William Penn Among the Stoics

William Penn and the Stoics

William Penn remains one of early Quakerism’s most vibrant thinkers. He not only applied Quaker principles to the tricky business of statecraft but synthesized the charismatic spirituality of the early 1640s with the intellectual impulses of the Restoration’s cultural elite. Among the most influential ingredients of this fusion was the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism. Rooted in the rich intellectual melting-pot of 4th century Athens, the Stoic School taught that the path to greatest happiness involved a life of contemplation, simplicity, and sobriety.  At the heart of these commitments was a firm belief that deep within each person there subsisted a divine spark of Reason which connected each creature to a Supreme Being.  We might say that Stoics felt called to live an ‘accompanied life’. A Stoic sage might be deprived of his possessions, thrown in prison, or be facing death, but he was never distant from the true non-material basis of his happiness, that is, the temple of the heart, where each person meets God. Thus, in a tone, familiar to many contemporary Quakers, the Stoic teacher Epictetus reflects in his Discourses: ‘When you close your doors and make darkness within, remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within, and your genius is within. And what need have they of light to see what you are doing?’ (Book I, Ch. 14).

What did this ‘God within’ mean for Stoic attitudes about the outside world? Such an imminent theology rendered the universe a single city, with each member of that universal community holding equal citizenship. This latter belief generated a fascinating flip side to Stoic inwardness. While Stoic teachers emphasized the power of solitude and moderation, the best of the Stoics were actively involved in public affairs and the education of fellow citizens. For his sins, the Stoic sage Seneca the Younger (4 BCE– CE 65) was tutor to the troubled Roman emperor Nero, while Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) was himself a Roman emperor (one of Rome’s five Good Emperors) at a time when Rome’s imperial frontiers were beginning to crumble. While his rule could have come at an easier time, his reign is generally remembered by Latin historians as one of solid government, guided by moderation and justice. As the  Victorian critic, Matthew Arnold observed: ‘Marcus Aurelius has, for us moderns, this great superiority in interest over Saint Louis or Alfred, that he lived and acted in a state of society modern by its essential characteristics, in an epoch akin to our own, in a brilliant centre of civilization.’ These examples tell us much about the Stoic character. To be a sage was to live in the world (contribute to the building up of institutions)  but not ‘of the world’. Outward trouble could not blacken the pearl of the soul because the truly philosophical personality was always fed by deeper things than the lure of worldly success.

Image result for William PennEver the scholar, Penn took over this tradition in Christianised form, arguing that Quakers (‘primitive Christians revived’) were the true heirs of Stoicism. While never wavering from the orthodox contention that Jesus Christ was the supreme source of human salvation, like the Church Fathers, Penn argued that seeds of Divine Truth were scattered in the surviving works of pagan authors, including the Stoic sages. What particularly impressed Penn was the Stoic fusion of morality and cosmology. The Stoics (like the early Christians) had believed in a providential universe, in which each event was part of a preordained plan, devised by supra-natural law-giver. Virtue and life were interwoven, in such a vision, so that the man who lived by God’s laws, also lived in accordance with nature. As Penn notes in his 1673 apologetic Christian Quaker, the early Stoic Cleanthes is worthy of praise because he taught that ‘human happiness and virtue depends upon the close correspondence of the mortal mind with the divine will that governs the universe’ (VII). At the forefront of Penn’s mind was probably Cleanthes’ surviving hymn to Zeus, a text which beautifully expresses the Stoic doctrine of providence. Below is an extract:

Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,
Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you,
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God’s image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.
Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.
The whole universe, spinning around the earth,
goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you.
So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands,
your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.
By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established,
and with it you guide the universal Word of Reason which moves through all creation,
mingling with the great sun and the small stars.
O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.
But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.
For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Word of all came to be one.
This Word, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to God’s universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.

What did Penn get from these sources? Primarily they enabled him to place Quakerism in the context of a long spiritual odyssey. Per this expansive reading of sacred history, Quakerism (as it appeared in late Stuart England) was not merely a provincial English invention, but the reappearance of an ancient wisdom revealed to all godly people in every epoch. Thus, when Seneca suggests in his Epistles that ‘a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian’ (Ep. 41.) Penn suggests that the philosopher is talking about the Light Friends experience in worship (Christian Quaker, XII). How did such pronouncements impact Penn’s Quakerism? Probably the most noteworthy footprint of this synthetic attitude can be observed in a little text of Penn’s called Some Fruits of Solitude (1682). Originally composed as an explanatory epistle for the education of Penn’s children, the text is constructed in the style of Stoic moral aphorisms, with highly reminiscent reflections on moderation and the virtues of the quiet life. In a passage (echoing Seneca’s recommendation against spending time in crowds) Penn writes:

The Country Life is to be preferr’d; for there we see the Works of God; but in Cities little else but the Works of Men: And the one makes a better Subject for our Contemplation than the other…. God’s Works declare his Power, Wisdom, and Goodness; but Man’s Works, for the most part, his Pride, Folly, and Excess. …The Country is both the Philosopher’s Garden and his Library, in which he Reads and Contemplates the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God… A Sweet and Natural Retreat from Noise and Talk, and allows opportunity for Reflection, and gives the best Subjects for it. (Fruits, 220-226).

 Some Stoic Texts

Image result for StoicismWhat significance might such philosophical connections have for Quakers today? Instead of offering further commentary, I want to share a few Stoic texts, which encapsulate the deep well of wisdom from which Penn drew. By coming to appreciate these sources, we can come, not only to appreciate these ‘Quakers before Quakerism’, but also understand the ways in which our own Quaker story liberally borrows from the stories of others.

Peace: Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together…Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Equality: But you are a superior thing; you are a portion separated from the deity; you have in yourself a certain portion of him. Why then are you ignorant of your own noble descent? Why do you not know whence you came? will you not remember when you are eating, who you are who eat and whom you feed? When you are in conjunction with a woman, will you not remember who you are who do this thing? When you are in social intercourse, when you are exercising yourself, when you are engaged in discussion, know you not that you are nourishing a god, that you are exercising a god? Wretch, you are carrying about a god with you, and you know it not. Do you think that I mean some God of silver or of gold, and external? You carry him within yourself, and you perceive not that you are polluting him by impure thoughts and dirty deeds. And if an image of God were present, you would not dare to do any of the things which you are doing: but when God himself is present within and sees all and hears all, you are not ashamed of thinking such things and doing such things, ignorant as you are of your own nature and subject to the anger of God. Epictetus, Discourses

Image result for Stoa Truth: Don’t concern yourself with your neighbours’ affairs or anything that distracts you from fidelity to Reason, it would be a loss of opportunity for some other task. Habituate your thinking so that if asked what you are thinking you could always respond honestly and without hesitation thus proving all your thoughts are simple and kindly and the type of thoughts that keep you unsullied and impervious to evil. You will be a competitor in the greatest of all contests, the struggle against passion’s mastery. And only concerns himself with the opinions of men who live in accord with Nature, all others he reminds himself of their characters and company they keep and their approval has no value for him. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Simplicity: Repellent attire, unkempt hair, slovenly beard, open scorn of silver dishes, a couch on the bare earth, and any other perverted forms of self-display, are to be avoided.  The mere name of philosophy, however quietly pursued, is an object of sufficient scorn; and what would happen if we should begin to separate ourselves from the customs of our fellow-men?  Inwardly, we ought to be different in all respects, but our exterior should conform to society.  Do not wear too fine, nor yet too frowzy, a toga.  One needs no silver plate, encrusted, and embossed in solid gold; but we should not believe the lack of silver and gold to be proof of the simple life.  Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the multitude, but not a contrary standard; otherwise, we shall frighten away and repel the very persons whom we are trying to improve…. Philosophy calls for plain living, but not for penance, and we may perfectly well be plain and neat at the same time. This is the mean of which I approve; our life should observe a happy medium between the ways of a sage and the ways of the world at large; all men should admire it, but they should understand it also. Well then, shall we act like other men?  Shall there be no distinction between ourselves and the world? “Yes, a very great one; let men find that we are unlike the common herd if they look closely. If they visit us at home, they should admire us. rather than our household appointments, he is a great man who uses earthenware dishes as if they were silver; but he is equally great who uses silver as if it were earthenware. From Seneca’s Epistles

Final Reflections: The Dignity of Contemplation

Image result for stoicismDoubtless, a closer appreciation of the relationship between Stoicism and Quakerism can still do for us what it did for Penn. Stoicism might help more insular Friends out of their spiritual shells a bit. By participating a generous dialogue with Stoic thought, we can set ourselves in a wider spiritual context, deeply ‘rooted in Christianity but open to new light’.  Stoicism teaches us that we are not alone on the spiritual quest and that wisdom has many watering holes.  But a revaluation of the role of Stoicism in Penn’s religious thought does something else as well. Today many British Quakers are orientated towards action out in the world through campaigns for peace and social justice.All this work is doubtless to the good, but there is always the danger that ‘good works culture’ leaves out vital spiritual skills that secretly sustain our witness.

Such is the frenzy of activity that some Friends find it increasingly hard to stand back and appreciate what Penn saw as ‘the fruits of solitude’. We have forgotten that introspection and self-examination (practiced by Friends in their early journals) are not spiritual luxuries, but necessary ingredients for a balanced Quaker life. For an activity to be meaningful it should be foregrounded in a prayerful attitude which is open to uncovering hidden depths in any given situation. Our work will not be useful to ourselves or others if it is ill-conceived or ill-directed. We need a stable base of composure in order to act properly. But on the back of this, Penn and Stoics teach us a further lesson. There is even dignity in contemplation (even of a highly philosophical variety, to which some ‘practical’ Friends are deeply averse). As the Stoics believed and Penn affirmed, there is no inherent contradiction between the discipline of introspection and public service. After all, it is by going within that we can see more clearly the shape of our lives and those places where the Spirit moves or is being denied. It is by stopping and dwelling in a state of thoughtful stillness that we can find the renewed energy to out into the world armed with our Testimonies. A life devoid of reflection is likely to render us reactive to events, rather than truly responsive to them. In such a disoriented state, we are liable to mistake immediate concerns for non-negotiable duties. Anyone who has had the misfortune of stumbling across my Facebook Page over the last few days can attest to this confusion. What with money and job worries (combined with Brexit, and Trump) I have been more than a little shrill.  Sometimes has been a genuine challenge for me to keep a sense of inner calm and maintain a degree of perspective. I live in one of the richest countries on earth, I am in no imminent danger of being homeless or going hungry. I have a mobile phone; a stable internet connection and friends close by. Things feel tougher than they should be, but aren’t they always? And what of the worries generated by social media and our television screens? As Marcus Aurelius puts the matter soberly: ‘Run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend. Think of all the examples. And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.” It is for reasons of perspective that Advice 3 is such a precious reminder of what really matters: ‘Do you try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit? All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life. Do you encourage in yourself and in others a habit of dependence on God’s guidance for each day? Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God’. A wise advice which I aim to follow.


11 thoughts on “William Penn Among the Stoics

    1. I haven’t come across any obvious connections between Penn and Lipsius. On the other hand, the sources at Penn’s disposal were clearly vast (with references to Plato, Seneca, Plotinus and the Apostolic Fathers to name a few scattered liberally throughout his work) so Lipsius may have just slipped my notice. Thanks for the question. I’ll certainly follow it up.

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Ben. I didn’t make much headway with Penn’s Fruits of Solitude; maybe I should try it again. Another slightly later work of Christian Stoicism that I did get a lot out of though was William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, a readable and even witty book that is also extremely challenging in its moral demands on the reader. So I do have some sympathy with this approach. But I have doubts, too.

    Stoicism, despite its belief in universal access to the light of truth, does seem to be creed for the rich and powerful elite. Why is this so? What would a poor Stoic look and sound like? (Toga too frowsy to be acceptable to Seneca, maybe?) What would be the advice of a Christian Stoic of the Restoration and Augustan ages to an African enslaved on a Jamaica plantation? I fear it would be something along the lines of, “Slaves, obey your masters. Be consoled that though your body is enslaved, your mind is free.” I seem to remember too that the Stoic concept of the Great Chain of Being was used in that period to justify the slave trade and slavery: on this reading, Black Africans were the intermediate link in the chain between human and beast. Matthew Arnold’s comment about the similarities between the Rome of Marcus Aurelius and his own (later, Victorian) time are revealing in this connection. The England of Penn and Law was coming to resemble later republican and imperial Rome in many ways: an oligarchy that maintained itself through patron-client relations and a ferocious penal code, and, at the bottom, in the colonies, through exploitation and slavery on a huge scale.

    I suspect that the problem with Stoicism lies in part with the fusion of morality and cosmology, of God’s laws and nature’s laws. If the way the world is now reflects the Divine design, this doesn’t leave much room for the prophetic critique of injustice and oppression that characterises the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, the early Quakers, and later critics of complacent Anglo-American Christianity like John Woolman and William Blake (“Good Advice for Satan’s Kingdom”). I’m reminded too of Karl Barth’s attack on the natural theology that allowed many German theologians to accommodate themselves to Germany’s war aims and methods in 1914 and later to Nazi beliefs about the Volk, and of how this Barthian critique was later deployed by Christian opponents of apartheid against the white-supremacist Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa.

    I think too that part of what I found difficult about Fruits of Solitude was a sense that this is when Quakers went off the boil and began to become an exclusive club of bankers and merchants practising “the simplicity that only money can buy,” as Edmund White says about a private Quaker school in one of his novels. For, as Dorothy Day used to say, it is expensive to be poor, and one reason for this is hinted at by the Seneca quotation: “Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the multitude, but not a contrary standard,” &c (note the assumption here that the Stoic is not one of the ‘multitude’; even the austere Law tends to assume that the poor are people we ought to be serving, not the ones who might actually be reading his book). Simple but well-made possessions are not cheap, but their simplicity also signals that the owner is confident in their social status and is not under pressure to flaunt their wealth to prove they’ve made it.

    I’m reminded of the constant struggles over the heating in the open-plan office where I work. My working-class colleagues mostly want the thermostat turned up full blast, while the more middle-class ones (like me) and the senior managers generally want to turn it down. Part of what’s going on I suspect is that the former turn their heating up at home in part to demonstrate that they’re not in fuel poverty, while people like me can live in cooler conditions because we don’t have to prove that we’re not poor. A greater sensitivity to these differences in social class and consequent outlook on life might help British Quakers to break out of their very narrow social circle and welcome others to their Meetings. I’m not at all sure that the patrician culture of the Stoics would be helpful here.

    Alan Paxton

    1. Thanks, Alan. I think these points are really crucial and very well made. You’ve identified the dark side of Stoicism, that being, it was an elite movement and tended to accept an oppressive status quo. The use of Stoic ideas by later Quakers such as Penn can be read in two ways. As a deepening of the Quaker tradition or as ‘selling out’. Perhaps both positions are true in a certain sense. The latter view is powerfully articulated by the Quaker historian Doug Gwyn who suggests that Stoicism gave later mercantile Quakers a blueprint for embracing early industrial capitalism at the expense of the radical Covenant Theology of Friends you find in the 1640s. I have a great deal of sympathy with that view. Does that mean Penn should be ignored and his memory run out of the Society? No, at least not for me. It is perhaps possible to ‘clean up’ and ‘democratize’ these ideas so they are genuinely rather than partially, rooted in Quaker Testimonies. For instance,I have equal reservations about the way natural law rhetoric can be abused and misused. Is there a way out? Maybe the language of ‘unity in creation’ (a way of speaking that Quakers use from time to time) is a better place to start than the language of ‘natural law’. Being part of a created providential order doesn’t mean by hierarchy by default. It might mean companionship,connection, and obligation, which is not a million miles from Epictetus at his best. I guess the challenge we have as Friends is that of constantly sifting through the insights we encounter (from many perspectives) to what pearls we might find. The Stoics have a few, but as you say, there is heavy dross as well. Discernment is needed, especially if we are to be prevented from becoming (more) insular and snooty.

      1. Thank you, Ben. A propos your piece on Penn, I found it very interesting. Thank you. On a slightly different tack, Fox looked to the Bible for Quaker antecedents–Moses, Isaiah, Jesus etc were all Quakers according to him. Other Quakers agreed but I can’t remember if Penn did so.

        As an aside, I’m inclined to think that, with the odd exception, Quakerism deteriorated after the first wave of revolutionary fervour ended c. 1663/4; maybe it’s impossible for any group to maintain such an all-encompassing commitment to a Lamb’s War. My “The Early Quakers and the ‘Kingdom of God'” goes up to the mid-1660s but it would be interesting to see how much their commitment to their spiritual War (the ‘Kingdom’ in action so to speak) was carried into the latter half of the 17th century. There is evidence that some northern Quakers were still refusing to pay tithes in the 1720s. Just a few thoughts.

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