>Stoicism and the secret of the heart

>I have always loved the Stoics. They make so much sense to me. And they offer a clear and simple path: use reason to deal with the stuff which I can control, and ignore the rest. Of course by “the rest” it frequently ends up meaning other people, the environment, the planet….and by “things which I can control” this frequently gets smaller and smaller, so that all I am left with are my opinions (i.e. default reactions to phenomena)….I can control those…mostly.

If taken the the extreme, this program leads one into insufferable, boorish, opinionated arrogance and a disregard for the value (and validity) of others opinions, motives, etc.

One possible way to combat it is to develop faultless logic – hmmm but who is capable of that? Another possible way is to develop perfect discernment so I can accurately identify what is (or isn’t) under my control. But that too is impossible.

I could claim that regardless of control issues, I should still be able to keep myself, that is my reactions, under control. You can shout at me, but I can choose not to be troubled. You can love me, but I can choose not to. In other words, it seems feasible to expect an adult to have their own responses, especially emotional ones, under control.

But is it true? Even that is questionable. I have hardly any control over the initial flush of anger or excitement. I cannot avoid being momentarily angry or sad or happy. These things arise like sweat – autonomously.

How about my actions? Surely I can control that. I can be angry at you (for having shouted at me) but I also can stop myself from lashing out or hitting you. I can be very glad to see you, but I can stop myself from running down the platform and sweeping you in a long protracted kiss.

Most of our social interactions expect this sort of restraint. Isn’t restraint one of the meanings of ‘society’? Rules for propriety and decorum, not to speak of taboo, are all ways of controlling behavior, actual, external, visible actions.

Thus when I look at the 10 Commandments it is clear how much they are concerned with controlling behaviors for the sake of society. It is not very good thinking to say that God commands us not to commit adultery because God wants us to have monogamous heterosexual marriages. The rule regarding adultery is not that for a moral reason like that, but rather to ensure peace and tranquility in the tribe, since God clearly had no issues with polygamy. And on and on.

But what to make of the Sermon on the Mount? In Matthew 5:17-48 Jesus takes a different different tack, or seems to ascribe responsibility to parts of myself which I feel are out of my control. For example he talks about murder, and takes it one step further saying that even being angry with another is equivalent to murder. Same with adultery – it is not a case of physical intimacy, but rather of looking at another with lust.

The sensible approach which I outlined above falls very short of the expectations set by God. Maybe this is another case where Stoicism fails. My reason tells me that I cannot be held accountable for the very natural desire for another woman, after all this is part of my genetic makeup, the very lust which led my ancestors to copulate and eventually beget me!

But Jesus says that being lustful, that looking at another lustfully is the same as adultery…to the heart.

And perhaps here is the piece of true logic which is impossible for me to attain without revelation. Jesus speaks from Reality, while I am always speaking contextually from historical appearance.

These two positions are not the same….one (mine) is focused on the information which can be sifted by my ego, and it uses both nature, that is my current self-apprehension, and nurture, that is the social rules I have learned, in interpreting phenomena and choosing the one which is most beneficial to its own goals. The other one (Jesus) says that there is an alternative processing center – the heart – which is capable of taking in both nature, nurture and one more thing to respond to phenomena.

What is this other thing? What is the secret of the heart?


About spaceloom

An urban monk, and an experienced spiritual director with a Masters in Psychology. Married with two children. Want to know me better? Read my thoughts.
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