My choice to study the classics (ancient history and languages) is a gift that keeps on giving. I can read languages that nobody speaks anymore. I now have pen pals that lived well before sliced bread was even a dream. I know how to tie a toga.
Toga party heroics aside, I’ve gained something much more valuable from these studies: a glimpse into some ancient wisdom about the human experience. I find myself amazed at how much the wisdom of people long gone still applies to our lives today. Being thousands of years removed from these poets, statesmen, and historians, with our smartphones replacing their wax tablets, it’s easy to wonder and doubt if these Greeks and Italians, clad in tunics, would have any knowledge of value to offer us. Outside of some source material for a great Disney movie about some guy going Zero to Hero, what could they possibly know about our experiences?
Classical studies reveal to us that they have so, so much to offer us. As hard as our culture might try to reinvent everything under the sun, it will never reinvent what it means to be human. Ancient wisdom reveals this to us. When we read the myths and tales, we quickly sympathize with them; at their core, they’re still tales of love, heartbreak, and faith. We learn that these are themes that will always be central to our stories as human beings. No matter how much our civilization advances, we know deep down that human nature will never change. These people were just as human as we are now. We’re all part of the human family.
We also learn that our desires for justice, belonging, and goodness are nowhere new. These desires are central to our human story and will always remain so. It strikes me how much people in our culture, amidst their quest for meaning, flock to ideologies that have existed since ancient times without even knowing it. In this blog post, I’m going to go over the big ones, point out their connections to today, and discuss where they hit a nerve and where they ultimately fall short. Enjoy!
This worldview is the easiest to spot in modern culture. Built upon the life ethic of doing whatever you want, no matter the consequences, this carefree and me-centered attitude has taken the world by storm. We can see it most plainly in the no-strings-attached hookup culture that’s so widespread today. Naturally, it’s very easy to see why it’s appealing to many people but, after some sober reflection, we can quickly see where it goes wrong. A hedonistic lifestyle will always be attractive on its face because it tells us we can get everything we want, even if what we want is not good. On some level, we desire to get exactly what we want, when we want it. Even the holiest of people grapple with this reality. Our desires are complicated; on one hand, we have a higher sense of reason, which desires what’s important: union with God, holiness, and doing the right thing. On the other, however, we have a lower sense of appetite: a sort of animalistic impulse that drives us to do not what we ought, but only what we want. These two forces within our souls are often at odds. To live a good and fulfilling life, we will have to spend a lifetime waging war against our base appetites. It seems counter-intuitive: why turn away from something that feels good? We have to acknowledge that not everything that feels good is ultimately in our best interest. In the moment, this is blurred; because we’re human and we’re imperfect, it’s so easy for us to get tunnel vision and forget the big picture. I’m speaking from experience here! It takes discipline and wisdom to take a step back, look beyond our impulsive desires, and order them towards what’s naturally right and good. Hedonism lacks the perspective and trust that this requires, and allures people to cave into their every fleeting passion, selling people a vision of constant short-term highs, but ultimately falling far short of any meaningful way to live life. God made us for more than this. God made us for more than just ourselves.
Many people correctly see the shallowness in our culture and want nothing to do with it. They recognize that life has a deeper meaning than chasing highs. They hear the call for greatness that lies in every heart, and they understand that self-control is necessary to live a great life. They understand that life comes with great hardship and that clinging to temporary, worldly pleasures will not do anything to truly heal us. They wisely note that bravely accepting our responsibilities and crosses will do more to heal us than numbing ourselves to life’s pains ever will. They posit that suffering is a part of life and that we can only attack it well if we attack it head-on. A sober outlook and a litany of reality checks are our best friends.
I remember being warm to this point of view for a while. As a college student, I was surrounded by a toxic binge-drinking and hookup culture. I didn’t want to be defined by getting blacked out and using other people for their bodies. I wanted to live for something greater than that; I wanted a life of meaning. I was also struggling with a deep sense of loneliness. Social media presented a never-ending reel of people that looked like they had it all figured out, and it got to me. I felt like the only person at my school who had bad days and felt any sadness. Stoicism was an attractive antidote. All I had to do, it seemed, was harden my heart and steel myself to best handle the sadness. I could convince myself that life would always let me down to brace myself against all the hurt I was suffering. I’d always be prepared. Maybe I wouldn’t feel consoled or truly loved, but at least I’d be prepared for the letdown.
I stuck to this point of view until I read a quote from a very influential stoic. He was advising a friend who was suffering from grief, and he noted that, while the person his friend lost was a big part of his life, he was better off looking at her like a cherished vase. You heard that right: a vase. He told his friend that he should embrace the sadness of his loss, but not let it keep him down too long. He should be content, as with the loss of a vase, with admiring the fond memories for what they were and moving on promptly.
If this sounds off to you, it should. This piece of advice exposed the key flaw within stoic philosophy: it doesn’t properly explain the place suffering has in our hearts. Namely, it doesn’t understand one thing: we were not made for suffering or death. Death, loss, and suffering are a part of our human story, but it was not so in the beginning. As human beings, we were made by God to spend eternity with Him in glory. We were not made for anything less. Original sin, tragically, brought all of those things into the world and tainted our human experience. That’s why loss is so heart-breaking: it betrays our very identity as children of God. Stoicism doesn’t understand this. It assumes that this pain is just part of the deal. Whatever god (or gods, in their case) put the world together didn’t do so out of love, and made us without too much care for human life. It assumes that we live in a callous and neutral world, and we have to make do with what we have. Grief can be nothing more than a tool. If it isn’t self-help, it means nothing.
Our human story has such a deeper meaning than that. Grief can’t be reduced to simply a self-help tool; it’s a cry out to our Creator from the heart. It’s a longing to spend forever with our God who knows us and loves us. We were made for nothing else than heaven. Because of that, we can never fully make sense of death. It wasn’t in the original design. It’s a tragedy that we can never fully rationalize.
What stoicism overlooks is that this tragedy has been fulfilled by a God that knows and loves us perfectly. In the face of the heartbreak that death has brought us, our God did not remove himself and allow our suffering to be without meaning. It was never “just a part of life” for Him. He was as torn up as we were about it. In response, He came closer to us; He sent His only son to become fully human, knowing the human heart as we know it and fulfilling it with perfect love, ultimately to take on the burden of our sins, dying that we may live. All of this was because we have a God that, despite the ways we’ve distanced ourselves from Him with sin, never gives up on us. When we suffer, he suffers with us. He loves us perfectly and went to the point of death to do so.
In accepting death as just a natural part of life, stoicism misses the point. It doesn’t allow people to fully know the tragedy of death and loss, and as a consequence doesn’t allow people to fully experience the resurrection in return. Only when we understand that we were not made for death and sit in the pain that follows can we fully appreciate the sacrifice of Christ’s passion. Love Incarnate has conquered death, just to chase after us. We are loved that much by our Creator. Take a step back and let that sink in. All of a sudden, self-control and self-mastery start to make sense. It has such a greater meaning than the stoics could have ever known. It’s not simply changing our behavior; it’s relinquishing control to God. The virtuous life is not just the fulfillment of duties; it’s a school of love, calling us to love others more and more perfectly, as God loves us. It speaks to our very hearts and souls as sons and daughters of God. If we learn the value of discipline from the stoics but remember that we have a much greater reason for it, we’ll be on a very good road.
Many saw the fruits of self-mastery that stoicism had to offer, but didn’t want to go quite that far. They disagreed with the stoics on what life was all about. They thought that stoics had it wrong by putting duties and responsibilities above all else. They agreed with the hedonists more and believed that life was all about pleasure. However, they saw how the hedonists would live these wildly reckless lives and thought they were out of sorts. “What can we learn from this?” they asked themselves. They concluded that, while they wanted to get to the same destination as the unhinged hedonists (a life of maximizing pleasure), they had a better way of getting there. They believed that a bit of self-restraint, when necessary, would help them get there; they would live lives of comfort, luxury, and ease, but they would do it the right way. “Eat, drink, and be merry” became their motto, “for tomorrow, we’ll die.” They believed the good life meant living in the present and enjoying the gifts life has to offer as much as possible, but not to the point of excess. Life was still about pleasure, but self-discipline was a helpful tool to not take it too far and stop enjoying those pleasures. Good friendships and quality time were considered essential to this good life since those were more enriching to the human heart than simply indulging every fleeting desire and passion. In their minds, they’d found a new way—a better way. They’d found their life hack.
This way of life is immensely attractive to people to this day, and it’s no surprise why it’s still popular. Our culture is hyper-fixated on comfort and pleasure, and we have a world of information at our fingertips. We have never been this exposed to tips, advice, and, most importantly, what our peers are doing. There has never been this much pressure on young people to have it “figured out.” A culture of life hacks has sprung forth in response. The average social media user takes in hours of content every day. As if there wasn’t enough peer pressure in our daily lives already, social media is rife with comparison. We spend a sizable amount of time every day looking at snapshots of seemingly perfect lives. An epicurean lifestyle has become the norm and the expectation for young people.
We then must beg the question: where does it fall short?
Similar to hedonism’s downfall, it gets the meaning of life wrong. Our lives are not about us. We have a higher calling than simply ordering things to “maximize our happiness.” No number of life-hacks, perfect Instagram aesthetics, or Spotify Discover playlists will ever satisfy the deep need we have in our lives for meaning. Only a life of sacrifice, which follows the example of Christ, could hope to achieve that. While life undeniably has joys and comforts that God wants us to enjoy, they’re never the endgame. They’re here to make our life on earth sweeter so that we’ll in turn be reminded of His goodness towards us. They’re nothing more than that; they should never take the place of God. An epicurean mindset, however, misses this point. When we strip it to the basics, we see that it’s just another life philosophy that encourages the follower to live for himself. This is an empty way to live life.
We’ve all seen this pan out in our friendships. It stings like nothing else. I know how terrible it feels to find out my friends don’t have my back after all and were only friends with me out of convenience. I’ve felt misled. I’ve felt cheated. I’ve felt used. No matter which way you slice it, you can’t have a real friendship without love and loyalty. You can have every possible common interest and even have a blast being around one another, but it’s meaningless if you don’t have each other’s backs. I know how much it hurts to realize someone was only friends with me out of convenience but had no intention of sticking up for me when required.
It stings because we know we deserve better. We’re all human beings that are worthy of love. We deserve friends who are willing to stand by us, even when it may cost them popularity. We deserve friends who put loyalty first without worrying about how it may look.
An epicurean lifestyle is just a fancier way of living a selfish life, and for that reason, it will never bring us true joy. It will never fulfill the deep longings in our hearts for lives of greatness. It will distance us from God, who alone can make us whole. It will leave us more confused, more afraid, and ultimately, lonely. Love is the only measure of happiness we use in life. Nothing else will do. I know how tempting it is to compare our lives to our peers and think they all have it figured out. Be at peace and know that, no matter how much it seems that those around you have it all figured out, they don’t. They are human, just as you are. For them and you both, your primary action item for living a healthy and good life is asking how you can best love those around you.
There you have it! I hope my analysis of a few ancient philosophical traditions helped show you how human nature hasn’t changed all that much! As a human race, we’ve been trying to fill the same holes in our hearts for thousands of years. Without the teachings of the Lord, it’s so easy to fall into different “camps” that believe they’ve figured it out. These camps will always touch upon a piece of the truth, attracting many, but will never reveal the fullness of it. As young people, we can run to these camps left and right, but our hearts will never be at peace until we’re certain that we’re loved, and commit our lives to give that selfless love to others freely. Our hearts demand nothing less than a grand adventure that only God can provide.