Stoicism and IV Maccabees

Source: John Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) 3.

“…in brief the Stoics proposed a materialist ontology in which God permeates the entire cosmos as a material force. They claimed that virtue alone is sufficient for happiness and that external goods and circumstances are irrelevant (or at least nowhere near as important as most people tend to assume). They argued that our emotions are merely the products of mistaken judgements and can be eradicated by a form of cognitive psychotherapy. They brought these various doctrines together in the image of the idea Stoic sage who would be perfectly rational, emotionless, indifferent to his or her circumstances and, infamously, happy even when being tortured on the rack.”

Some of this stuff resonated with me on account of a class I took on IV Maccabees. My professor said that IV Maccabees diverges from Stoicism in that it attributes passions to the body, whereas Stoics located them in the irrational part of the soul; consequently, it’s not our body holding us down, as far as Stoicism is concerned, but the mind is what needs corrected.

At the same time, IV Maccabees overlaps with Stoicism on certain points. It tells the stories of Eleazar and the mother of the seven Jewish sons, who submitted to torture and death rather than disobey God’s laws. IV Maccabees makes the point that the law trained the mother to subdue her natural love for her children, which would desire them to live rather than die at the hands of Antiochus.

IV Maccabees is saying that the Torah conforms Israelites to the ideals of Greek philosophy, yet it diverges from Stoicism on a crucial issue: the afterlife. IV Maccabees embraces the immortality of the soul, which gives the righteous characters hope that God will reward them in the afterlife, even as he tortures Antiochus in an eternal hell. But the Stoics did not agree with the immortality of the soul, separating them from Platonic thinkers.

The Stoics thought that God permeated the universe, yet they were rather ascetic, for they believed in the pursuit of virtue alone. Those influenced by Aristotle, by contrast, maintained that virtue should co-exist with the enjoyment of other things in life–good food, political influence, sex, relationships, etc.

On this issue, IV Maccabees believes in taming the passions rather than completely destroying them, which is what the Stoics wanted to do. So, in a sense, it agrees with the Aristotelian concept of moderation rather than Stoicism. At the same time, it commends the righteous characters for resisting the temptation to eat pork, so it does regard highly those who subdue their appetite for a higher cause (like the Stoics).

If the Stoics believed that God/nature gave us good things to enjoy, why did it want to deprive people of such enjoyment? That’s a question Antiochus asks in IV Maccabees of the righteous characters, and it’s a fine question indeed!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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