Politics & Impassibility

We previously referred to TC Moore’s reflections on Gonzalez’s arguments regarding the origin and development of the concept of apatheia within Hellenism. The argument is that the ancient Greek conception of God was “an aristocratic idea of God” that served the privilege of the higher classes by “sacralizing changelessness as a divine characteristic.” TC urges:

“The doctrine of impassibility comes from an Athenian society built on the backs of slave labor. Impassibility was the natural outflow of Athenian aristocracy’s indifference to the suffering of the lower classes. They projected their value of personal impassibility onto their conception of God.”

That’s an interesting and very strong proposition. But is it in fact accurate to say the origin and development of Hellenistic belief in divine impassibility to the desire for permanence (of power) on the part of the ruling class? How plausible is it to suppose that ancient Athenian politics was responsible for the philosophical development of belief in the notion that divine being was ‘impassible’, a projection onto God of the political aspirations of the elite? The question of how apatheia was adopted/revised by Christians (a legitimate and very important question) isn’t the point here. At this point, we’re simply interested in Gonzalez’s (and TC’s) claim that apatheia developed philosophically in ancient Greece as a projection onto deity of the political aspirations for the permanence of the city and privilege on the part of the ruling class.

I have my doubts about this proposition, but given the fact that I’m no authority on the history of classical Hellenistic thought or Church history, I thought I’d ask others (who are qualified to offer an opinion) on what they think of Gonzalez’s thesis.

Paul Gavrilyuk who specializes in Greek Patristics, modern Orthodox theology, and philosophy of religion at St. Thomas University, and whose doctoral work focused on this very question, commented:

Does apatheia as a human virtue (and/or divine attribute) have a credible political pedigree? To the extent that most theology was done by people who could read, write and had some free time, it could be claimed that any divine attribute served an ideological purpose of their class. The most obvious problem with this claim is that human apatheia was endorsed equally by Epictetus (a freed slave) and Marcus Aurelius (an emperor), since both of them were Stoic philosophers. In a very different context and with a radically different function, apatheia is central to the spirituality of Evagrius of Pontus, a late fourth century monk, who had little possessions. I certainly do not intend to be dismissive of ideological criticism, but the burden of proof is always on those who are making causal connections between general socio-political conditions and concrete theological claims. Impassibility was affirmed by people of fairly diverse socio-economic backgrounds, as it is to be expected from something that was taken as a generally accepted Christian belief.”

I put the question to Philosopher William Vallicella as well. He addressed a slightly different flaw in TC/Gonzalez’s thinking.

“If God exists, then he is either impassible or not. This question cannot be decided by showing, assuming that it could be shown, that widespread belief that God is impassible would help legitimate the dominance of the ruling class…

“There is nothing new about the move Gonzalez appears to be making. It’s old hat. It is the standard Marxist rubbish of reducing belief systems to systems of ideology in the service of class interests. But if all is ideology in the service of class interests, then so is the system of Marxist beliefs, in which case it is a self-vitiating system of beliefs if not outright self-refuting.”

The point has to be conceded — even if belief that God is impassible did in fact serve the interests of the ruling class and develop in that context, that association itself is not enough, logically speaking, to falsify the claim that God is impassible. Still, I wanted a bit more specifically on the historical plausibility of the claim itself, i.e., the claim that belief in divine apatheia developed among the political elite or cultural aristocracy as a projection onto God of their aspirations for power. So I put the question to Dr. Martha Nussbaum (University of Chicago professor, author of a wide range of works, and a recognized authority on classical Hellenistic philosophy and ethics). She comments:

“I think this is not so plausible. The most ‘elite’ of the Athenian philosophers, Plato, did not have this concept [apatheia]. Aristotle, who had a related concept (of the Unmoved Mover) justified the concept through arguments about the movement of the heavens, nothing to do with politics, and he was a political outsider, a ‘resident alien’ with no civil rights. Epicurus, who was the first to develop the idea of divine apatheia in a general and influential way, was a lower-class outsider who detested the elites. He said ‘I have spat upon the fine and all who gape at it in an empty fashion’. The Stoics believed that all human beings should seek emotional detachment, and that this was a godlike state, and they were famously egalitarian, holding that virtue was equally attainable by rich and poor, male and female, slave and free.”

Much more can be said about the development and employment of the concept of apatheia that puts Gonzalez’s reading of history to rest. Zeno of Citium (c. 334—c. 262 BC), founder of Stoicism (a movement which developed a full methodology of ethics built around apatheia as a virtue) was originally Cyprian, not of natural Greek citizenship, was a merchant not an aristocrat, and refused Greek citizenship when Athens offered it to him. Zeno’s mentor Crates of Thebes (c. 365–c. 285 BC), though an heir to great wealth, renounced all his privilege and lived poverty stricken in the streets of Athens as a Cynic. Further examples abound. Nussbaum (Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions [2003] and The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics [2009]) rehearses the development and pursuit of apatheia as a virtue in all these Hellenistic schools of thought. The Stoics perhaps had the most developed ethics built on the pursuit of apatheia as a virtue and they were cosmopolitans who believed that the worth of human beings transcended differences of wealth and class.

If either TC or Gonzalez has concrete evidence, i.e., lines of argument and statements that actually appear in the relevant literature that link apatheia in early (or late) Hellenistic thought to the political fortunes of the ruling class, we’re all ears. But what we have thus far from Gonzalez doesn’t at all constitute evidence. Perhaps Gonzalez has just read his own history and class victimization into his reading of history, we don’t know. But so far as his suggested history of apatheia is concerned, it doesn’t work.

(Picture here.)

4 comments on “Politics & Impassibility

  1. […] friends and fellow Open Theists Tom and T.C. are having an excellent discussion on the attributes of God.  Last week, I wrote Open […]


  2. fenoglios says:

    Good stuff y’all. Glad to have some incisive research on the issue. Thanks.


  3. tgbelt says:

    I’m placing the following comment as a reply (and removing it from the body of our post) because the point of the post is being lost on Beck, about whom some are preoccupied. We found his engagement of Stoicism “interesting.” That’s all. We sure as he** aren’t equating Stoicism with the Gospel.

    Here’s the reference: (While we’re on apatheia and its practical effects/pursuits, Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology had a helpful 4-part series on Stoicism & Christianity. It’s from several years ago and he no longer leans in that direction.)

    Can we keep our eye on the ball? The point of the post has nothing to do with Beck. The point is that the earlier claim that the philosophical development of the concept of divine apatheia was on some level driven by the concern of Athenian aristocracy to safeguard and promote their privileges isn’t even slightly plausible.


  4. Rob Parris says:

    It is becoming far too common to define boundaries in such a way that some things just cannot be said at all. Rampant in theology, philosophy, economics, politics, ethics. I thank God for you Tom and Dwayne. Even when I disagree with either of you, it’s never been the case that you ruled things out of bounds by this technique. It is intellectually dishonest. And disgusting.


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