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Profoundly Pro-Life Pagan Philosophers

January 23, 2018 Featured Today No Comments


(Editor’s Note: Dr. Kevin Vost, Psy.D, is a Catholic author, speaker, professor, radio host, and television guest. In 2016 Angelico Press published his book, The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living. We welcome his first contribution to The Wanderer.)

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While enjoying my first issue of The Wanderer (January 4, 2018), I was particularly struck by Professor Jude P. Dougherty’s tribute to Edith Hamilton. Hamilton’s The Greek Way was among the first books I encountered in my teens that led to a lifelong love of our classical heritage. The article’s last lines read as follows: “Through examples and emphasis she leaves no doubt that Greek philosophy prepares one for the adoption of Christianity. Stoicism brings us even closer to Christ, she affirms. Clement of Alexandria would agree.”
I would agree too, because during my own twenty-five years of atheism fueled by absorption in modern atheistic philosophy, it was my growing immersion in the writings of the Stoics and Aristotle that brought me closer to my return to Christ, when in my early 40s I came upon the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas, a man who knew Greek philosophy so very well, and Jesus Christ even better.
About ten years after my return to God I envisioned a book to introduce modern Catholics who were not familiar with the wonderful practical lessons of the ancient Stoic philosophers whose reason led them to acknowledge God’s existence and to strive to lead lives of virtue in accordance with His will as expressed in natural law.
I knew that medieval abbots had adapted Epictetus’ Handbook to use as guides for monks, and that St. Thomas Aquinas had mined the writings of Seneca in his analysis and synthesis on human virtue within the Summa Theologiae. As a psychologist, I was well aware that the founders of modern cognitive psychotherapies had openly expressed their debt to the wisdom of the Stoics in teaching us how to use our powers of reason to rein in harmful emotions and distress.
What I did not know until the contract was signed and my research began was that among the Greek and Roman Stoics were outspoken ancient champions of what Pope St. John Paul II would deem in our time a “culture of life.”
Some political and social elites in modern America argue that those who champion issues like the sanctity of traditional marriage between one man and one woman, the sacrosanct dignity of human life from conception to death (thus proscribing abortion and inveighing against contraception), and the encouragement of large, loving families, attempt to shove Christian religious convictions down the citizenry’s throat in violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of a national religion (let alone the more amorphous “separation of church and state” not found in the Constitution itself).
One way to respond to such arguments of theocracy is to reply that the Catholic Church has long been the champion of both faith and reason, and indeed, some of the most profound and reasonable philosophers who did not even know who Christ was, have, based on the powers of reason alone, championed views of marriage, sexual morality, and human life that would not appear out of place in our modern Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Here, I’ll provide just a taste with some excerpts from my book, The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living, commenting on the lectures of the Stoic Musonius Rufus (c. AD 20-101), teacher of Epictetus, called by some “the Roman Socrates,” and esteemed by early Christian thinkers including St. Justin Martyr, Origen, and Clement of Alexandria.
I would wager it is the surviving reports of the lectures of Musonius Rufus that might most surprise modern readers, revealing how this ancient pagan Stoic philosopher, guided by God-given natural reason, became such a profound, pro-family, pro-life philosopher.
Summarized below are some of Musonius’ most fundamental and striking statements on human sexuality, marriage, procreation, abortion, contraception, and large families, complete with comparative references to paragraphs within the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Only sexual acts carried out within the bounds of marriage and open to the procreation of life are morally right (Lecture 12; cf. CCC, nn. 2360-2366, 2390-2391).
Among the most serious illegitimate sexual practices are adultery and homosexual acts. Both arise from lack of self-control, and homosexual acts are intrinsically opposed to nature (Lecture 12; cf. CCC, nn. 2380-2381, 2357-2359).
The chief purpose of marriage is that a man and wife will live together and have children (Lecture 13; cf. CCC, nn. 2366-2367). In Musonius’ own words: “The primary end of marriage is community of life with a view to the procreation of children.”
Marriage is founded upon mutual love and care “in sickness and in health” (Lecture 13; cf. CCC, nn. 2360-2361 — and traditional Christian wedding vows).
The marriage bond of partnership and union is admirable and beautiful (Lecture 13; cf. CCC, n. 2362).
Anyone who works to destroy marriage destroys family, city, and the human race (Lecture 14; cf. CCC, nn. 2209-2211).
Lawgivers were wise to prohibit abortion and methods of artificial contraception (Lecture 15; cf. CCC, nn. 2366-2367, 2370-2372, and 2270-2275).
Large families are great gifts from God (Lecture 15; cf. CCC, n. 2373).
From this group of lectures we most clearly see that, as for John Donne fifteen centuries later, for Musonius Rufus no man (and no woman) is an island. He would certainly agree with the words of the Catechism that “the family is the original cell of social life” (n. 2207). We are all parts of the body of life and have no right to sever or prohibit the growth of other parts. Indeed, we will find personal fulfillment when we do our best to make that body that gave life to us continue to grow and thrive.
Bearing in mind that some people in our time declare that the “culture of life” declares a “war on women,” note that while Musonius Rufus wrote about natural differences between the sexes that equip each best for different roles, he spoke out against adultery, including the widely accepted practice of men committing adultery with female slaves.
He also argued that women were just as capable as men in acquiring learning and growing in virtue, and that not only our sons, but our daughters too should receive formal education, including the study of philosophy.
As for some Stoic views of the glories of large families, hear these good words from Musonius Rufus:
“What a great spectacle it is when a husband and wife with many children are seen with their children crowded around them! No procession conducted for the gods is as beautiful to look at, and no ritual performed solemnly for a sacred occasion is as worthy of being watched, as is a chorus of many children guiding their parents through the city, leading them by the hand or otherwise caring for them. What is more lovely than this spectacle? What is more worthy of emulation than these parents, especially if they are decent people? What other people would we join with so eagerly in praying for good things from the gods? What other people, indeed, would we help obtain whatever they might need?” (Musonius Rufus, Lecture 15).
A later Stoic, Hierocles (second century AD), speaks of the joy that our parenthood brings to the parents who gave us our life:
“For the procreation of children is gratifying to them; because, if we should suffer any thing of a calamitous nature prior to their decease, we shall leave our children instead of ourselves, as the support of their old age. But it is a beautiful thing for a grandfather to be conducted by the hands of his grandchildren, and to be considered by them as deserving of every other attention. Hence, in the first place, we shall gratify our own parents, by paying attention to the procreation of children. And, in the next place, we shall cooperate with the prayers and ardent wishes of those that begot us. For they from the first were solicitous about our birth, conceiving that through it there would be a very extended extension of themselves, and that they shall leave behind them children of children, and have to pay attention to our marriage, our procreation, our nurture” — Hierocles, How We Ought to Conduct Ourselves to Our Kindred.
Notice that for Hierocles, interaction between grandchildren and grandparents is “kalos,” a “beautiful” thing. Indeed, he says the same of marriage between one man and one woman. And to those who would argue against bearing and raising children, Hierocles has this to say:
“Moreover, it appears that every one who voluntarily, and without some prohibiting circumstance, avoids marriage, and the procreation of children, accuses his parents of madness, as not having engaged in wedlock with right conceptions of things. It is easy to see, that such a one forms an incongruous opinion. For how is it possible that he should not be full of dissension, who finds a pleasure in living, and willingly continues in a life as one who was produced into existence in a becoming manner by his parents, and yet conceives that for him to procreate others is one among the number of things which are to be rejected?” — Hierocles, How We Ought to Conduct Ourselves to Our Kindred.
That the philosophy of ancient Stoics is making a resurgence today as a practical guide to living can be seen by the flourishing of new websites, associations, and books. Many of their lessons are of still of value to Catholics and to all thinking people.
It remains to be seen to what extent the Stoics’ reasoned embrace of the sanctity of all human life, the beauty of marriage between one man and one woman, and the fruits of their union in terms of large families, will ultimately be embraced or rejected in our time.

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