Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Stoic Path: God is Dead

God is dead. The idea that our lives are regulated by a judging deity or deities has gotten us into one hell of a mess and it is time to ditch these antiquated mythologies before the human experiment ditches itself. Our planet is hurdling into an abyss of our own making. The gods are not coming to the rescue. Jesus will not return. Athena will not give us one more chance.

It's taken me a lifetime to realize this. Early indoctrination is very hard to undo. I abandoned the practice of Catholicism thirty-five years ago, but staunchly defended my birth church throughout all of these years. My schooling was thorough. I learned to accept that Catholicism was much more than a regimental belief system. What I embraced most about this Faith was the doctrine of conscience - that every human being was obliged to follow the dictates of his or her conscience, above all else. This is the "notwithstanding" clause of Christianity. Your church might point you in one direction, but if you have rationally concluded that this direction is wrong, then you are required to follow your understanding. This is what I am doing here.

I am abandoning Christianity because I have concluded that the truth lies elsewhere. I am saying this even though I have developed an enormous reverence for the idea of Christ. Of all of the books I have read in my life none puzzled me more than the Gospel of Matthew. This strange charismatic man has had an unusual hold on me, and he always will.

Christ is the Logos made flesh.

Logos is a Greek concept. It was developed not by a theologian but by the physics of the ancient world. The word describes the active principle of nature. It is the idea than animates nature, and infuses itself throughout all of nature. But unlike the idea of Logos appropriated in the early centuries of the Christian church, the Logos of the ancient world was "in" nature not "outside" of nature. This distinction is absolutely essential.

You do not need to study philosophy to appreciate this idea. But the distinction between the two ideas of Logos will make a world of difference in your appreciation of human nature. The Logos of Christianity (the Christ) is something we must seek; something we must find; and, something we can lose. We are "born again" in Christian theology when the Logos (the Christ) becomes part of who we are. In Stoic philosophy, which was developed prior to Christianity, the Logos is something we all possess because it is what defines us as human. In a very real sense the Stoics see each of us as a Christ. Each of us has the potential to behave - like the Christ of Matthew - in strange and seemingly superhuman ways.

We can choose to ignore the Logos within us and we can serve the demands of the body by seeking pleasure or power, and avoiding pain. We can serve only ourselves and ignore the rest of humanity. This is our free choice. But it is a choice that never resolves; it never provides us with the serenity we seek and deserve. This peace is available to each and every one of us if we retire into ourselves and observe - for many of us for the first time in our lives - what it is that truly gives us life.

Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing.


Anonymous said...

What does it mean under stoic philosophy to behave "seemingly superhuman"?


Russell McNeil said...

It means exactly what it seems to mean.

Our behavior is regulated by emotional and intellectual responses. Emotional or irrational response is predictable. Our bodies respond to pleasure and pain stimuli in predictable ways, usually in ways designed to maximize the survival of the organism.

Intellectual responses are not as easily modeled. But the response mechanism is not generally focussed on individual benefit or survival, but geared toward benefit of the group or species. This sort of behavior is usually viewed as heroic, or at least altruistic.

Most people do not always respond in this way in most circumstances. When they do, or especially when they do so consistently, their behavior stands outside the norm for expected human behavior, and in extreme situations can be viewed as seemingly superhuman.

I personally do not view these individuals as superhuman but rather enlightened. The Sermon on the Mount is a classic example of a behavioral modality that in practice would be viewed as as extraordinary by most people (even seemingly superhuman) because anyone behaving as Christ exhorted humans to behave would be following an extraordinary path - one very similar to that expected of a Stoic.

Andrew K said...

But perhaps going from 'Christian' to 'Stoic' is merely concerning onself and substituting one rational artificial lens upon reality for another. It seems ridiculous to me to overlay some concept like Stoic over consciousness; leading to the reduction of consciousness to a formula devised by consciousness into which that consciousness tries to then pour itself. Just a process of slef-enslavement.

Russell McNeil said...

I don't fully follow your argument. Could you clarify please.

My only comment relates to the notion of Stoicism as a "rational artificial lens." I don't see Stoicism as artificial at all. In fact the central Stoic perspective begins with a very real natural world of active (forces and fields of physics) and passive (matter) components. The Stoic approach associates consciousness with processes that originate in the active operations of nature. In modern terms consciousness manifests in an organism through the operation of electrochemical mechanisms. That seems to be a real and modern understanding of how the brain (mind, soul) actually works. Furthermore, these electrochemical mechanisms are governed by conservative thermodynamic principles that belie destruction. The passive elements in consciousness (i.e. the neurotransmitters themselves) can be destroyed (we do die) but the underlying forces and fields that regulate consciousness do not die - these simply move on to participate in other natural processes. This is how the universe works. Stoicism is thoroughly materialistic. It begins in physics and ends in physics and associates the grand unifying principles of physics with consciousness - both individual and universal.