Source: John Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) 114-122.
In this post, I’m not going to comment on a specific quote, but I’ll touch on the gist of what I read today. For the Stoics, we shouldn’t base our emotions on things or events, since they’re not good or evil in themselves. What gets us into trouble is our reaction to them. And the higher our expectations, the greater our disappointments, as far as the Stoics are concerned.
But there were Stoics who still believed that there is some place for joy, as long as it’s all about virtue, the only true good. For Stoics, people should be happy that they are virtuous people, not that things are going their way in terms of externals.
Here are some reactions:
1. How’s this compare with the Bible? I think there are plenty of places in the Bible about being content in any circumstance, and of placing our hope in something other than the things of this world. What interests me is that the Bible does not really harp on the dangers of resting our identity on something other than God. It may talk about that indirectly. For example, if the Psalmist is continually hunted, he’s going to trust in God rather than people. But the Bible doesn’t really read like an evangelical tract, which says that we should root our self-esteem in God’s love for us rather than externals. And the same goes for early Christian literature. Their focus is more on God, personal morality, and reward and punishment.
I would conclude from this that the ancients didn’t think like American evangelicals, until I encounter Stoicism and Buddhism, beliefs which preceded and existed at the same time as early Christianity. These mindsets emphasize the necessity of not becoming too attached to people, events, and things, since they can easily let us down. They remind me of a typical evangelical sermon that says “people will let you down,” only they lack the hope that “God will never let you down.” It’s still interesting that non-Christian belief systems sound more like contemporary American evangelicalism than does early Christianity.
2. Should I get my hopes up? Joel Osteen says “yes,” since that’s what faith is all about. Others say “no,” since having high expectations is a path to disappointment. Can I walk in hope without setting myself up for a let-down?
3. Focusing on virtue for our happiness is an idea that I’ve heard from a couple of sources. First, when I was at DePauw, I read Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for a class, and he stressed the importance of being “principle-centered” rather than basing our emotions on things around us. I agree with being centered on something that transcends the ups and downs of everyday life. And, indeed, I tried being “principle-centered” for about a week, until I found that people got to me, often negatively.
Second, I know a lady at AA who continually says, “If you want self-esteem, do esteemable things.” I can see her point. Maybe I would feel better about myself if I spent time serving others, rather than expecting others to make me happy. I think back to my experience at DePauw, when I had a scholarship that required me to do community service. I was in the dumps in those days, as I often am now. But it wasn’t as bad.
At the same time, Christianity teaches us not to be proud of our good works. But maybe that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel good about them. Rather, they can be opportunities to express faith in Christ.