On Stoicism and Christianity

Standard

Stoicism and Christianity have a very long and storied history together.  Whether we look at the Roman era, and early Christians wanting to be seen as a rival philosophical school, or clearly Stoic terminology in Pauline ethics (specifically the Book of Romans).  In large part, it is the subsuming of practical wisdom and spiritual exercise of Hellenic philosophy into Christian theology which hastened the decline of the Greek schools.

So, what does modern-day Stoicism and Christianity have in common?  Can Stoicism be merely a set of practices and thought-models that one appends to Christianity or any other belief?  Are there irreconcilable differences between the two?  Which is more closely compatible to Stoicism, Christianity or atheism?  These are the questions we will address in this essay.

Attempting to reconcile Christianity with Stoicism is not a new thing, in fact, during the 16th and 17th centuries this was popular enough to merit the epithet “Neostoicism.”  On the surface, Christianity and Stoicism have a lot in common, not at all coincidentally.  Stoicism’s professed telos is eudaimonia or “happiness” (lit. good-spiritedness).  Christianity promises eternal salvation through the Passion of Jesus Christ.  Both of these, while radically different ends, are acquired through virtuous action in one’s life.  Stoicism denotes virtue and vice as two items which lie within the will, specifically our intentions.  Christianity has a series of prescriptions and prohibitions which amount to virtue and sin.  Note:  vice and sin in these senses are not one-to-one compatible.  Stoicism professes (classically, and contentiously for many today) belief in the universe-as-god, while Christianity is an Abrahamic faith believing in the God of Abraham and Issac.  Stoicism is cosmopolitan, seeing all rational beings as brothers and sisters in the Logos.  Christianity professes the universality of the brotherhood of man through God and the church.

One can continue to draw many parallels between the two.  However, a trend will arise.  Parallels may be drawn, but there are few one-to-one analogues.  The immortality of the soul and the inherent dualism of the material versus spiritual is at odds with the monism of the Stoics, and the idea that not even the soul of the Sage survives ἐκπύρωσις (ekpyrosis).  Stoic vice is personal, and is those judgments and actions which are within our control and contrary to nature.  Sin is that which separates man from God, and is a universal.  At the core, Stoicism seeks to use reason to determine right and wrong, while Christianity relies on the revealed faith of the scriptures and God’s prophets.

There is a contention amongst some modern practitioners of Stoicism, that the an atheist view point is not only acceptable, but is the more correct interpretation of Stoic tradition.  One has only to read Epictetus’ Discourses to note the frequency which he references God, and duties there.  Atheist ethics are grounded in social constructs, there is not a universal measure to which we can check for good and evil.  Stoicism is inherently a deist or theist school of thought.  While it may certainly be possible to divorce that from it, it is a major change.  At some point, one is obliged to note such changes, or rename the thing all together.

Between the two, Christianity seems to be closer, in my estimation, but are still a ways apart.  For the person seeking to create a synthesis between the two, one or both most suffer.  I have seen some … heterodox interpretations of Christianity which seem even closer, but the conception of the Abrahamic God and the pantheist/panentheist Stoic God seem worlds apart, pun intended.

5 thoughts on “On Stoicism and Christianity

  1. Practical wisdom goes back at least to Solomon who says “Give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong”. 1 Kgs. 9. Solomon is said to have lived around 950 BC.

  2. “Atheist ethics are grounded in social constructs, there is not a universal measure to which we can check for good and evil.”

    Not to nitpick such a tiny detail of your lovely post, but that’s not always true. Many atheists (perhaps most) are ethical naturalists/realists. To look just at the secular Stoic community, for instance, I’m pretty sure Massimo Pigliucci and Donald Robertson explicitly reject the idea that morality is a social construct.

  3. No worries, nit pick away! (;
    The claim I see from the Robertson/Pigliucci camp is that since one *can* separate Stoic ethics from physics, it’s fine to do so. The fact is, the classical Stoics themselves repeatedly state that one informs the other, Just because one can separate doesn’t mean it should be done.

    I have not seen their position described as naturalist before, in fact, were that the case, they’d be arguing a position closer to the traditional perspective than I think either would be comfortable with. Can you expand on that, a bit, please?

    • “The claim I see from the Robertson/Pigliucci camp is that since one *can* separate Stoic ethics from physics, it’s fine to do so.”

      Something like that. From what I’ve seen of them talking about it, they do believe that atheistic/agnostic Stoicism is still “recognizable as Stoicism,” but they acknowledge the ancients saw physics and ethics as tightly interconnected, and that they are disagreeing with some doctrines that the ancients would have considered important. Pigliucci, at least, does also discuss physics as something we can learn from. His non-teleological, non-conscious interpretation of the Logos, however, would hardly satisfy a bona fide pantheist.

      So, on the one hand, Robertson & Pigliucci agree that they have created something “new” that is different from classical Stoicism. But they also don’t feel that they have stretched the word “Stoic” out to the point of being unrecognizable to the ancients. That second point is where they fall into disagreement with Traditional Stoics (though IMO the disagreement seems to be a matter of degree).

      ——

      “I have not seen their position described as naturalist before”

      Terms are tricky here, and I’m far from a master of meta-ethics ;). But by “naturalism” or “realism” I mean to denote the family of views that say ethical propositions express “objective features of the world, independent of human opinion.”

      Make of that what you will! Atheist “realists” typically focus on the “objective features” of human nature as the basis of morality. The religiously-inclined are more likely to focus on teleological arguments that appeal to a higher purpose.

      As I read it, the ancient Stoics made regular use of both kinds of arguments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s