Stoic Philosophy and Religious Practices
Stoic Philosophy and Religious Practices
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, in his philosophical reflections, described how Stoics might pray as a form of self-improvement. He describes an approach to prayer that resembles the use of affirmations, and could be of value even to atheists or agnostics as a self-help technique.
First of all, Marcus does mention a simpler and more direct approach to prayer:
A prayer of the Athenians: ‘Rain, rain, dear Zeus, on the ploughlands and plains of Attica.’ We should either pray in this simple and artless fashion, or not pray at all. (Meditations, 5.7)
According to legend, during one famous battle his legionaries were trapped on a plain, surrounded on all sides by numerous Quadi, and dying of thirst under the sun. In one version of the story, Marcus prayed and the heavens opened up pouring rain down upon his men, which they caught in their helmets and gulped down as they fought their way to freedom. This was known as “The Rain Miracle” of Marcus Aurelius.
Elsewhere in The Meditations, though, Marcus says something much more subtle and philosophical about prayer. He asks why those believing that the gods truly have power to help pray for external things rather than for their own freedom and wellbeing. Ironically, rather than praying for rain, in general, a Stoic should pray for strength of character and to neither crave the rain nor be afraid of the drought.
If they have power, why do you not pray to them to grant you the ability neither to fear any of these things nor to desire them, nor to be distressed by them, rather than praying that some of them should fall to you and others not? For surely, if the gods have any power to help human beings, they can help them in this. But perhaps you will object, ‘They have placed this in my own power.’ Well then, would it not be better to make use of what lies within your power as suits a free man rather than to strain for what lies beyond it in a slavish and abject fashion? In any case, who told you that the gods do not assist us even in things that lie within our power? Begin at least to pray so, and you will see. (9.40)
The last remark suggests that Marcus himself tried praying in this manner. He goes on, in the same passage, to give an example:
That man prays, ‘May I come to sleep with that woman,’ but you, ‘May I not desire to sleep with her.’ Another prays, ‘May I be rid of this man,’ but you, ‘May I no longer wish to be rid of him.’ Or another, ‘May I not lose my little child,’ but you, ‘May I not be afraid of losing him.’ In a word, turn your prayers round in such a way, and see what comes of it. (9.40)
Elsewhere, Marcus mentions two more examples of short Stoic prayers. The first expresses his attitude of Stoic acceptance or amor fati:
“Nature, give what it pleases you to give, and take what it pleases you to take” (Meditations, 10.14).
In another passage, he provides a slightly longer Stoic prayer addressed to universal Nature, the “Dear City of Zeus”, which expresses the same basic attitude of acceptance:
Everything suits me that suits your designs, O my universe. Nothing is too early or too late for me that is in your own good time. All is fruit for me that your seasons bring, O Nature. All proceeds from you, all subsists in you, and to you all things return. (Meditations, 4.23)
Stoics, in other words, pray as a means of expressing certain philosophical attitudes that it is within their own power to adopt. We could perhaps compare this to the repetition of a mantra or affirmation. They’re not so much asking the gods for help as reminding themselves to think about events in the way they’re describing. Modern Stoics, even if they’re atheists or agnostics, could adapt these “prayers” for use in daily life as a technique of self-improvement.
If you’re interested in learning more about Stoic philosophy and how it can be applied to daily living, see my latest book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.
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