'Body, Soul and Spirit, and the Exercise of Death' by Elen Buzaré

Body, Soul and Spirit, and the Exercise of Death

by Elen Buzaré

Editor’s Note: Here are the PowerPoint slides of Elen’s presentation at Stoicon 2015, along with a PDF of instructions to introduce you to anakhoresis.

Click here to download the presentation: Body soul and spirit in Stoic and Christian meditation

Click here to download the PDF on Anakhoresis

After a Law degree in France and in Scotland as an Erasmus student, Elen Buzaré has been working in the insurance broking field for over 10 years now. She first encountered Stoicism when she read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations at the age of 20 and since then, dedicated herself to the comprehension of the Stoic teaching, mostly as self learner. This led her a few years later to publish a little essay on Stoic spiritual exercises, a little book very much inspired by Stoic (in the light of the regretted Pierre Hadot’s work), Christian orthodox and Buddhist spiritualities. She is convinced that practising a form of mindfulness is central to Stoic practice in the sense that it develops  an acute awareness of phantasiai and hence the ability to suspend judgement to question them. She would also be happy to explore further the Stoic physics as she feels that ethics has no real sense without its foundations. She also created  Yahoo ! Discussion group named Stoici Amici for French speakers. You can join here

'In Praise of Rationality' by Alister Cox

In Praise of Rationality

by Alister Cox

Editor’s Note: Alister Cox explores his own intellectual and philosophical journey over the last 60 years, ranging from Christianity to Epicureanism and finally culminating in his interests in Stoicism.

All this talk of Stoicism, not least the debate it has launched about whether its modern devotees constitute a ‘religion’, has struck in me a double chord. First, I was brought up in a profoundly Christian home. Second, a study of the Greco-Roman world was the staple not only of my education but of the first half of my career in the teaching profession. Unsurprisingly, from my youth right through to my retirement (which began 20 years ago), I have been fascinated by the interface between those two mighty systems: they have shaped our world for two millennia, but do not sit comfortably together. My personal explorations of that ‘discomfort’ have extended over 60 years and touch on Stoicism at several points.

[1] The challenge to Christian belief. I was an earnest youth and imbued not only with devout Christian beliefs but with the notion that such beliefs should be subjected to rigorous rational scrutiny. I can be seen to have worked hard at this by some learned talks I delivered, all of them drawing on things I knew or hastily researched about the Greco-Roman world. At school, without even meaning to be provocative, I discoursed on ‘Christianity, the step-child of Paganism’, finding how extensively it was influenced by the polytheistic culture into which it was introduced. At Oxford (under the title ‘Christ, Culture and Compromise’) I analysed the profound tensions between Christian and Greco-Roman thought-patterns, expecting to ‘disturb’ my biddable audience but scarcely foreseeing that the most ‘disturbed’ by it all would later be me! The choice in its simplest form was between a God-centred and a Man-centred perspective, and I must have enjoyed quoting Tertullian, whose stance was proclaimed with truculent clarity: ‘What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem? What between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Away with all projects for a ‘Stoic’, a ‘Platonic’ or a ‘dialectic’ Christianity! After Jesus Christ we desire no subtle theories.’ I probably already knew that I was on the side of ‘subtle theories’.

A few years later I had to admit to myself (to my huge relief, it must be said) that I had deserted the Christian fold, and in semi-public recognition of this I found a sufficiently friendly audience before which to explore yet another aspect of the battle-lines surrounding the Christian creed, this time those which define moral ideals. Under the quizzical title ‘To do as Rome does?’ this was published by the journal Greece and Rome – precisely 50 years ago in fact. I prefaced it along lines which rather defined my little world: ‘Anyone faced with religious doubts is also faced with the problem of morality in the following form: he is likely to be told that if he abandons the religion he must abandon the moral aspirations, which he will no longer have motive or means to fulfil. An intelligent doubter must ask himself if this is true.’ The scene was thus set for my account of what I called ‘Roman morality’, the complex of ideals which in the pre-Christian world constituted what the Romans called virtus (bravery, toughness, energy, self-reliance, self-control). This is where Stoicism came in: explaining that ‘intellectual Romans had by the first century BC superimposed on their traditional national ethic a philosophy which a Greek had invented but which might have been tailor-made for the Roman temperament and moral outlook’, I deployed a quote from Marcus Aurelius which still means much to me: ‘The business of life is more like wrestling than dancing, for it requires us to stand ready and unshakeable against every assault however unforeseen’.  Asking why this Stoic creed of tough self-sufficiency went out of vogue, I suggested that it succumbed to Christianity, a faith which preached human non-self-sufficiency, man’s inability to face the problems which beset him; ‘the assertion of self’ in Christian thinking is the archetypal sin.

[2] Lucretius Stoicism went down well with the Romans as a ‘guide to the good life’, but alongside it (and generally seen as radically different) was the school of thought founded by Epicurus and projected with passionate enthusiasm by Lucretius. My experience of this great Roman poet started in school but was strongly reinforced at university and remained steadily with me as I learned to deploy his striking argumentation in the classroom. My most original experiment was probably to introduce him to teenage youngsters, choosing for them passages in relatively simple Latin and concentrating on his treatment of the physical world, where his approximations to modern scientific thought are frequently astonishing. When I managed to get a set of such passages published (‘Lucretius on Matter and Man’), they turned out to be controversial in some quarters because I had not included one of his greatest ‘purple passages’ – the account, told with scornful indignation, of Agamemnon’s slaughter of his own daughter at the behest of the gods. My supposition had been that his savage conclusion (tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, ‘such are the heights of evil to which religion has driven men’) was too strong a meat for youngsters – which may say more about me than about them in the 1960s. I remembered the coy way in which school textbooks had side-stepped the thrust of the author’s indignation, translating religio as ‘superstition’ – which I find to my astonishment is how it’s rendered in the Penguin version. I don’t doubt that religio to Lucretius meant what it means to us: he had no time for it, and made it clear that any gods in his scheme of things could have no interest whatsoever in human behaviour, let alone attempt to pervert it; they are too busy enjoying that trouble-free calm which most earthly mortals strive for in vain.

If I have been influenced by Lucretius in my own philosophy of life, it is not only for his hostility to religion but for his countless ‘proofs’ in Book 3 that we mortals are truly mortal: with death our elements disperse, including those finer particles which compose our ‘spirit’ (anima). This was part of his crusade to rid men of their fears and anxieties, which clustered notably around the unknowns of an afterlife: if we accept his account of the state of mind of his contemporaries, we must deduce that they were as terrified of what lay beyond the grave as was the common man of later Christendom. In my own upbringing those medieval fears had been replaced by a much more utopian heavenly vision, but my own considered reaction was, first, to disbelieve even that sanitised version (in the name of the harsh physical realities laid out by Lucretius), and then to learn to relish that disbelief, unsure how one could enjoy eternity. Apparently this is unusual: more Brits believe in an afterlife than believe in God!

In all this I haven’t at all forgotten Stoicism. It’s true that amongst its many divergences from the rival Epicurean school we must count the place it reserved (a) for the Divine, even if vaguely and pantheistically conceived, and (b) for an afterlife, even if only for the privileged few who count as the saintly ‘wise men’. But my recent flicking through of Seneca’s ‘Moral Essays’ (the most exhaustive, if not the most edifying, of Roman sources for Stoicism) has clarified for me the clear gulf which separates him from the religious creeds which now compete for our attention: for him, God or gods there may be (or may not be, he seems not much to mind), but crucially he agrees with Lucretius that the Divine brings no demands to bear upon mankind. That’s why for me Stoicism Today can only be a ‘philosophy’, not a ‘religion’, and why I was rather reassured to read of the number of ‘atheists’ it has recruited.

[3] In praise of rationality  I come at last to what readers of this are likely to regard as a central concern – the role of ratio (‘reasoning’) in the management of life, rationality as a trusted tool.The concept holds a place of honour in both the Roman systems of this study – not surprisingly when each traces its ancestry to that teasing propagator of rational enquiry, Socrates. I’ll start with the Epicureans and Lucretius, whose De Rerum Natura is a masterly construct of the mind. In the Prologues to each of his six Books (of which I did a study published in Greece & Rome in 1971) he treats poetically of the range of fears and anxieties which make of man’s life a misery; there then follows, making up the bulk of each Book, a lengthy technical discourse designed to allay such anxieties through scientific insight; and as the hinge between these two sections we find (no less than four times) an identical three-line formula of transition. These lines are of such primary importance that they deserve to be quoted here in the Latin:

Hunc igitur terrorem animi tenebrasque necesse est
                        non radii solis neque lucida tela diei
                        discutiant, sed naturae species ratioque.

The gist of this is as follows: our spiritual angst (terror animi), akin to dark clouds (tenebrae), needs the equivalent of bright sunlight (radii solis) to chase it away, namely (a) observation of the natural world, and (b) correct reasoning about it (as near as I can get to naturae species + the all-important ratio). It’s precisely what we would call a ‘scientific approach’, but Lucretius is also a poet and loves playing with the vivid images of light out of darkness: what man needs is the bright light of reason – rational elucidation, intellectual enlightenment.

It’s an ambitious project but one which was well understood in the ancient world, where what had to count depended not on some divine revelation but on the best that man could manage for himself – and his best, they reasonably argued, was his brain-power, his mastery of language and thought. This was above all the credo of the Stoics, who liked (it is true) to reinforce it with some sort of cosmic link (God as Ratio writ large) but expected no heavenly support for what was essentially a human project. I’m reminded of the modernist shift in Christian theology where the vague tenet ‘God is Love’ is reinterpreted as a concealed moral imperative (‘go out and love one another’): it suited the Stoics equally to feel that their chosen priority was written in the skies. But since the aim thus defined is to ‘cultivate rational calm’ there’s a striking difference from the Christian precept: you don’t need to ‘go out’ to do it.

This aspect of Stoicism understandably raises some questions for many would-be ‘modern Stoics’, whether or not under specifically Christian influence: that’s all very well, we find them saying, but what about concern for others? Seneca felt bound to answer that identical charge from some of his contemporaries, but he was not particularly apologetic about it. He insisted for example that pity was a spiritual malady (aegritudo animi), incompatible with the target of a mind at peace (serena mens). Equally threatening to it, he argued, were such emotions as excessive grief: ab amara quadem libidine dolendi animus recipiendus est, ‘the mind needs to be rescued from any kind of morbid pleasure in grieving’.

[4] Stoicism Today & CBT I have tried to hint throughout that my thoughts about the above collection of subjects took shape a long time ago when I was a young man, feeling my way both in my studies and in my life.The effect on me may have been permanent, contributing to what in retrospect looks like a ‘philosophy of life’, but for decades any precise thought about it all has been left on the back burner. Hence the big surprise to be suddenly confronted in these recent times with vivid recalls of what I once thought and felt, coming at me with all the trappings of modernity – and near-simultaneously from two seemingly diverse sources.

The first was my chance glimpse of Stoicism Today in action: a crowded amphitheatre of enthusiasts giving it a try, ready to identify the relevance to them of ideas first floated nearly 2½ millennia ago. As I thereafter followed their internal debate, I have been struck by certain distinct varieties of approach: were we seeing the emergence of differing ‘schools’ within this new allegiance, not without signs of acrimony on the borderlines? Some may be looking for ancient wisdom to fill a vacuum left by a Christianity in retreat: they worry if their new fidelity can’t be called a ‘religion’ – which to my thinking it cannot. Some may be more than happy to call themselves both Christian and ‘Stoic’, sweeping aside all reminders of the ‘humbleness before God’ which was expected of sinful mankind: I even wonder if this is a typically trans-Atlantic posture – in keeping with a ‘yes-we-can’ philosophy which has a Stoic feel to it.  Others evidently hope that this rediscovered creed will at least offer a place for regular prayer-like meditation – an admirable project of course but not one which need depend on the little-known habits of the Stoics of old. For me it is enough to feel that some of these pre-Christian ideas have contributed to my ‘philosophy of life’ without constituting for me either a ‘religion’ or a call to daily meditation.  ‘Philosophies’ are personal and private, whereas religious allegiance is by nature and tradition a public and social commitment.

Another big group, I began to understand, is interested in Stoicism as therapy. It surprises me if they believe they are following a lead explored by the Greco-Roman Stoics (for which I know no evidence), but of course it’s all to the good if ideas deriving from the ancient world can contribute to an eclectic approach to modern psychotherapy. This brings me to the second of my eye-opening discoveries of recent years, resulting from the experience within my family of depressive episodes needing professional care. I quickly learned that modern practice is almost equally divided between drug-treatment, designed to rectify the body chemistry, and something which is simply known as CBT, which looks for active cooperation from the person affected. I found myself initially puzzled by the acronym: T (‘therapy’) I could do, and BT (‘behavioural therapy’) was conventional wisdom, but what was the C? ‘Cognitive’, I was told, and my first reaction was puzzlement: it seemed poles apart from ‘behavioural’. I learned that indeed it is – and with a belated flash of insight I saw that this semi-technical label ‘cognition’ refers to a procedure well-rehearsed in the pre-Christian world, that of bringing the mind systematically to bear on problems before they threaten one’s serenity. The originators of CBT knew this full well: their aim was to put modern practice firmly in line with the tenets of ancient Stoicism. My contribution has been to argue that an almost comparable case can be made for Lucretius, as champion of a supposedly rival school.

Rationality is the unifying bond. The principle was never more simply expressed than by Seneca: adhibe rationem difficultatibus – ‘bring the mind to bear upon your problems’. Easier said than done of course, but there’s copious advice available, not least from Stoicism Today!

Biographical note – or autobiographical, since the author has been invited to draft it! Here are some precisions of points left vague in the above. Family background: Father a Methodist minister, but generously tolerant of his son’s eventual ‘aberrations’. Schooling:  Kingswood School, Bath – which provided boarding education in those days for large numbers of such ‘sons of the manse’. It managed to combine its Christian ‘mission’ with a resolute pursuit of academic excellence. University: thanks to the above I found myself arriving at Oxford as a Scholar of New College, there to study that marvellous combination of Classics and Philosophy which was known as ‘Mods & Greats’. Career:  Having used Classics as a passport into teaching, I later branched out and ended up as Headmaster of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Retirement: By a surprise twist I moved with my wife to France, where we have spent a very happy 20 years. One fruit of that period has been the preparing of lectures on French culture and politics for groups of the Alliance Française. A common element in my intellectual explorations over 60 years has been an interest in the History of Ideas.

'The Porch and the Cross: Stoicism and Christianity' by Kevin Vost

The Porch and the Cross

by Kevin Vost

From Atheism to Catholicism

     There is quite an interesting history of the intersecting courses of Stoic philosophy and Christian theology. Seneca’s own elder brother, the governor Gallio, is quoted within the pages of the New Testament itself (Acts 18: 14-15), where he refuses to hear a case against St. Paul. There was once even a book claiming to have correspondence between Seneca him­self and St. Paul, but it was found to be unauthentic. Epicte­tus made only a few passing comments about Christians in his writings (recall that he died long before the Bible had been assembled), but lessons from his Enchiridion were incorporated into some ancient monastic rules. Indeed, some medieval Christian writers would even “Christianize” the Enchiridion by substituting, for example, the name of St. Paul when Socrates was mentioned! Although Marcus Aurelius’s reign was marked by some persecution of Christians, it is un­likely that he himself instigated it — but his failure to stop it may point to the limitations of the Stoic philosophy, or at least, to Marcus’s limited knowledge of the Christian faith.

     Some early Church Fathers, such as St. Justin Martyr, Origen, praised the lives and lessons of Musonius Rufus and Epictetus. Tertullian described Seneca as “often ours” in his sentiments. In the Middle Ages, Scholastic schoolmen were also well aware of Seneca, who wrote in Latin. Blessed Humbert of Romans cited him three times in his Treatise on the Formation of Preachers, a tome designed to guide the new Dominican Order in the most effective means to spread the gospel of Christ, and we will see (in a later chapter) that St. Thomas Aquinas would cite him in many places within the Summa Theologica.

    The Stoics also had a very influential role regarding my own personal journey back to Christianity. Since my early 20s, I had been a big fan of Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy because I knew it worked. I also respected the Stoics because I knew they were its main precursors. There was no doubt in my mind that these three ancient sages (Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius – I had yet to encounter Musonius Rufus) knew far more of value about the human mind, emotion, and behavior than any gaggle of modern behaviorist or psychoanalytic psycholo­gists.

   Oddly enough, though, while Ellis was an avowed athe­ist, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus were, in their own ways, believers, one and all. (I figured at the time that nobody’s perfect.) Though we tend to think of the ancient Greeks and Romans in terms of their classic polytheistic pantheon of Olympian gods, some of the Stoics were much more likely to speak of God with a Capital “G.” They did not know Christ, but their reason led some to a belief in one God, which they sometimes referred to as Zeus, or Nature, or Providence, as well. Epictetus, in particular, though, spoke of God in personal terms. Recall this “lame old man’s” hymns to God at the start of this chapter (a citation from Epictetus’s Discourses 1.16). And here’s an anonymous epigram found in the writings of St. John Chryso­stom: “Slave, poor as Irus, halting as I trod, I, Epictetus, was the friend of God.”  It was when I had obtained that leisure which Seneca advised that I found myself freer to focus on my own moral purpose à la Epictetus — and before long, to say of all things and events around me, like Marcus Aurelius, “This has come from God.”

     Actually, though, I profited greatly from two groups of ancient Greek wise men bearing gifts: not only the Stoics, but also the Aristotelians. In the next chapter, we’ll turn to a modern Aristotelian, a contemporary of Albert Ellis, who had actually once debated Bertrand Russell. It was in revisiting his thoughts in my early 40s that I was soon drawn back to Aristo­tle, over to St. Thomas Aquinas, and all the way up to Christ, the same path that this Aristotelian had taken in his 90-plus years of life.

TRUTH BOX #7

Divine Ideas

God is one and the same with Reason, Fate, and Zeus.

     The Stoics were no atheists. Though there were, of course, no new Darwinian atheists at the time of their philosophi­cal heyday, there were indeed materialistic atheists of other schools, such as the Atomists, most notably Democritus and Leucippus, who saw all of reality as composed of at­oms moving about according to chance, leaving no room for the soul or for spiritual beings. Other philosophers, like the Epicureans, most notably Epicurus himself and Lucretius, drew from the Atomists; and, while still believing in gods, paved the way for further atheism by arguing that the gods were uninterested and unable to intervene in our affairs. They also denied an afterlife.

     The Stoics did not deny the spiritual realm, and some saw the reality of a single God. Aided by reason but lack­ing in divine revelation, they had varied conceptions of God that captured pieces and parts of the truths of His nature.

     God was considered a spiritual and active principle that gives shape and meaning to a primary passive principle of undifferentiated matter. The ancient Greeks, you see, had a conception of an eternal universe (“existence exists”) and perceived God as a First Cause in terms of changing mat­ter, rather than bringing the universe into existence ex nihilo — that is, out of nothing. The Stoics had rather vague and sometimes conflicting understandings of God as the shaper of the cosmos or universe (which was believed to periodically perish in cataclysmic fire and then begin anew); as the “soul” of the universe; or as the universe itself. Some held, therefore, a rather panthe­istic view that everything is God, or a part of God. Some saw Him as synonymous with Nature or with Fate. Others at times, especially Epictetus, did see God as a personal, father-like figure interested in our existence.

    Regardless of their rather varying and rather murky concepts of God, the Stoics acknowledged him based on reason alone. They also deduced from his existence our need to live lives of virtue and self-control, and they developed very effective tech­niques to help us achieve this. There is still much that good Christians and all people can learn from those teachers on the porch.

Kevin Vost, Psy.D. taught psychology at the University of Illinois at Springfield and at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee. An author of books on memory and on Thomistic philosophy, Dr. Vost has studied the Stoics since the 1980s. These excerpts are adapted from parts of chapter 7 “Stoic Strivings: The Slave, the Lawyer, the Emperor, and God” in his memoir From Atheism to Catholicism:How Scientists and Philosophers led me to Truth (Our Sunday Visitor, 2010) which is available here. He is now completing The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2015) which will highlight the lives, lessons, and legacies of Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.

Stoicism & The Rule of St. Benedict: Living a Stoic and Christian Contemplative Life

Stoicism & The Rule of St. Benedict

Angela Gilmour

My very simplistic, grass roots feedback on Stoicism and Christianity is a comparison of my experiences in following the Rule of St Benedict as a member of the Lay Community and my participation in the 2013 Stoic week as part of my personal development.  The resources are from the contemporary paraphrase of the Rule “Always we Begin Again”. St Benedict was born into a world of turbulence and violence in 480CE seventy years after the fall of Rome.  The core values of his rule are Stability, Obedience and Conversion of Life through the practice of openness and transformation.

Overarching Similarities Between Stoicism & Benedictine Spirituality

1. The first aspect of Stoicism, is that each of us has the capacity to make ourselves happy by developing virtues such as wisdom, justice and self control and by broadening our outlook on world.

St Benedict urges his followers to listen with the heart and the mind and to take up the greater weapon of fidelity to a way of living that transcends understanding. The first rule is simply this:

Live this life, and do whatever is done, in a spirit of thanksgiving.

Abandon attempts to achieve security, they are futile.

Give up the search for wealth, it is demeaning.

Quit the search for salvation, It is selfish.

And come to comfortable rest, in the certainty that those who participate in this life, with an attitude of thanksgiving will receive its full promise.

2. The second main aspect of Stoicism that resonates with me is that each human being and animal naturally wants to benefit others by their engagement in life as part of a family, community and as a member of a single brotherhood of like minded people.

Continue reading “Stoicism & The Rule of St. Benedict: Living a Stoic and Christian Contemplative Life”

Features: Stoicism and Christianity by Jules Evans

Jules Evans considers the the similarities and differences between Stoicism and Christianity, which was the theme of his workshop, with Mark Vernon, at the Stoicism for Everyday Life Event in London. Please chip in with your own reflections and observations too.

Similarities

1) Serving God / the Logos

I think one of the main similarities, one of the ways in which Stoicism anticipated Christianity, is the idea of serving the will of God. Neither Stoicism or Christianity demand that God or the Gods do your will (and bless you with children, or a good harvest, or a good hunt etc), which is really a form of operational magic, but rather that you do God’s will, that you accept the will of God and try to serve it.

We should also note that the Stoics were monotheists – they followed Heraclitus in believing in one Logos. In this they can be compared to the evolving monotheism of Judaism, particularly that of Moses around two centuries earlier. Later Christians would draw on the Stoic concept of the Logos, particularly in the marvelous opening to the Gospel of St John. I wonder if one could argue that Stoicism is in some ways more monotheistic than Christianity, in that there is no opposing Enemy, no angels and demons, and no Trinity? There is just the Logos.

Anyway, back to this idea of giving up your will and serving the Logos. Cleanthes said: ‘Conduct me, Jove, and you, 0 Destiny, Wherever your decrees have fixed my station.’  Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus anticipates, I think, some of the noble sentiments of the Lord’s Prayer:

O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.
But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.
For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Word of all came to be one.

Continue reading “Features: Stoicism and Christianity by Jules Evans”