It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
I imagine that everyone knows this final verse of William Henley’s poem. For me, it is the summary of Stoicism – which arguably has influenced the Church over the last 2000 years.
Of course, it comes from the Greeks. The very word stoic (Stoa Poikile) means the painted porch — where Zeno of Citium taught his philosophy, around 300BC. We tend to use the word to describe a temperament sufficiently hardened to enable us to put up with pain and disaster. But that is to sell it short.
Stoicism holds that the cosmos consists of determinate, passive, matter which is penetrated by active divine reason. It is built on logic, physics and ethics. Our own reason is a spark of divine reason.
Since the cosmos is entirely rational and interdependent everything in it is organised by divine wisdom for the best. Human reason is a spark of fiery divine reason. To live in accord with the cosmos is to be happy and virtuous, for these two are the same. Since we cannot avoid “bad” or “good” circumstances, our aim is to accept them. Our objective is not to change the cosmos but to change ourselves so that our reason harmonises with divine reason.
Round about the first century the Romans took up Stoicism as a way of life. Many of you will know (emperor) Marcus Aurelius’ book Meditations, which he originally wrote in Greek, at the end of the second century. It is still revered as a literary monument to Stoicism. I keep a copy by my bedside.
Stoicism was of course a gift to the Christian Church as it developed its moral theology. Here was divine reason in the guise of a creator God – constructing the rational cosmos, piece by piece, over six days. It was possible to develop moral theology by the use of reason, just as Aristotle had developed social morality in his Ethics.
Inevitably, Stoic natural law has had its major practical effect on sexual matters – partly because these involve high emotional elements, but more strictly because they are biological by nature – a biology directly created by divine will, and therefore obligatory. Issues like sex outside marriage, artificially preventing conception and homosexual activity were clearly contrary to divine creation. They are evil per se and can never be justified. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor made this abundantly clear.
But, as we have recently discussed, the issue has been brought to the fore by Pope Benedict’s article, blaming the clerical sexual abuse crisis on the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and dangerously liberal theological ideas eroding morality after the church reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
As I write, a Vatican paper, Male and Female He Created Them, is being much discussed. It condemns the modern view which sees personal gender as a matter of choice rather than a matter of biology. The paper is based on pure natural law.
A question remains: should our moral values be settled by Stoicism or should our moral judgments have a broader, deeper nature than simply the natural law?