James Baldwin Brown.

Stoics and saints; lectures on the later heathen moralists, and on some aspects of the life of the mediæval church online

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proportion, as vigorous in moral stamina, though of course
unquestionably inferior in intellectual endowment. Epictetus
is a figure of unique grandeur in that dissolute and terrible
time. A slave of Epaphroditus, a freedman of Nero ; lame —
it is said that his master broke his leg in wanton frolic —
and weak and poor, he maintained through life at Rome,
and afterwards, when he was banished by Domitian, at Nico-
polis, the noblest and most cheerful independence of circum-
stances, the most fearless and loyal devotion to truth, and
to the true welfare of all who resorted to him for instruction ;
and he produced a deeper impression on all who were brought
into contact with his teaching, than any philosopher but one
whom we meet with in secular history. Men sought his school
at Nicopolis from all quarters, and hung upon his words.
Like Socrates he wrote nothing. All that we know of him
is through his disciples. We learn what an impressive figure
he seemed to them, and one of them, Arrian, has preserved
and transmitted to us a tolerably full record of his discourses.
But, alas ! Arrian is not a Plato, and one cannot resist the
suspicion that Epictetus would have appeared to us in a
much braver form, if we had his own words, or if they had
been interpreted to us by a master of Philosophy. Still, the
record appears trustworthy as far as it goes, and we must be
thankful for what we have. A very strong and impressive
individuality looks out upon us through Arrian's discourses
of Epictetus, and there is a moral consistency throughout
which inspires confidence in the portraiture of the great
master which has thus been handed down.

The central principle of the Stoical system of Epictetus


was noble enough and true enough, if men coukl liave cer-
tainly known its truth. But, amid the contradictions and
wranghngs of rival systems and philosophers, what men '
longed to hear was some clear word of certainty which
might carry Heaven's own authority to their consciences and
hearts ; some word which they would not have to judge hut
which would judge them, command them, and set them
authoritatively about their work. Such a word — a word
which had power — was already in the world, and was
making its way towards the schools, when Epictetus stated
his doctrine. The essence of this doctrine, the supremacy
of reason and the kinship of man to God, may be dis-
cerned in the following passage : —

' If a man should be able to assent to tlie doctrine as he ought, tliat
we are all sprung from God in an especial manner, and that God is the
father both of men and of gods, I suppose that he would never have
any ignoble or mean thoughts about himself. But if Caesar should
adopt you, no one could endure your arrogance ; and if you know
that you are tlie son of Zeus, will you not be elated ? Yet we do not
so ; but since these two things are mingled in the generation of man,
bod}' in common with the animals, and reason and intelligence in
common with the gods, many incline to this kinship which is miserable
and mortal ; and some few to that other which is divine and happy.
The few have no mean or ignoble tlioughts about themselves ; but with
the many, it is quite contrary. For they say, What am I ? a poor
miserable man, with my wretched bit of flesh. Wretched, indeed ; but
you possess something better than your bit of flesh. Why then do
you neglect that which is better, and why do you attach yourself to
the lower V^

Well, this is a very noble principle. You have in you a
Divine part, born of God, do not play the beast or slave.
But how much does it mean, this doctrine that Zeus is our
father ? Mr. Capes, in liis valuable manual on the Stoical
philosophy, speaks of Epictetus as having 'a sense of the
Fatherhood of God.'- This can only he true in a very
partial measure, and the question what the divine Father-
1 Bk. I. oh. 3. 2 Stoicism, Loml. ISSO, ch. 12.



hood meant to Epictetus is well worth mvestigating for a
moment, as it will reveal to us the fundamental distinction
between the heathen and Christian schools. Epictetus
formulated clearly enough the doctrine which was expressed
in the hynni of Cleanthes, that we are the offspring of God.
He saw plainly that there was that in man which was
in the Divine image. So far he was at one w^th the
doctrine of Eevelation. He might have read the word,
' Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,' though
it is quite clear that he had not. But the knowledge of
the doctrine of the Fatherhood is quite different from the
sense .of tlie Fatherliness of God. The Jews knew the name,
the Chinese knew the name, Epictetus had, as we have seen,
a very large and real knowledge of the name. But how
much did it mean ? That was what man needed sorely to
know ; and that was never known, that never could be fully
known, until One stood upon earth, inspired by such love
to man as moved Him to endure a life of sorrow and a
death of shame to manifest His love. One who said ' He
that hath seen me hath seen the Father.' ' Henceforth
ye Ijoth know him and have seen him.' It was no new
idea to man this indwelling of Deity. Euripides wrote the

0eo? yap T19 ev ijfjuv}

' Est Deus in nobis,' says Ovid.^ But what man needed \
was not the doctrine but the fact of Fatherhood ; the Eeve-
lation in God of a Father's mind, a Father's care, a Father's
love. The Stoic doctrine was an inspiration as far as it
went. In natures as profoundly pious and faithful as
that of Epictetus, it supplied, there can be no doubt, some-
thing very near to the comfort and strength which the
Christian derives from the knowledge that God is Love.

^ Quoted by Scliol. on Find. Ke77i. vi. 7. -Fasti, vi. 5.


a knowledge revealed in lines of living splendour in the
life and death of the Son of CJod.

It would be difficult to find in heathen literature any-
thing so nuich in the Christian key-note of joy in God as
this passage from Epictetus : —

'For if we had understanding, ought we to do anything else l)oth
jointly and severally than to sing hymns and bless the deity, and to
tell of his benefits ? Ought we not, when we are digging and ploughing
and eating, to sing this hymn to God 1 " Great is God who has given
us such implements with which we shall cultivate the earth ; great
is God who has given us hands, the power of swallowing our food, im-
l)erceptible growth, and tlie power of breathing while we sleep." This
is what we ought to sing on every occasion, and to sing the greatest
and most divine hymn for giving us the faculty of comprehending
these things and using a proper way. . . . I am a rational creature,
and I ought to praise God ; this is my work : I do it, nor will I desert
this post so long as I am allowed to keep it ; and I exhort you to join
in this same song.'^

The nol)le old man had attained, we may think, to a
clearness of understanding or rather vision, which came
very near to the perfect knowledge revealed ui the Gospel.
But this knowledge was in Epictetus himself, through the
clearness of his moral sight and his faithfulness to the in-
ward light given to him — ' the Light which lighteth every man
that Cometh into the world.' He had reached it through
a life-long discipline, such as only he in his times had
courage to endure, but there was nothing in his knowledge
that could become a heritage, a possession forever, to his
fellow men. We must try to grasp the wide distinction
between the knowledge that we are God's offspring which
may be gained by those who in prolonged and devout
meditation ' seek after God if haply they might feel after
him and find him,' and that sure, blessed, inspiring know-
ledge, not only of the truth of the Fatherhood, but of all
the pity, the tenderness, the help, the guidance, which the

1 Bk. I. ch. 16.


word Father promises to man, and which grows out of the
mystery of Eedemption — ' Hereby perceive we the love of
God, because he laid down his life for us.' It was the
certainty with which the Gospel spoke, testifying to actual
facts as matter of history, which laid such hold upon, and
brought such uplifting power to bear on, the world.

On the subject of man's immortality the words of
Epictetus are very vague and his knowledge obscure. His
doctrine about the Divine spark in man, — ' a Divine Spirit
hath his seat within us,' writes Seneca — looks strongly in
the direction of immortality, and there are passages here
and there which seem to imply the hope of a personal
conscious existence beyond the tomb. Here is one : —

' Death ? Let it come when it chooses, either death of the whole or
of a part. Fly, you say. And whither? Can any man eject me out
of the world ? He cannot. But wherever I go, there is the sun, there
is the moon, there are the stars, dreams, omens, and the conversations
with Gods.'^

But here again is a passage in another and sadder key-note,
and this is as a rule the dominant : —

' And if you are not supplied with what is necessary, God gives the
signal for retreat, opens the door, and says to you, go. Go whither?
To nothing terrible, but to the place from whence you came, to your
friends and kinsmen, to the elements ; what there was in you of fire,
goes to fire ; of earth, to earth ; of air, to air ; of water, to water ;
no Hades, nor Acheron, nor Cocytus, nor Pyriphlegethon, but all is
full of gods and spirits.' -

There is nothing here of the inspiring certainty which
uplifted the heart even of wretched suffering slaves who
had heard the Gospel, and which enabled, not the philo-
sophers, but the poor, sick, ignorant, down-trodden pariahs
of society, to cry with a ring of triumphant certainty in
their w^ords, ' death, where is thy sting ? grave,
where is thy victory ? The sting of death is sin ; and the
1 Bk. III. ch. 24. 2 Bk. IH. ch. 13.


strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God
which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus

It wasthe_Gospel which taught the workman and the
slave to hope, and in so doing re-made human society.
And here was the weakness of Stoicism, it had nothing
with which it could raise and bless the poor. It could
do something for a man of high intelligence and moral
energy, though to make him a Ijrave sufferer was about
its highest ministry, but it was helpless in face of the
great mass of mankind. It had some noble thoughts about
a man's duty to his fellows, but how to do this duty it found
not. It had nothing to take to them which they could
look upon as a gospel, no echo even of the angel-song
which heralded the Advent, — ' Fear not : for, behold, I
bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all
people. For unto you is born this day in the City of
David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.' It was
emphatically a doctrine of the upper classes, of the world
of culture. The rich, the noble, the learned w'ere called,
not the poor. The creed tended to dryness and narrow-
ness, it shut a man up and centred him on self. It had'
a necessary but fatal tendency to the doctrine of indiffer-
ence, according to wdiich nothing is worth pursuing, nothing
is worth caring about ; a belief wdiich impoverishes and in
the end contracts the soul.

Epictetus looked coldly on marriage, on the home, on
the service of the State. ' They were all distractions ; they
multiplied a man's interests and anxieties ; Philosophy con-
demned them. It narrowed a man's nature unspeakably,
this hardening process. Cutting off his relations, anxieties,
and cares, it cut off his noblest means of culture, and
stunted the full development of his life. Christianity
multiplies a man's relationships, anxieties, int erests, and

-V- C /^ ^ CFTHE '^




concerns. Christ's first miracle was at a marriage feast.
Industry, commerce, intercourse with and relation to distant
peoples, all the play and freedom of secular life, Christianity
quickened and consecrated, and it set men at work every-
where helping and blessing their fellow men. It too had
its doctrine al)out Care. Take no ' distracting ' thought
about food and raiment and the good of this life, for
your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all
these things. It is not Be careless about them ; they are
out of the sphere of your will, harden yourself to indiffer-
ence about them. No. The command is work, toil, give
scope to all your energies, nmltiply your interests and
aims, but remember — to free you from distracting thought
about them — that your heavenly Father is ruling, and that
He cares that you should be clothed and fed. First work —
Y"' your best, your very best; then trust, and be at peace.
This doctrine spread like flame. It keeps the heart warm
and glowing ; it expands the nature ; it multiplies the
- joys that spring from the full exercise of the powers.
This Christian doctrine about Care has played a very large
part in the culture of Christendom, and is as full of
promise to poor sad souls borne down by their burden,
as the Stoic doctrine is depressing and deadening.

A second great flaw in the moral system of the Stoics
was its intolerable spiritual pride. The following is a
characteristic expression of this on the part of Epic-
tetus : —

' For I -wish to be surpi'ised by disease or death when I am lookmg
after nothing else than my own will, that I may be free from pertur-
bation, that I may be free from hindrance, free from compulsion, and
in a state of liberty. I wish to be found practising these things that
I may be able to say to God, Have I in any respect transgressed thy
command ? have I in any respect wrongly used the powers which thou
gavest me ? have I misused my perceptions or my preconceptions •
have I ever blamed thee ? have I ever found fault with thy adminis-
tration ? I have been sick, because it was thy will, and so have


(itlu'is, but I was content to be sick. I have been poor because it was
thy will, l)ut I was content also.' ^

That could be in no true sense a gospel Avhich presented
a man in such an attitude before God and his fellow men.
It was the Gospel whose Litany is, ' God be merciful to
me a sinner,' which touched man's heart at the depths, and
touches it to this day, wherever it is preached throughout
the human world.

In conclusion, perhaps the most impressive thing in the
discourses of Epictetus, and in the heathen Philosophy of
that time, is the note of something like despair which runs
through it ; not personal despair, but despair of its power
to do anything for the world. There is one passage in
Epictetus which seems like the last wail of the dying
Philosophy, and which may fittingly close this chapter.
' Show me a Stoic,' Epictetus cries : —

'Show me a Stoic if you can. Where or how ? But you can show
me an endless number who utter small arguments of the Stoics. For
do the same persons repeat the Epicurean opinions any worse ? And
the Peripatetic, do they not handle them also with equal accuracy?
Who then is a Stoic? As we call a statue Phidiac which is fashioned
according to the art of Phidias ; so show me a man who is fashioned
according to the doctrines which he uttei's. Show me a man who is
sick and happy, in danger and happy, dying and happy, in exile and
happy, in disgrace and happy. Show him : I desire, by the gods, to
see a Stoic. You cannot show me one fashioned so ; but show me
one at least who is forming, who has shown a tendency to be a Stoic.
Do me this favour ; do not grudge an old man seeing a sight which
I have not seen yet. . . . Let any of you show me a humaTi soul
ready to think as God does, and not to blame either God or man,
ready not to be disappointed about anything, not to consider himself
damaged by anything, not to be angry, not to be envious, not to be
jealous ; and why should I not say it direct ? desirous, from a man to
become a god, and in this poor mortal body thinking of his fellowship
with Zeus. Show me tlie man. But you cannot.' ^

And the answer to the despairing cry of the grand old
iBk. III. ch. 5. 'Bk. II. oh. 19.


heathen teacher comes from the lips of the mfant
Church : —

'Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through
our Lord Jesus Christ : by whom also we have access by faith into this
grace wlierein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And
not only so, but we glory in tribulations also : knowing that tribulation
worketh patience ; and patience experience ; and experience hope : and
hope maketh not ashamed ; because the love of God is shed abroad
in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us.'





The most significant feature in the development of the
heathen philosophy, as the times drew near the Advent,
was its endeavour to supply just the same kind of teaching
and influence which Christianity came to offer to the world.
Seneca was not so much a philosopher as a preacher of
moral sermons ; and Philosophy in the Roman era con-
stantly tended to discourse of a moralising kind, imparting
wise counsel to the individual man about the varied duties,
trials and experiences of life. Its main theme came to be
the ragulatiou of life with wisdom and dignity, so as to
secure some fair measure of happiness, and of security
against distraction and distress.

The Greek philosophers whom the leading Roman families
attached to their households in the days of the decline of
the Republic and the rise of the Empire, filled something
like the place occupied by the domestic chaplain of the
great English houses in the last century. Of the abnost
menial position and treatment which fell to the lot of these
chaplains Lord Macaulay gives a graphic picture in his
History; this is quite capped, however, by Lucian's descrip-
tion of the treatment of the domestic philosopher in Rome.
The Roman noble as a rule kept his philosopher for show,
and to give a gloss of culture to his life. Lucian, in one


of his bitter satires, pictures him at table, obliged, like the
chaplain, to put up with the crumbs of the feast. ' If at
any time a pig be cut up, or a venison pasty, you had
need have the carver your friend, or you will divide with
Prometheus, and nothing but the bones will come to your
share.' But probably the chaplain and the philosopher got on
the whole as much respect as they deserved. In Eome there
was no lack of adventurers w^ho donned the philosopher's
cloak, and learnt the mere jargon of the schools, to make a
living by attaching themselves to the household of some
rich patron ; and on such no sympathy need be wasted.
Dion Cassius makes Augustus warn Mtecenas against such
in the significant words, ' Under the cloak of that profession
many knaves bring infinite misfortune on the State as well
as on their dupes.' Lucian speaks out more roundly. He
charges the professional moralists with being ' greedy of
lucre, more passionate than dogs, more cowardly than hares,
more lascivious than asses, more thievish than cats, more
quarrelsome than cocks.' But there were instances of a
very different kind, as, for example, when the younger Cato
travelled to Pergamos to persuade the Stoic Athenodorus
to enter his household, and entertained him till his death.

More important, however than the treatment of these
teachers is the place they occupied in the social system, and
the function they were expected to fufil. They came to be
in Eome a kind of clerical order ; limited in number, and
moving entirely among the upper ten thousand ; but ex-
pected to say a phrase in season on the important domestic
occasions, and above all to have words of consolation for the
dying. There is an amusing tale of one Favorinus who was
discoursing to his class, when he heard that the wife of
one of his former pupils, a man of wealth and station, liad
been delivered of a son. He proposed that they should go
to congratulate her. So off they went. Introduced to the


lady's mother the professor inquired after her health. Then
he expressed a hope that she suckled her child ; and when
the mother answered that she was not strong enough, he
preached her a little sermon, nay, it was a long one, on
the duty of the mother to her offspring, and denounced
roundly the new artificial habits. So we see the kind of
cliange which had come over the spirit of Philosophy, and
the ideas and habits of the philosopher. ' If a man is well
to do,' says Dion Chrysostom, ' be is too happy to give Pliil-
osophy a thought. But let him lose his fortune or his
health, he will be the more ready to listen then ; let his
wife or his son or his brother die, then he will send for
the sage to comfort him, and to teach him liow to bear so
much misfortune.' Especially was he expected at the couch
of the dying. In those death scenes of some of the noblest
men and women of Rome sacrificed to the jealousies and
antipathies of the Imperial tyrants, which Tacitus paints
with such graphic power, the figure of the philosopher, com-
forting and sustaining the martyr in his last hours, is rarely
absent ; and so common was it that Stoics should frequent
the houses of sorrow and the chambers of death, that a
rich upstart is pictured by Petronius as directing his servants
that ■' when his time draws near no ghostly counsels are to
vex his peace of mind, and no philosopher is to be admitted
to his bed of death.'

Very interesting too are the accounts which have come
down to us of the schools of the philosophers, which carried
on the culture of society during the generations in which
Christianity was winning its way to supremacy. Pericles
tells the Athenians in his celebrated funeral oration, that
Athens was a sort of school of Greece. His words were pro-
phetic ; Athens remained the head quarters of philosophical
culture, the chief University city of the Empire, for many
hundred, years. The philosophical schools continued to


furnish instruction under a series of teachers, who seem to
have followed each other with wonderful regularity, and with
an entire absence of contention — the aged head of the school
mostly designating his successor, who would take his place in
the chair by universal consent, in a spirit of devotion to a
sacred duty not always apparent in the Episcopal successions
of the Christian Church. The attendance of students was
large ; more like that at the mediteval universities, where
the students were reckoned by tens of thousands, than the
Universities of our more modern days. We hear of one
Theophrastus who had 2000 students. And they seem to
have been very like the students of these present times.
The student type is evidently a very persistent one. Town
and gown riots were common, practical jokes on the fresh-
men were not unknown. The various nations had their
clubs, and banquets w^ere kept up with great zeal in honour
of the founders of the schools. Serious conflicts seem to
have been carried on by the students of rival professors,
that is the professors of rival schools, for within the school
there was no rivalry. Libanius, a celebrated teacher of the
4th century, taunts his pupils that they were not like
others whom he had seen, who had wounds on the head and
face and hands, sure evidence of the love they bore their
tutors, as great as their love for their parents. ' But you,'
he adds, disdainfully, ' what service of this sort on my behalf
can any of you point to ? what risk or blow encountered, or
what bold word or look ? Nay far from that you run away
to other teachers, taking your fees with you ; and so rob one
professor while you pay court to another.'

It would be easy to retail pleasant gossip about the
school of Athens,-^ but the subject has a graver interest for
our present purpose. There was a very lofty tone of moral
discipline in the schools, that had something of the elevation

^ See Capes, University Life in Ancient Athens, Lond. 1877.


of the teaching of the great masters, which we have noted
so conspicuously in Epictetus. Pliilosophy was aiming at
a moral regeneration of society ; it saw dimly enough that
that was the one thing needful. Its society was a very
limited clique in the great world ; and its salvation was at
root but a pedant's dream. And yet it occupied a very
definite and important place in the great scheme of human

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Online LibraryJames Baldwin BrownStoics and saints; lectures on the later heathen moralists, and on some aspects of the life of the mediæval church → online text (page 4 of 22)