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.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I've been looking for an introduction to Stoicism. Your sermon and William Irvine's book seem just right.