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Posted by5 months ago

Whats the difference between stoicism and christian philosophy/ethics?

I am a christian theologian and have seen so many similarities and influences with stoicism. Apart from stoicism being a secular philosophy, what are the differences?

129 comments
79% Upvoted
level 1
· 5 mo. ago · edited 5 mo. ago

In Christianity, God speaks the Logos, in Stoicism, God is the Logos. It doesn’t seem like a big difference but in certain areas it does lead to divergence.

While Christians happily developed the Stoic emotional theory, many were put off by things like Stoic Compatiblism; there is no free will in Stoicism. It appears Cleanthes was a little closer to the Christian position on this (everything is fated except some human Vices), but Chrysippus, the main Stoic, gave us basically only our final Assent that a given interpretation is true or false. This is part of what tanked Neo-Stoicism (Seneca doesn’t harp on these points, so Christians between the fall of Rome and the 1600s happily used him). If you simply reject this Stoic position and substitute in a Christian-Aristotelian free will, what is “up to you” will be very different (with consequence for blame and responsibility).

Ditto for what we can expect to achieve in Stoicism. This was a common criticism by Christian philosophers (Pascal has a definitive account): since we “carry a bit of God within us” as Epictetus says in the first Discourse, the Stoics hold that we can, even without Grace, achieve a state of equality to God. If we keep our rational faculty in accordance with Nature at all times, we are equivalent to God in our little space of universe (which is of course God). Once God is outside of us and literally writing us into existence, we have a different relation to it/Him.

Some people are repulsed by the religious tone of Stoicism; the Stoics were materialists like many modern atheists, but they were also believers in what is essentially intelligent design more like Christianity (though God is the designing principle in Stoicism, not a designer outside the universe making it). If you start pulling this religious aspect away from Stoicism, you wind up with problems; why is Virtue the only good? What is evil and what is our relation to it (and the related question, why should we live in accordance with Nature? What kind of Nature?)

For what it’s worth, I think early Catholic philosophy (often reading Cicero and Seneca) was wonderful. Abelard is one of the most underrated philosophers of all time. He isn’t well-regarded in all traditions, but Origen is one of my favorite philosophers.

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level 1
· 5 mo. ago · edited 5 mo. ago

The core aspect of Christianity is living life without sin and serving god faithfully on Earth so that one may rejoin him in heaven. The main goal for a Christian is to make it to paradise after they die.

Stoic’s do not believe in an afterlife, and if they believe in god it’s typically in a pantheist fashion. You have one short life and you might as well make it a good one by living according to Nature and Reason. In the end you will only return to dust.

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level 2

There are Christians who are not focused on the afterlife, but consider their main job as Christians to bring the Kingdom of God to the present. And not forcing everyone into some imaginary "one true religion" but by feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the poor. You know, the stuff Jesus told tzs followers to do. This version of Christianity is very compatible with Stoicism.

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Op · 5 mo. ago

Id say that christians also strive for eudaemonia.

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Crowd sourcing your homework?

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Op · 5 mo. ago

Lmao i never expected this many answers

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Christian idea of morality is that the earth was made for our species and we are the apex, we are the REASON the earth was created. Its incredibly egotistical.

Stoic idea of morality understands that humans are just 1 more animal on the planet and we should care for it.

So the way they frame human relationship with the planet is entirely different.

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level 2

I would argue that the Jewish texts(that the Christians inherited) could also be read that way. The Earth is made, animals, and then the decision to create humans. There is a separation by their method and purpose of being created, but none the less they are a part of the larger creation, and are given the job of caring for it.

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Chapter 17 in Arnold’s Roman Stoicism is called “The Stoic Strain in Christianity” and is probably up your alley. The book also devotes some attention to Stoic theology (the school was not a secular one).

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Comment deleted by user · 5 mo. ago
level 2

I am veey confused because Epictetus mentions God and Zeus numerous times.

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Stoicism certainly involves a god (and the Stoics were split on the idea of the continuation of the soul after death). Epictetus goes so far as to say that the goal in life is “to follow god,” and the Stoic texts are littered with theological references. Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods features one speaker who is dedicated to expounding the Stoic theology.

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Op · 5 mo. ago

I mean like I was asking what the differences of stoicism are compared to christian morality and ethics (as my post said, apart from the fact that stoicism is kind of a secular philosophy) so like apart from christians believing in “God” and stoics not really tackling about the afterlife, what are the differences? Like is there a difference between how stoics view morality and evil as compared to christians on how they view what is moral and evil/sinful?

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You might enjoy looking into Lispius. He was a catholic who studied the early Greek philosophers and tried to assimilate stoicism into the religion.

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Op · 5 mo. ago

Very interesting. Did he succeed?

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level 1
· 5 mo. ago · edited 5 mo. ago

A hard question to answer outright, since there are so many ways of placing the emphasis or interpreting both traditions!

(I'm an (atheist-leaning) agnostic Stoic myself. But I find this topic interesting, and you can find some of my opinions on the intersection of Christianity and Stoicism in this post: Can a Christian be a Stoic?)

There's a lot to like in the overlap between the two traditions. I'm personally conviced that, while it may not be obvious when you first pick them up, the Stoics taught a philosophy that had unconditional love at its very core—a selfless, pure, self-sacrificing love just as emphatic and essential to their way of life as Christ's. Classical scholar Martha Nussbaum makes much this argument in her recent book on the Stoic treatment of anger.

To me, the fundamental ethical difference is that Christianity emphasizes that sin is a deeply pernicious disease that we cannot train ourselves out of with philosophy alone (popularly phrased as "you can't become righteous by your own power"); whereas Stoicism remains optimistic that careful discipline, training, and study are what (at least in principle) lead us to knowledge of the good (and, ultimately, good character).

So Christians find the two complementary in that sense: Stoicism offers a practical curriculum in training our hearts toward righteousness--using reason to pursue the four cardinal virtues (the same virtues that sit at the core of Aquinas's virtue ethics). Christianity adds a bit of healthy skepticism about the fallibility of philosophers, and then picks up the rest by appealing to the Holy Spirit to complete the process. If I were a Stoic Christian, I would probably appreciate this complementarity: Christians can be a lot of talk & praise, but often neglect the project of incrementally building moral skill through careful practice. Stoicism is all about moral skill-building, so it can help fill that niche!

The big candidates for a conflict between the two traditions depends largely on what kind of Christianity you practice.

There are, of course, myriad basic theological conflicts to resolve as well. You are incorrect to refer to Stoicism as "secular" philosophy. The ancient Stoics viewed theology as an essential part of their world view and system of practice (modern Stoics often depart on this point; but some contemporary Stoics do still practice the ancient theology: they call themselves Traditional Stoics---Chris Fisher's podcastis a major cultural touchstone if you're interested in modern Stoic religiousity!). I myself take a sort of middle way between fully secular and fully theological Stoicism---see my post here on Are Atheism and Stoicism Compatible?

If you squint right (or wrong), Stoic theology arguably has more in common with atheism/agnosticism than theism (though it's perhaps best to think of it as something in between---neither one nor the other). Both traditions teach that ὁ λόγος is an orderly principle that explains the universe and provides a special path for humans to follow, and that it is identical with ὁ Θεός. But the Stoic God is far less personal, does not (generally) work through miracles, and is immanent in the laws of the universe (rather than transcendent). Like much of Greco-Roman theology, Stoicism's methods are focused on reason and philosophy, and largely ignore the possibility of divine revelation and miracles (they were open to divination's validity, but even de-emphasized that, saying that your moral character is what matters in life—not whether the diviner can tell you the future!).

  • The biggest practical manifestation of this is that ancient Stoic prayers were focused almost exclusively on expressing gratitude to the divine for caring for us in so many ways, as a means of reminding us that the gods (understood as manifestations of the one divine principle) have put virtue (the highest Good) completely within our power. As a result, Stoics did not (and do not, to the extend that Traditional Stoics who still practice a modern form of Stoic theology are an active community today) participate in petitionary prayer: they do not view God as a personal agent to make requests from. That doesn't really make any sense in the Stoic world view---and even if it did, their value focus is on preparing ourselves to face the world with courage, rather than asking God to change the world so we don't have to be courageous.

  • But, all that said, if you have studied classical theism, then the Stoic view of God might fit very at home with your Christian views. The Thomist-Aristotelean view of God as "divine simplicity" (which you can find prominently defended in modern authors like David Bentley Hart and Edward Fesser) isn't exactly reflected in ancient Stoicism (though as a Hellenestic tradition, Stoicism is rooted in some of the same problems and conversation). But it sure comes close to the kind of road that Stoics traditionally approached the divine from. For me as a secular/agnostic Stoic, learning about Stoic theology was a gateway to learning about classical theism---which rounded out my relationship with Christianity a bit, giving me new ways to see why people might reasonable be attracted to the idea that God exists.

———

Some resources you may be interested in:

  • Kavin Rowe's book One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions is a recent scholarly exploration of your question. It's an excellent read—I enjoyed it cover to cover shortly before my interfaith (Stoic-Christian) wedding (a ceremony complete with readings from Paul and Seneca ;)). His conclusion is that the two traditions are not ultimately compatible (though you can always, of course, hybridize them by taking one as primary and borrowing from the other).

  • Kevin Vost's The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living is a different take. I haven't read it, but AFAIK it's a more practice-oriented take about how Christians can learn from Stoic practices.

  • Todd Voss ran a Stoic Christian FaceBook group for several years. It is archived now, but was home to a lot of very interesting modern Stoic-Christian discussions which are now public (and which you may find more useful than general social media groups, where knee-jerk anti-Christian polemic like "Stoics were rastional! Christian is irratoinal! Q.E.D." tends to dilute the conversation when it comes up).

  • Read some Augustine. In City of God, Augustine talks quite a bit about how Stoic principles—such as the equation of passions with vice, and the self-sufficiency of virtue—agree with or cause friction with Christianity. He makes a show of criticizing Stoicism (the purpose of the work is to critique paganism, after all)---but scholars have noted that he often assumes Stoic ethical doctrines as his starting point, and really agrees with them more than anything.

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level 2
Op · 5 mo. ago

Long but great and detailed answer.

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level 1

Stoicism as a philosophy of life is a virtue ethic. Christianity is a deontological ethic.

Stoicism claims the universe is consistent. Christianity claims the universe is not consistent. Christianity claims that a dead body can come back to life and 2 + 2 can equal 47, for examples. Even within their use of divination we find a consistency with the ancient Stoic's logic and reasoning.

Stoicism developed a system of logic that rivaled Aristotle's and parts of which are still relevant for us today (Computer language is based on Stoic logic.) Logic was used by the Stoics to examine reason, which was seen as the operating system of the universe. Christianity is based on faith and obfuscation, and apologetic is the method of explanation for the claims about the universe.

This recent post by u/Kromulent looks at the difference between the Stoic god and the Abrahamic gods.

The goal for Stoicism was to live the good life, a life well lived. There does not seem to be any belief about getting a reward in the afterlife as with Christianity.

Christianity teaches that humans are flawed and need some type of divine intervention to be unflawed. Stoicism teaches that as we grow into adults we develop our innate capacity to use reason in our moment to moment lives. And it is this use of reason founded on seeing life as it is and not as we believe it to be, that results in a life well lived.

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