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Monday, March 27, 2006

Faith & Reason for Christians & Stoics

Today's post is authored by Steve Marquis, who posted this on the International Stoic Forum. I thought it was so full of interesting notions that I asked him if I could quote him here on my blog. Thanks Steve!


Setting ‘faith’ mutually exclusive to reason is part of our modern paradigm. A large part of this may be due to the nature of Christian faith (Muslim and Jewish as well). Christianity is the primary religion of our culture. Our personal working opinion of what faith is cannot help but be influenced by the culture we grew up in.

The Christian God is transcendental. God is forever above and beyond in a way that transcends both time and space. God, in His perfection, stands outside and separate from the mundane world. There is a distinct dichotomy here between Creator and created. Much of the Christian religion is based on how to bridge this gap. Since reason and empirical evidence apply only to the mundane created world, reason and evidence simply cannot bridge that gap. This is a difference in kind, not degree. And that is where faith comes in. Seen in this way faith is not just leading the way and reason following, faith is going where reason can never go. Faith may seek understanding, but because of this inherent unbreachable gulf that search for understanding the nature of God through reason and evidence is bound to be continually frustrated.

Now (Classical) Stoicism is also theistic. But the Stoic Logos is immanent, not transcendental. The Logos is in everything everywhere all the time. There is an intimacy between Creator and created that is separable only in description (ie, our attempt to describe with language and concepts). God is not separate from nature, God IS Nature. So, the type of faith familiar from a Christian belief system is never needed in Stoicism. Rather than abstain from investigation for fear of finding some sacred doctrine in error, the marching orders for a Stoic seems to me to be continual ongoing inquiry, and especially self inquiry (in the Socratic tradition). And the tools used for this inquiry are going to be; you guessed it, evidence and reason.

The Stoics were empiricists in the sense that experience is primary rather than some intuitive perfection like the Platonic forms. From sense experience comes knowledge. It is assumed the Cosmos is intelligible and that Nature would equip Her creatures with the necessary tools for survival and a robust life, each to its kind. This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective as well.

In the case of human beings and rationality we are gifted with the potential of virtue due to our self-aware nature. And, we come equipped with the tools to fulfill that promise. We are each sharing in the highest nature of God, rationality, each of us is a spark of the divine fire. Following are some quotes from AA Long’s ‘Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life’, which I recommend to you:

(Chap 6 ‘Natures: Divine, Human, Animal’, pages 146-147)

‘Because the Stoic God is immanent and identical with perfect rationality, Epictetus follows his tradition in taking the general character of God and his works to be fully accessible to human understanding.’

‘Physical nature, not a sacred text or revelation or inspired prophecy, is the Stoic’s guide to the divine. The Stoic outlook on God is this-worldly [as opposed to other-worldly, SM] …’

‘The life that we have now is what requires all of our attention; the only punishment for those who neglect the principles of Stoicism, Epictetus says, is to stay ‘just as they are’, emotionally disturbed and discontented.’

‘Far from being tainted by sin at birth, human beings are innately equipped by God to perfect themselves BY THERE OWN EFFORT. There is no need, then, for a divine act of grace or sacrifice.’
I changed the emphasis above from italics to all caps. If our ‘salvation’ is in our own hands, so to speak, this puts quite a different twist on faith than the Christian tradition wouldn’t you say? This sounds more like humanism.

Now, this may seem hubristic and self-centered. But, to maintain the self-honesty required to make continuous progress is anything but hubristic. Too much self-pride will stop progress cold.

The immanent vs transcendental nature of Stoic theism plus the conviction that knowledge is acquired by experience and reason has some interesting repercussions for us moderns. In a nut shell, we can choose either to follow a more theistic path in the tradition of Socrates, Cleanthes, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus, or we can choose to maintain a more conservative non-theistic approach along the lines of scientific pantheism. Both seem compatible with Stoicism as far as I can tell. Certainly there is no conflict whatsoever between scientific inquiry and Stoicism. Others have disagreed with me in that to be a traditional Stoic one has to be theistic.

If we step outside the bounds of what faith means in a Christian context faith can simply be a sufficient belief for motivation sans certain knowledge. And, we don’t have certain knowledge about much, including whether the sun will come up tomorrow. Empirical facts are not certain knowledge, only highly probable knowledge. Obviously, it is not necessary to have certain knowledge to make choices or we wouldn’t do anything at all. So faith is a necessary part of living. And, every decision we make will involve reason in one way or another. We cannot do otherwise. So, in practical day-to-day living faith and reason go hand-in-hand on a continuous inseparable basis, much like Logos and unstructured matter.

The Stoics did believe certain knowledge was possible, and that it derived from experience like all other knowledge. This was the infamous ‘cognitive impression’, which forms the basis of wisdom (Stoic ‘scientific’ knowledge) for the Sage. The state of the Sage is the culmination of human potential described by the process of oikeiosis, or ‘appropriation’. What is of interest is the next step down from certain knowledge, something we might call ‘well considered opinion’. A student making progress strives to hold only well-considered opinion, not unexamined dogma. As the student lives his or her life experience and reason are utilized to replace the less well considered habitual ways of thinking (our pre-judgments, or prejudices) with more accurate factual reflections of reality. This is an unending task both personally and culturally, and seems to be what a creature whose primary survial tool is reason would natrually do.

All that said I still ‘believe’ that intuitive flashes of insight are quite possible. This would mean the Stoic cognitive impression is more or less restricted to the person with the experience alone, as our descriptive means of communicating such an experience is always bound to fall short of the experience itself, and thus loose that certainty. So, there may very well be Sages among us, IMO, and some of those may have started movements that later become major philosophical or religious systems. After all, a cognitive impression would indeed be ‘waking up’.

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