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Stoicism & Incarnationalism by Bradley J. Birzer

stoicismStoicism & Incarnationalism

by Bradley J. Birzer
March 13, 2013

From the Christian perspective, the Logos is the beginning, the middle, and the end of time and history, and history itself is a reflection of the Logos. Each person—from Adam to the last person—is a finite reflection of the Infinite, a bearer of the Image of God, an incarnate soul. In the stunningly poetic prologue to his gospel, St. John assures us the Logos is that which enlightens every man. The logos is, then, divine reason. It is not, however, a synonym of rationality. Instead, its closest synonym would be “imagination,” stemming from the image implanted in our soul by the divine. As imagination, the soul balances rationality (or the monarchical part of the human person) of the brain and the passions (or the democratic part of the human) of the stomach. To rely only on rationality is to become an automaton; to rely only on passion is to become an animal. The aristocratic soul balances these things—through the image of the Word—in the republic of our person. Paradoxically, that which makes us most human is that which is the least human part about us.

When enlightened by the Word, the soul allows us to see and think beyond our five senses and our subjective logic, no matter how rigorous our intellectual faculties might be. It allows us to see the world as it is and as it was meant to be; it allows us to live as a member of the City of God as we sojourn through the City of Man; it allows us to create and, to use Tolkien’s term, sub-create art and not propaganda; and it allows us, very importantly, to speak with another person not through the lens of this or that prejudice (i.e. that is, shaped by biology, politics, or ideology) but as a soul to a soul—each a reflection of all that is true, good, and beautiful) but as one bearer of the Imago Dei to another bearer of the Imago Dei.

The concept of the Logos is much older than St. John’s sanctification of the term in his Gospel. One can jump back at least 100 years before Socrates to one of the first philosophers, Heraclitus of Ephesus. Looking for the “Urstoff”–the substance that holds all things together, the first principle, the unifying principle—Heraclitus claimed it to be fire, identifying it as LOGOS: reason, a word, a speech, an ejaculation. “For the waking there is one common world,” Heraclitus wrote. “But when asleep each person turns away to a private one.”

When cognizant and reasonable, the philosopher continued, a man finds himself a citizen of a lawful city, itself upheld by the one law of the one divine law.

Throughout a man’s life, his search for the extent of the Logos cannot be ended. “You would not discover the limits of the soul although you traveled every road: so deep a logos does it have.”

Because of the ability to engage and know the Logos, no matter how limited, man stands very high above the animals, but he remains very low compared to the gods. To the one supreme god, the highest of all beings and the embodiment of the Logos, “all things are beautiful and good and just.”

Still, Heraclitus believed that man, because of his limitations must remain trapped in the cycles of this world for “the road up and the road down” are identical.

For Plato, the greatest gifts are from the divine. These are given to us as images, a sort of “divine madness,” a “being [or mind] beside oneself.”

In his first encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI criticized Plato’s concept of divine madness as a concept, too easily misunderstood. As the pope argues, one should only take Plato’s understanding when combined with Virgil’s concept of love.

A second Hellenstic philosopher, Epicurus of Samos (342/1-270bc), argued that nothing existed beyond matter and the absence of matter. “So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist,” he wrote in his letter to Menoeceus. Even the gods, he claimed, merely represented matter at a higher stage than humans. One lived virtually (that is, through prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude), to match the order of the ever-existing and continuing universe. One chose such a life through free will. As with the Cynics, Epicurus and his followers advocated the rejection of a convention life in politics, the pursuit of wealth, and the traditional norms of love. Despite their own beliefs about divinity, his followers considered Epicurus somewhat supernatural, and they maintained a rigid orthodoxy of thought after his death.

The final philosophy, Stoicism, developed by a former Cynic, Zeno of Citium (336/5-264/3bc), and his student, Cleanthes of Assos (ca. 330-230), argued that the one must accept one’s fate in the order of the universe. Indeed, one must conform to the dictates of the natural law, itself an emanation of the first principle of order, life, and reason, the artistic fire, the Logos. As a school of thought, it borrowed heavily from the teachings and writings of Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle. Indeed, in some ways, it merely made an ethical religion out of a synthesis (and, at times, significant revision) of the teachings of these three. The Logos itself, the first principle, was God, synonymous with Providence and Fate. God allowed Himself to be divided into many parts and aspects, but He would, in His own time, bring all things back to right order and unity. No wrong or evil can come from God, as He is the source of all good through the Logos. Evil, therefore, springs from the individual human will violating and countering the Natural Law.

The term, Stoicism, comes from the name of the area in which Zeno lectures—an outdoor porch, the Stoa poikile. In the classical and early Christian world, Stoicism went through three phases or schools. The “early Stoa” of Zeno and Cleanthes; the “middle Stoa” of Virgil, Cicero (to a certain extent; though he called himself a an Eclectic or New Academician), and Seneca; and the “late Stoa” of Marcus Aurelius. The latter two schools, interestingly enough, anticipated some form of incarnate Logos. One can find the most important and telling expression of this in the second school in Virgil’s fourth Eclogue.

The last great age the Sybil told has come; The new order of centuries is born; The Virgin now returns, and the reign of Saturn; The new generation now comes down from heaven . . . . The Age of Iron gives way to the Golden Age. . . . Commencement of the glory, freedom from Earth’s bondage to its perpetual fear. Our crimes are going to be erased at last. This child will share in the life of the gods and he Will see and be seen in the company of heroes, And he will be ruler of the world.

By the time of Marcus Aurelius, the stoic philosopher believed the Roman Empire itself to be an incarnation of the Logos. Stoicism, in its various forms, has remained the most important Hellenistic influence on western civilization. From Sts. John and Paul, through St. Augustine, through Petrarch, John Calvin, Sir Thomas More, Stoicism has readily mixed with Christianity.

St. Augustine, in his sermons on the Psalms 18 and 119, is equally Johannine and explicit: “For see, brethren, what there is in a human soul. Of itself it hath no light, nor of itself powers; but all that is fair in a soul is virtue and wisdom; but it neither is wise for itself, nor strong for itself, nor is itself light to itself, nor is itself virtue to itself. There is a certain fountain and origin of virtue, there is a certain root of wisdom, there is a certain, so to speak, if this also is to be said, region of immutable truth; from which if the soul withdraws it is made dark and if it draws near it is made light. . . . For a lamp is a creature, not a creator; and it is lit by participation of an immutable light. . . . For no creature, howsoever rational and intellectual, is lighted of itself, but is lighted by participation of Eternal Truth.”

A serious Augustinian, first as a Protestant and later as a Catholic, Russell Kirk wrote: “Images are representations of mysteries, necessarily; for mere words are tools that break in the hand, and it has not pleased God that man should be saved by logic, abstract reason, alone. . . .The image, I repeat, can raise us on high, as did Dante’s high dream; also it can draw us down to the abyss. . . . It is imagery, rather than some narrowly deductive and inductive process, which gives us great poetry and scientific insights. . . . And it is true of great philosophy, before Plato and since him, that the enduring philosopher sees things in images initially.”

As John Paul II stated in 1996: “The mystery of the Incarnation has given a tremendous impetus to man’s thought and artistic genius. Precisely by reflecting on the union of the two natures, human and divine, in the person of the Incarnate Word, Christian thinkers have come to explain the concept of person as the unique and unrepeatable centre of freedom and responsibility, whose inalienable dignity must be recognized. This concept of the person has proved to be the cornerstone of any genuinely human civilization.”

Books on this topic may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreRead more of Dr. Birzer’s TIC essays here.

Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher DawsonJ.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. Dr. Birzer is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). He teaches Catholics in the Public Square  for Catholic Courses

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