Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Stoicism: Its Wisdom and its Problems

There is much to affirm about the Stoic practice of virtue. Stoic philosopher Massimo Pigliucci writes approvingly about another Stoic philosopher, William Irvine:

·       He says Stoics have a three-pronged approach to achieve this: i) they do their best to enjoy things that cannot be taken away from them, like their character; ii) when they enjoy things that can be taken from them (which is fine for Stoics, unlike with the Cynics) they remind themselves that they could lose them, but that this would not be a big deal, because those things are indifferent to one's moral character and value; iii) Stoics avoid becoming "connoisseurs," the kind of people who are so used to luxury and exoticism that they lose the ability to delight in the simple things in life.

I just want to take issue with only one aspect of this teaching: “they do their best to enjoy things that cannot be taken away from them, like their character.”

While both Christian and Stoic place a great emphasis on character, Christians would certainly feel uncomfortable with the admonition “to enjoy…their character.” Admittedly, we enjoy the fruits of a good character, but to “enjoy…their character” sounds a bit idolatrous.

Why? For one thing, it is an exercise in extreme self-deception. Honesty should humble us and not exalt us. Instead of acknowledging our sufficiency, honesty reveals our insufficiency, even our duplicity!

Consequently, we delight in perfection, in God’s perfection, but not in our own. This is no mere pedantic distinction. When we instead delight in ourselves, we become dependent and attached to our own personhood. We must see ourselves as having a good character and therefore depend on seeing the goodness in ourselves.

Interestingly, Stoics value self-examination and self-correction. However, if we delight in ourselves and then depend on this delight to carry us through the day, we will not be clear-minded about seeing our many faults and failings – something that is very painful but needful.

But yet, we need to have such a delight and a hope but not a delight that will interfere with our growth. However, by the wisdom of God, we can have both. If our delight, enjoyment, and hope are in God and not in ourselves, we can remain sober enough to see and judge ourselves as our delight in the One who loves us carries us along.

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