Thursday 27 November 2014

Stoic week and God

We're currently in the middle of Stoic Week (details here). It's an excellent idea and I wish all those participating in it all the best!

When I first read about it, I confess to feeling a little suspicious. Some of the material, frankly, seemed dumbed down cracker barrel philosophy. My contacts with previous online Stoicism had sensitized me to the way that the philosophy could be rewritten to exclude theism (of which more anon). On the other hand, I'm a fairly shameless popularizer: given the general state of Western Europe, getting people to read (eg) comic strip versions of Shakespeare seems to me a quantum leap forward in education, however far it falls short of the ideal of actually grappling with the real thing. The essential thing in popularization seems to me to be the absence of closure: it's important to make clear to the 'consumer' that this isn't the complete story, that there is further to travel and deeper to go. (Even if they don't actually make this journey, at least they should avoid the sense that they know it all. A little learning, provided it is accompanied by humility is a fine achievement. Richard Dawkins and his horde are a terrible example of what happens when it goes wrong.)

Anyway, leafing through the free (only for this week!) Kindle version of the course reader (here), it's clear that the authors have recognized some of these issues before me. An example of this is the debate on the place of God in Stoicism (here). I think this debate shows two things. First, there is a genuine issue about the place of God in Stoicism: there's not a straightforward answer. Secondly, and taking that first point more generally, however much you try and distil philosophical (ie proper) thought into a recipe book, there remains that intellectual incompleteness that (classically at least) is realized in the early, Socratic dialogues of Plato: living well requires a deep pursuit of wisdom that remains, at least in this world, incomplete and unfinished. (I'd say, as an aside, that Catholicism captures this incompleteness centrally through the notion of mystery: the possibility of plunging ever further into a intellectual depth that never ends. But that for another day.)

So what of God and Stoicism? It's important to remember that, for Catholics, the existence of God is not part of revelation, but of reason. In a rough way, classical philosophy represents a real life experiment: how much can you know of God before revelation? And so, for Catholics, it shouldn't be at all surprising that God keeps popping up in Greek and Roman philosophy: why wouldn't he given he is understood (incompletely but still importantly) by natural reason? And (part of the story at least) that's why Stoic Week (and other engagements with ancient philosophy) are good: they allow access to reasoning that has not been distorted (as has so much of modern thought) by a deliberate desire to make God unthinkable. Roughly, the Stoics and other ancients were content to follow the evidence where it led; and for most of them, it led to God.

Tim LeBon argues (here):

Mark Vernon blurs the issue by referring to “God” rather than Zeus in his article. The ancient Stoics did not believe in the Judeo- Christian God. The Stoic god is wholly impersonal – it is just nature, doing its thing. You can’t pray to the Stoic god.

There's a lot that needs to be said here if this were to be dealt with in full. First, the ancient Stoics (key ones anyway) did believe in the God of natural theology: the problem here is that modern atheists misunderstand the nature of the God of Catholicism and the God of ancient philosophy: neither believe in a Giant Nobodaddy throwing hissy fits; the Catholic does not believe in the Jehovah of the Latter Day Church of Snake Juggling any more than Epictetus believed in the Zeus of the peasant down the via. (For a bit on this, see previous blogpost here.)

Secondly -and this is trickier- the God proved by natural reason is still capable of eliciting an emotional, indeed personal, response. The way that the difference between deism and theism is often (imperfectly) explained (ie the former a belief in a rational watchmaker who creates and goes away; the latter a belief in a personal, caring God) somewhat conceals this. This is particularly important, I think, in understanding the Enlightenment. One common (atheist) narrative is that all your favourite Enlightenment figures were deists. And that deist really means: 'I want to exclude God as much as possible from the universe, but, because I was born too early/ am frightened by the Inquisition, I have to sneak the word in somewhere. (But really I'm an atheist.).' Whatever the case for some individuals, I think a truer portrait of many Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment figures would be more like this: 'I have no truck with all the superstitious accretions of popular (ie Catholic) Christianity. But peel these away, and you find at the heart of the universe a loving, caring and rational God. That's the God that I adore and worship.' And that too is the God of most of the Stoics.

Now, as I've said, one of the keys to understanding deep thought is that it doesn't stop there. There is more to be said. More to be argued. Little that can be taken as a conclusive ending. But let me end (temporarily!) with two things. First, let me quote Long on Epictetus:

Epictetus' theological language betokens a personal belief and experience as deep and wholehearted as that of any Jew or Christian or Muslim. (Here, p145.)

Secondly, let me present in full Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus:

Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful,
Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,
Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you,
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God's image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.
Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.
The whole universe, spinning around the earth,
goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you.
So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands,
your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.
By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established,
and with it you guide the universal Word of Reason which moves through all creation,
mingling with the great sun and the small stars.
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.
This Word, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to God's universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.
But they are senselessly driven to one evil after another:
some are eager for fame, no matter how godlessly it is acquired;
others are set on making money without any orderly principles in their lives;
and others are bent on ease and on the pleasures and delights of the body.
They do these foolish things, time and again,
and are swept along, eagerly defeating all they really wish for.
O Zeus, giver of all, shrouded in dark clouds and holding the vivid bright lightning,
rescue men from painful ignorance.
Scatter that ignorance far from their hearts.
and deign to rule all things in justice.
so that, honored in this way, we may render honor to you in return,
and sing your deeds unceasingly, as befits mortals;
for there is no greater glory for men
or for gods than to justly praise the universal Word of Reason.


So, happy Stoic Week. Enjoy meeting some of the finest minds of the classical world. And afterwards, dig further into the God of natural theology, find that rational principle which rules the world. (And don't forget to come back to the Catholic Church to find out, in full, what we can know about that God through his self-revelation in Jesus and his body, the Church.)

No comments:

Post a Comment