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Monthly Archives: November 2013

Stoicism and Christianity

Tomorrow is the big event on Stoicism for Everyday Life in London, at which Mark Vernon and I will be discussing the relationship between Stoicism and Christianity. Mark has an interesting story to tell – he was a priest, who then left Christianity and found an alternative in Greek philosophy (particularly Plato) and depth psychology. He’s recently started going to church again. As for me, I was never a Christian, but found a form of practical spirituality in ancient philosophy. This year, I’ve also been going to church and trying in my own pretty haphazard way to follow Jesus.

So, thinking about our workshop tomorrow, I’m wondering what are the similarities and differences between Stoicism and Christianity? Here are some initial thoughts, please chime in with your own thoughts too.


1) Serving God / the Logos

I think one of the main similarities, one of the ways in which Stoicism anticipated Christianity, is the idea of serving the will of God. Neither Stoicism or Christianity demand that God or the Gods do your will (and bless you with children, or a good harvest, or a good hunt etc), which is really a form of operational magic, but rather that you do God’s will, that you accept the will of God and try to serve it.

We should also note that the Stoics were monotheists – they followed Heraclitus in believing in one Logos. In this they can be compared to the evolving monotheism of Judaism, particularly that of Moses around two centuries earlier. Later Christians would draw on the Stoic concept of the Logos, particularly in the marvelous opening to the Gospel of St John. I wonder if one could argue that Stoicism is in some ways more monotheistic than Christianity, in that there is no opposing Enemy, no angels and demons, and no Trinity? There is just the Logos.

Anyway, back to this idea of giving up your will and serving the Logos. Cleanthes said: ‘Conduct me, Jove, and you, 0 Destiny, Wherever your decrees have fixed my station.’  Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus anticipates, I think, some of the noble sentiments of the Lord’s Prayer:

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.

There is a sort of ‘inner magic’ in this attitude of acceptance of God’s will – it frees you from anxiety and fear, while giving you the courage to press on and do the right thing.

2) What is the highest thing in your life? Who or what are you serving?

Another important idea in both Stoicism and Christianity is the question of what is the most important thing in your life. What do you serve? What is your god or master? Because everything will follow from that. There’s a similar idea in Plato – if you make public approval your God, then you make yourself the slave of the public, and will have to dance to their tune. If you make money your god, then you will have to dance to that tune, and bend and twist in accordance with your master.

One of the things I think I have been searching for in life is something or someone to serve. I think that’s true of a lot of people. And in a way, my career initially involved serving a succession of bad masters. Then I became a freelance journalist, which is in a way the ultimate humanist illusion – you’re ‘working for your self’. In fact, I found, that often meant I was anxiously seeking validation from ‘the public’, my new master.

I have been trying, not entirely successfully, to switch from serving the outer master of public approval, to serving what Epictetus calls the God Within, what Jesus calls the Kingdom. Because that is a master worthy of service. That involves a switch in the centre of your self, an an evolution from a self based on appearances (looking good to others) to a self rooted in service to God. I know that sounds pretty fancy and pious for an idle and vain sod like me, but that’s the aspiration at least, even if the actuality falls well short of that.

3) Inner service, not external spectacle

Related to this idea of serving the God Within is the idea in both Stoicism and Christianity of being wary of ostentatious worship of God, because you might really be showing off to other people. Epictetus says ‘when you’re thirsty, take a little water in your mouth, spit it out, and tell no one.’ And Jesus also talks about how people who pray very ostentatiously have already got their reward here on Earth.

4) Askesis

As Pierre Hadot has explored, early Christianity also took on the Stoics’ idea of askesis – the idea of the spiritual life involving training of the mind, the passions and the body. Indeed, the desert fathers developed this idea of askesis into asceticism, into a very rigorous programme of mental and particularly physical self-discipline. The idea of askesis is still strong in Orthodox Christianity, which in general seems to me much closer to Greek philosophy, while modern Evangelicalism seems to have thrown that entire tradition out in favour of loud and slightly soupy declarations of love for Jesus. However, I understand Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises are growing in popularity among Evangelicals, so perhaps the idea of spiritual training is making a comeback.

5) Serving the City of God before the City of Man

Christianity also developed the Stoics’ idea of the cosmopolis – the City of God – and the idea that the good person should try and serve the cosmopolis first, and their own particular tribe second. This is a radical idea, in that it breaks through tribal and racial barriers and insists that all humans share a divine nature. What a beautiful idea it is.

OK, so what are the differences?


1) The Logos made flesh

While Christianity drew on the Stoic idea of the Logos, there is a crucial difference. Christ is, according to St John, the Logos made flesh. There is a big difference between serving a rather distant and unknowable ‘force’ or providence, and serving a flesh-and-blood person, who was born in a particular place and time, who wept for us, who suffered and died for us. I think in some ways it is easier emotionally to love and serve a person rather than a pantheistic force – though it is also perhaps harder intellectually!

The relationship with God in Judeo-Christianity is very different to the Stoics’ relationship to the Logos. For the Stoics, it’s rather like the relationship between an aristocratic English (or aristocratic Roman) father and their son – rather distant, intellectual, and based on cold ideas of duty and virtue. In Judeo-Christianity it’s much more, well, Jewish – loud, emotional, needy, constantly bursting into arguments, constant back-and-forth, with God just as needy as humans. The relationship with God is more emotional, more sensual, more (dare I say it) erotic than in Greek philosophy (although there is an argument that this erotic aspect of worship is in Plato too). The Jewish God is hungry for our love, for our praise, and when we turn to Him he runs to meet us. Compare Cleanthes’ Hymn to one of David’s Psalms, or indeed to the passionate and weepy conversion experience of St Augustine, and you get a sense of the difference.

2) Christianity is much more emotional and needy!

Just to elaborate on the point above – Christianity is far more emotional, it seems to me, than Greek philosophy – full of sobs, and groans, and wails of anger or despair, as well as exultation and ecstasy. Again, the Psalms of David are a good indication of this. Though of course there are traditions in Christianity that are more wary of the emotions – particularly Orthodox Christianity. And there’s a pleading, even a begging, to Jewish and Christian prayer – please God, release us from our suffering, please God, free our people, please God, heal our sickness, please God, send comfort, please please please. This is very different to the proud self-reliance of Stoicism. Epictetus wrote: ‘Zeus says: “If you want any good, get it from yourself.” Well, you can see the difference.

3) Christianity believes in grace

Elaborating on the last quote from Epictetus – Christians believe much more in external assistance from God, in the Holy Spirit, in Grace and its power to save people and transform them, when they have reached rock bottom. The Stoics think any help must come from your reason, not from God (although our reason of course comes from God). This is a major difference, and one of the reasons I moved beyond Stoicism to Christianity, because I believe in grace – in moments when God lifts us up and puts us back on our feet.

4) Christianity believes in Satan!

Another massive difference is that Christians tend to believe in the Enemy – in an evil rival to God who somehow or other is allowed to control a lot of what happens here on Earth, and who seeks to tempt us and to destroy us. Not only that, but the Enemy (Satan, Lucifer) has a whole horde of evil minions too. Stoicism sometimes talks about the Enemy (in Epictetus for example), but the Enemy is typically our lower self, our bad habits or (in Platonism and Roman Stoicism) our more bestial self as opposed to our more divine self.

The Christian universe is, therefore, in some ways a much weirder, more polytheistic, and more dangerous place, teeming with evil spirits trying to destroy us. The Greek philosopher would look on the world of the gospels – filled with people possessed by devils – and think ‘what superstitious madness is this?’ There is barely a reference to demonic possession in Greek philosophy. If someone is ill, it’s because of bad thinking or bad habits. In some ways, I think this is a more helpful attitude from a therapeutic perspective – if someone has depression or anxiety or hears voices, it will just freak them out even more if you say ‘this is the Devil trying to drag you to Hell for eternity’.

I often find Christianity (and modern Christians) quite off-putting in their belief in evil demons. It always seemed quite primitive to me, like a backward step after Socrates rather than an evolution forward. But then I suppose Socrates had a daemon too, and the Stoics did believe in pursuing eudaimonia (having a kindly daemon within) as opposed to kakadaimonia(having an evil daemon within)…so maybe there are more spirits in Greek philosophy than we realize! And maybe Greek philosophy is a bit naive in its understanding of evil, and its belief that evil is always simply ignorance – Dostoevsky would certainly argue this. Which brings me to the next point.

5) Human nature is fallen in Christianity, and perfectible in Greek philosophy

In Christianity, because of Original Sin or what-have-you, human nature is inherently fallen, inherently prone to fucking up. We can use our reason to improve ourselves, but we have to rely on God to forgive and help us, and we’re unlikely to be perfect while we’re here on Earth. In Greek philosophy, human nature is perfectible through reason alone. Nature has made us rational, and we can use our reason to become like Socrates. We can become a virtuoso in the art of living.

To me, while I struggle with the Christian story of how we got so fucked up (the apple, the serpent etc), I find their definition of human nature more realistic than Socrates’ or Aristotle’s. If our nature is inherently rational and all we have to do is ‘follow our nature’, how come there are so few sages? We’re like a species of plant where only one in every billion blossoms. It’s a pretty fucked up sort of nature.

6) Christians are much more certain about the afterlife than Stoics

Christians have a much clearer eschatology than Stoics – although of course this has evolved over the centuries and hardened into ecclesiastical doctrine. They believe, on the whole, in the resurrection of the body either in heaven for eternity, or in hell / annihilation. Catholics also believed, for many centuries, in purgatory. Stoics, by contrast, are not sure what they believe about the afterlife – they barely mention it. Plato, by the by, seemed to believe in reincarnation (like Pythagoras), but this may have been just a story.

Christians also have a very different eschatology to Stoics – they believe that all of creation is fallen, but it will all be redeemed in the End of Days, when Jesus returns. Stoics, by contrast, believe things will just carry on for a bit, and then everything will burst into flames, and then everything will start again. Both pretty wacky theories, although the Stoic story seems to be closer to where astrophysics is at now, with its theories of multiple big bangs.

Another important difference with regard to modern Stoicism and Christianity is that many modern Stoics are atheist and don’t necessarily believe in the Logos or Providence, but still believe in developing your rational agency to do the right thing. So in that sense, one of the things that appeals to me about Stoicism is it appeals to both theists (Christian, Muslim, Jewish) and hardcore atheists like, say, Derren Brown.

7) Christians are much bigger on community, on myth, ritual, music, dance, symbolism, stories

This is a huge difference, and I think is the reason Christianity became a world religion and Stoicism never did. It appeals not just to the intellect but to the emotions, the unconscious, the body, and to our desire to come together to celebrate life and God. This is one of the big reasons I have moved beyond Stoicism to Christianity – my desire for collective religious life is not satisfied by philosophy clubs, much as I love philosophy clubs. They leave too much of me out.

8) In Christianity, love is more important than rationality

As Jean Vanier put it, a mentally disabled person would to Aristotle be defective, sub-human. To Christ, they would be just as beautiful as any other child of God. I think this is partly why Christianity is much better at community than Stoicism – because communities need to be grounded in love, not rationality. If a community is grounded in rationality, it immediately leads to a stiff hierarchy of the rational. Love, by contrast, resists hierarchies. Love is gentle, vulnerable, humble, serving.

Well, those are some initial thoughts. What have I got wrong or missed out?

Can governments cultivate love in their citizens?

Should liberal governments try to cultivate certain emotional states in their citizens? In Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, University of Chicago philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum argues that liberal political philosophers, from John Locke to John Rawls, have dangerously ignored ‘the political cultivation of emotion’, failing to explore how governments can encourage pro-social emotions like love, patriotism and tolerance, while curbing anti-social emotions like envy, shame and excessive fear.

There have been exceptions to this emotional illiteracy in liberal philosophers, says Nussbaum. Rousseau imagined a ‘civil religion’, which would fuse the people together in ecstatic worship of the state (his ideas bore fruit during the French Revolution in the bizarre Cult of Reason.) The social scientist Auguste Comte also developed his own eccentric ‘Positivist religion’ which he planned to impose on the citizenry in his ideal state.

But Nussbaum finds these solutions unsatisfactory. Any sort of imposed religion – theistic, civil or positivistic – is illiberal and probably doomed to failure. Following Rawls, Nussbaum believes the state should not impose any ‘comprehensive theory of the good’ onto its populace. Nonetheless, she thinks it proper for a liberal state to encourage certain pro-social emotions as a psychological foundation for political stability. Rational utilitarianism isn’t enough – we need a more full-blooded ‘enthusiastic liberalism’.

Nussbaum is not alone in this desire for a more emotional politics. There has been a revival in the last two decades of Aristotle’s contention that it is the proper role of the state to encourage eudaimonia, or flourishing, in the citizenry. One finds this idea in a spate of books and articles on the politics of happiness, well-being and virtue over the last 20 years, by the likes of Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan, Jeffrey Sachs, Derek Bok, Robert and Ed Skidelsky and others.

The Cult of Reason during the French Revolution

There has also been a growing interest in ‘political theology’, or the role of religion (whether theist or atheist) as an important cultivator of political emotions, in thinkers as diverse as Ronald Dworkin, Roberto Unger, Alasdair MacIntyre, Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Haidt, John Gray and Simon Critchley. The philosopher Alain de Botton has even started his own ‘religion for atheists’, while Lord Layard has launched a grassroots movement called Action for Happiness. There is a growing sense that liberal societies need more than rational skepticism, that we either need to return to religion (see the current popularity of the Pope and Archbishop Welby among political reformers) or to find some secular alternative.

Let’s say we accept the proposition that liberal societies are failing to promote the proper emotions, and this is threatening their long-term survival (this is a big claim, and Nussbaum does not do enough to back it up). Let’s say we accept her list of ‘good’ emotions and ‘bad emotions’ (are shame and envy necessarily bad for the polis? Protagoras and Adam Smith might disagree). The question remains: how can governments promote emotions in their citizens, without becoming cultish and totalitarian? What policy levers are available to the budding political psychologist, keen to promote certain emotional states in the citizenry?

Nussbaum rightly recognizes that if politicians really want to reach into the souls of their citizens and stir their emotions, they need the arts and humanities: symbols, metaphor, gesture, rhetoric, poetry, music, dance, monuments, architecture, festivals, pageantry, all the cultural apparatus that the Church wielded so expertly before the Reformation and Enlightenment tore it down as so much superfluous bunting.

With her usual critical acuity, she provides close readings of various works of art – the patriotic poetry of Whitman, the songs and dances of Rabindranath Tagore, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro – to show how deftly they cultivate pro-social emotions in the audience while never becoming fanatical. However, none of these works of art were ‘ordered’ by politicians. They arose spontaneously from the genius of their authors. Artistic genius is unpredictable, the muses tend to resist clumsy advances by politicians. So how can policy-makers directly work with the arts to try and cultivate political emotions? Don’t they have to leave artists alone to experiment?

Politicians can at least recognise that the arts play an important role – not just in earning money for the ‘creative economy’, but more profoundly in making us who we are, in shaping our emotions and national identity. Politicians can create conditions in which artistic talent is more likely to arise, and help to educate a populace to a level where it’s capable of responding to great art.

They can do this by encouraging the teaching of arts and humanities in schools and adult education, and by supporting artistic institutions and allowing them to take risks. Nussbaum looks to John Stuart Mill’s inaugural address to the University of St Andrews, in 1867, in which Mill highlights the importance of ‘aesthetic education’ in schools and universities as the foundation for a sympathetic, liberal ‘religion of humanity’. Nussbaum would also include dance classes in her ideal education, as they were in the Tagore school where her friend Amartya Sen grew up. I completely agree – Plato argued that dance has a central role in our emotional education, and it’s sad that schools give so little space to dance (or indeed, to sport).

A second policy tool available to the budding political psychologist is rhetoric. Nussbaum analyses the speeches of Martin Luther King, Churchill, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt to show how cleverly they cultivated the political emotions appropriate to the crises their countries faced. Today, by contrast, politicians speak in tweet-like soundbites. There’s a lot to be said for trying to raise the bar of political rhetoric in our time, although the presidency of Barack Obama show that rhetorical prowess is no guarantee of successful government.

A third policy lever available to the political psychologist is urban planning (as another new book, Happy City, explores). Nussbaum provides clever readings of emotionally literate public spaces, such as Chicago’s Millennium Park and the Lincoln Memorial. However, the rising cost of living space (in London, particularly) arguably has a much bigger impact on people’s well-being than any park or monument.

Despite these examples, my abiding impression of Nussbaum’s book is of the disconnect between academic philosophy and the emotional lives of ordinary people, even with an unusually ‘public’ philosopher like Nussbaum. Her close readings of the Marriage of Figaro or the tragedies of Sophocles are interesting, but alas our citizenry is not as culturally sophisticated as the citizenry of fifth century Athens (we don’t have the luxury of a large slave population to support our leisure), and while there is a mass audience for high culture, it is still a minority. Today, the main aesthetic cultivators of the public’s emotions are pop music, cinema and television. Yet these are strangely absent from Nussbaum’s cultural analysis (she doesn’t listen to pop and probably doesn’t watch television).

Robbie Williams performing at the Diamond Jubilee concert

Some philosophers have considered the cultural and emotional impact of pop culture – Roger Scruton in Modern Culture (2007), Carson Colloway in All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (2001), Allan Bloom in his 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind. But these philosophers cast the most cursory of glances at pop culture before dismissing it with a Platonic sneer as barbaric and infantile. This is a pity. The two most successful recent examples of art shaping our political emotions in this country were the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert in 2012 and the Olympic Opening Ceremony the same year. In both of them, pop music played a key role. For good or ill, TV has also profoundly shaped our national psyche, far more than any opera or monument.

Another strange absence from her book is any discussion of psychotherapy and psychiatry – two policy levers by which governments can influence their citizens’ emotions. Aldous Huxley imagined a state where the citizens were pacified through soma. Today, the NHS spends $2 billion annually on mood-altering chemicals, including 50 million prescriptions for anti-depressants. The government has also spent over half a billion pounds on talking therapy, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, to try and reduce levels of depression and anxiety disorders in the population. CBT, as I’ve explored, was directly inspired by the Hellenistic philosophies that Nussbaum has done so much to revive, and is a way for many ordinary people to discover ancient philosophy.

Oddly, Nussbaum has never discussed CBT in her books, and has been very dismissive of Positive Psychology. She has made valid criticisms of Positive Psychology – it’s overly fixated on optimism, and can be illiberal and dogmatic when politicians try to impose it on their citizens without their consent. And yet for all their flaws, CBT and Positive Psychology have brought the ideas of Socratic philosophy to millions of people, which is more than can be said for any academic philosopher.

Nussbaum neglects to consider at any length the importance of religions to political emotions (again, for good and ill). She is rightly wary of governments imposing any particular religion onto its citizenry. Yet policy makers can still try to work with faith groups, as say the anti-slavery campaign and the Jubilee debt campaign did so successfully. As Jonathan Haidt has explored, if you really want to generate ‘enthusiasm’ in the populace, you will probably need to tap into areas of the mind usually reached by religion. It’s notable how many of the figures she celebrates are, in one way or another, religious: Whitman, Tagore, Gandhi, Luther King. We are moved by the sacred, which is a tricky thing for a secular liberal philosopher like Nussbaum.

Political Emotions is an important contribution to an already impressive body of work. Nussbaum has transformed modern philosophy, helping to re-connect it to the emotions, to psychology, to the arts, and to public policy. She has been a defining influence in the rise of the Neo-Aristotelian idea that philosophy, including political philosophy, can and should transform our emotions.

And yet Political Emotions is curiously unemotional, dense, and unlikely to get the pulse racing. It opens the way for ‘further research’ (that phrase beloved of academics) and for no doubt interesting papers, seminars, conferences and books by other academics on the political emotions. But can philosophers not merely discuss the public emotions, but actually affect them? Maybe so – but to do so, they will need to venture further beyond the safety of the Ivory Tower and into politics and popular culture.