Warning: Caring could hurt your soul

Justin Toh weighs up Stoicism and Christianity

“Everything old is new again” may be a phrase of uncertain origin, but it’s a reliable formula for the return of trends thought long over – like bell-bottom jeans, making your own jam and the revival, in some quarters at least, of the ancient Greek and Roman wisdom of Stoicism.

The kind of person who kills everyone’s buzz by having no buzz at all

It’s an unlikely resurrection. When we call someone “stoic,” at best we mean that they maintain a calm composure even in the grimmest of conditions. This is roughly continuous with the ancient Stoic belief that the good life was one of equanimity and tranquillity no matter the individual’s circumstances. But, at worst, we mean it far more pejoratively: the stoic is seen as stiff upper lipped, even emotionally flat – the kind of person who kills everyone’s buzz by having no buzz at all. It’s not exactly a compliment.

Still, there’s enough interest in Stoicism to have sustained annual gatherings of Stoic Week across the globe since 2013, for seven days of Stoic scholarship, inspiration and practice. There, thousands might find themselves exploring how the technique of negative visualisation – imagining the worst that can happen – counselled by Roman statesman Seneca – can help them master anger and frustration. Or discussing a key Stoic tenet by Epictetus, a slave turned philosopher, who wrote: “Our thoughts are up to us, and our impulses, desires and aversions – in short, whatever is our doing … Of things that are outside your control, say they are nothing to you.”

In other words, the secret to a more satisfied existence is to care less about what you can’t control.

Plenty are drawn to the practical advice Stoicism offers for life in our turbulent world today. Among them are those looking to this ancient philosophy as a replacement for religion – such as philosopher Massimo Pigliucci.

In How to Be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living, Pigliucci recounts his own journey to Stoicism, “not on my way to Damascus, but through a combination of cultural happenstance, life’s vicissitudes, and deliberate philosophical choice.”

Since abandoning Catholicism in his teenage years, Pigliucci found himself on his own – existentially speaking – in dealing with the meaning of life. The angry and belittling tone of the New Atheists repelled him, Buddhism was too mystical and secular humanism too rational (“it comes across as cold and not the sort of thing you want to bring your kids to on a Sunday morning,” he writes).

But Stoicism ticked Pigliucci’s boxes: it was rational, science-friendly and agnostic enough on the question of God (more on this in a moment) to satisfy his scientific and philosophical bent. It was also eminently practical and promised to help him prepare for his inevitable death – a prospect increasingly on his mind after he turned 50.

For Pigliucci, Stoicism was a source of life guidance and ultimate meaning in the absence of religion. Or, more specifically, Christianity. Pigliucci’s passing comments about Damascus, where he alludes to the conversion of the Apostle Paul (who previously persecuted the church), as well as Pigliucci’s nods to church gatherings on Sunday, indicate that his reference points for his post-Christian life are Christian in nature.

All of us bear the stamp of Christianity – and not Stoicism – on our souls.

In other words, the teenage faith that Pigliucci disavowed has nonetheless left its mark on his adult self. Maybe that’s a predictable mix: even leaving aside Pigliucci’s back story, there are undeniable similarities between Stoicism and Christianity.

But whether we are atheists, believers, or anything in between, all of us bear the stamp of Christianity – and not Stoicism – on our souls.

Stoicism and Christianity were closely associated in the ancient world: both counselled discipline and self-control in the face of pagan decadence, and a commitment to contentment despite hardship. For instance, the Apostle Paul’s declaration that he has “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12) seems straight out of the Stoic playbook.

These convergences between Stoicism and Christianity even led to a cooked-up correspondence between Seneca and Paul, both prolific letter writers in their day – though never, in fact, to each other.

But Christianity and Stoicism are sharply opposed in one respect particularly – and it makes all the difference.

The Stoics’ goal was tranquillity, which sounds peaceful enough, but this tranquillity was the product of apathy – literally “without suffering” in the Latin. Apathy was how someone could preserve their peace of mind, and the route to that imperturbability lay in detachment.

To involve yourself with others, then, was to risk the serenity of the soul.

Take the example of death: for the Stoics, not principally a personal tragedy or even an irreparable tear in the human fabric, but an occasion for self-mastery. Epictetus writes that we should discipline our fears of death: “to this let all your reasonings, your lectures, and your trainings be directed; and then you will know that only so do men achieve their freedom.” And if you encounter anyone grieving the death of a loved one, he writes, remind yourself that death itself is not the problem – only the judgments they attach to it. “Certainly do not moan with him,” he sternly adds. “Do not moan inwardly either.”

Compare Epictetus’ words with the call of the Christian to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15) – to radically identify with the suffering of others, even to take it on. Jesus certainly did – as much is suggested by the shortest, and perhaps the most poignant, entry in modern Bibles: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). And he did so at the tomb of Lazarus, the text says,  moments before he was to call his friend out of it. It turns out that even the one whom the Scriptures said conquered death could also be undone by it.

But that was the nature of the Jesus whom Christians knew as God. He cared. Even if both Christianity and Stoicism agreed enough on God’s existence – both were convinced that an all-pervading logos or rationality governed the universe – Christianity proclaimed an involved, loving God since the logos or word became flesh in Jesus (John 1:14).

And all this has influenced us no matter what we believe about God.

The Stoics, like other ancient Greek philosophers, believed that only spiritual things could be good. That God would become human – take on a body – was a reprehensible thought. It was even worse that this God was passionately involved with people, identifying with their sorrows and weaknesses, even to the point of dying upon a cross for them.

And all this has influenced us no matter what we believe about God. Detachment was prized by the ancients, but we are passionate about passionate engagement. Consider that very profane and very popular self-help book by Mark Manson. While it spends many pages arguing why you should care less, the book’s real thesis is that you should stop sweating the small stuff so you can devote yourself to what you really care about.

Manson channels Oprah when he asks his readers: “What pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for?” It’s revealing that our word “passion” is the Latin word for “suffering” because, to us, how much we’re prepared to suffer for something we love is a measure of how much we care about it.

Similarly, we value compassion: active involvement to relieve the pain and struggle of others. As Edwin Judge, Emeritus Professor at Macquarie University and expert on early Christianity and the Greek and Roman world, explained to CPX, “Care, for us, means actually bearing the cost, when you actually do something about the person you allegedly care for.”

The Stoics, on the other hand, practised “courtesy”: a distanced, polite awareness of others’ struggles but one that insulated the self from the other. “This is the real difference between the Stoic and the Christian bond between one person and other,” Judge said. “In the Christian case it is commitment to their problem. In the other case, it is recognition that there’s a difficulty. You offer politeness but that protects you from any grand involvement.”

Apparently, the ancient Stoics never actively sought converts, even if plenty can be found today. But since we believe that true care is costly, it turns out that Christian compassion did convert us. When it comes to that, we – even the sceptics among us – are all true believers.

Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

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