Stoicism, Sadness, and having Stuff

Bit of a deviation today – I came across a new blog, which had a great introduction to the Greek philosophy of Stoicism. You can read it here. I’m not going to talk much about it directly, but there is one point within it that struck me as interesting. The writer is working through a couple of prominent critics of Stoicism, and quotes Bertrand Russell, one of those critics. Apparently, Bertie sees Stoicism as a philosophy where:

“We can’t be happy, but we can be good; let us therefore pretend that, so long as we are good, it doesn’t matter being unhappy.”

That struck me as interesting, because there’s a great deal of Stoicism in Christianity, where it’s never really functioned in the way Bertie describes it. There was another particular line in the writer’s piece that struck me – apparently many folks perceive Stoicism as “a doctrine of indifference and numbness, that it gives up the search for happiness”. Again, I was taken aback, because that’s not really how it works in Christianity. Of course, this isn’t to reject or deny these criticisms of Stoicism, because I’m not sure to what extent Stoicism was adapted when it was incorporated into Christianity. That said, the Stoic aspects of Christianity are by no means vulnerable to these criticisms of indifference and numbness.

So the New Testament is littered with either explicit Stoicism or stuff that looks like Stoicism. Probably the best example is with Christ himself: in Mark 10, there’s a dude who comes up to Jesus and says “Look, I’ve kept all the commandments, I’m a pretty good guy, what do I have to do to get into heaven?” And Jesus goes “Sell all your stuff and come wander round Israel with me.” This guy’s taken aback, and he leaves really dispirited. Basically, he’s more attached to his material wealth than he is to God’s will – and that’s a big deal-breaker. It’s about priorities, in that sense – God wants to be our first priority. This is the repeated message throughout the Bible. Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden for privileging part of God’s creation (the snake) over God Himself. We hear it explicitly in Romans 8: “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law – indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God”. As I’ve noted before, if this sounds like dualism, it’s still not. It’s just about where your priorities lie – whether God comes first, or whether you’re more interested in material things.

These ‘material things’ aren’t necessarily just wealth-related either. As far as the Christians are concerned, if you privilege knowledge over God, it’s idolatry. If you privilege happiness over God, it’s idolatry. You get the idea. It’s not that knowledge or happiness are bad in and of themselves – it’s just about priorities. C.S. Lewis has a line about how there’s no virtue that you can’t twist into a vice if you set it up as the greatest good (think Javert in Les Mis, for example – obviously justice isn’t necessarily bad, in and of itself). Christianity simply contends that goodness (or God) should be a higher priority than ‘just’ knowledge, or ‘just’ happiness, or ‘just’ anything else – up to and including your own life (cf. Christ). You get possibly the starkest example of this with Job. Now, Job’s a decent guy. He’s got God as his top priority, and he’s well off, and he just goes about his life doing his thing. Then God allows the Devil to take literally everything in his life away from him. He loses his livestock, his home, his wife and children – everything. He gets ugly sores, his health is taken away from him – this guy is reduced to dust. And throughout most of this, he’s pretty much still down with God – he’s not happy, obviously, but he keeps his trust in God (mostly), even in the midst of his pain.

From my very skimpy reading, that might be a point of distinction between Stoicism and Christianity – Christianity doesn’t mind so much if you’re upset about stuff going badly. Well, contemporary Christianity doesn’t mind, anyway. We’ll talk about apatheia another time. Anyway: what’s common to all forms of Christianity is the belief that everything belongs to God, and if God decides to take it away (as He does in the case of Job), you’re not allowed to get mad at Him, because it belonged to Him anyway, and if you really truly love Him you’d trust Him with your wellbeing here on Earth. That’s clear in Job, and it’s clear throughout the New Testament. Jesus explicitly says that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). That’s pretty Stoic, in a lot of ways, because Jesus gave everything up to and including his own life in pursuit of God’s will. This is where I find these criticisms miss the mark – at least with the Christian adaptation of Stoicism. It’s not so much “We can’t be happy, so let’s be good and pretend it doesn’t matter.” It’s “We’re willing to compromise our happiness and our safety and our general wellbeing for the sake of a greater good.”

It’s also not true that Christians are expected to feel numb towards losing worldly stuff. Before Jesus went to the cross, he wept, because crucifixion is fucking awful and he wasn’t looking foward to it. Again, it’s simply about being willing to compromise lesser things for the sake of a greater good. It’s not about ‘not feeling’ so much as it is about feeling a deep and uncompromising love for something better:

“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss, because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”

– Philippians 3:7-9

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