In two previous posts (here and here) I have given a little background about philosophical skepticism; how it originated in Ancient Greece and its effect on the culture after its rediscovery, translation, and dispersion through Western Europe beginning in the early Renaissance. I noted its tenuous and volatile relationship with Christian thought and how it was used by both Catholics and Protestants in attacking each other’s criterions of faith. Any kind of skepticism that asserts or implies that nothing at all can be known (akatalêpsia) of that we should withhold assent to absolutely everything (universal epochê) cannot be reconciled with Christianity in any orthodox form, for the latter demands assent to a number of propositions regarding How Things Really Are, most notably the fundamental articles of the creed. For instance, as Christians we assent to a belief in one God, the Trinity, and the Incarnation. We believe in the veracity of certain historical events such as the birth, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. We even have dogmatically defined propositions about what the human mind is capable of knowing, such as that from the dogmatic constitution of the First Vatican Council, which states:
The same Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, may be certainly known by the natural light of human reason, by means of created things; “for the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20)
What then of skepticism? Is it not totally irrelevant to Christians? In his second letter to Lucilius, Seneca- himself a Stoic- quotes approvingly from Epicurus, the founder of the rival school of Epicureanism. Anticipating Lucilius’ objection, Seneca justifies himself by saying “I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp, – not as a deserter, but as a scout.” My own reading and engagement with Hellenistic philosophy over the years has likewise been not as a deserter from Christianity, but as a scout. What I have found there are philosophies dedicated to reasoning at the service of a good and happy life- not theorizing for its own sake. As such, they have much in the way of spiritual practices and wise sayings that can be appropriated by Christians granted we are willing to do the work of understanding them and refashioning them in such a way that they are compatible with a Christian worldview and supportive of a Christian life. In the coming weeks I hope to offer a series of posts, tentatively entitled Pagan Wisdom for Modern Christians, which will share some of the sayings and practices of the Skeptics, Stoics, Epicureans, and Cynics; and which will explore their significance for Christians.
When I first started studying philosophy in college my undergraduate survey in Ancient philosophy, for all its virtues, completely skipped over the Hellenistic era. It started with the pre-Socratics, moved on to Socrates and Plato, and terminated with Aristotle. I first chanced upon a sustained treatment of Hellenistic philosophy in James Wetzel’s wonderful book Augustine and the Limits of Virtue.
In that book, Wetzel argues that one can only understand the development of Augustine’s theology of grace by understanding that Augustine was wrestling with a question he inherited from the Stoics regarding the connection between knowledge, virtue, and blessedness. Besides introducing me to the philosophical schools of the Hellenistic era, the book demonstrated to me the importance of understanding these schools of thought if one is to understand Christianity in the Apostolic and Patristic eras, since it was largely these philosophies-as well as Neo-Platonism- that were dominant at the time. The connection between Christianity and Neo-Platonism has been deeply explored, while its connection to Hellenistic ethics has been less thoroughly examined. The Hellenistic philosophies, to a large degree, posed the questions that everyone in that region and at that time were trying to answer, including Christians. These schools were in that regard direct competitors with Christianity. As fellow Patheos blogger Artur Rosman has shown in various posts, the sharp distinction we now make between philosophy and theology was unknown to the ancients. Both the philosophers of antiquity and the early Christians were proposing beliefs and a way of life ordered to blessedness or a good life, though in very different ways.
This discovery of Hellenistic philosophy came at a time of transition in my life. For seven years I had been a member of the Dominican Order and as such the foundation of all my philosophical inquiry was the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. There is no better way to study Aquinas then as a Dominican living in a Dominican priory. Though the conventual life of a modern day Dominican is not exactly that of Aquinas’ time- its not as strict for one- it nevertheless exists in a continuous line of tradition and bears its essential marks. After spending a day at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, I would return to the priory for recreation and dinner where I could discuss what I had studied that day with my professors, many of whom I lived and prayed with, as well the other student brothers. We all had a sense that what we were learning was vitally important for the Church and the world and our lively discussion reinforced that in each other. After I left the Dominicans at the expiration of my simple vows, I lost the way of life that animated and sustained my previous iteration of Thomism. Something had to fill the vacuum.
My first job after leaving and getting married was working as a hospital chaplain in a critical care unit. I continue in that line of work to this day, though my work has expanded to include medical ethics. A single week in the ICU can bring you into contact with more suffering and death than some people will witness in a lifetime. My experience in that setting over the past four years has given me a tremendous respect for ordinary people’s ability to cope with suffering and hardship. In talking with patients and their families I learned the difference between simply adhering to a set of beliefs and having those beliefs take root to animate and sustain one through terrible suffering. I learned the difference between empty theorizing and what Socrates called living an examined life. Many of the beliefs and practices that pulled people through such times bore a strong resemblance to the beliefs and practices of the ancient Hellenistic schools. “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst” bore a strong resemblance to the Stoic’s praemeditatio malorum (premeditation of evils). For those who had cultivated community, friendship, and family, the gathering of friends at a patient’s bedside and the grateful recollection of better times recalled the community practices of the Epicureans which had the purpose of sustaining the Epicurean though times of physical pain. Those who, like the Epicurean, Christian monk, or Cynic, had trained themselves to find gratitude in the simple sating of their thirst and hunger without regard to what they ate or drank were less distressed by getting nutrition from an NG tube or hospital tray. Those who, like the Skeptic, avoided strong beliefs or attachments to what was considered good or aversions to what was considered physical evils, could endure physical and mental hardship without the added suffering of believing their life was somehow ruined. All of this reinforced to me the truth of a saying by Galen, an ancient physician (and philosopher): “It is not true that there exists an art called medicine, concerned with the diseased body, but no corresponding art concerned with the diseased soul. Nor is it true that the latter is inferior to the former in its theoretical grasp and therapeutic treatment of individual cases”
My attraction, then, to these philosophies, and skepticism in particular, were because they allowed me to examine the inner workings of my own soul and make appropriate diagnoses and prescriptions. They allowed me to live a happier and more tranquil life. The passions will always be, to some degree, beyond our control. That is why we call them passions. However, we need not live completely at their mercy, which we often do, in spite of the rectitude of our Christian beliefs. As I examine these philosophies in future posts, I hope my readers will find them as helpful as I have.