Friday, April 30, 2010

Children of the Gods: Stoic Theology from a Modern Pagan Perspective

"You have changed my life."

Two things happened last Saturday (April 24) that affected me deeply. One was very sad and very profound, and that was the death of the great philosopher Pierre Hadot. The other was much happier, and almost too trivial and frivolous sounding to mention alongside Hadot's death: I finally saw Avatar. And yet I must mention both because it was their combined effect that inspired me to venture, to the best of my limited abilities, to write about Stoic Theology. Before proceeding to that subject, though, first I must say a little more about the great philosopher who died and the great movie I saw last Saturday.

Pierre Hadot was one of the very few modern scholars who understood, and put into practice, the true spirit of philosophy. Hadot knew that ancient philosophy had a telos, that is a purpose or "end", and, in particular, that ancient philosophers taught "in such a way that the disciple, as auditor, reader, or interlocutor, could make spiritual progress and transform himself within."

Hadot was not shy about drawing attention to the sharp contrast between the ancient approach to philosophy and the modern enterprise that goes by the same name. In the opening sentences of his seminal What is Ancient Philosophy?, Hadot compared the ancient focus on philosophy, singular, as a way of life with the modern habit of studying philosophies, plural, as lifeless, competing intellectual systems.

Pierre Hadot not only dared to proclaim philosophy as a spiritual path, but to accurately present philosophy as a kind of spirituality independent of any reliance on (or relation to) Christianity or Christian ideas. He even went so far as to broadly imply, but without beating people over the head about it, the intrinsic enmity between ancient philosophy and Christianity. Here is how one Christian reviewer responded:
According to Pierre Hadot, a prominent historian of ancient thought and professor emeritus at the College de France, philosophy today—specialized, professional, and detached from life—is but a shadow of its glorious Athenian past. But that is not the original part of his thesis. A wide array of modern minds have thought the same: Hegel lamented that philosophy is no longer “practiced as a private art, as it was by the Greeks,” Heidegger called for a return to the Greek grammar of being, and Kant claimed that “the ancient Greek philosophers remained more faithful to the Idea of the philosopher than their modern counterparts have done.” What is new in What Is Ancient Philosophy? is that its author confidently identifies Christianity as the agent of philosophy’s decline.
For more on Hadot please see the wonderful tribute to him written by Michael Chase, an accomplished philosopher in his own right who is also the English translator of many of Hadot's works:

Remembering Pierre Hadot -- Part One
Remembering Pierre Hadot -- Part Two

Here are some excerpts from Chase's obituary of his friend Pierre Hadot:
Born in Paris in 1922, Hadot was raised at Reims, where he received a strict Catholic education, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1944. But he soon became disenchanted with the Church, particularly after the conservative encyclical Humani Generis of August 12, 1950, and he left it in 1952 (Eros also played a role in this decision: Hadot married his first wife in 1953) . . . .

Pierre Hadot began to study and lecture on Marcus Aurelius—studies that would culminate in his edition of the Meditations6, left unfinished at his death, and especially in his book The Inner Citadel.7 Under the influence of his wife Ilsetraut, who had written an important work on spiritual guidance in Seneca, Hadot now began to accord more and more importance to the idea of spiritual exercises, that is, philosophical practices intended to transform the practitioner's way of looking at the world, and consequently his or her way of being. Following Paul Rabbow, Hadot held that the famous Exercitia Spiritualia of Ignatius of Loyola, far from being exclusively Christian, were the direct heirs of pagan Greco-Roman practices. These exercises, involving not just the intellect or reason, but all a human being's faculties, including emotion and imagination, had the same goal as all ancient philosophy: reducing human suffering and increasing happiness, by teaching people to detach themselves from their particular, egocentric, individualistic viewpoint and become aware of their belonging, as integral component parts, to the Whole constituted by the entire cosmos. In its fully developed form, exemplified in such late Stoics as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, this change from our particularistic perspective to the universal perspective of reason had three main aspects. First, by means of the discipline of thought, we are to strive for objectivity; since, as the Stoics believe, what causes human suffering is not so much things in the world, but our beliefs about those things, we are to try to perceive the world as it is in itself, without the subjective coloring we automatically tend to ascribe to everything we experience ("That's lovely," "that's horrible," "that's ugly," "that's terrifying," etc., etc.). Second, in the discipline of desire, we are to attune our individual desires with the way the universe works, not merely accepting that things happen as they do, but actively willing for things to happen precisely the way they do happen. This attitude is, of course, the ancestor of Nietzsche’s “Yes” granted to the cosmos, a “yes” which immediately justifies the world's existence.8 Finally, in the discipline of action, we are to try to ensure that all our actions are directed not just to our own immediate, short-term advantage, but to the interests of the human community as a whole.

Hadot finally came to believe that these spiritual attitudes—“spiritual” precisely because they are not merely intellectual, but involve the entire human organism, but one might with equal justification call them “existential” attitudes—and the practices or exercises that nourished, fortified and developed them, were the key to understanding all of ancient philosophy. In a sense, the grandiose physical, metaphysical, and epistemological structures that separated the major philosophical schools of Antiquity—Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism9—were mere superstructures, intended to justify the basic philosophical attitude. Hadot deduced this, among other considerations, from the fact that many of the spiritual exercises of the various schools were highly similar, despite all their ideological differences: thus, both Stoics and Epicureans recommended the exercise of living in the present . . . .

As a young philosophy student, I had often been disillusioned by finding that my philosophical heroes had feet of clay: although they wrote fine-sounding phrases in their books, they were often vain, disdainful, or otherwise unpleasant when one met them in person. Not so Pierre Hadot: like Plotinus, he was always available to himself, but above all to others. For his 80th birthday, Hadot reserved a restaurant near Limours for over a hundred guests, who were distributed at tables in groups of six to eight. As the meal progressed, Hadot made sure to come and sit for a while at each table, laughing and joking with everyone, making each guest feel as though he or she were truly special to him. Waiters and hostesses received, unfailingly, the same friendly, non-condescending treatment . . . .

What is certain is that he has trained a generation of students and scholars who continue his work, and that his writings, translated into many languages, continued to inspire readers from throughout the world, many of whom wrote him to say, in a variety of formulations: “You have changed my life.” Pierre Hadot was a man almost destitute of personal vanity, but if there was one thing he was proud of, it was not the multiple honors he received throughout his career, but the effect he had on the average reader.
"Pagan, Communist, and Un-American"
(No wonder I loved Avatar!!

I can think of no smooth way to pull off this very abrupt segway, so I'll just blunder ahead ....

In Dr. Ted Baehr's "Movie Guide" column over at WorldNetDaily (the people behind the online petition to demand the public release of Barack Obama's birth certificate) we find a "review" of Avatar (dated December 19, 2009) which reads, in part, as follows:
In the Hugo-winning science-fiction novel "The Sheep Look Up" by John Brunner (perhaps the ultimate environmental disaster novel), the final solution to stopping the environment from being destroyed by man is to kill off the most "wasteful" nation on earth, the American people!

James Cameron's new sci-fi extravaganza, "Avatar," set to open Friday, says virtually the same thing, but on a bigger scale. The major problem with "Avatar" is that Cameron tells a story that hates people.

In the story, a group of nature-worshipping aliens triumph over the greedy, evil human corporations that want to destroy their planet. The aliens eventually send the humans back to a dying earth to die. How marvelous!

If you think this sounds as if Al Gore wrote the script for "Avatar," not James Cameron, you may be right. This theme of kill all the humans, especially the pro-American, capitalist humans, has long been an underlying message of the left-wing, environmentalist movement, beginning with Rachel Carson's hysterical plea to ban DDT, even though, to this day, there is no evidence that DDT is harmful to humans or the environment, and even though the use of DDT can save millions of human lives from the deadly disease of malaria.

Many millions of malaria deaths later, along comes "Avatar" to, once again, cast human beings, especially militaristic capitalists, as the super-villain and to create heroes out of a bunch of pagan primitives who have achieved an idyllic, but impossible, at-one-ment with nature. For hundreds of years, the pagan, communist ideas expressed in this movie circulated among a threadbare group of outcasts with dirty fingernails and greasy hair, who shared their obtuse, occult ideas amongst themselves with manic, alienated glee. Now, James Cameron has made these insane views the major bulwark of a very spectacular movie, but the spectacle does not make these Neo-Marxist views any more coherent, rational or uplifting.
Be still, my beating heart. He had me at John Brunner!!

But, hey, why let the Birthers and Tea Partiers have all the fun?? Mark Morford, an award winning (and twice suspended) "non-journalistic" columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle/ goes after James Cameron, the all-wise, all-powerful Creator of Avatar, as a purveyor of "alien porn" (which, apparently, Morford does not approve of):
Let's just say it outright: This is a movie about alien porn. It's about the great, timeless, hypererotic white man fantasy of the Other. Inhabiting it, having sex with it, becoming it, moving inside it, running and leaping and fighting and taking spectacular risks just before falling into a bed of florid vines with your significant -- and incredibly hot -- alien companion to fondle her tail as the planet smiles in happy bioluminescent munificence all around you.

Let me be clear. I don't mean "hot" in the typical sci-fi sense. The Na'vi are not cheeseball pneumatic fantasy creations, the males all bloated, vein-popping muscle-bound meatheads and the females sporting Volkswagen-sized breasts and giant firedragon swords and asses from here to Lara Croft. They are not the generic, infantile, 10-year-old boy-lost-at-Comic-Con kind of hot. Not completely, anyway.

No, this is adult hot. Kinky hot. Exoticism wrapped in virile prowess slipped into a giant sheath of sexy blue lizardleather. It would appear that James Cameron and his nefarious crew of kinkhounds probed every nook and cranny and orifice of Freud's extraterrestrial fantasy handbook to invent the dreamiest blue lustcreature imaginable. Yes, this is a movie about fetishism.
So let me see if I have this right: Paganism + Communism + Unamericanism and adult kinky hot sexy blue lizardleather??? Holy fuck -- I am a stone cold polytheist, but James Cameron just might be GOD!

And as if the above were not enough, Morford follows it by 8 paragraphs of detailed descriptions of the Na'vi's alien-pornographical physical features: their godlike physical size, their phenomenal gracefulness, their sexy as hell tails, their large catlike eyes with dilated pupils (Morford provides a very helpful link to the Bondage Fairies wikipedia page to emphasize just how "downright perversion-ready combustible" those eyes are), their dreamy blue skin, their bioluminescent sparkliness, their elfin ears, and their Exotic Tribal Africanness. And then comes the very non-journalistic, uh, climax of Morford's column:
Behold, the ultimate in guilty colonialist fetish fantasy epic porn filmmaking, ever. Flawed, broken white man can, with his righteous modern technology, fuse his DNA with super-hot exotic sexually flawless alien species and become the Other and save the world and then score the hot chick from "Star Trek."

Dude. Mr. Cameron sir. Just stop your silly overblown movie right there. You don't even have to have them fight the bad guys or run from monsters or stage ridiculous epic battle sequences. What's the point? Just have a lame white dude become a giant gorgeous blue sexhotsuckerbeast Na'vi, and film him walking down the street and ordering a latte from Starbucks. Watch humanity share one giant, collective Lacanian psychospiritual orgasm. Perfect.
Stoic Theology, Anyone?

Now how am I going to bring this back to Stoic Theology? Well, I'll start with two of the theological themes of Avatar: pantheism and panpsychism, both of which are very closely related to Stoic Theology.

Pantheism, as many people already know, at least vaguely, is the idea that the entire Cosmos is a single, Divine Being. A shortcoming of pantheism is that by itself it can lead to an overly abstract Divinity that is not only "impersonal" but is downright mindless and unconscious (and, from an emotional viewpoint, uncaring). But when panpsychism is added to pantheism, the Cosmos is not only a unified, living, divine whole, but, in addition, there is Somebody Home: the Cosmos is Aware.

While modern philosophers (and when it comes to pantheism, "modern" goes all the way back to Baruch Spinoza, who died 99 years before the Declaration of Independence was written), have made their attempts at understanding and elucidating pantheism and panpsychism, both of these ideas are very clearly laid out in Plato's philosophy, especially in his cosmological masterpiece, the Timaeus. And Plato, in turn was not boldly declaring a radical new idea at all, but was rather perpetuating (in his very own brilliant way) an idea already current among the Pythagorean philosophers.

It is very possible that Plato learned his cosmology from Socrates, whose own teachings may have been far more theological and cosmological than many people now suppose. (See especially the discussion of Socrates' "teleological cosmology" in this post, and also this one, and references therein, especially to Book 1 Ch. iv of Xenopon's Memorabilia.) It is also likely that Plato studied with the Pythagoreans in Magna Graecia after the execution of Socrates (when Plato was still only 25 years old). Most likely, in my opinion, is that Plato's cosmology is informed both by the teachings of Socrates, and by what Plato learned among the Pythagoreans after the death of his beloved teacher.

The important thing is that we need not rely on modern scholars who tend to define pantheism and panpsychism in ways that are far too narrow, and that can be quite stilted and are often useless for anyone who approaches these things from a Pagan perspective.

Panpsychism (from a Pagan perspective) is intrinsically teleological. What that means, simply, is that the Cosmos is not just alive, divine and aware, but that it is also ordered and purposeful. In fact the orderliness and purposefulness of the Cosmos is intrinsic to the original intention behind adopting the Greek word kosmos as a philosophical term: the word was already used (that is, before Pythagoras got his hands on it) both to describe an orderly and efficient arrangement of well-marshaled soldiers (the Greeks loved a good phalanx!), and also to refer to a pleasing arrangement of a woman's dress, jewelry and hair.

According to Xenophon, Socrates used to teach in the following manner:
The more exalted the Gods are, while they deign to attend to you, the more ought you to honor them .... Do you not, then, believe that the Gods take thought for men? the Gods who, in the first place, have made man alone, of all animals, upright .... Do you not see, too, that to other animals they have so given the pleasures of sexual intercourse as to limit them to a certain season of the year, but that they allow them to us uninterruptedly till extreme old age? Nor did it satisfy the Gods to take care of the body merely, but, what is most important of all, they implanted in him the soul, his most excellent part.
[Memorabilia, I.iv.12-18]
Socrates used arguments like the one above against those who "neither sacrificed to the Gods, when engaged on any enterprise, nor attended to auguries, but ridiculed those who regarded such matters" [I.iv.2]. Xenophon revisits this subject in Book IV, chapter III of the Memorabilia, where he states that Socrates "endeavored to impress his associates with right feelings towards the Gods." As in Book I, Chapter IV (above) Socrates makes use of the argument that the Gods created us and the world around us and, therefore, they are worthy of our worship since they "exercise the greatest care for man in every way." After hearing such an argument, Euthymus declares that from henceforth, "I shall never fail, in the slightest degree, in respect for the divine power."

In the movie Avatar, messengers from the Great Goddess Eywa appear at just the right moment to provide just the right sign to let Neytiri know that Jake Sully is, well, alright (unlike the other sky people). And this lets us know that something much more than a mere impersonal pantheism is at work here: Pandora is a world that is not only a single living divinity (pantheism), but is also conscious (panpsychism) and that also acts in a purposeful manner (teleology).

In future installments in this series on Stoic Theology I will rely heavily on a wonderful book titled, appropriately enough, Stoic Theology, by P.A. Meijer. I will try to avoid keep to a minimum future references to Bondage Fairies, but you can count on frequent use of Pierre Hadot's writings and also invokations of Eywa.

[The beautiful, incredibly detailed drawing of Athens at the very top of this post was found here:
The extremely cute "Hello Cthulhu" cartoon is from here:]