“Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, than about these things.” In these verses, taken from our second reading this Sunday, from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we find Paul recommending a number of Stoic virtues to his Christian audience. Since Philippi was a Greek city, the Stoic ideal would have been very familiar to his audience.
For centuries, ever since its foundation by Zeno in around 300 B.C., Stoicism was one of the most influential philosophies in the Greco-Roman world, and its numerous followers and teachers modified it and developed it over hundreds of years. The basic framework, however, always remained the same: to bring man to a state of such self-sufficiency, where he becomes immune to suffering and bad fortune. This involves him accepting and resigning himself to whatever fate is bestowed upon him, without complaining. Man should use his reason to conquer our devastating inner emotions: grief, pain, fear (of death especially) and superstition. Reason allows us to escape and discipline our passions, and understand that “nothing is good or bad, only thinking makes it so” and to generally accept our mind as a greater source of truth than the body or emotions.
Hence Paul’s emphasis in the above passage, that we should “think ” about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure , and so on. But, whereas in Stoicism, there is no specific God, Paul sees the source of all that is true, honorable, just and so on as originating in God, specifically the God of Jesus Christ. Earlier, in Philippians 2: 5-11 (last Sunday’s reading), Paul had put forward Jesus as THE role model of the truly virtuous life. The more we focus on him, the more we put on “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus” (2:5), the more we become free of bondage to our bodily appetites and drives, and to emotions of fear and anxiety, and experience “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.”
How well Paul himself has achieved this state of peace can be seen that his letter to the Philippians calls us to joy in Christian living more than any other of his epistles. And yet, he was writing it from a prison cell, with the threat of death ever present.
The 2014 Cdn Catholic Org for Development & Peace fall education and action campaign focuses on world hunger and food shortage. The campaign theme is “Sow much love: Small farmers feed the world. The following materials have been posted on the CCODP website: www.devp.org/en/education/fall2014