Stoic Discourses

Thanks to a friend’s recommendation many years ago, the Stoic philosophers have become a source of interest and dependable wisdom. Once again, I’ve picked up the Discourses of Epictetus (c. 55-135 AD).  At the heart of the Stoic worldview is the ability to discriminate between those things which are under our control and those not under our control, and how to practice proper resignation in the case of the latter.

[H]ave you not received faculties that enable you to bear whatever happens? Have you not received magnanimity? Have you not received courage? Have you not received endurance? And what care I longer for anything that may happen, if I be magnanimous?

Further, man is urged to lead the “good life.”

God has brought man into the world to be spectator of Himself and of His works, and not merely a spectator, but also an interpreter. Wherefore, it is shameful for man to begin and end just where the irrational animals do; he should rather begin where they do, but end where nature has ended in dealing with us. Now she did not end until she reached contemplation and understanding and a manner of life harmonious with nature. Take heed, therefore, lest you die without ever having been spectators of these things.

It is true that I have recently noted the limits and defects of pre-Christian thinkers. Man is not, as some pagans imagined, all mind and rationality, nor is he a self-sufficient creature. Yet intellectual discipline has an important role in belief. As historian Michael Grant says, “pagan philosophy as well as pagan rhetoric came to be regarded as a proper preliminary training for spiritual Christian knowledge—as a natural knowledge preparing the way for supernatural knowledge.” Philosophy dovetails nicely with religion and it seems to me a mistake to cast aside common sense and sage wisdom, as if one could practice spiritual virtues without natural goodness. Philosophy can form a kind of antechamber to one’s contemplative sanctuary.

It was as an admirer of Greek thought that I developed a sympathy for the apologist Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), the Christian neo-Platonist who appealed to his pagan audience as fellow “lovers of wisdom” and even referred to Christianity as the true “philosophy.” Along these lines, the Renaissance Catholic philosopher Justus Lipsius recommended Epictetus as

a man who relied entirely wholly upon himself and God, but not on Fortune. In origin low and servile, in body lame and feeble, and in mind most exalted…. There is no one who better influences and shapes a good mind. I never read that old man without a stirring of my soul within me, and, as with Homer, I think the more of him each I re-read him, for he seems always new; and even after I have returned to him I feel that I ought to return to him yet once more.

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