Ancient Approaches to Adversity

In this post I hope to compare the book of Proverbs to Stoic thought in a way that challenges you to gain self-mastery.

Proverbs:

Pro 16:32  Whoever controls his temper is better than a warrior, and anyone who has control of his spirit is better than someone who captures a city.
Pro 24:5  A wise man is strong, and a knowledgeable man grows in strength.
Pro 24:10-12  If you grow weary when times are troubled, your strength is limited.  (11)  Rescue those who are being led away to death, and save those who stumble toward slaughter.  (12)  If you say, “Look here, we didn’t know about this,” doesn’t God, who examines motives, discern it? Doesn’t the one who guards your soul know about it? Won’t he repay each person according to what he has done?
Pro 24:15-19  Don’t lie in wait like an outlaw to attack where the righteous live;  (16)  for though a righteous man falls seven times, he will rise again, but the wicked stumble into calamity.  (17)  Don’t rejoice when your enemy falls; don’t let yourself be glad when he stumbles.  (18)  Otherwise the LORD will observe and disapprove, and he will turn his anger away from him.  (19)  Don’t be anxious about those who practice evil, and don’t be envious of the wicked.

Marcus Aurelius:

In one respect man is the nearest thing to me, so far as I must do good to men and endure them. But so far as some men make themselves obstacles to my proper acts, man becomes to me one of the things which are indifferent, no less than the sun or wind or a wild beast. Now it is true that these may impede my action, but they are no impediments to my affects and disposition, which have the power of acting conditionally and changing: for the mind converts and changes every hindrance to its activity into an aid; and so that which is a hindrance is made a furtherance to an act; and that which is an obstacle on the road helps us on this road.  –Meditations Book 5

Note the similarities:

  1. A certain frame of mind is considered strength in both schools of thought versus the immediately visible external situation. That frame of mind, in both contexts, is a certain attitude and series of mental habits toward life: “anyone who has control of his spirit is better than someone who captures a city.”
  2. The righteous man (who in Proverbs is always the wise man) gets up when he falls (either morally or in terms of success), just as Aurelius notes, “the obstacle on the road helps us on this road.”
  3. Adversity is seen in both thought schools as an opportunity to show or gain strength.
  4. Both schools of thought relate endurance through trials to being ill-treated by the wicked. Many times other people mess with your life. Aurelius and Solomon both say (whether they lived this or not doesn’t matter) that treating such people with contempt will do no good, but rather when they oppose you, you should simply move on and improve yourself.
  5. Finally, both authors note that doing good to others is part of the motivation for having strength (read: a wise mindset toward adversity) and the purpose for using it.

These authors were both kings but neither of them had the internet, electricity, or an automobile. Setbacks often meant death for people in their respective eras. Yet, both make these claims about adversity.

So, how will you respond to adversity? Will you respond with good-will toward others, a desire to improve, endurance through difficulty, and a non-hater attitude toward those who mess you up? Or will you do the same things that make old people complain about young people in every generation: quit, whine, blame other people, watch t.v., and play on the internet?

Not Quite Academic Appendix/Postscript:
In early Christianity, there is no doubt that the ideas with the highest moral capital came from the teachings of Jesus’ friends and associates (the apostles), Jesus himself, and the Old Testament. This can be verified by a quick perusal of a document called the Didache. But, as time went on Christian teachers made a concerted effort to create or perhaps express a moral system that could accommodate both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity (Meeks 68-69).

Stoicism and Platonism worked very well for the providing the needed ethical language. This is not because the teachings of Jesus weren’t good enough. It is that the teachings of Jesus were intentionally recorded as the paradigmatic statement of the paradigmatic human, but nevertheless in a very specific cultural form. This is not a bad thing. The early Christians saw Jesus as the Messiah of the Jewish people. So of course his teachings would be highly particular. Stoicism and Platonism did not provide the ethical ideal or framework, but perhaps the ethical language and practical method of early Christian moral formation. This makes sense, because looking back the conflicts about Jewish ceremonies and the effectiveness of enforcing them upon non-Jewish Christians was a hot-button issue (1 Corinthians 8-10, Romans 14, Galatians, Colossians 2, etc). Thus, the language of Plato and the Stoics (despite their Philosophical differences with the Christians) became fairly standard.

Christians today could learn a lot not only from Proverbs, but also from the Stoics. Just because the early Christians did does not obligate anybody to do so, but their habits may have been wise and worthy of emulation.

Meeks, Wayne A, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993)
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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: The Christian and Power | My Blog

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