Over this past semester, those of us in my Greek Philosophy (Classics 36) class – I and some brethren from CFC – were struck by how close Stoicism seemed to Christianity, especially the things that Seneca articulated. We were even unable to think of where Stoicism differed in practice from Christianity. I think this points to a problem with the way we now conceive of faith in Jesus Christ.
Stoicism’s currency in the past and today
In the first few centuries AD, Stoicism was the predominant philosophy held by the elites of the classical Mediterranean world. Having been around for some time, it propounded a view summed up by Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy in the following words:
In the life of the individual man, virtue is the sole good; such things as health, happiness, possessions, are of no account. Since virtue resides in the will, everything really good or bad in a man’s life depends only upon himself. He may become poor, but what of it? He can still be virtuous. A tyrant may put him in prison, but he can still persevere in living in harmony with Nature. He may be sentenced to death, but he can die nobly, like Socrates. Therefore every man has perfect freedom, provided he emancipates himself from mundane desires.
Now this may sound perfectly right and pure and just, and perhaps we even hear something very similar in church: my impression is that there is a lot of “just suck it up” going around about the choice to obey God. It is important to note, however, that the Christian faith supplanted the Stoic philosophy as time went on, showing that a large segment of the population, including the intellectuals, came to feel that there were problems that Stoicism failed to address, while a saving faith in Jesus did the opposite. So what is the problem? More specifically, what is the problem for the church now?
The problem with embracing Stoicism
The problem is that the Stoic mindset is a fixation more on being free of what the Stoic sees as “mundane desires” than on knowing joy in Christ Himself. For all the talk in Stoic books about maintaining a will and an inclination in accord with nature, at the root, the philosophy leans on nothing but human willpower and a misplaced faith in the divine spark in everyone that comprised part of the Logos of nature, identified with Stoicism’s pantheistic god. This is the way, then, for which Christ died: that we should save ourselves!
To make matters worse, for many in the church, we even imagine that the reward in heaven of which Jesus spoke is a material compensation for all we endure on this earth, just in case Stoicism offered too few incentives, and overly abstract ones. This is the corollary the church offers itself to the Stoic way of life. Does such a view even make sense? Why in the world, if we are to mortify our fleshly desires now, would we think that our reward should be to have those same desires satiated later? Just to have an eternity of it rather than a short few decades of it? I think not.
As one brother has commented,
You cannot base your outlook on life […] on the foundation that it could have been [worse] or even that someone else is worse off than you. Rather, it’s the surpassing joy of knowing Jesus that should dominate our perspective.
In the same way, the foundation that one must release desires in discord with nature by one’s willpower until it becomes an inclination of virtue is a foundation of sand.
No Stoicism is enough. No corollary on top of it is enough. We need something else, and I believe the church here has lost much of the sense of what that is: we don’t have something that the ancient church did.