Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An Argument for Teaching More Hellenistic Philosophy

Kate Douglas has an article in which she imagines her 'ideal religion'. Building on a post by Harvey Whitehouse, she sees religious practices as having four flavors:

First, the "sacred party", such as incense burning, bell ringing and celestial choral music in Catholicism. Second, "therapy": for example, the practices of healing and casting out devils among some evangelical Christians. Third, "mystical quest", such as the Buddhist quest for nirvana. And finally, "school": detailed study of the Koran in Islam or reading the Torah in Judaism.

Using this template, she tries to imagine her 'ideal religion'. What actually struck me, though, is that all four of these, in some way, were ways in which the Hellenistic schools of philosophy (Academic, Peripatetic, Stoic, and Epicurean) characterized themselves: as banquet (ranging from highly metaphorical with the Stoics to highly literal with the Epicureans), as therapy (which is one of the dominant themes of Hellenistic philosophy), as quest (usually for virtue or ataraxia or some such), and as school (which they obviously literally were). And, despite the fact that I suspect there are many, many people today who share Douglas's vision, every single one of the four Hellenistic schools of philosophy is provably both more rational and more ingenious in filling out these categories than Kate Douglas's ideal religion, which, depending on exactly how you read it, is either a crazy fringe cult, or a really seedy frathouse, or Unitarian Universalism with dancing, chanting, and hazing. The Epicureans did much better. So perhaps the real answer to all this fuzzy-headed make-it-up-as-you-go spirituality is to spread the ideas of Hellenistic philosophy.

Then again, the sight of Unitarian Universalists rhythmically dancing and chanting is bound to put the fear of God into most people, so maybe we should encourage that.

Seriously, though, we should teach more Hellenistic philosophy than we do. If people don't know the spiritual exercises (as Hadot likes to call them) of Marcus Aurelius and Lucretius, it's no wonder that they chase after silly imitations.

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