Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Porch and the Cross

The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living
© 2016 Kevin Vost
198 pages

Stoicism as a moral philosophy has had admirers through the ages, and especially during the medieval epoch. While modern snobbery tends to dismiss the medieval mind as intellectually somnolent, in truth the cathedral schools and universities of Europe were alive with discussion and engagement. Part of that engagement was with the classic tradition, which included not only the old masters but their progeny, like the Stoics.  Doctors of the church, like Ambrose and Aquinas, were especially interested in the Stoics'  understanding of how the mind could be entrapped by vice, or sin, and how people could resist such an influence.  Kevin Vost is a contemporary Christian whose faith is informed -- even formed -- at the Painted Porch. I recognized this when reading his Seven Deadly Sins, which frequently looked to the Stoics for advice, and so knew I had much to look forward to in The Porch and the Cross.  Here, he reviews the lives and principle ideas of four Stoics (Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius), examines their legacies through history, and finally applies the lessons to Christian moral concerns.

The Porch and the Cross's format makes it immediately accessible to readers who have never heard of a stoic. The biographical intro chapters reveal first Stoicism's broad appeal, as the four authors spanned Roman societies, from slave to emperor.  Vost follows this with a summary or distillation of their major works, which concentrate the very best of Stoic thinking and practice for the beginning investigator.  If you have never heard of Stoicism before, here is the elevator version: the universe has a perceivable order, and the good life consists of conforming to that order, in part by recognizing that there are things within our control and things outside our control. To worry about that which cannot be controlled is self-defeating: we should instead focus on what we can do, like being prepared for what Fortune throws at us.

There are obvious points of agreement between Christianity and Stoicism:  for instance, both emphasize the preeminent importance of a soul squaring itself with the order of the cosmos -- or in Christian terms, in line with the will of God. Both view spiritual order as superior to the needs and appetites of the body, though Catholic orthodoxy cautions the faithful against holding the latter in complete contempt -- that's the sort of thing Gnostics, Manicheans, and Puritans get up to.  Vost instead looks to Stoicism as a guide for moderating the influence of  both inner turmoil and outside temptation.  Self-control is a virtue hailed by both Stoics and Christians, and Vost is especially pleased with Musonius Rufus' writings on sexual propriety.

Another common link is the Stoic conception of the cosmopolis, that all men hold within them a divine spark which makes them brethren. The well-ordered soul is not confined by tribalism, but can look beyond it -- just as the Christian life is not a nationalistic one, but one which brings together  all people ("Greek and Jew, Scythian, barbarian") into communion.   Communion is an important Stoic concept, as Marcus Aurelius often reminds himself: we are members with one another -- not units within a pile, as bureaucrats would have it, but discrete individuals with distinct jobs. We are, Aurelius said, like the fingers of a hand -- we can either work with one another, or put up with one another, but to antagonize the other is irrational and vice-laden.

At just under two hundred pages, The Porch and the Cross is a terrific little collection, bringing together the best-of  from the extant masters into one slim volume, with connecting commentary. I'd forgotten how truly bracing they could be, and must look into reading Musonius Rufus!


The Stoics themselves:


  1. Many thanks from a middle-aged fogey for such a thoughtful review, Stephen. My next project with Angelico Press for next spring will be The Four Friendships: From Aristotle to Aquinas focusing on the writings on friendship of Aristotle and Cicero and what Sts. Aelred of Rievaulx and Thomas Aquinas did with them.

  2. It sounds as though you will be treating readers to a slice of the 'great conversation'! I hope to hear you and Kris McGregor chatting about it soon. Thank you for dropping by!


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