Some Lessons from the Great Pagans

Brad Miner | May 6, 2024

I’ve been spending a fair bit of time with pagans lately. Not the modern, self-indulgent, falsely idealistic, entitled, uninteresting kind all around us, conspicuously so at our universities. But the ancient – almost too interesting – stout seekers of the true and the good. Especially the Stoics, who influenced St. Paul and other early Christians, and – not incidentally – helped prepare the ground for the spread of Christianity among peoples living in great darkness, under bad rulers. Like us.

Plato and Aristotle are great lights – when there’s a chance that at least some measure of reason will guide worldly affairs. But in times like ours, the Stoics are particularly helpful because they know that serious evil exists and don’t expect, certainly not in the short run, to be able to do much about it, least of all via politics. What, then, is to be done?

Edouard Bernard Debat-Ponsan (1847-1913). Esquisse pour l’église Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul de Courbevoie : “Saint Paul devant l’Aréopage”. Huile sur toile. 1876. Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Petit Palais.

They, like the Christians who were to follow, put their greatest efforts into forming their own souls: into gratitude for what has been given to us in our very existence; and, therefore, the pious efforts to bring ourselves into harmony with the divine order of the cosmos that made us. Our successes or failures in pursuit of that goal are the real measure of good – and evil. Soul work was as central to Epictetus (a former slave) as to Marcus Aurelius (a Roman emperor).

All that has affinities, of course, with the Faith, and opens a fresh window onto spiritual and moral disciplines that people today often dismiss as merely pious old Christian platitudes. But even Reason, right reason in the right hands, can approach them.

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