Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Competitive Acculturation, Part 2: Alcinous and the Stoics on Good Emotions

[Warning! going turbo nerd again:] Remember that in a previous post (long ago, in a time far far away...[here]) I cited Thiessen’s definition of competitive syncretism as: “Rivals in the marketplace in part resemble one another ... They have to 'imitate' one another in order to outdo one another in the imitation” (A Theory of Primitive Religion; p. 49). In this earlier post, I used Thiessen’s definition as a template and but jettisoned the problematic term ‘syncretism’ to give the category competitive acculturation. Here in this post, I would like to give an example of competitive acculturation from ancient philosophical discourse (a long overdue post).
   Here is a quotation from the Middle Platonist Alcinous in his handbook on Platonism entitled the Didaskalikos. Here he pokes fun at his rivals, the Stoics, on what constitutes the basis for human flourishing (εδαιμονα):
  • Contemplation (θεωρα), then, is the activity of the mind when it intelligizes the intelligibles, but practice (πρξις) is the activity of the rational soul which happens through the body. The soul which contemplates the divine and the thoughts of the divine is said to be in a good state (επαθεν), and this state of the soul is called ‘wisdom’ (φρνησις), and this, one may say, is none other than assimilation to the divine.Alcinous, Didask. 2.2 (= Whittaker 153.2–9; Eng. trans. follows Dillon, Alcinous, p. 4)
The key word that is the hinge text for competitive acculturation is επαθεν. In the thematic context of  the passage: when are human beings at their best? (you can call it “living according to virtue” like the Stoics, or call it “assimiliation to the divine” as the Middle Platonists do), the Stoics and Platonists had contrasting views on the τλος or end/goal of life. The Stoics believed if we extirpated harmful emotions completely, and are ruled only by rational good emotions called the επθειαι, then we can live life according to virtue and be fully human.
   According to the Stoics, the sage could experience some “good emotions” or “good affective states” called επθειαι – i.e., joy (χαρ), willfulness (βολησις), and caution (ελβεια) – which stood as the positive counterparts to the harmful the passions of the soul which threaten to derail human life and character, namely, pleasure, lust, fear and grief. That is, joy stood as the positive counterpart to pleasure, willfulness to lust/desire, and caution to fear, with no apparent equivalent επάθος corresponding to grief (see Diogenes Laertius, Lives 7.116; Cicero, Tusculan Disputations. 4.12-14; note: Cicero translates επθειαι as constantiae or "stable states").
Roman copy (1st cent. AD) of a Hellenistic original (200 BC)
Head of Chrysippus, 2nd successor of the Stoa
Photo taken by Max Lee © 2010 British Museum
   So here is the punchline: in philosophical discourse, the Stoics own the language of the επθειαι. It would be impossible for the philosophically informed reader to miss the allusion then of Alcinous to the Stoic doctrine of the good emotions with his use of the word επαθεν especially in the context of the discourse: what does it mean to flourish as a human being.
   Alcinous effectively says the Stoics are wrong. Good emotions are inadequate. We do not reach our potential until we participate and commune with the divine through the process of contemplation (θεωρα = how the mind sees the transcendent world and models its life after what it sees). Ethical practice (πρξις) is important but secondary to the contemplative life which provides a paradigm for moral living. If we see what beauty, goodness, and justice is in the transcendent Forms of Beauty, Goodness, and Justice, then we can shape our souls and govern society according to the beauty, goodness and justice we see.
   So the example or case for competitive acculturation works if one can demonstrate that:
  1. a particular group (philosophical, political or religious) owns the terminology or language like the Stoics did for the terms επθειαι επάθος
  2. a rival group uses the same language in a literary context that evokes the discourse of their competing interlocutors (in this case, what is the τλος or end/goal of life? what is human flourishing?)
  3. the rival group offers an alternative solution or thesis in contradistinction to the solution offered by the other group (Alcinous posits theoria as the key to human flourishing not the good emotions of the Stoics)
  4. often times there is a double entendre or word play: “the good state” (επαθεν) of a human being is not the Stoic good emotions (επθειαι) and extirpation of the passions but the Platonic mind’s assimilation to the divine. 
The question, then, is with Paul’s use of such charged words as εαγγλιον (gospel), ερνη (peace), κριος (Lord), σωτρ (Savior), κτλ., did Paul consciously pit his gospel against the good news of the imperial cult? Did the imperial cult own this language? or do these terms find wider currency elsewhere? Going beyond whether Paul had an anti-imperial gospel or not, do current claims to find any Greco-Roman allusion in Paul which are competitive meet all or some of the above conditions distilled from Alcinous’ interaction with his Stoic rivals?
   We are still, in the end, just scratching the surface of how methodologically do we approach the problem and detection of Greco-Roman allusions in Paul, but I thought this example would give us some food for thought to move forward on the issue.

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