Stoic Maxims to Enhance Your Mormonism

Glen Fewkes is a health policy attorney in DC.  He listens to podcasts at double-speed and lives life at half-speed.

For a 2,000 year-old philosophy, Stoicism is currently having a bit of a moment.  For some reason, it’s particularly resonant amongst the “bro” set, and if they don’t find a way to wreck it then we’ll know it’s really built to last.  At its core, Stoicism offers a useful way of engaging with the world and has a rich history of interactions with the Apostle Paul and the peoples of the New Testament.

Stoics, ancient and modern, love to repeat maxims – condensed phrases of wisdom – in the hopes that certain virtues will sink into people’s psyches through repetition, much like repeated bicep curls build muscle (OK, maybe I’m starting to see the “bro” connection). These maxims are meant to be applicable to people of all walks of life.  Indeed, example sources span the spectrum from a Roman Emperor (Marcus Aurelius), to a freed slave (Epictetus), to a playwright (Seneca), a fact that is not at all irrelevant to the Stoic philosophy.

The Stoics gave us many general principles that are worth our time and attention. But in the spirit of Joseph Smith’s urging to “receive truth, let it come from where it may,” here are a few paraphrased Stoic maxims that might give you a new angle on points of Mormon doctrine and practice.

Love practically the men with whom thy lot is cast. – Marcus Aurelius 

It often surprises non-members that Mormons do not congregation shop.  You show up at the appointed time, in the appointed place, and take a spot on the pew next to whatever dentist, doomsday-prepper, hellion Sunbeam, biker, or mommy blogger got there five minutes before you.  “There’s all kinds of people. It’s just like heaven’s going to be,” I recall an older African-American woman describing our very diverse ward in Philadelphia to her friend. As Eugene England puts it, this configuration builds “our own capacities to love and serve and learn from people we would otherwise never know.”  Don’t get me wrong – Mormon chapels can often be too homogenous and only serve as an echo chamber. But when it works, it’s a beautiful attempt at true community that is increasingly rare in many parts of society.          

Hunger needs little, but pride needs much. – Seneca  

Exploring the concept of pride as a personal stumbling block, Ezra Taft Benson memorably noted that one major root of pride is comparison – comparing what we have to others or to what we think we should have.  Stoic philosophers also learned to “beware of pride” by deliberately practicing poverty for long stretches to maintain humility and keep perspective.  When we limit our wants to true necessities, like filling an empty stomach, we feel a contentment that evades even the wealthy whose ever escalating wants are forever unattainable.  As Paul wrote to the Philippians, learning to be content “in whatsoever state” we find ourselves better enables us to devote our attention to seeking after things that are truly just, pure, lovely, and of good report (Philippians 4), such as ensuring that others’ needs are met.     

It is within my power to derive benefit from every experience. – Epictetus

For many years, I have struggled to reconcile myself to the concept of an interventionist God – the proverbial God of the Lost Car Keys who will grant minor petitions while seemingly overlooking major suffering and injustices.  I’ve accepted that my pea brain may not ever come to terms with this concept, and I’m happy to join the scrap heap of philosophers and theologians who have wrestled with the same issue. But the Stoics were a practical bunch, and practically speaking, it may not matter whether there is divine direction behind everything that happens. On the ground, our charge is the same – to make the best of whatever situation we find ourselves in and to make real the exhortation that “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7).  God wants us to take initiative when we can. After all, instead of protesting that runny noses exist, Epictetus asks “wouldn’t it be easier just to wipe your nose?” Somebody please tell that to the hellion Sunbeam.

No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such. – Marcus Aurelius 

Stoic philosophy falls within the tradition of protrepsis and paraenesis meaning that philosophical thinking and speaking shouldn’t just be a mental exercise but should induce individuals to improve actual behavior and cultivate virtue. Dallin H. Oaks emphasized a similar point: “In contrast to the institutions of the world, which teach us to know something, the gospel of Jesus Christ challenges us to become something.”  The gospel gives us plenty of interesting things to think about, but we should never lose sight of its true purpose to “make bad men good and good men better,” starting with ourselves.   

He who studies the universe serves God. – Seneca  

Even though Stoicism is focused on personal action, it has much to offer the deep thinkers among us.  For starters, simply pondering nature and the divine gives us perspective and helps us recognize the vanity of many human pursuits.  Some astronauts report a similar phenomenon upon seeing the earth from space (called the “overview effect”).  Seneca notes that, with this perspective, even armies appear as ants. Seeing the bigger picture helps us come to one of the key realizations necessary for a Stoic – that much of what happens in life and in the world is out of our control, so we should choose to focus on what is in our control.  Maybe this is why visions including this “God’s-Eye View” are so impactful to prophets and often kick-start their ministries (e.g., Moses 1).      

Go ahead, give them a try.  Crank out three sets of ten with each of these and see if you’re still sore on Sunday.

Comments

  1. Kristin Brown says:

    Thank you Glen. Excellent. I will bookmark this post and read it over and over again.

  2. I love it. Thanks!

  3. Stoicism is a phenomenally practical worldview. I believe it promotes resiliency (the highly decorated Vietnam veteran and ex- POW Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale was an advocate) and good mental health (cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT was derived from Stoic practices). I doubt I would be happy in the Church without adhering to many Stoic beliefs and practices.

  4. jaxjensen says:

    Two thumbs up!

  5. Thanks for this, Glen. You capture a lot of the things that I really value about Stoicism–and the reasons that the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is on my list of things I would take with me to a desert island (if I were ever dumb enough to go to a desert island, which I’m not).

    Perhaps my favorite Stoic maxim related to religion doesn’t come from a Stoic at all and has nothing to do with religion. It comes from the Anglo-Polish novelist Joseph Conrad. In his novel _Lord Jim_ there is an otherwise throw-away passage where the narrator, Marlow, is talking to a doctor about the title character Jim. After listening to a clinical description of what is wrong with him, Marlowe says, “The question is not how to get cured, but how to live.”

    This has become a spiritual maxim for me and my essential approach to religion. It is there to help us figure out how to live. And this bounces through my head relentlessly whenever I read the Stoics.

  6. Love Stoicism and I think it gets under-analyzed in Mormonism. Paul’s always fun to read through a Stoic lens. Even the very idea of life as a test ends up pushing us somewhat towards a Stoic ethic (IMO)

  7. Bruised, broken, yet at peace says:

    Thank you for these. We’ll have to adopt them in our family!

  8. Great observations, Glen. Also, thanks for the nostalgic mention of our former ward, it brought back some poignant memories!

  9. Laurie McLaren says:

    “Come what may and love it”. Elder Joseph P. Worthlin

    Amor Fati