Chief Rabbi Sacks is too harsh on Greek philosophy

It’s gratifying and heartening when the Chief Rabbi of your country writes a column responding to your book, and says some kind things about it – so thanks are in order to Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks for using my book as a springboard for his discussion in The Times on the deficiencies of Stoicism as a philosophy for life.

Nevertheless, I feel that Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks mischaracterises Stoicism and Hellenistic philosophy, and seeing as my book is designed to attract people to Hellenistic philosophy, rather than put them off it, permit me to say a few words in its defence.

Firstly, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks conflates all the philosophies of the Socratic Tradition into one philosophy, and then sets it in opposition to the benevolent theism of Judeo-Christianity. He draws a sharp dividing line between Athens and Jerusalem, which is a surprising move from the author of How to avoid the clash of civilisation.  

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks suggests that all the philosophies of the Socratic Tradition (as I call it in my book) agree that there “is no transcendent purpose to human existence”. In fact, they don’t agree.

Certainly, Epicureanism believes “there is no transcendent purpose to existence” and that the universe is “fundamentally indifferent” to us. But that’s not true at all of Stoicism, Platonism or Aristotelianism – all of which are theistic and have a teleological view of the universe.

The Stoics, for example, believe we are connected to the Logos, the divine intelligence pervading the cosmos, which orders the universe according to its benevolent plan. Stoics believe we are on Earth to develop our consciousness and reason and bring them into harmony with the Logos. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it, “God has introduced man to be a spectator of his works, and not just a spectator, but an interpreter.”

Aristotle, likewise, thought the transcendent purpose of human existence was to develop our consciousness in order to know both the cosmos and God. And Plato had his own cosmic teleology of love. The father of all these movements, Socrates, also appeared to believe in God, and to think it his own personal mission from God to teach us to ‘take care of our souls’.

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks then makes an old criticism of Stoicism (it’s also made by Sir Isaiah Berlin and Bertrand Russell), that it’s too pessimistic and introverted, the product of a particularly chaotic historical period, ie the 3rd century BC, when Athens was conquered by various marauding empires. He says ‘contemporary writers fail to remind us’ of this fact, which is not true – I do discuss the original historical context for Stoicism in chapter two of my book (page 28).

I agree with Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks that Stoicism may perhaps be too politically pessimistic and individualistic, which is why I only spent the first quarter of my book on the Stoics, before moving to other philosophies like Aristotelianism, which is more politically optimistic. Nonetheless, I think it’s unfair to call Stoicism introverted, withdrawn, ‘risk-averse’, or the product of cultural decline. It flourished in Rome in the first century BC and the first century AD, hardly periods of cultural decline. And it included among its ranks some of the most active and engaged politicians of the era – Cato the Younger, Cicero, Seneca – all of whom gave their lives for their country. Risk averse? Hardly.

Yes, Stoicism is an excellent philosophy for coping with crisis and chaos, which is why it is so popular with active soldiers today (including Israeli soldiers). It may not be the perfect philosophy for stabler and more comfortable periods of our life. Stoicism helped me a great deal in a very difficult period of my life, but I subsequently felt more drawn to other philosophies of the Socratic Tradition. But I can still recognise the great therapeutic value of the Socratic Tradition in general, and Stoicism in particular. So, I might add, can many Jewish scholars, from Philo of Alexandria all the way to Martha Nussbaum and Ronald Pies today.

The great value of the Socratic tradition, it seems to me, is that it rescued humanity from the tyranny of priests and taught us how to take care of ourselves. Before Socrates, if people were unhappy, they felt it necessary to bend their knee both to the gods and to their representatives on earth, the priests, to beg for forgiveness and mercy (usually through some sort of expensive material sacrifice, perhaps even the sacrifice of a member of your family).This tradition continues today, via psychoanalysis.

After Socrates and the Athenian Enlightenment of the 5th century BC, humanity learnt, in the words of Montaigne, ‘how much it can do of itself’. In psychotherapeutic terms, we learnt that our emotional problems are often self-caused, that they arise from our beliefs and attitudes, which we have the power to change. We can learn to ‘take care of our souls’ as Socrates put it (from whom the word ‘psychotherapy’ originates) and be ‘doctors to ourselves’ (in Cicero’s phrase). This is the Do-It-Yourself essence of both Socratic and Stoic therapy. We don’t need to kneel to the priests and beg for their benediction. Based on the priests I have met in my life, this strikes me as excellent news (although I have yet to meet Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks).

The Stoic / Socratic insight that we can to some extent heal ourselves of emotional suffering has since been tested out by modern empirical science, and has become the cornerstone of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which has helped thousands, if not millions, of people to overcome emotional disorders. (I should add that CBT was pioneered by two psychotherapists of Jewish descent – Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck – so the cross-fertilisation between Athens and Jerusalem is still yielding fruit). CBT has saved thousands of people from deep emotional suffering, including atheists, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. I personally think that Socrates and the Stoics deserve some credit for that, even if we don’t accept the Stoic goal of complete detachment from externals.

As for the advantages and disadvantages of believing in a ‘God with a human face’, well, the Chief Rabbi takes the discussion to theological levels well beyond my pay grade. I personally believe in God, and in a transcendent purpose to human existence, although I don’t believe in a personal afterlife or a personal God. The cosmos, alas, seems to me rather indifferent to the suffering of individual lives, although I cling to the hope that there is a benevolent general thrust to evolution.

What I like about the Socratic Tradition is it offers wisdom for both theists and atheists. It is a meeting place both for believers and unbelievers. In that sense, it seems to me a uniquely useful resource for those who want to avoid clashes of civilisation.


  • As usual, an enjoyable post Jules, thanks. My only critical comment is this: a common problem of Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) criticisms of philosophy is that, as you pointed out in this instance, they often take a simplistic and so actually quite false picture of the philosophy they criticise, which they then compare to the virtues of their worldview (a tribalistic straw-man argument). It’s a bit like listening to a ‘new atheist’ talk about religion – one-eyed! But then, as a fair-minded non-psychoanalyst, I must protest against the comparison of psychoanalysis with a negative picture of religion. That’s to follow the same one-eyed tribalism. There is a great, great deal of variety in contemporary psychoanalysis, and a fascinating dynamism and depth in the thinking that it engages in and encourages. It’s no use repeating the Rabbi’s basic error with regard to it. (Indeed, there’s a good reason many or even most serious therapists, of all ilks, are critical of CBT. I find myself regularly having to point out the same issue with colleagues though – to understand it look to CBT’s best, not to its worst – that mechanistic, simplistic, superficial outlook that sadly you will find among too many CBT-ers).
    Matt, the boringly fair-minded

    • Cathy Howe Browne says:

      Matt, psychoanalysis does usually demand an “expensive material sacrifice” though (£50 for 50 minutes, at least once a week?)
      Enjoying the articles on this website immensely,
      Cathy HB.

  • Nice discussion; however to expect tradition-based religion/belief systems to expand their basic concepts of thinking away from their core structure is asking a lot.
    It’s like taking away my daily coffee on the basis of medical research – I just won’t accept it.
    I help out in a charity bookstore and was asked for a book on the true Islamic history by a Moslem potential customer. I couldn’t get it through to him that history is subjective.

  • Alan Hynes says:

    Enjoyable as ever, Mr Evans. A pity I missed you in Galway.

    I must have a different understanding as to what the term theism denotes than your good self as I fail to see how the Stoic conception of god could be considered theistic. The impersonal and indifferent nature of god for the Stoics would seem contrary to theism. I would have though that certain conceptions of pantheism of even deism would have been closer to the Stoic view.

    I discovered Stoicism while in a psychiatric hospital while being treated for severe depression. Three years of medication and psychoanalysis had left me only deeper in the hole and it was only, eventually, with Stoicism that I dug my way out of the hole by taking responsibility for my own recovery and health.

    My life has been far happier and whole since and, contrary to the good Rabbi’s assertion, the quality of my love for my family and friends largely because of Stoic practice.

  • Ronald Pies MD says:

    Greetings, Jules! I am coming to this discussion very late in the game, but I applaud your comments and thank you for the call out to my book. –With best wishes, Ron

    Ronald Pies MD

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