Hanukkah and Stoicism

There is, in fact, and important connection between this Jewish holiday, and Stoicism.

Upon the death of Alexander the Great, his Empire was divided among his generals. In time the Syrian “Seleucid Empire” came to be ruled by Antiochus Epiphanies who also gained control of Jerusalem. This coincided with a campaign against Judaism Judea. Circumcision and Torah observance became outlawed. Jews were forced, on pain of death, to sacrifice unkosher animals on the alter, to rededicate the Temple to the Greek god Zeus and to eat meat that had been offered up to idols. In reaction to this oppression a group of Jewish warriors known as the Maccabees fled into the wilderness and fought gorilla warfare against the Greco-Syrians. They ultimately prevailed and rededicated the Temple to YHWH on the 25th of Kislev, establishing the eight day festival of Channukah to celebrate the re-dedication of the alter.

The Channukah story is recounted in the books of 1st Maccabees and 2nd Maccabees, found in the “Apocrypha”.

There is an ancient Hebraic Stoic text known as “On the Supremacy of Reason” and commonly known as “4th Maccabees“, and which was written to commemorate the Jewish holiday of Hannukah:

[7] I could prove to you from many and various examples that reason is dominant over the emotions,
[8] but I can demonstrate it best from the noble bravery of those who died for the sake of virtue, Eleazar and the seven brothers and their mother.
[9] All of these, by despising sufferings that bring death, demonstrated that reason controls the emotions.
[10] On this anniversary it is fitting for me to praise for their virtues those who, with their mother, died for the sake of nobility and goodness, but I would also call them blessed for the honor in which they are held.
[11] For all people, even their torturers, marveled at their courage and endurance, and they became the cause of the downfall of tyranny over their nation. By their endurance they conquered the tyrant, and thus their native land was purified through them.
[12] I shall shortly have an opportunity to speak of this; but, as my custom is, I shall begin by stating my main principle, and then I shall turn to their story, giving glory to the all-wise God.
(4th Maccabees 1:7-12 RSV)

In its opening chapters this his Stoic text lays out some basic principles of Hebraic Stoicism (4Macc. 1:1-3:18) while the remainder of the book presents the Hannukah martyrs (taken from 2Maccabees) as case studies of applied Stoicism, effectively crediting the Channukah victory to Stoic principles.

In effect, this text presents Hannukah as a celebration of Stocism, and ascribes the preservation of Judaism via the Hannukah victory, to the application of Stoic principles.

For those of us who celebrate Channukah, we should recall the principles of Stoicism while we light the candles. For those not already in the custom of celebrating Hannukah may wish to adopt the practice as an annual commemoration of the principles of Stoicism in our lives.