their grand goal in living. It is perhaps understandable that they have. Our culture doesn't encourage people to think about such things; indeed, it provides them with an endless stream of distractions so they won't have asked. A grand goal in living is the first component of a philosophy of life. This means that if you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy of life.

Why is it important to have such a philosophy? Because without one, there is a danger that you will mislive – that because goals can come into conflict, we need to decide which of our goals should take precedence when conflicts arise. She will therefore help us sort through our goals and place them into a hierarchy. The goal at the pinnacle of this hierarchy will be what I call our grand goal for living: it is the goal that we should be willing to sacrifice to attain other goals. And after helping us select this goal, a philosopher of life will help us devise a strategy for attaining it.

The obvious place to look for a philosopher of life is in the philosophy department at the local university.… But unless we are at a most unusual University, we will find no philosophers of life in the sense I have in mind.

It hasn't always been this way. Many ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, for example not only thought philosophies of life were worth contemplating but thought that the raison d’etre of philosophy was to develop them.… Furthermore, these ancient philosophers did not keep their discoveries to themselves or share them only with their fellow philosophers. Rather, they formed schools and welcomed as their pupils anyone wishing to acquire a philosophy of life.…

This book is written for those seeking a philosophy of life. In the pages that follow, I focus my attention on the philosophy that I have found useful that I suspect many readers will also find useful. It is the philosophy of the ancient Stoics. The Stoic philosophy of life may be old, but it merits the attention of any modern individual who wishes to have a life that is both meaningful and fulfilling – who wishes, that is to have a good life.

In his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William Irvine described how he stumbled into Stoicism through his academic study of Desire.  He admitted to having been largely ignorant of and otherwise misinformed about Stoicism. Also, at age fifty he was seeking a philosophy of life that would take him out of what he called his (and society’s ) default philosophy of life—an enlightened hedonism, marked by affluence, social status, and pleasure.  He suspected that Zen Buddhism might be the answer for him. But once acquainted with Stoicism, he found admiration in famous Roman Stoics; he also found Stoicism has striking similarities with Zen.  In Stoicism he found an agreeable philosophy of life that results in a “cheerful disposition and secure joy,” attained in large part by recognizing and controlling negative desires.

Principles of Stoicism

Stoicism’s emergence is associated with the beginnings of the Hellenistic Age, an era preceded by Alexander the Great's conquests and specifically his death in 323 BCE. This was a yeasty time, an early and great episode in what we now call globalization.  This was also an era of new philosophies, of which Stoicism was prominent.

Stoicism’s name references the meeting place of the first Stoics.  Stoa means porch.  There was a colonnaded porch projecting from the central market and communal gathering place in Athens, the Agora.  Known as the painted porch, it was there that Zeno, a Greek from Cyprus, began to discourse on a new philosophy of life. 

The Stoics were embedded in a truly a new age. As the world was unified under Greek influence, so the Stoics saw a unified world of nature and society.  They were newly formed cosmopolitanites, worldy in outlook, if not citizens of their brave new world.  They looked to nature for their inspiration, viewing the divine or god in a pantheistic fashion.   Their sense of the Divine—portrayed through Zeus, was essentially optimistic. 

The Stoics held to a benign determinism.  Nature was the macrocosm; the human spirit or soul was the microcosm. The Stoics sought to bring the inner life, the microcosm, in accord with the outer world, the macrocosm.  When this harmony was achieved, happiness was realized.  (This suggests to me an inherent psychological savvy.)

So, like all philosophies of life, Stoicism sought an answer to the question of successful living with the goal of happiness. The Stoics found an answer to this question by controlling negative or violent emotions. Their aim was to achieve a state of equanimity – proverbial Stoic calm. 

Contrary to popular understandings, the Stoics weren’t emotionally cold, intentionally indifferent.  They were involved but contained by self-control, as they sought the inner means to avoid unnatural anguish or pain.  The individual was responsible for her or his happiness.

Stoics sought to live a life of virtue as a means of controlling negative emotions.  A logical understanding of nature provided insight into personal virtue.  Integrity mattered in the most practical sense, because right and fitting actions resulted in happiness.  Actions, not beliefs, best measured personal virtue and character.  Stoicism, as compared to another new philosophy of life Epicureanism, had a strong ethical component for the self and for society.

Living the good life was active and reasoned, a matter of deliberate choice and continuous attention.  It had a well-developed scheme of philosophical/spiritual practices that included:  attending to the teachings of Stoic sages, self-reflection about happiness as it related to the cause and effect of one’s own desires and emotions, seeking to understand the natural harmony of the macrocosm of Nature, contemplating mortality and death, seeking to live in the moment, and what we might now call mindful meditation.  Stoics were not casual observers but engaged and involved practitioners of an aware and engaged philosophy of life.

Features of the Stoics’ cosmopolitan worldview included a broad respect and even the inklings of an inherent egalitarianism among human beings, for aren’t we all the product of the same nature.  For example, the major organizer of Stoic philosophy was Epictetus, who lived from 55-135 CE.  Of Greek heritage, he was born a slave and lived and philosophized in Rome.  At the other end of the Stoic social spectrum was the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations remains a standard for personal self-control and civic duty.  (It would be good required reading for anyone seeking public office today.)  Stoics were socially aware and applied their sense of natural harmony to society.

Stoicism was a popular and influential philosophy, particularly among the learned and ruling classes of the Roman Empire, through 529 when the Emperor Justinian I closed all philosophical schools in the name of Christianity.   That’s some eight hundred years of significance and influence.

Why Stoicism Today?

Stoicism has several significant correspondences to our contemporary situation. First, it looks to a unified nature for guidance and inspiration. Second, the yeasty age in which it came to prominence parallels our own age, particularly through the influences of globalization. Third, it preceded Christianity, finding the answer to the purpose and meaning of a human life through nature and human experience. We live in a post-Christian age and once again find ourselves seeking the answers to the great questions in a naturalistic scheme.  Fourth, Stoicism strikes me as very congenial to our Unitarian way, with its emphases on personal character and integrity. In this regard, listen to this quotation from the Stoic Marcus Aurelius:

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 nudity, 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.

To me this resonates with a great Unitarian mantra, the text from the first Unitarian sermon preached by William Ellery Channing in 1819: "Prove all things, hold fast to that which is good."

Incidentally, Stoicism survives through a number of wise quotes – sayings that are very accessible, understandable, and relevant. They often ring the reader like a bell.  Who among us would disagree with the observation of the Stoic Seneca the Younger:  “The point is, not how long, but how nobly you live.”  Or the proposition by the Stoic Epictetus:  “If, therefore any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone.”

William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient of Stoic Joy is an excellent starting place to become familiar with Stoicism’s enduring and relevant philosophy of life.  Immediately accessible is his literary website that includes three essays (see articles on pull down menu) on his experience and insights into Stoicism’s contemporary relevance.  The essays will be a good test to determine if you want to go deeper into this ever relevant  philosophy of life.