'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.

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13 thoughts on “'In Praise of Rationality' by Alister Cox”

  1. It seems we don’t much differ on Seneca and the gods. ‘Pleading the cause of the gods’ is compatible with any private thoughts which might lurk there, but he quite frequently uses an ‘either..or’ about belief in them, from which I deduced that for him it was not a matter of huge importance. This struck me as a major difference from the standard Christian posture, which fuelled my thoughts some 50 years ago! .

    On the Latin quote I admit I thought hard about how best to translate it, but your ‘only’ is wrong because we must assume that ‘tantum…malorum’ go together since otherwise the genitive ‘malorum’ makes no sense. Literally it must be ‘so much of evil(s)’, which seems to me closer to my rendering than yours. Maybe we have some expert Latinist somewhere who can pass learned comment on this! Thanks for your interest.

    1. From Seneca we have:

      XLI. On the God Within Us
      ‘We do not need to uplift our hands towards heaven… as if in this way our prayers were more likely to be heard. God is near you, he is with you, he is within you… The holy spirit indwells within us. One who marks our good deeds and our bad deeds, and is our guardian. Indeed, no man can be good without the help of God. … He it is that gives noble and upright counsel.’

      LXXXVII. Some Arguments in Favour of the Simple Life
      ‘Do you ask where the Supreme Good dwells? In the Soul. And unless the soul be pure and holy, there is no room in it for God.’

      CX. On True and False Riches
      ‘God, who is the Father of all, has placed ready to our hands those things which he intended for our own good… ’

      This hardly sounds like a man who is indifferent as to the existence of God. This is hardly ‘private thoughts which might lurk there’. This is a man who believes in the classic Stoic teachings.

      You are offering your ‘private thoughts’ and are seeing the writings of old through the lens of your own opinions with all the bias that that involves.


    2. As I said, I’m not an expert in Latin. You used it quite a lot in the text, and that gives an impression of `I know my Latin well` which, in turn, I felt it gave authority to a quote that’s pretty harsh, but not so in the original (so it seemed to me). Anyway, you’re answer makes perfect sense. I stand corrected.

      Going back over my comment, I realized I only pointed out things that I disagree with, and that’s not at all my opinion. Somehow, I find it easier to criticize :). It goes without saying that I agree with a lot of the rest.

      Thank you for your answer.

  2. Just a couple of points

    With all the differences in meaning, somehow, I don’t think the thought of denying God(s) would have crossed Seneca’s mind. After all, he did write an essay on providence.

    …since you wish me … to answer … I will do what is not difficult, and plead the cause of the gods.
    (Seneca, Of Providence I, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Of_Providence)

    I’m no expert in Latin, but it seems that `tantum religio potuit suadere malorum` can be rendered plainly by `only religion can advise such evil`. No need for the `heights of evil` in an objective paper.

  3. There is no way I can disagree with Alister’s statement “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.” This is a correct statement of what *he* believes.

    But let us be rational and get our facts right.

    1. ‘Stoicism Today’ is not a ‘philosophy’. It is a blog. It is put forward by a group of people interested in improving on CBT and in trying to develop a form of therapy that can be ‘sold’ to the NHS as ‘the next great idea’ for helping people by giving them an opportunity to change their way of thinking. (This can be confirmed by reading the reports on the 2013 and the 2014 Stoic Weeks.)

    Unfortunately, as is to be seen in their description as to ‘What is Stoicism’ (their post ‘Announcing Stoic Week 2015’), the Stoicism Today ‘team’ choose not to point out the fact that Stoicism is a pantheistic philosophical belief system and so they are technically in breach of the Trade Description Act as to claims that they ‘wish to introduce the philosophy’ insofar as they do not forewarn any atheist that they will be being subjected to the teachings and practices of a ‘religion’.

    Religion in this context is a ‘belief in, recognition of, or an awakening sense of a higher unseen controlling power or powers, with the emotion and morality connected therewith’ (Chambers English Dictionary). We are not talking of an ‘organised’ religion with a priest class and the like but rather of a belief system.

    2. Turning to the word ‘rationality’ that the posting wishes to praise, we have the following definition. “Rationality is the quality or state of being reasonable, based on facts or reason. Rationality implies the conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s reasons to believe, or of one’s actions with one’s reasons for action.” The word ‘rationality’ is from the Latin for ‘to think’ which is also the root of the word ‘reason’.

    So it is entirely rational to accept that ‘belief’ is an aspect of being reasonable and rational. Rational thinking does not imply that one will automatically reject a belief in ‘a higher unseen controlling power or powers’. There is no link between rational thinking and atheism. Atheism is simply a blind faith in a particular point of belief. There are no facts to support it.

    The problem is that many people ‘praise’ what they see as ‘rationality’ when what they are really praising is their own rationalised *beliefs* – in atheism, beliefs without any foundation other than railing against some perceived irrationality to be found within the traditions and practices of some other belief system, usually the Judaic/Christian/Islamic traditions.

    The atheist’s demand that we submit to ‘rationality’ is usually a demand to blindly accept their belief and conviction that as they are not aware of having experienced some form of ‘higher unseen controlling power or powers’ then such cannot exist.

    Stoicism with equal conviction will attest to its belief that some form of ‘higher unseen controlling power or powers’ does exist and as such the philosophical teachings of Stoicism must take this into account.

    This is the only rational conclusion possible from reading the available Stoic writings of old.

    All the attempts to deny the fact that Stoicism is a belief system are irrational and unreasonable and contrary to any proper academic study of the subject.

    This is not to say that atheism may or may not be correct in it’s *belief*that there is no ‘God’. But it is to say that Stoicism involves a belief in ‘a higher unseen controlling power’ as well as a belief in the individual’s connection to such. As to if Stoicism is on the right track or not is open for the individual to decide for themselves.

    However, just because some people have no awareness of a ‘higher form of consciousness’ does not mean that the highest form of ‘consciousness’ is to be found only within the brains of mankind. That would be human-centric egotism and is no excuse to try to pervert the teachings of Stoicism.

    Rationality is not the sole preserve of atheism. Rationality can support the believer in their beliefs as well – albeit that I would not go so far as to *praise* it. Rationality is not a god.

    1. I can take most of this on board, and would simply add that I have at no point identified myself with the sort of atheistic ‘creed’ which you rightly disparage, the aggressive nature of which I long since got out of my system. Nor have I at any point implied that my aim is to influence anyone to share my particular considered point of view.

      I share your interest in the ‘supernatural’ element in the credo of the ancient Stoics, but in fact find it under quite frequent scrutiny in the world of Stoicism Today dissemination. You’re right that many (of us) have to seek application of the practical cues to living without the ‘heavenly underpinning’ which was originally there, but this is no different from the wide acceptance of some form of ‘Christian morality’ by those today who cannot accept the supernatural element. In both cases might this not be better than nothing?

      In the end we may both of us be happier to retain a sceptical attitude to what is being propounded, but (being new to it) I can’t help finding it of consuming interest!

      1. Hi Alister,

        Thanks for your response. I will make just two points.

        There is no ‘supernatural’ element in Stoicism. The Divine Fire is seen as being what is natural. It is not ‘super’ or beyond nature – it is nature.

        As to ‘retaining a sceptical attitude’, one of the reasons that the Stoics of old talked about everything being ‘solid’ was that they were looking for a level of certainty in their beliefs. They were looking to what it is reasonable and rational to believe. The doubts that scepticism raises was not for them – nor is it for me. 🙂


        1. We obviously both want to be meticulous, and you no doubt manage it better than I do. It’s just that something which is ‘divine’ suggests to me something ‘supernatural’ – confusion of language perhaps. My main point remains that one can usefully study what Stoicism has for us without being committed to linking it with something there in the cosmos.

          1. Alister, you say, “It’s just that something which is ‘divine’ suggests to me something ‘supernatural’ – confusion of language perhaps.”

            I see no cause for confusion if one is talking of Stoicism from the point of view of a Stoic.

            You also say, “My main point remains that one can usefully study what Stoicism has for us without being committed to linking it with something there in the cosmos.”

            I would agree with you and others who claim this is what they are trying to do, however such study should be open to trying to understand the whole Stoic teaching including the Stoic view of the deity. Entering into the study with a closed mind to part of what Stoicism offers is not going to lead to a rational and full study of Stoicism.

            If after study one still wants to reject the Stoic deity then one rejects Stoicism, even if in the process one might have taken on some useful disciplines.

            If after study one accepts the Stoic framework that offers an understanding of the whole of Stoicism then one will really benefit from what Stoicism has to offer.

            Or a person can avoid all the study of Stoicism and just settle for the lesser discipline of CBT.


  4. I much appreciated following Alister’s journey to the rational and Stoicism. Like Alister I was brought up as a Christian but abandoned the faith as an adolescent. The trigger to that was when we were told we must not read some books. A sure recipe for reading them. Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian” was one. The same censors, now dead, would have had apoplexy if they had read books like “The God Delusion” or “The End of Faith.”

    I was later much taken with Zen especially after coming across the advice, “When you meet the Buddha on the road kill him.” So different from my Christian faith where everything had to be accepted without question. The idea that you should ignore the preachers and make up your own mind was exciting.

    Still later with Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and others I found what I wanted: an unfailing guide, as an atheist, to dealing with the slings and arrows with the updates from CBT.

    Excellent article. Many thanks.