Could caring hurt your soul? What does that mean, anyway?

(Seneca, right, and the Apostle Paul, left)

In some quarters, the recent popularity of Stoicism is likened to the return of trends one would have thought (and perhaps hoped) were over, like bell-bottom jeans, or making one's own jam. At least, this is the opinion of one Justine Toh, a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. Toh wrote a piece for "Eternity News" in which she weighs the relative merits of Stoicism and Christianity, abundantly citing yours truly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stoicism doesn't come out too well in the confrontation. Equally unsurprisingly, I'd like to take the opportunity to correct some of Toh's misunderstandings, in the spirit of vigorous open dialogue with other philosophies that has characterized Stoicism since its very inception.

Right at the onset Toh seems to be making the usual confusion between Stoicism (the philosophy) and stoicism (the stiff upper lip attitude), a difference explained very well by Don Robertson in this essay. Suffices to say that -- contra Toh -- Stoics are not "the kind of person who kills everyone's buzz by having no buzz at all."

Toh then goes straight after yours truly: "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."

Not exactly. My position has always been, as I've argued several times (for instance, in How to Be a Stoic) that Stoicism is a big tent, metaphysically speaking, and that there is room for both religious and non-religious Stoics, since the emphasis is on ethics, not so much on metaphysics. It just happens that I personally have been secular for most of my life, so naturally my own version of Stoicism is non-religious. But it doesn't have to be, and Toh is therefore confusing an individual choice with a logical necessity of some sort.

She proceeds with making a bold, and entirely unsubstantiated, assertion: "Whether we are atheists, believers, or anything in between [I'm guessing she's referring to agnostics here], all of us bear the stamp of Christianity -- not Stoicism -- on our souls."

Setting aside that it is very much a matter of dispute whether we have souls or not, no we don't bear the stamp of Christianity. If by "we" Toh means westernerns (because clearly other cultures cannot, historically, bear such a stamp), then she is very much mistaken. "We" bear the traces of a number of different traditions, most especially the Christian and the Greco-Roman one (with a sprinkling of Egyptian and Arabic), which therefore very much includes Stoicism, whose strong influence on Christianity is well documented.

In fact, Toh is well aware of this, since she writes: "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." It certainly does, and it probably is.

But, argues Toh: "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."

Here we find the usual mix of half-truths and misunderstandings that characterizes the typical modern critic of Stoicism. First off, no, the goal of Stoicism was not to achieve apatheia, it was to become virtuous. Apatheia is just a nice side effect of the practice. Second, the word does not mean "apathy," despite the fact that it is the root of the modern English term. It means lack of disturbance from negative emotions. Which brings me to the third point: the Stoics sought to distance themselves from destructive emotions like fear and anger, but also to cultivate positive ones like joy and love. Which is why the Stoic life is not one lived with a stiff upper lip. Lastly, and most importantly, the Stoics very much thought that it was their duty to get involved in society to ameliorate other people's suffering. One of the cardinal Stoic virtues (all for of them imported wholesale into Christianity by Thomas Aquinas) is that of justice. The Stoics put their money, and their lives, where their mouth was, hence the famous "Stoic opposition" to the tyrannical emperors Nero, Vespasian and Domitian. 

But Toh is correct in one respect: the Stoics sought to develop a point of view that put human tragedies into cosmic perspective, reminding themselves that the only truly good things are one's own correct judgments, and the only truly bad things are one's own erroneous judgments. But this is the same sort of "detachment" we find, say, in Buddhism, and it very clearly does not preclude compassion for fellow human beings, nor active involvement in human affairs. Let us not forget that the Stoics thought that the point of life is to be helpful to fellow members of the human cosmopolis:

First, do nothing inconsiderately or without a purpose. Second, make your acts refer to nothing else but a social end. (Meditations, XII.20)

Toh then makes an interesting, yet somewhat strange point for a Christian: "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." In a sense, she is correct. Death is taken by the Stoics to be a natural and inevitable occurrence, which is clearly outside of our control. It follows that the only thing we can do about it is to face it with courage, which is why it is an occasion for self-mastery. What has never been clear to me is why death is such a big deal for Christians. Since they believe that they will go into a place, or a state of being, that is full of bliss ("Heaven"), then why is dying such a tragic thing, an occasion to mourn, rather than celebrate? I'm asking a genuine question here, not making a rhetorical point. 

Toh continues: "'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." But why? He was, after all, going to resurrect Lazarus. Who, presumably, was in a state of bliss at that moment. So why would Jesus weep? Or, indeed, why would he call him back and deprive him of such a state? Seems to me that if you wish to criticize a highly logically coherent philosophical system, like the Stoic one, you really ought to pay attention to the internal logic of the alternative you are proposing.

Toh concludes: "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." The second sentence is a spectacular non sequitur to the first one. It simply does not follow that if philosophy X (Stoicism, but also Judaism) does not seek "converts" therefore Christianity makes converts out of compassion (and, by implication, philosophy X lacks compassion). And no, Justine, the skeptics among us are most definitely not true believers. It is only your rather narrow conception of what counts for a good philosophy of life (which Christianity certainly is) that leads you to that unfounded conclusion.

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