Profoundly Pro-Life Pagan Philosophers?

800px-Sanzio_01By Kevin Vost

The primary end of marriage is community of life with a view to

the procreation of children….

Musonius Rufus, Lecture 13A

I envisioned the book The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living as a way to introduce modern Catholics and other Christians to the wonderful practical lessons of the ancient Stoic philosophers, men whose reason led them to acknowledge VOST-The-Porch-and-the-Cross-267px-400pxGod’s existence and to strive to guide them in lives of virtue in accordance with His will as expressed in natural law. I knew that medieval abbots had adapted Epictetus’s Handbook to use 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 Theologica. 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 sanctity 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 life that would not appear out of place in our modern Catechism of the Catholic Church. In this blog I’ll provide just a taste, primarily with some excerpts from The Porch and the Cross commenting on the lectures of one Musonius Rufus (c. 20 – 101 AD), teacher of Epictetus, called by some “the Roman Socrates,” and by me, a “profound pro-life philosopher.” (The following excerpt is a summary from Chapter 3: A Legacy of Sanity in Need of Rediscovery, commenting on Musonius’ own lectures presented in detail in Chapter 2: Lessons for Learning, Loving, and Living):

Lectures 12–16: On Learning, Loving, and Living Life

I would wager that it is these lectures that might most surprise modern readers, even well-read Christians and students of the Stoics, revealing how this ancient pagan Stoic philosopher, guided by God-given natural reason, became such a profound, pro-family, pro-life philosopher. Bullet-points below summarize some of Musonius’s 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 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 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 2366–2367).
  • Marriage is founded upon mutual love and care “in sickness and in health” (Lecture 13; cf. CCC 2360–2361—and traditional Christian wedding vows).
  • The marriage bond of partnership and union is admirable and beautiful (Lecture 13; cf. CCC 2362).
  • Anyone who works to destroy marriage destroys family, city, and the human race (Lecture 14; cf. CCC 2209–2211).
  • Lawgivers were wise to prohibit abortion and methods of artificial contraception (Lecture 15; cf. CCC 2366–2367, 2370–2372, 2270–2275).
  • Large families are great gifts from God (Lecture 15; cf. CCC 2373).

From this group of lectures we most clearly see that, as for John Donne 15 centuries later, for Musonius Rufus no man (and no woman) is an island. Every Roman Stoic was raised in a family and would agree with the words of the Catechism that “the family is the original cell of social life” (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.

And here’s a concluding bon mot from Musonius on the glory of large families, followed by a couple from the Stoic philosopher Hierocles (2nd century AD) :

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 151

Hierocles 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

The philosophy of ancient Stoicism, as we’ll address in later chapters, is making a resurgence today as a practical guide to living. For now, I’ll note that it remains to be seen to what extent the reasoned Stoic embrace of the sanctity and 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.

Copyright 2016 Kevin Vost

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Kevin Vost holds a Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology (Psy.D.) from Adler University in Chicago. He has taught psychology and gerontology at Aquinas College in Nashville, the University of Illinois at Springfield, MacMurray College, and Lincoln Land Community College. He has served as a research review committee member for American Mensa, an organization promoting the scientific study of human intelligence, and as an advisory board member for the International Association of Resistance Trainers, an organization that certifies personal fitness trainees. Dr. Vost can be reached through his website: www.drvost.com.

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