On Stoicism and Christianity

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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.