Ancient Approaches to Adversity

In this post I hope to compare the book of Proverbs to Stoic thought in a way that challenges you to gain self-mastery.


Pro 16:32  Whoever controls his temper is better than a warrior, and anyone who has control of his spirit is better than someone who captures a city.
Pro 24:5  A wise man is strong, and a knowledgeable man grows in strength.
Pro 24:10-12  If you grow weary when times are troubled, your strength is limited.  (11)  Rescue those who are being led away to death, and save those who stumble toward slaughter.  (12)  If you say, “Look here, we didn’t know about this,” doesn’t God, who examines motives, discern it? Doesn’t the one who guards your soul know about it? Won’t he repay each person according to what he has done?
Pro 24:15-19  Don’t lie in wait like an outlaw to attack where the righteous live;  (16)  for though a righteous man falls seven times, he will rise again, but the wicked stumble into calamity.  (17)  Don’t rejoice when your enemy falls; don’t let yourself be glad when he stumbles.  (18)  Otherwise the LORD will observe and disapprove, and he will turn his anger away from him.  (19)  Don’t be anxious about those who practice evil, and don’t be envious of the wicked.

Marcus Aurelius:

In one respect man is the nearest thing to me, so far as I must do good to men and endure them. But so far as some men make themselves obstacles to my proper acts, man becomes to me one of the things which are indifferent, no less than the sun or wind or a wild beast. Now it is true that these may impede my action, but they are no impediments to my affects and disposition, which have the power of acting conditionally and changing: for the mind converts and changes every hindrance to its activity into an aid; and so that which is a hindrance is made a furtherance to an act; and that which is an obstacle on the road helps us on this road.  –Meditations Book 5

Note the similarities:

  1. A certain frame of mind is considered strength in both schools of thought versus the immediately visible external situation. That frame of mind, in both contexts, is a certain attitude and series of mental habits toward life: “anyone who has control of his spirit is better than someone who captures a city.”
  2. The righteous man (who in Proverbs is always the wise man) gets up when he falls (either morally or in terms of success), just as Aurelius notes, “the obstacle on the road helps us on this road.”
  3. Adversity is seen in both thought schools as an opportunity to show or gain strength.
  4. Both schools of thought relate endurance through trials to being ill-treated by the wicked. Many times other people mess with your life. Aurelius and Solomon both say (whether they lived this or not doesn’t matter) that treating such people with contempt will do no good, but rather when they oppose you, you should simply move on and improve yourself.
  5. Finally, both authors note that doing good to others is part of the motivation for having strength (read: a wise mindset toward adversity) and the purpose for using it.

These authors were both kings but neither of them had the internet, electricity, or an automobile. Setbacks often meant death for people in their respective eras. Yet, both make these claims about adversity.

So, how will you respond to adversity? Will you respond with good-will toward others, a desire to improve, endurance through difficulty, and a non-hater attitude toward those who mess you up? Or will you do the same things that make old people complain about young people in every generation: quit, whine, blame other people, watch t.v., and play on the internet?

Not Quite Academic Appendix/Postscript:
In early Christianity, there is no doubt that the ideas with the highest moral capital came from the teachings of Jesus’ friends and associates (the apostles), Jesus himself, and the Old Testament. This can be verified by a quick perusal of a document called the Didache. But, as time went on Christian teachers made a concerted effort to create or perhaps express a moral system that could accommodate both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity (Meeks 68-69).

Stoicism and Platonism worked very well for the providing the needed ethical language. This is not because the teachings of Jesus weren’t good enough. It is that the teachings of Jesus were intentionally recorded as the paradigmatic statement of the paradigmatic human, but nevertheless in a very specific cultural form. This is not a bad thing. The early Christians saw Jesus as the Messiah of the Jewish people. So of course his teachings would be highly particular. Stoicism and Platonism did not provide the ethical ideal or framework, but perhaps the ethical language and practical method of early Christian moral formation. This makes sense, because looking back the conflicts about Jewish ceremonies and the effectiveness of enforcing them upon non-Jewish Christians was a hot-button issue (1 Corinthians 8-10, Romans 14, Galatians, Colossians 2, etc). Thus, the language of Plato and the Stoics (despite their Philosophical differences with the Christians) became fairly standard.

Christians today could learn a lot not only from Proverbs, but also from the Stoics. Just because the early Christians did does not obligate anybody to do so, but their habits may have been wise and worthy of emulation.

Meeks, Wayne A, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993)

Meditations upon Proverbs 14:4

Pro 14:4 Where there are no oxen, the barn is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.

This particular Proverb has a pretty obvious meaning:

There might are less chores with less tools, but with well managed tools comes greater success.

I can think of several applications of this Proverb to contemporary existence:

  1. If you do not own a lawn mower, you’ll have less maintenance, but you’ll have to pay more in the long run for people to do your yard.
  2. If you do not own a tools, then you won’t have to organize them. There will be no need to put up your tools, have a sweet tool box, or to oil them. But if you have one it will be cheaper to repair your house.
  3. Any tools that improve your productivity should be cared for just like the oxen barn. A barn full of oxen, left unattended, will eventually smell like what fills it. Similarly, a computer that is not properly maintained, a car not properly tuned up, or a guitar not properly stored will all let you down more frequently than the alternative. But if you do not have these tools, then you cannot have the blessings that come with them.
  4. If less people go to your church, you’ll have less problems. But conversely, potentially less of the work of the gospel will be accomplished.
  5. Your body will eventually fall apart, but it will happen much faster without use! Put the work of taking care of it into practice and it will likely work much longer for you.

For me the takeaways from this particular Proverb have been:

  1. Keep my garage clean and organized.
  2. Stop borrowing my friend’s calculator.
  3. Keep my books in alphabetical order.

What about you?

Meditations Upon Proverbs 17:6

New American Standard Bible  Proverbs 17:6 Grandchildren are the crown of old men, And the glory of sons is their fathers.

Jewish Publication Society  Proverbs 17:6 Grandchildren are the crown of their elders, And the glory of children is their parents.

This proverb struck me, especially because of the second part.

Grandchildren and Grandparents

One of the things I’ve heard several parents say to their parents is, “You were always more strict with us than with my kids.” I think this proverb is noting that this is the case. There is also a note of glory in living long enough to see your children raise the next generation.

Children and Parents

The Hebrew of the second clause literally translates, “the beauty of sons are their fathers.” It obviously applies to all children and parents as which is made explicit in the JPS translation.

I suspect, as with most Proverbs, this is meant to take us in several directions. It certainly applies to me as a teacher, but only indirectly. I’m no parent. So don’t see this as me telling anybody how to raise their children. It’s me trying to think about how this Proverb was meant to be read. So, here is what I think it could mean:

  1. The distinct reputation of a young man in an ancient tribe or a modern small town would be connected to the deeds of his father. So his beauty/glory would be connected to whatever people knew his daddy for. If you want to give your child a good reputation in the world, get a good reputation for yourself.
  2. The thing that a young man will consider beautiful, praiseworthy, or glorious will be what he sees in his dad. Thus, the way a father lives will be a major factor in what his children grow up to value. So, if you want to instill faithfulness to the Lord and love of neighbor in your children, that had better be your own habit. If you want your kiddos to exercise, you’d better exercise. If you want your children to study, you’d better hit the books in front of them. If you’re a Christian, especially study the Bible with them.  Don’t just read it to them, but teach them how to ask questions about its meaning, how to find answers in the text, how to use other resources to understand it, and how to apply it to life.
  3. Finally, children are often enamored of their dad and his prowess. “My dad could beat up your dad.” In this case, if you’re a father, then your job is not only to exemplify virtue to your children but live so that when they get older they won’t become disillusioned by the real stories about you. Because, if it is true that your children find their glory/beauty in you, then don’t let them find out it was purely a survival mechanism for their childhood. Instead, make sure your life matches the instinctual hype.

Again, these are apparent applications of the Proverb, not necessarily instructions for you. Certainly these applications work for me as a teacher. When I see one of my students teach somebody else how to do mathematics or how to write well, I feel a deep swell of pride. Similarly, when I do sports against my students, I try to dominate (with varying degrees of success). I cite sources in speeches and lecture handouts. People will emulate competence if it is set before them as a valuable attainment.