November 15 2020

The Stoics

Of all the human qualities and virtues you can think of, which is going to be the most valuable to you during this second covid lockdown? Everyone is different of course, and each of us is better at some things than others. But I could venture to suggest, that the most useful character trait we can employ, to help us to get through this testing time, is that of Stoicism.

I have a little dog whose name is Ted, and he is a crossbreed terrier. Because of his nature Ted has a high pain threshold, which means I have to be careful not to let him suffer injuries, simply because he appears to be superficially o.k. However, just because he can put up with a level of discomfort that would make me squeal, doesn’t mean that Ted is a Stoic.
I can say that, because stoicism is more than an ability to put up with and endure. It is a philosophical position, just as profound as any other school of thought.

Writing in 55 AD the philosopher and statesman Seneca observed “no philosophical school is kinder or gentler, nor more loving of humankind, and more attentive to the common good,” and many of the ancient historians include the names of prominent Stoics in their accounts. Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny all pay admiring tribute to the lives and teachings of the Stoics, while later Christian authors such as Tertullian, Eusebius at St Augustine, — all of whom learned much from the Stoics, — helped to bring their lives into focus for us. Cicero spent a large part of his life on their history and doctrines.

What the Stoics sought, just as we do today, were lights to illuminate their path in life. And when we look at the nature of these lights, we can recognise (I feel) a kindred similarity with the objectives and principles of our own Unitarianism. They looked for the ways to find tranquillity, self-control, a sense of purpose, and contentment.

All philosophy attempts to answer one question, and that question is: How should I live? In this way we can see the very close parallels between the purposes of philosophy and of religion, and to the specific purposes of Unitarianism in particular, — because all of the other Christian denominations first ask the question , What shall I believe, rather than, How shall I live?

One of the earliest Stoic philosophers was Zeno, and on one occasion in his earlier years he reportedly consulted an oracle in order to ask what he should do to live the best life. The oracle responded, ‘To live the best life, you should have conversation with the dead.’
That is precisely what we are doing at this moment, and also when, for example, we read what earlier generations in their wisdom have left us.
For Zeno, the purpose of philosophy and of virtue was to find “a smooth flow of life,” to find a place where all that we do is in “harmonious accord with each person’s guiding spirit, and with the will of the One who governs the universe.”

Zeno and his followers would gather for their discussions in a place known as the Stoa Poi-ki-le, which means the Painted Porch, built in the 5th century BC. And it is from the Greek for porch, Stoa, that the name Stoics derives: the people who meet in the porch.
(Incidentally, as I’m sure you know, instead of the uniform beige appearance of much ancient architecture and statuary, it is helpful to remember that like the Painted Porch, much of the stonework was colourfully painted, giving it a very different aspect from what we are used to today.)

Sadly nothing survives of Zeno’s writing, but from what we know of it from other sources, we learn that he advocated equality. He is credited for coining the expression that a person is given two ears and only one mouth, meaning that we should listen more carefully and be less concerned to express our own opinions. “Better to trip with the feet,” he said, “than with the tongue.”

The Four Virtues of the Stoics are also thought to have come from him: courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. These principles appear in the works of every Stoic after Zeno.

As always with the best minds, there seems to be timeless quality to his thinking. I can’t help feeling he would have been sympathetic to the objectives of liberal congregations today, and as I say, perhaps especially to our own.

Stoicism was not a mass-movement to begin with. How many individuals would it take to populate the Painted Porch? Possibly no more than an average chapel membership. And yet it is suggested there is not a theological or philosophical precept which does not in some manner embrace or acknowledge the principles of Stoicism in some form or another.

We still need the ancient Greeks today. Tranquillity, self-control, a sense of purpose, and contentment, will get us through these strange days.
If we can bring these qualities to bear, then we will be stoical, in the proper sense of the word. Amen.
(Historical info from R Holiday)

Let us pray:
Eternal Spirit, In this hour of contemplation, as we throw off the distractions of our daily life, and seek to touch the deeper realities of experience, there comes to us a sense of mystery and of awe.

Help us to remain calm through all the turbulent motions of the world, to stand for the things that matter, and to see things through in the face of every strain. Amid the strangeness and haste of our lives, we are a part of the march of destinies good and bad, and throughout it all our dust is lighted by immortal dreams.

We are immersed in the challenges of the world, tried by its cares, perplexed by its doubts, but what we would still believe, is that there is always contentment for true men and women. Amen.

Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period