Sunday, June 7, 2009

Norman Lear's religious tolerance, Stoicism, Obama, and the coming generation

I heard Norman Lear interviewed today, and was startled to hear him say several things I think of as essentially Stoic. In particular, that each individual has his or her own theism--whether it be monotheistic, polytheistic, atheistic or whatever--to address. Each of us must determine that relationship for ourselves. In Norman Lear's eyes ( this is what has determined whether or not he has lived a purposeful life; for other individuals, he stresses, it may or may not be the same--that is none of his concern. Particularly he makes it clear how others address their religious concerns is none of his concern. Religious unconcern is the basis for his religious tolerance, in fact, the result of his belief that divine struggles are personal, not collective; they reside in each of us, and it is not the individual's proper place to determine what the religious beliefs of others should or should not be.

It is a typically Stoic position; both Marcus Aurelius Antoninus ( and Epictetus ( express similar beliefs. Simplicius, historian of Alexander the Great, records in Epictetus's Enchiridion ("handbook"): "...and if it relates to anything which is not in our power, be ready to say, that it does not concern you." Lear cites American forefathers Jefferson and Madison as progenitors of his views. He calls their thought "secular humanism." He writes:

"That is, with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and most of the nation's other founders, I believe that whether one is theist or atheist is irrelevant to civil purpose. Jefferson: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god.” Madison: “Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, profess and observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.” In other words, some of my—and America's—best friends are secular humanists.

George Long, who translated Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus at the end of the 19th century, and who taught at Jefferson's University of Virginia, discusses at length in his introductions to these works by these two philosophers (Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) the long tradition of Stoic thought in history:

"From the time of Zeno to Simplicius, a period of about nine hundred years, the Stoic Philosophy formed the characters of some of the best and greatest men."

How did Stoic thought come down to Norman Lear? Most educated men of Madison and Jefferson's generation had read these works by Epictetus and Antoninus; they were an important part of the "core curriculum" of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, carried through since the Renaissance's great Classical revival. Norman Lear read and agreed with Madison and Jefferson, but really Madison and Jefferson were channeling Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, and he agreed with them. Many of us today agree with them. We are, perhaps, Neo-Stoics and don't realize it. Obama surely is, and anyone who has heard or read his views on religious toleration knows it (

I think maybe this kind of tolerance is what is catching the imagination of those in our current generation who say they are not religious, but are spiritual; or say they are personally atheistic but don't mind others believing what they want(whatever floats your spiritual boat); inclusive, accepting of diversity, not exclusive. They are in this secular humanistic, Stoic tradition so well expressed in Norman Lear's personal philosophy. I think the age of Lear and the NeoStoics has found its time. Our world communicates so well now, we all might as well think of ourselves as seated at the same table. And we all know we shouldn't be discussing the religion, sex, and politics of each other --it is none of our concern!--but respect each others' differences of opinion in all matters religious, sexual, and political.

As Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (Meditations,VIII, 56)puts it, be tolerant of other's free will to opine as they will:

"To my own free will the free will of my neighbor is just as indifferent as his poor breath and flesh. For though we are made especially for the sake of one another, still the ruling power of each of us has its own office..."

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