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Marcus Aurelius

As an uptight Christian, I've sought spiritual counsel from St. John the Apostle to Thomas Merton, from Augustine through Aquinas to Guardini. They all helped.

But I still suffered from uptightness and swings of passion: worry about the future; sudden bursts of good emotional energy, mortgaged with my emotional well-being in the future; mild bouts with depression; anger.

So I decided to consult that school of philosophy whose name is synonymous with calmness: Stoicism.

And I found a minefield.

It's not surprising. Stoicism was the last and most developed school of pagan philosophy. Finding its place on the philosophical road map with Zeno (336 B.C.-264 B.C.), it can probably be considered the dominant philosophical school until the second century, when its premier position was supplanted by neo-Platonism and, concurrently, Christian philosophy, both of which incorporated Stoic principles.

God presumably sent Jesus Christ at a particular time for a reason. Perhaps he sent his Son when natural philosophy had progressed as far as it could without divine intervention: when philosophy could not carry the pursuit of reason and divinity any further without a dramatic infusion from heaven. If He had delayed the Incarnation, perhaps philosophy would have started to deteriorate as thinkers began to realize that the Stoic answers fall short.

Which they do. Stoicism worked without the benefit of Christian revelation and, not surprisingly, it is not Christian. Stoicism has been called the “porch” of Christianity. Its resignation and detachment take a person to the threshold of Christianity but don't take him into the house. Although the Stoics taught belief in a monotheistic God, their cosmology excludes a transcendent God. Theirs is often a type of monistic materialism, resembling pantheism and similar to Hinduism and Buddhism–and wholly inconsistent with Christian cosmology.

The Stoics also deviate from Christianity when it comes to important ethical issues. Suicide, for instance, is acceptable, maybe even required, if given adequate reason--a principle Seneca taught and practiced. The Stoics were also too committed to justice. Their respect for and development of law gave rise to natural law theory, which has informed Christian jurists for nearly two thousand years, but the Stoic's justice is wholly detached from mercy, as evidenced by Marcus Aurelius' persecution of Christians that he concluded was necessary to preserve order, which was his duty (we should hasten to note that his conclusions about Christianity resulted from a misunderstanding of Christianity, which in turn was caused by fanatics at the fringe of the Church).

The Stoics also placed too much emphasis on reason. As mentioned, Stoicism starts with a monism that teaches that a divine reason (logos) pervades the universe, including each person. When the Stoics tell a person to "live according to nature," they are referring to man's nature as a rational being. Humans, the Stoic says, can use their reasoning capacity to know the divine reason and conform their lives to it. In order to improve one's ability to reason rightly, it is necessary to subdue emotion. Emotion is anathema to the Stoic. Not only does stirred emotion ("passion") distort reason, but it also conflicts with the Stoic's basic theological precept that divine reason guides and directs the world. Whatever happens, happens, says the Stoic, and there's no use rejoicing or moaning over it; it all ultimately leads to wherever divinity wants it to lead. It is the ultimate form of detachment.

Although Christianity also celebrates reason and counsels dispassion and detachment, such things have limits. Reason cannot fathom all the workings of God, finding that all such things ultimately end in a paradox. The Christian also celebrates emotion, within limits. Jesus's resurrection is the Good News, and a cause of cheerfulness and celebration. Christians are charged with spreading the Good News with gladness. Christians love others. Christians hate sin. They are not detached from all things, including the well-being of their soul, and live in the present and look to the future with hope, joy, and peace.

Notwithstanding these important differences, the Stoic worldview resonates on many levels with Christianity. The Stoic God is omnipresent and this world is governed by his reason; his intelligence directs all things. Man must ascertain this divine reason through the workings of a good nature.

Stoicism also taught the idea of a universal brotherhood: God is the father of all, hence all are brothers. The mentally retarded and the vicious, they are our brothers. All men, slave and free, should be the objects of our benevolence. It was a radical idea for the times.

The Stoic, like the humble Christian, didn't place too much stock in his likes and dislikes or his successes or failures. Such things count for little, if anything, in the grand scheme; ultimately all things turn out for the best. This attitude leads to resignation and acceptance of all things as divine handiwork.

In a related idea, the Stoic urged that we distinguish between things in our power and things not in our power, and to be concerned with the former and unconcerned with the latter. Readers will recognize in this the Serenity Prayer. In a complementary doctrine, Stoicism emphasized our will and the struggle to acquire virtue. It's a concept frequently neglected today, with Christians often preferring to wait for God to dole out grace than to exert effort.

Here's how the historian of philosophy Frederick Copleston described this Stoic emphasis on will over externalities:

"To acquire honours and wealth, to enjoy continual health, to avoid physical maltreatment, to ward off death or disaster, all this does not depend solely on the efforts of any individual man: he must be careful, then, not to set his heart on any of these things, but to accept all that happens to himself as the will of God. What, then, is in man's power? His judgment on events and his will. That which is really necessary for man is to will virtue and to will victory over sin."

All these Stoic dispositions add up to a philosophy of calmness. Their words bring detachment, cultivate resignation and patience, teach the need for moderation and the use of reason, and renew a trust in Providence.

Their words, in short, profit the soul.