There are probably around 200 people in the world who describe themselves as Stoics, including me. Why choose to follow such an obscure and minority philosophy? Is it an act of willful perversity, like supporting Norwich FC?
If you are a Westerner, and are spiritually inclined, you have a number of options before you.
First of all, you can decide that the Western spiritual tradition is Christianity, and your place is therefore in that herd, under the protection of the Good Shepherd.
You don’t have to be an idiot to make this choice. Some very intelligent and culturally aware people have, after much deliberation and wandering, decided to join the Church. I’m thinking particularly of TS Eliot and Coleridge, in some ways the two greatest minds of their respective generations.
Both of them came to the Church from positions of heterodoxy, and were highly aware of non-Christian traditions. Eliot, for example, taught himself Sanskrit, and chose to end his Wasteland with words from the Upanishads. But he resolved the spiritual crisis that that poem expressed so powerfully by turning to the Anglican church.
He decided that Christianity was the glue that held Western society together. It was the mythical and ideological structure that our individual and collective psyche needed to give it roots. Without it, he believed, we were destined to become ever more materialist, anxious, and spiritually bankrupt.
The role of the artist, he believed, was to re-connect Western society to its Christian roots, even amid all the progress, destruction and confusion of the 20th century. His great hero was Dante, who he believed performed a similar service for Western society amid the upheaval of the Renaissance – re-connecting Western society, re-telling the myth, re-opening the portal to the Divine.
Coleridge likewise, after long wandering and questioning, ended up declaring his faith in the Christian church, and asserting that the role of the artist or intellectual was to be like a modern ‘clerisy’, re-connecting us to the myths of Judea and Galilee.
I cannot do the same. I can never say that Christ was the only son of God, and that the only path to God is through him. I have tried to do that, but the words stick in my throat. I have occasionally turned to the New Testament for advice, but found scant consolation mixed in with all the talk of devils and miracles.
And then one turns to the Old Testament, with all its tribal bigotry and intolerance, and Christianity becomes even more unpalatable.
The Church experience I also find inhospitable. I don’t like the hymns, I have heard about two sermons in my entire life that inspired me, and the communion is bizarre. I don’t want to drink Jesus’ blood, nor to eat his body. I’m not a cannibal.
And it is dangerous to assert that Christianity is or should be the bed-rock of Western society, as TS Eliot did, in a modern multi-cultural society. You end up seeing other cultures, such as Judaism, as parasites or alien bodies within the Body of Christ.
I am still a product of the Christian faith. There are ideas, phrases, that are part of me and that have helped me greatly – ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’, ‘the Kingdom of Heaven is within’ – and I admire the gospel of St Thomas, and other Gnostic writings. But that is mainly, I think, because Gnosticism is the part of Christianity most influenced by Greek philosophy.
So I don’t think I can ever sign up and be a Christian.
Buddhism and Hinduism
The most popular alternative for many Westerners today is Buddhism and Hinduism. I think the visit of the Beatles to Rishikesh, to study Hindu mysticism under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, was a defining and revealing moment.
Because just as the Beatles stormed the US in the 1960s, just as the American press spoke of a ‘British invasion’ by the Beatles, Stones and others, so we can speak of an ‘Indian invasion’ during the 1960s, up to the present day.
Like the Beatles in America, various Indian and Tibetan gurus have arrived in the West, and been greeted with the same kind of hysterical adulation.
Westerners have seized on Buddhism, Hinduism and Yoga as the answer to all their prayers, as the window for which they were searching out of their narrow and anxious selves.
I was also deeply impressed by Buddhism when I was a teenager. Of all the faiths and philosophies I read, it made the most sense to me. It seemed the richest in ideas and techniques, and certainly was far richer in practical spiritual exercises than modern Christianity, which seemed to be all about hymns and tea and biscuits.
But I can never sign up to Buddhism either. For the simple reason that I am not Indian. It is not my culture, it can never be my culture. I don’t speak Hindi, I don’t write Sanskrit. The ideas and concepts of Buddhism and Hinduism have their own deep cultural and historical roots, and they are not mine.
We might sprinkle our conversation with the occasional Buddhist phrase, talk knowingly about the ‘sangha’ or ‘sunyatta’ or ‘monkey mind’ or whatever. But we’re fooling ourselves about the deep foreignness of Asian culture, and we will always be outsiders in this culture, always be the new kid in the class, sitting at the feet of the Master, nodding.
This brings me to the second main reason I cannot sign up to Hinduism or Buddhism. These faiths grew out of far more authoritarian societies than exist in the West. And they depend, to a great extent, on the relationship with the guru – you find your guru, and then you give total allegiance to him or her (almost always him), you give up your will and self-responsibility, and do their bidding entirely. This fits well with an Asian model of political society, in which the Dalai Lama was supreme ruler of Tibetan society, or Mao Tse-Tung was the supreme ruler of communist China.
Some Westerners have been happy to give up their self-responsibility this way. Western middle class women, in particular, have been willing to give up all for the Master. And, unfortunately, many Asian gurus, greeted like rock stars in the West, have been only too happy to take everything that their female Western followers have proferred up to them.
The history of the ‘Indian invasion’ since the 1960s has been a long history of sexual exploitation of naive western women by visiting gurus. This goes all the way back to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, about whom John Lennon wrote Sexy Sadie about, accusing him of being a ‘dirty old man’. It goes all the way through Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Sogyal Rinpoche, Swami Prakashanand Saraswait, Bikram Choudhury, and others.
A survey by Jack Kornfield, the eminent Zen teacher, found that over a third of Zen teachers in the West had had sex with their female students.
You can say that this is ‘crazy wisdom’, that these gurus have reached such a level of wisdom that they can shag their students and it’s OK, it’s tantra, it’s transcendental. OK. Whatever gets you through the day.
I remember listening to a tape of Sogyal Rinpoche talking at the Rigpa centre in Ireland. He was criticising Western society for being so materialistic and shallow, while Indian society was so wise and fulfilled. And the audience, of mainly Western women, were nodding and chuckling and assenting vigorously. This is the man who was later sued for sexual harassment of his students while being drunk.
Just because our society is screwed, it doesn’t mean Indian society is any less so: the caste system, the fatalism, the lack of any developed concept of human rights. And, I repeat, it’s not our society, not our language, not our myths, not our political society, not our concept of the individual and of responsibility, rights and self-determination.
‘Tibetan rights’ is a noble concept, as noble as the freedom of Tibet from Chinese oppression. But the concept of rights was as little observed in Tibet before the invasion of China as after. Petty crimes (such as, for example, not taking part in the worship of the Dalai Lama) were punished with whipping, and more serious crimes were punished by cutting off of ears or the gouging out of eyes. I am not for one moment justifying the brutal invasion and cultural assault of Communist China. I am saying this was not necessarily a society that we should hold up as a template for ourselves.
The same goes for Bhutan. Why does our society keep on sending people like Lord Layard to Bhutan, to see how we can be happier? This is an authoritarian monarchy, which only allowed access to TV and the internet a decade ago. I wonder if Layard would like to see a similar regime in place here, with himself as high priest of Happiness.
I’m not going to discuss the modern attempt to revive paganism. It’s not serious. It’s a bunch of people in Stevenage dressed as druids, hitting bongoes and mumbling words from Lord of the Rings. The cornerstone of ancient pagan culture, in Ireland, Gaul, Saxon Britain and elsewhere, was human sacrifice. Getafix and his ilk were mass-murderers. If you really want a pagan revival, you have to bring back human sacrifice. Everything else is just bongoes and Lord of the Rings.
Why I am a Stoic
The greatest achievements of Western society, intellectually and spiritually, were in ancient Greece: Sophocles, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, and their Roman followers – Cicero, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius.
Socrates gave us the idea of the autonomous self, learning to know itself, to be aware of itself, to challenge the beliefs that had been handed down to it by its society. This is an incredibly radical idea, that you should think for yourself and not merely accept the beliefs of your tribe or elders. And it was born here, in the West.
But his work was not purely critical. At its heart was the idea of transforming the self to bring it into harmony with nature, the cosmos, the divine. But you have to do it yourself, not by giving up your responsibility at the altar of some despotic Master.
Sophocles gave us the founding myths that enshrined these ideas, particularly in the late tragedies – Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus, which are far more powerful and meaningful for me that anything in the Bible.
Stoicism developed this idea, and gave us practical ‘spiritual exercises’ that individuals could use to work on their selves, to transform their psyches, to bring themselves into harmony with nature and the cosmos.
Without the guiding influence of Hellenic philosophy, Christianity would have been little more than an animist cult.
The Western tradition is founded on the Greek concepts of rights, self-determination, critical rationalism and the other achievements of liberalism, which are unknown in ancient Indian culture.
But ancient Greece combined the achievements of liberalism with a spirituality founded on reason and on practical spiritual exercises, which the West has now taken up (albeit without much awareness of their deep roots in Hellenic philosophy) in modern cognitive psychotherapy.
This is our culture, and it is exceptionally rich. There is no need to sit at the feet of some visiting Master who has flown in for a weekend workshop, for a chant and a grope. Our culture has resources enough of its own, within itself, within us.
The Hellenic tradition was taken up and absorbed by Judaism (Philo, the Kabbalah), by Islam (Al-Kindi, Averroes), by Christianity (Tertullian, Origen, Clement, St Paul, St Augustine).
And it never demanded the absolute allegiance that Christianity does, or that Indian gurus do. That is why it was so easily taken up by other cultures. And that is why it is so appropriate for a modern, liberal and multi-cultural society like ours.
That is why I am a Stoic. I still learn a great deal from other cultures and philosophies – I still respect the Dhammapada, the I-Ching, the Upanishads, as some of the greatest of human creations. But I approach these traditions from my own tradition – the Hellenic tradition which is my heritage.