The Distinctiveness of Christian Ethics in Opposition to Stoicism and Rome
The emotional and spiritual void of post-modern consumer life is leading many in our generation to search the archives of history for philosophical answers to their discontent. The recent surge in the popularity of Stoicism is one example. But like many other spiritual trends in contemporary life, it is searching to escape the pain of the void rather that to strike at the root of the void itself.
The rise of Stoicism™ is a sign of a civilization in decline. There is something decadent about a society trying to escape its own loss through a sour grapes philosophy. Let us face reality. The answer isn’t in the flick of the mind. We could come together with our friends — decide what we require of each other — and turn back the tide of decline. -1517 Fund, The Inadequacies of the Invincible
The narrative of civilization in decline is hardly popular amongst Cosmopolitan Westerners in 2017. Their lives, after all, seem to be richer than ever. Technology has bequeathed a tremendous inheritance to the world, but some have reaped its fruits more than others. Not surprisingly, those who have rarely want to acknowledge that they have it better than others for fear if it bringing upon them some sort of personal moral duty — another phrase that causes my contemporaries to recoil in horror as if one had just suggested leech therapy to treat an ailment.
Personal moral duty has been outsourced to the demigods of the technological elite and to superficial political activism where selected formulated phrases are paramount, and deeds passé. I cannot now count the number of times I have attempted to broach subjects like poverty, automation, the ethical production of protein, deforestation, plastics in the ocean, or some other pressing issue of our day with one of my peers only to hear some pathetic plea that Elon Musk is working on it, or that there are some really cool startups in Silicon Valley already solving the problem — so not to worry!
Worse, but just as often, I hear that the problem is unsolvable as long as certain people occupy the halls of formal political power, and why the next election is going to be the most important in history (a refrain I have been hearing every election since I first started paying attention to politics in 1992).
It is not surprising, then, that Stoicism and Zen Lite are the celebrity philosophies of our day. They are often held in tandem with the Singulatarian ideal that technology will save us from all of the evil in the world — apparently even from the evil created by technology. Call it philosophical optionality. “Technology will save us, but in the unlikely event that it doesn’t, I am indifferent because it’s outside of my control.”
Maybe I am missing something, but it seems inconsistent to simultaneously proclaim that one’s mission is to change the world and that one is ultimately indifferent about the state of the world. The chief citizens of an empire in decline must inevitably live with extraordinary levels of cognitive dissonance to make it through the day.
This is not the first time that a great empire has begun its decline almost as quickly as it reached its peak, and for this and many other reasons, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Rome. History never repeats itself exactly and attempts to draw too literal of parallels often ruin the analogies, but I shall try to make the comparison without falling into the temptation to paint the stories as identical.
Historians often count the rise of Christianity as one of the contributing factors to the decline of Rome, as if Christianity came out of nowhere. But I propose that we look at it in the reverse: the decline of Rome was the primary cause of the rise of Christianity. In the essay by one of the folks at 1517 Fund quoted at the introduction of this article, the author notes that the rise of Stoicism indicates a civilization in decline as well.
The narrative of empire in decline is almost always the narrative of civilization in decline. The reason is that empires cause a sort of cultural “crowding out” effect. The cultural influence of a dominant empire is so strong, led largely by attempts by the periphery to integrate as much as possible with the perceived economic benefits of their conquerors (which are almost always like those of being a late-comer to a Ponzi Scheme), that it diminishes local culture, no matter how old or beautiful. The more imperial peripheries submit to mass culture, the less effort they expend to maintain and continue developing their own cultures. All the while, the only true source of the mass culture is located at or near the center of the empire.
Consequently, when the empire itself begins to collapse under the weight of its unsustainable costs and the absence of fresh lands to conquer, the only source of culture begins to dissipate as it turns inward. Once it realizes that its entire cultural identity is predicated on its own growth & greatness, it begins sobering up gradually, segment by segment beginning with the first to lose their musical chairs. Meanwhile, those still receiving their Ponzi Payouts adopt the attitude of “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.”
For those who cannot eat and drink merrily when they know that tomorrow they die, there will always be a philosophical response. In the age of Roman decadence, there were two distinctive responses: Stoicism and Christianity. Stoicism said, eating, drinking, merriment, and death are alike to be met with indifference. Likewise the loss of your possessions (something quite common in collapsing civilizations) or the deterioration of convenience.
The gospel of radical detachment, as the 1517 writer observed, is now being spread by opportunistic marketeers, bent on making a buck from hocking a philosophy that allows people to have their cake and eat it too. But even if we reject the consumerized version of Ferriss-Holiday Stoicism, which undoubtedly would look strange if not ridiculous to Marcus Aurelius could he see it in action today, the non-caricature version fares little better.
For the real problem with Stoicism is not that it goes too far, but that it doesn’t go far enough. It preaches self-abnegation not as a means, but the only end. The Christian also must endure self-abnegation, but for entirely different reasons. The purpose of purging the self of normal desires is to eventually fill oneself with higher desires.
The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.
We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
-C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”
The Christian then is called to radically detach from the Adam-natured desires for instant gratification, in their many forms, and subsequently to radically attach to the law of Love. To care so much for the ideal of Love that it manifests itself in perpetual acts of self-abnegation. But we find here one of the most beautiful paradoxes of the Christian faith, that in self-abnegation, we are actually made whole (the word “holiness” is derived from it, and wholeness corresponds to the word “integrity,” which assumes that everything is integrated), or as Jesus put it, “he who would save his life will lose it, and he who would lose his life, will save it.”
St Paul, likewise, declares “I am crucified with Christ, therefore I no longer live, but it is Christ who lives within me.” That is, the nature of Adam in Paul was killed in order that the nature of Christ in Paul would be the only thing left.
What is missed in most Christian narratives of Christ is that the real death of Jesus of Nazareth took place during his 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, and his true resurrection as Jesus the Christ was the sacrifice of his life for his principles on the Cross. He battled the temptations of selfishness and vainglory during his wilderness isolation and conquered them so that he would be able to endure the suffering to come. He even famously hoped that there could be another way out, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.”
What true humanity in contrast to the nihilistic lack of concern of the Stoic, which seems almost too good, or indeed too awful, to be true.
St Paul declared that “all of the things I once counted as gain, I now count them as loss compared to Christ.” Unlike the Stoic who counts everything as loss, full stop, Paul sees the ultimate gain as that power inside of himself to Love unconditionally, the nature of Christ, and sees that it is the only thing that can produce lasting internal peace.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, who criticized establishment Christianity and its dead theology in the 19th Century, nevertheless echoes this purer, simpler idea of the Christian when he concludes “Self Reliance” with the haunting warning that “nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”
Contrast this with the 1517 article’s discussion of our collective drive to anesthetize ourselves to cope with the cognitive dissonance produced by our decadent culture and dismal future:
In this numbing we can see the outlines of the social quest of our era, the quest for greater calm and security, the easing of pain, the resistance to change. We have become a society dissatisfied with the way things are, but instead of risking change to a[n] external world that angers us or saddens us or bores the hell out of us, we choose to focus on how we respond to it. We choose, instead, to Netflix and chill. Sometimes with pills.
Emerson could well have taken the Stoic’s route and ended his essay with “nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” This would have been good enough in the eyes of those preaching detachment. But the process of looking inside at one’s own response to the suffering in the world is but a necessary and not at all sufficient condition to bring about that state of internal peace.
If we take Emerson’s ideal of “Self Reliance” seriously, we would see that the Christ nature is the perfected state of the self-reliant individual. For the Christ nature propels individuals to see the Divine resides inside themselves, and therefore that there is no reason to look outside for fulfillment, but that being Divine requires Divine action. If God is Love, then Divine action will be that of Love, and if we accept M. Scott Peck’s definition of Love as the extension of oneself for the spiritual growth of the self or another person, then we see that the words of Christ ring true that “greater Love hath no man than that he would lay down his life for his friends.”
Few things could lead to a state of deeper spiritual reflection than to witness a compassionate, intelligent young man in his prime give his life to maintain the integrity of his principles.
Through this lens, we can now see why Christianity was a response to the decadence of Rome. The dialogue looks something like this:
Rome: Bow to Caesar, and you can prosper.
Christ: Your prosperity isn’t really prosperity. But more importantly, some things aren’t for sale. “For what shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world but lose his soul?”
Rome: If the carrot doesn’t work, let’s try the stick. You don’t have a choice. You’re under our rule anyway. So bow to Caesar and quit causing us problems or we’ll take you out.
Christ: Some things are worth more than my physical life. I would rather die than live with the misery of betraying my principles. I love them too much. But more importantly, I love other people too much to betray them by showing them it’s ok to compromise. I’ve spent the last few years going around telling people one thing. If I gave up on it now, I’d be a charlatan, and that is just untenable.
Rome: You’ve got to be kidding me! What good is your soul to you anyway? Are you really even using it?
Christ: Yes, it’s actually the only thing I am using, because it’s the only true possession I have.
The last two are critical — the incredulity of the Roman response combined with the emphatic rejoinder of the Christ are essential to understanding why Christianity was the force that rose up in opposition to the world’s Empire 2,000 years ago, and why, against apparent odds, it is the only viable force to rise up in opposition to the world’s Empire today.
The Stoic pretends to have no possessions. The exclusive position is the easiest to justify, for it contains no nuance. It does not require a constant wrestling or struggle. You merely embrace the exclusivity and dogmatically defend it. The ossified shell of the Church practices its own form of exclusivity, a bankrupt theology as divorced of the humanity and authenticity of Christ as both Stoicism and Roman Imperialism.
But Christ was an Israelite. He was a man who struggled with God. He embraced the difficult reality that each one of us must work out our own faith “with fear and trembling.” For the Christian, there is the constant grappling with nuance, the perpetual need to discern truth amidst a torrent of lies, the demand to find the ray of light in the overwhelming darkness of existence, not to accept the darkness, not to resign oneself to the hopelessness of living. There is the acknowledgment that there is only the single, knowable, Universal Truth, that God is Love, and that all other particular knowledge is obscured by the veil of our fragmented existence, and therefore approaches all serious matters of life with humility (this is the Christian ideal — I recognize that it is almost impossible to find in practice anywhere today).
The Stoic position, on the other hand, is just as suicidal as the Roman one, but even less respectable. The Stoic is like G.K. Chesterton’s Strange Ascetic, the man who “does not have the faith and will not have the fun.” At least the Roman gets to have his fun before the world ends and go out in a blaze of debauchery.
The Stoic simply goes “gentle into that good night.” The Christian “rage[s] against the dying of the light” by forcing the hand of the unprincipled compromiser by saying “I will not kill myself. If you want me dead, the blood will be on your hands, no matter how much you try to wash it off.”
But I will forgive you if you say to me “I do not recognize this idea you propose as being Christian. Where are these Christians?”
The parallels to the First Century continue. In the time of Jesus there were three prominent sects of Judaism: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. The Pharisees, like Saul of Tarsus, believed in the enforcement of tradition in addition to the written Law, and bought into the metaphysics of spirits and the afterlife. The Sadducees, by contrast, rejected all of these notions. The Essenes were a small mystical sect that engaged in ritual baths and other interesting practices that seem to have been at the root of many components of what eventually became the Christian Liturgy.
In our day, it is Evangelicalism and segments of conservative Catholicism that represent the Pharisee position, while the mainline denominations and liberal Catholicism occupy a ground not dissimilar to the Sadducees and the two are doing battle over how to best accommodate the Empire and compromise with it. Just as in the days of the First Century, the complete and permanent dominance of Rome seemed inevitable, in our time, it seems that the Wall Street-Silicon Valley-US Military triad are unbreakable and that their collective boot will stand on the face of humanity forever.
Christians everywhere, but particularly American Christians have accommodated this Beast for too long. We are called to be Salt and Light to a sick and dying world, but we have preferred to go sodium free and wear night vision goggles to save ourselves from being singled out and relegated permanently to the periphery of society. We are supposed to care, to be radically attached to raging against the darkness, the protection of the weak, the defense of those being exploited, of the transformation of this world into the likeness of the other, “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”
We face a world in far greater disarray than in the First Century. We stand on the constant brink of total nuclear annihilation. We have already decimated the natural world, and may have even passed the point of no return on the reclamation of the environment. Billions have been brought out of poverty, and yet are on the knife edge of returning to it because of economic profligacy and widespread accounting fraud that casually ignores untold trillions in externalized costs whose bill is beginning to come due.
Christianity was corrupted by the symbolic worship of Christ through virtue signaling as soon as Constantine made it the Roman state religion. Secular Humanism has been corrupted by the symbolism of virtue signaling through political correctness.
As a gay man who grew up in a Southern Baptist family in Arkansas, I have a clearer perspective than most about the dross that needs to be polished off the vessel of Christianity in order for it to once again be a source of radical counter-cultural critique of earthly power, domination, and oppression. The shallow moralism of establishment Christians has ignored the “weightier matters of the law.”
Christ was the original humanist. He preached abundant life and human flourishing through universal, unconditional Love. The Christian narrative is about resurrection and abundance — it is about “thou shalt” rather than “thou shalt not.” But “thou shalt not” makes for better scaremongering. Legalism gives the comfort of the exclusive position, the ease of a checklist morality that treats God like Santa Claus who is checking his own list to see who is naughty or nice.
It could not be more divergent from the complexity and nuance of the life of Christ himself, who kept company with the outcasts of society, who shunned material pursuits, who sought to transform the world not through force, but through spiritual power. Which is to say, the conquest of Love, derived from recognizing the power and dignity of God inside of each individual, the common life within the enrapturing embrace of what Emerson calls the Over-Soul, the fountain of all life.
But for Christianity to recapture its position as the foil to temporal power and the corrupting influence of wealth, and to once again be a force for universal dignity, the defense of the defenseless, and the champion of the genuine inclusive Community of Humankind over and against the evils of tribalism, nationalism, and consumerism, Christians must be ready to look at themselves soberly in the mirror.
We must abandon our compromising accommodation of New Rome as well as the residual bigotries and prejudices that abide in certain corners of our Churches. We must get to the work of imitating Christ in our actions rather than vainly invoking his name with our words. It means we must come together as one Universal Church and leave behind the centuries of petty doctrinal disputes that have divided us and enabled us to be conquered by Consumerism on all fronts. It means we must separate ourselves from the common motivations of our age, but through discernment and not mere mechanical opposition.
This will require the reconciliation of Reason and Faith, an embrace of the scientific method, a dedication to continuing technological progress but with ethical constraints, and to doing the hard work of ethical inquiry. Just as Jesus and St Paul recognized the end of the ability for tribes to separate themselves and maintain their own way of life 2,000 years ago, we must now as Christians recognize the end of nations and be the driving force behind the unity of all humans in service and Love of one another.
There are no quick fixes. There are no political solutions. The real cultural war is not to be fought over public policy, but over private purity of heart, of willing The Good rather than seeking to be right or materially wealthy, of orienting one’s own life and actions toward the radical attachment to each other without exception, no matter how difficult it may be to overcome our biases and predispositions about others.
The early Christians took their faith and imitation of Christ so seriously that they went bravely into the Coliseum to be devoured by lions for the entertainment of the debauched Romans. They didn’t detach when they were called on to pay the price for their beliefs. They found others who united with them in principles and built a community on them. They lived out their radical attachment and spread it to those hearing it for the first time, as well as reminding those who knew, but had forgotten. They stood up for those left out by Roman progress, to their own detriment. Now, so must we.
It is Unconditional Love that ultimately and permanently conquers our divisions. The Kingdom of God is within reach, but we must extend ourselves in order to grasp it.