Stoicism and Christianity, Part 2: The Taoist Farmer

I'm going to post some more on stoicism to work through some of the questions many of you raised to my last post. Please note that these posts will be rumative as I don’t know where this line of thinking is going in my own mind. I’m working it out with you out loud.

All I want to do in this post is simply to note that when I refer to stoicism I’m focusing on this idea of apatheia, the ability to deal with circumstances with a degree of equanimity.

I think all the great wisdom traditions agree the apatheia is critical to human well-being and happiness. I’ve hinted at these themes in the Christian tradition and obviously the Greeks agreed. But notions of apatheia are also important to the Eastern traditions as well (e.g., Buddhism, Taoism).

My favorite example of apatheia comes from a Taoist parable, the parable of the farmer. I frequently tell this story to my students and it has become very important to me in my own life. Here it is as an example of the kind of attitude I’m speaking of in this series:

A farmer named Sei Weng owned a beautiful mare which was praised far and wide. One day this beautiful horse disappeared. The people of his village offered sympathy to Sei Weng for his great misfortune. Sei Weng said simply, "Who can say what is good or bad?"

A few days later the lost mare returned, followed by a beautiful wild stallion. The village congratulated Sei Weng for his good fortune. He said, "Who can say what is good or bad?"

Some time later, Sei Weng's only son, while breaking in the stallion, fell off and broke his leg. The village people once again expressed their sympathy at Sei Weng's misfortune. Sei Weng again said, "Who can say what is good or bad?"

Soon thereafter, war broke out and all the young men of the village except Sei Weng's lame son were drafted and were killed in battle. The village people were amazed as Sei Weng's good luck. His son was the only young man left alive in the village. But Sei Weng kept his same attitude: despite all the turmoil, gains and losses, he gave the same reply, "Who can say what is good or bad?"

What I like about this parable is that it highlights the futility of continually sorting our experiences as “good” or “bad.” True, some things might be seen as truly, objectively bad. But that would be to miss the grain of truth expressed in the parable. For my students, I tell them that the moral of the parable is this: Let’s let go of all the drama. A message which, you might guess, is timely for my emotionally volatile college students.

Basically, what I think is important in the stoical approach is a patience with circumstance rather than an evaluation of circumstance (leading to the view that happiness is obtained by changing circumstance). I think this patience and willingness to absorb life as it comes is critical to well-being. As such, it is a stance that is philosophically therapeutic.

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4 thoughts on “Stoicism and Christianity, Part 2: The Taoist Farmer”

  1. Richard -

    Isn't this also an example of a kind of postmodern tentativeness and epistemic humility? This willingness to withhold judgment about "goodness" and "badness" - or, certainly in evangelical circles, attributing events to God's will or activity? See my recent post on that topic - note a lot more dialog and explanation in the comments, too.

  2. I believe it was the Tao Te Ching that stated a belief system that promotes duality and judgement results in good and bad, beauty and ugly, short and tall. Perhaps if we thought of all as a piece or glimpse of the perfection of oneness, this duality belief system would pass away.

  3. I see a lot of Job in this Tao parable. Job lost everything and said, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh." The farmer says, "Who can say what is good or bad?" I think you are right in saying that we need to let go of the drama and be patient. I wonder how our lives would turn out if we let go of the message that we have a right to be happy.

    Romans 8:28, And we know that in ALL things God works for the good of those who love him.

    I know I would not be where I am today had I not gone through what I have gone through. Good did come out of bad, so who can say what is good or bad?

    I look at the cross and think that is something bad but then without the cross I and the world would not be saved, so it is actually a good thing, so who can say what is good or bad?

    Good post.

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