A “sermon” in the broadest sense is a discourse on morality. And by morality I mean the rules of engagement in life – in other words the manual for living rightly (as opposed to wrongly). The incentive for living rightly – the carrot for following the rules in the manual – will of course be some sort of reward – heaven. The disincentive for disregarding the manual – living wrongly – will take the form of sort of punishment – hell. Virtue and vice represent the choices we face in approaching the rules. Virtue (following the rules) leads to heaven; and vice (disregarding the rules) leads to hell.
That’s also Stoicism in a nutshell. Follow the rules or suffer the consequences. Easy!
Well it’s easy I suppose if the rules can be found between the pages of an anointed Holy Book (and we believe in the “divine” character of those rules), and if we accept the premise that all this rule following really does have a pay day, and if we have faith that the threat of some serious hell-time is more-or-less guaranteed for not sticking with this morality program. But what are the rules, and what is heaven, and where is hell?
Stoicism – a philosophy – differs markedly from the religious systems that espouse what seems on the surface to be a similar program to what religious traditions espouse. At first blush there are many parallels. There are rules, one rule really ( I’ll get to that in a moment) – but it is not written or encoded or delivered in Sunday sermons. There is also a heaven – of sorts – but it is not a place reserved for living a life of virtue. And there is certainly a hell – but again, it’s not a place but rather a very real existential experience.
The central rule of Stoicism is not so much a command, but a strong suggestion. We “ought” – I love that word – to “live according to nature.” Or, if you prefer this Stoic injunction in its inverted form, we “ought not live contrary to nature.” If we live according to nature we will be “happy” – that’s the heaven part. And, if we live contrary to nature we will be “unhappy” – that’s the hell. There’s is no afterlife as a conscious surviving entity and there is no God.
Yet, there is divinity (I’ll try to explain what I mean by divinity below). And this is why I am attracted to the Stoic program. There is divinity in this universe, and I can discover this divinity all by myself, and I can be convinced that this discovery is indeed divine, and this convincing that I can experience is something I can do in my own way, and on my own terms, and at my own speed, and I can do so using my native “reason.”
And – this is the carrot – it is the temporal act of living according to nature that exposes the divine. I will witness the divine in living in this way; and what I witness fills me with awe. It fills me with awe because is it is incontrovertibly beautiful. And it is incontrovertibly beautiful because it is incontrovertibly perfect. And that which is incontrovertibly perfect is incontrovertibly divine – this is how define divinity: that which is perfect cannot be improved upon, and that which cannot be improved upon fills me with joy, and peace and serenity.
It really does not and cannot get any better than this. And it need not last forever because this apprehension of the divine – in nature – is the recognition that I – and you – are intertwined with, and emergent from, and will shortly return to the perfect regulatory apparatus that we observe when we live according to nature. When we see that we are not only from nature, or momentarily in nature but instead understand that we are integral with nature, we understand the meaning of existence. There is no longer a need to prolong our individual existence – individuality is no longer necessary when we experience the nature of our unity with the cosmos.
The apotheosis of our human experience occurs with our recognition that the divinity observed in the flowering of a rose, or the cascade of a waterfall, or the birth of a robin, or the explosion of a supernova is regulated by the same Law that is operative in the process we invoked in our very act of being witness. And yes, we can express this Law using mathematical formulae and we can describe and investigate this Law empirically using the tools of natural philosophy (physics). The “reason” that takes us to this realization – this hard won, and hard worked reason – is a manifestation of the self-same Law that reveals itself in the act of living with nature. My mind operates with the same Law; my mind comes from this same place; my mind is itself capable of transcending and penetrating and turning over all that it sees. The mind too is divine.
This is what is so cool with Stoicism. We humans are not fallen creatures; we humans are divine elements distilled from the stars and destined to return to those stars. Plato was right.
Hell? It is alienation from nature– nothing more. If we choose to live outside of the Law – we will miss this beauty; we will fail to see this perfection; we will fail to recognize our own divinity; we will miss the point of our existence. We will feel despair and loneliness. Life will seem mean, painful, dreadful, brutish, meaningless and short.
But it’s a choice we are free to make.