Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Metaphysics from Iohannes

Salve, si aliquis has legit !

I am, as affiliations go, a Stoic -- at least, these days.  Have been since 2006, a decade or so.  I'm currently taking a course from the College of Stoic Philosophers (not accredited, I don't believe) whose classes are done over the Internet, are affordable, and are not bound up in the toils of professional academia.  Professional philosophers may sniff at this College (collection of colleagues) but it fulfills a purpose that the unaffordable and scholarly-professional schools do not address -- common people living their lives. 

Enough about the College. I'm grateful they've been around.  But I'm currently finishing up a quarter in which we've read on Stoic Physics, which -- for the Stoics -- was also Stoic Theology.  We're at the last section, and the subject is Piety. 

Looking over Erik the Scholarch's summation for this quarter, I find myself agreeing with most everything.  The one area where I can't agree with Erik and my mentor, Chris, is that of the Stoic God's Providence.  The Stoics had an interesting idea of God and of Providence:  They argued that while most of the universe is a system of causes (not a chain, not a domino effect), men are set apart, a section in them reserved for a minor sort of divine intelligence (all the universe being infused to greater or lesser degrees with a Cosmic Intelligence that orders things and creates movement and animation and consciousness).  What this does is set men (ie, people, humans, of both genders) apart as having a say-so in their own fates.  Fate rules all, and yet not finally, because men generally have the power to think and choose.  (Rather like Christianity, isn't it?  I'm sure there are endless parallels in other religions, too.) 

Where I part with Erik's and Chris's theistic notions is largely in this notion of Providence.  What does it mean?  I agree that God (as Universal Nature and as the divine Pneuma that pervades it) has provided for men and their survival as a species.  But I argue that that is about as far as it goes.  Erik and Chris might agree, but we part on the definition of Providence.  If the Stoic God (the divine Intelligence innate in the cosmos) were fully provident, we humans would have had a better nature to begin with; we would not be such a miserable, splintered, hostile, dissatisfied and ape-like species.  Erik's Providence goes only so far -- which is fine, actually, for Stoicism quite properly looks askance at most notions of Absolute Purity and Infinite this-and-that.  We have no Types, no Perfect God, no Perfect Other World; there is only what was, what is, and what comes to be. 

But then Erik quotes this, from our old drill instructor, Epictetus:

"For if we had any understanding, ought we not, both in public and in private, incessantly to sing and praise the Deity, and rehearse his benefits?" 

Well, yes and no.  We might, because we are small and insignificant, and incapable of the kind and degree of creation that Epictetus would have us thank God for.  But a question arises:  What's the purpose of this incessant praise?  Wasn't God doing what he is supposed to, that is, providing?  Moreover, isn't that Providence limited?  Yes, he's given us a bit for each, in terms of Intelligence, with which to affect Fate on our own; he's sort of 'deputized' us as Junior Gods, you might say.  But again, isn't that now our job, to be intelligent, to be good, to be so at the same time that we're being the particular kind of beasts that we (quite demonstrably) are?  God does his bit, and we do ours -- and that's the ticket.  God deserves praise only insofar as the entire World deserves praise, and most of the world is, to the Stoic, necessarily a thing Indifferent -- a world "not up to us" to control.  Moreover, indifference is the Stoic God's personal relation with us -- he's absent, except (again) as Universal Nature and as Our Individual Natures. 

Is this a big deal?  No, except that I can't join the Chorus of Theistic Stoics singing, "Praise God for this wonderful life!" when, no, it's not wonderful, but mixed and problematic.  Men and Women, Democrats and Republicans, Christians and Muslims?  War, serial killers, torture, disease, tooth-and-claw?  This may be a providence, a gift of animation, but it cannot be called "a wonderful life". 

"Thank you for the loan, God; I'll try to take care of it as I ought to, this Life, before you get it back from me."  I think that sums up the relationship quite well, "incessant praise" aside.   If you want God, read Thomas Paine and Camus and you will have a good beginning.  Stoicism is to be praised, I think, for putting all that -- earthly experience -- into perspective without resorting to either inflation of the Human Ego past its proper degree, or erecting Idols and demanding sacrificial victims, or simply sugar-coating the whole mess and ignoring evil.  Tie your shoelaces and save the drowning, as Thoreau advised; there's no need to get absurd in response to reality's absurdities. 

Vale, et aude sapere. 

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