Back to the future

It’s easy to say that Christianity is untrue, that its teachings are degrading, and that its ethics are grounded in cultism … but what then? What replaces Christianity and provides a framework for thinking about the world and our place in it? How does one approach Socrates’ question without a bellowing Holy Man: How, then, shall we live?

If publishing trends can be trusted, a lot of people are looking toward Stoicism, a pre-Christian philosophical movement nearly wiped-out when the Roman church seized control of the western half of the Roman empire following Rome’s collapse. Just this year has seen publication of Ward Farnsworth’s The Practicing Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci”s How to be a Stoic, and — get ready — even a book of daily devotionals by Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic.

Stoicism, a philosophical movement born more than 2000-years ago and advanced by figures as different as a former slave, Epictetus, and an emperor, Marcus Aurelius, is … in.

So: What is Stoicism? First, it is not an urging to suffer quietly, though that seems to be a widespread misapprehension. Nor is Stoicism a philosophical system complete with an epistemology, a politics, a metaphysics, on and on. It does not make specific claims about the world — created in 7-days, a global flood, gays are wicked, et cetera, et cetera. Stoicism is, simply put, a set of behavioral guidelines intended to get its practitioner through life in an ever-changing world happily and in one piece; think of it as practical philosophy, a set of commandments without a dyspeptic old man with a long beard.

“Christianity cheated us out of the fruits of ancient culture, and later it cheated us a second time out of the fruits of Islamic culture.”

Nietzsche, 1889;
The Antichrist, §60

If Stoicism interests you, the best book to read is Epictetus’ Manual for Living, which are notes of his lectures compiled by his students. He is refreshingly direct and highly accessible and, generally, offers good advice.

What interests me the most about this trend, I suppose — more than Stoicism per se — is the restoration of the classical world, the recovery of the world of thought that Christianity set out deliberately to destroy.

Considered that way, this present time is a waypoint on the road out of Christian decadence, a weighing and sifting of what is best and most enduring in human thought; it’s a very good thing.

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