"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Angels and apatheia

In the "new" Roman calendar, today is the Feast of the Guardian Angels; yesterday was the feast of the archangels mentioned in the Bible: Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. Fr. Mark, author of the blog, Vultus Christi, has a marvelous meditation on the angels: "My Friend." Reading it reduced me to tears; for it reminded me of the message I tried to convey to my older daughter when she was little and I said with her the "prayer to my guardian angel" while tucking her into bed each night. What obscured the message for her, I'm sure, was not the prayer, the practice of saying it at bedtime, or even the inevitable sort of disillusionment that overtakes any child after a certain age when they lose their joyful innocence; the obstacle was my shortcomings as a parent. Failures of love on the part of those who have been meant to love us are, I believe, the single biggest obstacle preventing people from hearing the Gospel of God's love. That holds especially for those aspects of the deposit of faith that our secular, materialistic society relegates to superstitition.

As somebody with an academic background, I've observed over the years that the lack of a lively sense of heaven's love and companionship, especially as expressed by the Church Triumphant in our daily lives, causes many nominally Christian grownups to find the heresy of Stoicism attractive. (I call Stoicism, an ancient philosophy without any origin in Christianity, a "heresy" because it takes a very important spiritual truth and emphasizes it without balancing it with other truths.)

Take this article by Brad Miner in The Catholic Thing. Miner is a conservative of the good-old NR days. What those guys (OK, there were a few gals, such as Florence King) all had in common was not religious belief—though most were Christians of a sort, and many of them Catholic—but an animus for preserving "Western civilization." Almost to a man, they were much more interested in religion as a contributor to that project than in such details of divine revelation as the celestial hierarchy or the nature of "deification." One can see this in the following passage from Miner's article, which depicts John McCain as a Stoic hero:
And what of honor? This is a quality difficult to measure in any man — especially from a distance. Indeed, I can think of few men in public life other than John McCain about whom one may say with confidence that he is honorable, principled. McCain has been tested and has triumphed, not just successfully elected. He was not first, and is not principally, a politician. As New York Times columnist David Brooks described McCain on the eve of the New Hampshire primary: “If you cover him for a day, you’d better bring 2,500 questions because in the hours he spends with journalists, you will run through all of them. Last Saturday, we talked about Pervez Musharraf’s asceticism and Ted Williams’s hitting philosophy, the Korean War and Hispanic voting patterns.”

The great Stoic, Epictetus, described the ideal man as able to keep his virtue under any circumstances: "sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy."

I’m sure it’s pure speculation on my part, but on Wednesday November 5th the loser in this race, disappointed though he will surely be, will be miserable if he is Obama but happy if he is McCain.
Ah, McCain, the Stoic man of honor. Perhaps he is; that's not clear to me. It seems that Miner is spinning a "narrative," a mythos, more than peering into a soul. What is clear, though, is that Miner believes we ought to prefer McCain for that reason. That's certainly better than what he presents as the alternative, if indeed Obama is that alternative. But there's nothing in such a portrait of McCain that a Chinese atheist couldn't value too.

Yesterday I was reading an interview that Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek conducted with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Student of philosophy that he is, and was, Zakaria asked Wen about the exemplary 2nd-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, a dedicated Stoic:

Let me ask you, premier, finally a couple of questions that are personal. You've said that you've read the works of Marcus Aurelius a hundred times. Marcus Aurelius is a famous stoic philosopher. My reading of him says that one should not be involved in the self, and in any kind of pursuits that are self-interested but should be more for the community as a whole. When I go to China these days, I am struck by how much individualism there is, how much consumerism there is. Are you trying to send a signal to the Chinese people to think less about themselves and more about the community?

Wen Jiabao: It is true I did read the meditations written by Marcus Aurelius Antonio on many occasions, and I was very deeply impressed by the words that he wrote in the book -- to be fact - where are those people that were great for a time? They are all gone, leaving only a story, or some even just half a story. So I draw the conclusion that only people are in the position to create history and write history.

I very much value morality, and I do believe that entrepreneurs, economists and statesmen alike should pay much more attention to morality and ethics.

What struck me about Wen's answer was not its apparent banality—only people make and write history, "morality" is very important—but his choice of author. Why Marcus Aurelius?

Well, what's distinctive about Stoic morality is its advocacy of apatheia, detachment, from the feelings that come and go with fortune. One should not be elated by good fortune or depressed by bad fortune. Virtue consists in cultivating those habits of thought, feeling, and action which enable one to conform oneself consistently to the Logos, to contribute to and reflect the rational order of the cosmos. The good man is one who lives according to the requirements of "reason" so understood; sentiments and emotions are valuable only to the extent they conform with that. Such a philosophy can motivate great sacrifice and accomplishment, which Marcus indeed exhibited as emperor. He was no lover of luxury and amusements like his brother, with whom he co-ruled for a time, and his son Commodus, who succeeded him. Such detachment and discipline, I believe, have often been exhibited by the Beijing leadership since Deng Tsiao-ping. Disbelieving in any "afterlife," and only fitfully tolerant of Christianity or other religions that can't be subordinated to the state cult, China's leaders are totally dedicated to restoring their country's greatness, which they regard almost as part of the natural order of things. They do not let themselves be dissipated by debaucheries or trivialities. The tie-in with Confucianism, though perhaps not explicit, is also plain.

Christian apatheia is different. It is not a Stoic conformity to an impersonal Reason manifest in space-time, but a refusal to be identified with anything that is of this world alone. That refusal stems from trust of a sort which cannot be shattered by disillusionment because there is nothing sentimental about its ignorance of the details of providence. It comes through in an Orthodox prayer quoted by Fr. Stephen Freeman:

O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy Will.

At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will.

Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from Thee.

Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone.

O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take place during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.

The attitude in that prayer is certainly one of apatheia. But the detachment is made possible not by resignation to an order of things which cares not for one's fate, but by hope that "all things work together for the good of those who love God" because they are loved by God. This is more important than many people, including many who are "on our side," seem to realize.

In a way, I could sum up my entire spiritual journey as one of struggling to get beyond Stoic apatheia, for which I am not great-souled enough, to reach Christian apatheia, for which one doesn't need any greatness of soul other than that of Christ himself. As a student I learned to perceive the greatness of Stoic apatheia. It was, and is, the product of a resolution to live uprightly not out of any belief that life has some overarching or transcendent "meaning," and still less that there's anything beyond this world, but simply because the Logos was, objectively, the measure of all things. There is a nobility to that stance which most people can no more perceive now than in late antiquity. I am fortunante enough to perceive and appreciate it, but I am not noble enough to live it out. If I did not have the gift of faith which comes from above, I would experience life as Peggy Lee did: "If that's all there is, then let's break out the booze and have a ball." When we poor-souled, as opposed to the great-souled, find that a ball is no longer possible—or at least not possible without paying too great a price—life comes to seem primarily a burden to be endured for the sake of others whom one cares about, if one still cares and hasn't found reason enough not to care anymore. Life is certainly not experienced as a blessing for which to give thanks and rejoice. Even with the gift of faith, I often do not experience the worthwhileness of life. I accept on faith that life is worthwhile because I cannot help believing that the ultimate Source of life is personal, and infinitely wiser and better than I. And so I thank him each day for a blessing that my limitations prevent me from experiencing as a blessing. Often, I must make myself do that. But whether I make myself give thanks or not, the above-quoted prayer make sense to me only in light of gratitude. For me, fortitude comes from gratitude, which comes from faith. But the gratitude is not a feeling, and the faith is not an opinion. They are dispositions of the will and the intellect that are enabled solely by grace.

Alas, I'm not even noble enough to cultivate that attitude without seeking the companionship, and begging the help, of the angels and the saints. Each day I invoke my guardian angel, whoever their name is; St. Michael, my patron saint and marshal of the heavenly hosts; St. Patrick, my confirmation saint whose prayers, I hope, will enable me to write my magnum opus; and of course the most powerful of all mere creatures, the Blessed Virgin, whose humility is what enabled God to enter his world as a man and defeat the pride of the Devil. I recommend something similar to all those other Christians who will never pass the Stoic test of spiritual aristocracy.
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