Thursday, August 04, 2005

Stoicism and Monasticism: So What?

I had a terrific Psalms teacher who would go through all the scholarship having to do with the Sitz im leben of each Psalm, its language, form, etc, and having finished this, leaving the class silent, would ask, "Well, so what?"

The question has occurred to me in the past week or so as I've been pondering over the interesting confluence of ideas between Stoicism and Monasticism. Will it tell us anything about monasticism to know that it shares ideas with some other way of life?

I would suggest that it may: first of all, my contention is that most monastic writers today emphasize rather the Neo-Platonist background of monastic thought. The emphasis would then be on mysticism, and contemplation. I would venture an educated guess that the Neo-Platonism in scholastic writers such as Evagrius and Cassian would be attractive to modern readers because it would tend to focus more on the individual's relationship with God and the ascent of the soul to union with God.

Contrasted with this would be a greater emphasis in Stoic thought on morality, behavior and community. Most people, even those who don't know much about philosophty, know that Stoicism concerns itself with self-mastery. For obvious reasons, this aspect of monasticism has always been problematic, and indeed the reason that Blessed Cassian is not technically St. Cassian in the Western Church is because he was suspected of being semi-Pelagian (a charge not much belived any more) who thought that the monk could perfect himself.

In any case, highlighting the Stoic elements in monastic thought seems to me to be a way to challenge possible blind spots in our understanding of early monasticism and hence what the renewal called for by Vatican II should be about. Should it be about recovering the mysticism and contemplative aspect of monasticism? Beyond doubt. But perhaps there is more: perhaps the Stoic concepts are liable to be overlooked precisely because they are not congenial to present prejudice. In any case, I hope that the readers will find these observations invigorating.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
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may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
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Origen of Alexandria
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