Saturday, September 1, 2012

An Idea about Epictetus and Christianity

Helen Hooven Santmyer’s “. . . And Ladies of the Club” tells a decades-long tale of several people from nineteenth-century Ohio, mostly Republican, mostly Presbyterian. One Presbyterian family in the book passes down a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius from generation to generation, and they find the philosopher-emperor’s stoicism not only compatible with but encouraging to their Christian lives.

I read and enjoyed Santmyer’s novel sometime around 1995, right around the time I got my Britannica Great Books set and began on the first ten-year plan. So I was especially interested to reach Marcus Aurelius in year 2. When the time came, I enjoyed the Meditations and learned from the book, but it disappointed me after the image I had built of it based on Ladies. In order to teach calmness in face of adversity, Marcus gives his reader a visionary reason to accept our place in the grand scheme of things, but then, as I read it, moves beyond that point to try to say that evil and pain don’t exist. That view may have helped him sit dispassionately in the arena doing paperwork while lions ate slaves on the sand before him, but ignoring evil and pain cannot be compatible with Christianity.

Then in year 7 of the original plan, I found the Stoic author I didn’t even know I was looking for: Epictetus. Unlike Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus acknowledges the existence of evil and pain, but teaches his readers to learn to accept these experiences when they cannot change them: an ancient precursor of the Irish prayer for serenity. Change only what you can change, he says, and remember that your mind is generally the only thing you can change. Why wish for what isn’t so if you can’t make it so? From the loftiest perspective, whatever is, is in God’s will, so align your will with his.

Now this view seemed much more compatible with Christianity to me. I can’t go with the Stoic as far as saying that my life’s goal is emotional stability, but I can certainly use the encouragement to renew my mind, to submit my will to God’s, and to accept things I cannot change. I have sometimes thought about rewriting some passages of Epictetus’s Discourses to form a Christian devotional and meditational plan. Various Christians have written commentaries on similarities and differences between our faith and the philosophy of Epictetus; and offer two examples. But I’m looking for a practical guide, not an explanation. The Protestant circles I’ve run in like to talk about renewal and submission, but they generally view any systematic approach to these tasks as smacking of works-oriented, spiritless formalism. But I’d like to have such a thing, so I guess if I’m ever to have my wish, I’ll have to put it together myself.

. . . And by the way, does any novel in history other than Santmyer’s have a title starting with an ellipsis – or any punctuation mark for that matter? Whether they do or not, I plan to reread this domestic epic sometime during my Third Decade.

1 comment:

  1. If you ever write your devotional and meditation book I want a copy. Just saying. . .