Robert Pogue Harrison on Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Christianity

In a recent conversation I referenced a passage from Robert Pogue Harrison’s Dominion of the Dead, one of the most insightful books I have ever read. The passage contrasts Stoic and Christian ethics, claiming that Stoic ethics roots itself in a dispassionate alignment with the impassive logic of the earth, while Christian ethics roots itself in a celebration of the promises and delights that that the earth offers to us.

The broader argument of the chapter draws on Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean to argue that the bodies of the dead iconically point to the “mysteries of things unseen”;  the earth which houses the dead and brings all into its rule of death now also puts forth the firstfruits of new life, nourishing us. Hence, it is neither the denial of death nor its stoic embrace that Harrison wants, but rather a way of looking to and digging into the earth to see its invisible promise, life, sacredness, depth, mystery (whichever term you prefer) that modern-or-Stoic eyes cannot see in their non-intimate ways of knowing. And this, also, is the promise of worship, in which our communion with the dead catapults us into the full promise – the full invisibleness – of the world. It’s a great passage from a great book. Here are a few paragraphs.

Marcus Aurelius…saw in death the ultimate vanity of all earthly things and adopted a merely stoical resignation to its fatality. Aurelius refused to grieve, to be sure, for he held the dread of death a worse evil than death itself; yet at the core of his imperial melancholy lurked an incurable despair, manifest, among other things, in his ‘renunciant and impassive attitude’ towards those earthly gifts which the Christians meanwhile were reanimating in their liturgies and sacraments…. Marcus Aurelius may well have been ‘one of the best men that ever lived,’ as a recent admirer has claimed; yet that does not mean that the emperor, at least from Marius’s point of view, was not inwardly wretched and full of dread, or that he did not suffer from a spiritual wound for which neither he nor his physicians nor his philosophers nor the Roman society he presided over in its totality had a cure.

The Meditations were authored by a man who despaired of life, precisely because he despaired of death. For all his attempts to live in accordance with cosmic law Marcus Aurelius had no such ‘delightful sense of freedom,’ which, in Marius’s perception, emanated from the Christian ritual. It was this freedom, or sense of it, that for Marius marked the soul’s true attunement to the order of Creation. Creation is by nature free, yet Marcus Aurelius and his fellow stoics were stoically stifled and shackled. What so many of us in the modern era admire about the emperor is the fortitude with which he suffered his wound, as well as the fact that he was sensitive enough to suffer from it in the first place. He looked through the veil of worldly appearances and saw the underlying absurdity of life [my emphasis]…. His melancholy, which leaves its subtle imprint on almost every page of the Meditations, not only prefigures Hamlet’s depression but lends it an august authority. That is why we moderns love him so much – he flatters us.

It is astonishing to think that while Pater was writing Marius the Epicurean his fellow (ex-)classicist Nietzsche was on the verge of composing The Antichrist. Nothing could be further removed from Nietzsche’s rant about Christianity’s slave rebellion, with its life-denying, earth-loathing impulses, than Pater’s vision of early Roman Christianity as the spiritual flower of epicureanism. The appeal of Christianity to an Epicurean like Marius lay in the fact that it seemed to reconsecrate the earth, reanimate the senses, and reaffirm the sacrality of life in the face of late paganism’s gloom and desperation….

The main difference between their understandings of the historical conditions that allowed Christianity to triumph throughout the empire, and above all in Rome itself, is that Nietzsche refuses to address the reality of Roman nihilism, while Pater never loses sight of it…. Pater’s central chapters on Roman bloodlust put in sentimental relief the fact that, as death began to lose its sanctity, so too did life, leading gradually but inexorably to a lust for the daily spectacle of murder – of animals, gladiators, criminals, or Christians. Nothing reveals the spiritual exhaustion of the Romans more than their need to incessantly reproduce and inflate the sense of senseless death, a scene which, for those who sponsored or watched it, confirmed that life was as senseless as the immolations in which it found its end.

Where Nietzsche saw the Christian afterlife as a fiction generated by life-denying forces of resentment and vengeance, Pater saw it as the source from which came a new power of blessing, one that possessed the means to resanctify life and bring the dead back into its impoverished sphere. One might say that the afterlife erupted into the midst of the here and now, transfiguring the earth and animating its ‘old dead and dark matter,’ including the bones of saints. Like the old religions whose legacies it retrieved from the futurity of expectation, the church grounded its affirmation of the visible and invisible worlds on its commemoration of the dead, because any consecration of life – be it pagan, Christian, or otherwise – depends first and foremost on regenerating the forces of copenetration, of liberating the past and future reaches of time itself, and of opening the world to what Paul called the evidence of things unseen. Where the dead are simply dead, the living are in some sense already dead as well. Conversely, where the afterlife of the dead receives new life, the earth as a whole receives new blessing.

3 thoughts on “Robert Pogue Harrison on Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Christianity

  1. I think you can see it a lot in much of the contemporary environmental movement. “Climate change may well destroy the human species, but the cosmos will live on.” And similarly in a lot of reductionist empiricism. “You’re worried that embracing our scientific truth will destroy all possibilities for meaning and goodness? What more do you need than being a part of the glory [err…] of the cosmos for all eternity?” These are many of our sages, who have had the courage to look stoically at the vastness of the cosmos compared to the insignificance of the human species (never mind one human life) and yet can embrace it as what is “good”.

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