Monday, July 28, 2014

St Anthony and Epictetus on care for things

St Anthony says this:

Inasmuch as someone's life is measured, to that extent it is he is happier, because he doesn't worry about many things: about servants, about laborers, about lands, and about wealth of animals. For grasping onto these things we will drown in the burdens that accompany them and we will blame God. Behold in what manner death is sustained through the desire of our will, and how we wander lost in the darkness of a life of sin, not knowing ourselves (On the Character of Men and the Virtuous Life, 6).

To anyone familiar with ancient Greek philosophy, this passage could easily pass as having been written by a Stoic such as Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. In fact it was a regular warning of Stoicism that too great a concern for things which lie outside our control -- namely, anything that is not the state of our own character, but especially riches and material goods which come and go at random -- puts us at odds with ourselves and with God.

In his Enchiridion (Handbook), Epictetus introduces the basic ethical distinction of Stoic philosophy:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions (Enc., 1).

Attention to this distinction is critically important for the Stoic, because an inordinate desire for those things outside your control will leave you frustrated, angry, wrathful when you can't get a hold of them. It is because you care about those things that are not in your control that you are upset when you lack them. If you would only care about the things that depend on you -- such as your character, and your reactions to the things that happen -- then you would always be happy, because it is always within your grasp to have them. But if you want those things which don't depend you, You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men (ibid.). You will blame the gods for the bad things that happen to you.

Anthony makes the same point here that Epictetus does. If we care too much about the things of the world, we are going to be at odds with God and blame him when we lose them -- as we inevitably will. We might point to the example of the Israelites in the desert, who cared so much about material comfort and had so little trust in God, that as soon as they saw the intimidating stature of the Canaanites, they said to themselves, It is because the Lord hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us (Deut 1.27). The sinful heart of man is ready to blame even God himself, and to accuse him of malevolence and evil, if it doesn't get what it wants.

I don't know enough about Anthony's personal history, but it would seem from a passage like this that he had some familiarity with Greek philosophy. Like so many others in the early days of the Christian church, he must have seen it a wisdom and a light, even if imperfect and ignorant of the things of Christ. It is wisdom well worth heeding!