Neostoicism Redux

Stoicism was a school of Greek philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium that espoused the strict governance of emotions and the rule of logic. Contrary to the form of stoicism practiced by a certain pointy-eared spaceman, classical Stoicism did not espouse the suppression of emotions, but rather controlling them, allowing the positive emotions freedom without letting them reign over logic and eliminating the negative emotions altogether. In this regard, classical Stoicism has more in common with Jedi philosophy – itself steeped in Japanese Zen Buddhism and the bushido philosophy of the samurai – than it does with the peculiar Vulcan “stoicism” devised by Surak. While it was not necessarily a theistic philosophy, it did have a spiritual aspect that was purely Greek in origin, and its teachings – greatly influenced by the works of Plato and primarily expounded upon by the great Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger – would influence later serve as the primordial foundations of humanism.

Naturally, as Stoicism was deemed pagan in origin by the early Christian luminaries of Rome (even though one of the Roman emperors, Marcus Aurelius, counted himself among the Stoics), the advent of Roman Christendom meant the decimation of Hellenistic philosophy, and all schools of classical philosophy – especially the Stoics – were closed by order of Emperor Justinian I in 529 AD. This closure would not last; in 1584, Belgian philologist and humanist Justus Lipsius read the works of the ancient Stoics and saw virtue in their ideas. He sought to revive a form of Stoicism syncretized with Reformation Era Christianity known as Neostoicism. This variant on classical Stoicism eliminated the pagan ideas and concepts the Church deemed offensive, yet successfully married the Bible’s teachings on temperance and proper self-governance with the teachings of the ancient Stoics. Stoicism itself was studied by numerous scholars throughout the Reformation Era, including the great bard himself, William Shakespeare. Unfortunately, Neostoicism and the revived interest in classical Stoicism prevalent during the Renaissance did not catch on as readily as its ancient progenitor after the Renaissance, and it disappears from most Christian writings after the 18th Century (though its influence remained during the Neoclassical period and the proceeding Age of Enlightenment).

Classical Stoicism itself, however, would experience a revival during the Modern Era, thanks to the advent of the Internet.

In 1964, author of The Path of the Sage: An Introduction to Stoic Philosophy Erik Wiegardt – then a 19 year-old Private in the United States Army – discovered the classical Stoic work Discourses of Epictetus (as set forth by Epictetus‘ pupil, Arrian of Nicomedia, circa 108 AD) and decided himself to the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. On 8 May 1996 – over thirty years later – he realized his dream of devising an official registry of Stoics when he founded the Stoic Registry website. Eleven years later, the Stoic Registry became the New Stoa online community and Mr. Wiegardt founded the College of Stoic Philosophers[Source: “About New Stoa”]

Since then, Stoicism has seen a decent revival online, was the subject of a 1998 Tom Wolfe novel A Man in Full, and served as one of the central themes of Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator[Source: William O. Stephens, PhD“The Rebirth of Stoicism?”] Even the briefest of Google searches shows a small but bustling online community of Stoics, the foundations of the re-emergence of an ancient and revered philosophy.

As those close to me – and anyone who subscribes to my Twitter feed – can relate, I have been experiencing emotional upset of late. In truth, for the past ten years I have suffered severe depression, seen my social anxiety issues grow worse, and have possibly developed a personality disorder (though I won’t have any official verification on that for some time), and I have begun counseling sessions as an attempt at addressing the core issues behind my problems. Additionally, I have felt a conviction to return to my religious roots – as soon as I can determine what that means, specifically – and have begun small steps toward reconnecting with my Creator.

I feel this may not be enough… so about one year ago (one year following the divorce; you would be surprised what the end of a relationship can drive a person to study), I began all-too-brief flirtatious studies of various philosophies hoping to find something to latch onto that might provide some sense of stability and order amidst the mental and emotional chaos. For a time, I perused the samurai Tsuramoto Tashiro‘s seminal work of bushido warrior ethics, the Hagakure, and somehow this ultimately led me to Stoicism. (Don’t ask me how; my mind works in ways I myself cannot fathom, and a trail of thought can often lead to disparate, seemingly disconnected and often bizarre results.) In Stoicism, I found what seemed to be a valid path to true enlightenment

…but all true Stoics are pantheists and (as popularized by the Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose works later influenced the ideals of Albert Einstein) believe in an all-encompassing and impersonal God found in Nature. To the Stoic, Nature (or “the Universe”) is God, and God is Nature. God is in all things, and all things are in and created by God. (While this appears to fit loosely with Saint Paul’s discourse at the Areopagus in Athens from Acts 17 – specifically verse 28“For in Him we live, and move, and have our being…” – Paul, an associate of the Sanhedrin and a Pharisee of the school of Hillel trained by Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder, believed in and preached a personal, relatable God, one represented in the person of Yeshua haMashiach – the Messiah, Jesus, Himself a Jewish rabbi whose teachings aligned well with those of Hillel the Elder, except, of course, with Hillel’s interpretation of the Torah’s legislation regarding divorce – and far more anthropomorphized than even deistic Stoics might allow. Stoic pantheism would actually align more with the Jedi philosophy regarding the Force, as described in the original Star Wars Trilogy than it would with either Orthodox and Conservative Judaism or any form of Christianity.) I myself am not a pantheist (though I do find some of their concepts intriguing) and am a believer in Hashem – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as described in the Tanakh or the “Hebrew Bible”, what most Gentiles refer to erroneously as the “Old Testament” – and that He incarnated in human form approximately 2,000 years ago as a pious rabbi from Nazareth named Yehoshua or Joshua (later shortened to “Yeshua” and translated into Greek as Iesus, which was later Anglicized as Jesus). This is, naturally, at odds with pantheism, and it is a tenant of my personal faith that I cannot relinquish.

Then I learned of the Neostoicism of the Reformation, and I wondered: If Stoicism can be revived, why not Neostoism?

Instead of truly seeking depth to this notion, I sat on this idea. At the time, I had other concerns to occupy my mind with, from work to attempting to repair my vanishing social life and failing miserably at every turn. Now, once more, as my birthdate draws nearer, I find myself in deep contemplation of both my past and my future.

For almost forty dreary, listless, wasted years, I have been tossed to and fro by every emotional wave until I have become nauseated by the very concept of feeling. I detest what I have become, and I wish to change things. I want my re-baptism – which will take place not only before New Year’s Day 2013, but before my 31st birthday (18 January) by design – to symbolize the death of all the things I was and the rebirth of something – of someone – new within me. From that day forward, I want to become a new being, and I hope by my current studies to lay the ground work for the beginning of that process.

I have decided to recommit my life to Hashem. I wish also to devote myself to the study and practice of Neostoicism.

Unfortunately, there are no other Neostoics that I know of. It seems no one wishes to revive Neostoicism or become a Neostoic, so allow me to be the first to officially state: I wish to become a Neostoic.

To my honored Stoic compatriots: I am not attempting to supplant your noble revival of Stoicism – an idea whose time has come, methinks – nor am I attempting to create a philosophy counter to yours. I am but one lone blogger; I doubt sincerely I could ever supplant or oppose you, my esteemed comrades, had I even the slightest inclination to. What I do is simply a matter of disagreement with one tenet of both ancient and modern Stoicism and my attempt – as Justus Lipsius (greatly influenced by the esteemed Seneca), Bishop Joseph Hall and Francis Bacon – to harmonize my beliefs with the teachings of the ancient Stoics in some meager fashion. According to the tenets of modern Stoicism as posted at the New Stoa website’s FAQ, Stoics believe in the following basic principles:

  • “We are pantheists and Nature is our God.”
  • “We are created by Nature to use reason, our greatest faculty, to learn how to live well and happily in accordance with our Nature.”
  • “All human beings are members of the same family, and both your friends and enemies are to be treated with respect — as if they really were members of your family.”
  • “First, you study how to live in accordance with Nature, then you practice. Study alone is not enough. Stoicism is a wisdom philosophy, a living philosophy. It’s not some abstract intellectual exercise — as is the case with academic philosophies today. We actually live by what we believe.”

I agree with all three of the latter tenets, but – respectfully and humbly – I must, as a matter of personal principle alone, disagree with the first tenet. I am not a pantheist, and I believe that Nature was created by God. Nature is not my God, but it should be respected and cared for as a creation of the same God that I believe created me and all other living beings in Nature. The majority of Stoic pantheists are, as you have stated, agnostics, atheists or deists; as you have stated, “The Stoic community has a large tent, and we are tolerant of disagreement within it.”

All that I am proposing is a loose syncretism, a further enlargement of the communal tent, but one under the name of Neostoism to emphasize its religious slant and the faith of its sole practitioner (that would be me), and to differentiate myself from the modern Stoic community at large, lest anyone come to the erroneous belief that I speak for any of you. I have the utmost respect and admiration for the modern Stoic community, and I would never seek any discord with you.

To my fellow believers in Hashem, be ye Jewish or Christian: At its core, Stoicism – and its religious offspring, Neostoicism – teaches freedom from passions (the Stoic passions referring to forms of emotional turmoil and their sources, not necessarily to passion as it is defined today, a strong emotional compulsion) by following reason. Again, this does not mean suppression of emotion (Commander Spock would not be considered an exemplar of classical Stoicism), but the control of one’s emotions through logic, reflection, concentration and wisdom. Does scripture not stress similar self-control? Stoicism stresses freedom from suffering through peace of mind – an inner peace reflected by clarity of judgment and unshakable inner calm – gained by living in harmony with the divine order of the universe. Do we not believe in something similar? Do we not believe that living in harmony with a divine order – be it (for my Jewish friends) the Torah as given by Moses or (for my Christian compatriots) the instructions of Jesus – will bring us inner peace (the “peace of God, which passeth all understanding” from Philippians 4:7) and free us from internal suffering?

Moreover, Stoics believe in four cardinal virtues (as derived from the works of Plato): wisdomcouragejustice, and temperance. If I recall correctly, Judaism and Christianity believe in those same virtues – divine wisdom gained from Hashem through the study of scripture, indomitable courage to face even the most stressful and dangerous of trials with inner calm (like courageous Daniel in the lions’ den), righteous and equitable justice in all our doings, and temperance or restraint and the denial of certain temporal pleasures that we might remain sober-minded – and strongly encourage them? Stoics are cosmopolitan by nature: they believe that all men and women are equal and that we should treat each other with familial love and strive to help one another. Does Judaism not teach: “And oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor; and let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart (Zechariah 7:10)” and place great emphasis on the importance of charity? Does Christianity not teach the same? Does James 1:27 not tell us, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world”?

The Stoic sage Epictetus once said (in the Discourses of Epictetus): “Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men’s desires, but by the removal of desire.” Compare this to II Timothy 2:22: “Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius – whose writings were read by many early Christians – once penned in his Meditations: “How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything that happens in life!” This echoes Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NIV), typically attributed to Jewish emperor Solomon: ” What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

I believe Neostoicism provides a perfect syncretism of the teachings of Stoicism and the Judeo-Christian scriptures. According to its teachings, humanity should not submit to the passions – defined by Neostoism as greedjoy (more specifically over-indulgence in temporal happiness leading to inflated ego and apathy toward the suffering of other human beings), fear and sorrow – but instead submit to God and to the way He has designed us to live, as revealed by the Torah and by our divinely-guided conscience, our God-given intellect and by wisdom painfully gained through years of trial.

Am I saying that all Jews and Christians should become Neostoics? No, I am not. However, I am stating that Stoicism – specifically the works of renowned philosophical luminaries such as Zeno of Citium, Seneca the Younger, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius – and Neostoism (specifically the works of its founder, Justus Lipsius) – is something that bears investigating.

Are you a believer in God interested in Neostoism, whether Jewish or Christian? Leave a comment. Are you a Stoic seeking discourse? I am a student, new to the works of the Stoic philosophers, and I am eager to learn. By all means, feel free to discourse with me.


About Dunebat

Sole specimen of Desmodus desertus. Xerophilic Texan scribe/scribbler/cenobite traversing the Desert of the Real.
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