The following is an excerpt from Modernity and the Rise of the Pocket God by Jonathan J. Mize. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
Our modern world has a complicated relationship with the word “sacrifice.”
Many a well-dressed, meticulously-groomed businessman and many a highly-trained doctor and shrewd lawyer think that they have availed themselves of this word and concept long ago. To the modern person, the standard reply to the question of what exactly sacrifice is goes something like this—“Sacrifice is simply an investment for your own success. If you choose your investments wisely, put in the work, and stay vigilant, then you’ll achieve everything you’ve always wanted!” This sentiment resonates viscerally with the modern “self-sufficient” and “self-made” person.
Looking back at popular self-help quotes, such pieces of superficial nourishment as “Destiny is as destiny does. If you believe you have no control, then you have no control” and “Your inner strength is your outer foundation” give credence to the notion that sacrifice is fundamentally self-centered.
Interestingly enough, there are ancient roots of this self-centered philosophy of success running deeply through modern society—those of Stoicism. The philosophy of ancient Stoicism has influenced modern people so much that there is even a hugely popular eponymous website, “Daily Stoic,” claiming to provide us with “Ancient wisdom for everyday life.” There are scores of books centered on the wisdom of the stoics, perhaps the most prominent being, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019).
To get a grip on what it is that “Daily Stoic,” and the overall landscape of modern Stoicism bring to the table, we need look no further than the assorted quotes of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, one of Stoicism’s earliest adherents.
- Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be One.
- Think of the life you have lived until now as over and, as a dead man, see what’s left as a bonus and live it according to Nature. Love the hand that fate deals you and play it as your own, for what could be more fitting?
- If it is not right, do not do it, if it is not true, do not say it.
- Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.
- External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.
To the strong-willed and healthy-egoed modern, these quotes may seem insightful and penetrating. Alas, the only merit of these words is that which is left behind after the purity of the Spirit has been skimmed off. Emperor Aurelius was wise. But he lacked the insight of Christ.
I want to visit a case I make in my book Modernity and the Rise of the Pocket God regarding the will and self-righteousness:
Simply speaking, there is no restriction that idolatry be something external to one’s self. Idolatry, especially in modern times, can invade one’s heart and embed itself deeply within the soul, siphoning off the Spirit and transducing its message into warped and egotistical fantasy. In the case of prosperity theology, the idol isn’t necessarily the physical money. The idol is the personal will, the self-image and the self-esteem. When these elements are mixed without temperance, self-righteousness is often the resulting cocktail.
Just as is the case in prosperity theology, the idol of Stoicism is not even anything physical. The idol of the stoic is their own will-power. Temperance means nothing if the will and ego are left to run roughshod over whatever superficial signs of humility the stoic countenance bears. This is nothing more than a fact of history—a society cannot place full emphasis upon the will of the individual and neglect to emphasize God and Divine covenants. Such a society runs the heavy risk of imploding into an internecine wasteland. This is part of what we’re seeing in action in the modern day.
The modern stoic and the self-help guru would have you believe that sacrifice is first and foremost a tool of self-empowerment. In both the stoic and the self-help philosophy, the capacity of the will is emphasized to an utterly absurd degree. Adherents hold steadfast to the words of a self-interested Roman emperor, “Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.” It is through such self-obsession that stoics and self-help fanatics can fully insulate themselves from their spiritual brothers and sisters at large. Both of these folks run the risk of turning inwards and playing a masturbatory game of “tame the will,” neglecting to care about their communities. After all, if it’s all about our will, what is the point in communal enrichment or societal reflection?
Praise for Modernity and the Rise of the Pocket God
“How can we restore a deep notion of the role of Christ in modern-day Christianity and how will modern-day society benefit from this? In this book, Jonathan Mize delivers astonishing and faith-restoring answers to both related questions. This book is a must-read for everyone interested in Christianity.”
—Vincent Geilenberg, coauthor of the scientific paper, Panentheism and the Problem of World Inclusion: A Category-Theoretic Approach
About the Author
Jonathan J. Mize is a scholar and author from Dallas, Texas. He has a BA in philosophy from the University of North Texas and has published several books and academic articles. His most recent book is From Left to Right: Journeying from Identity Politics to Human Politics.