Comparing Christianity to Stoicism

Often I see people on Facebook groups about Stoic philosophy ask questions comparing Christianity to Stoicism. Making such a comparison means different things to different people.

Non-religious people will balk at such a comparison: Christianity is a religion, and Stoicism is a philosophy. Religion, from their perspective, involves worship of a deity, mythical language, belief in an afterlife, and whatever other negative things about religion they want to name. For them, Stoicism is rational, physical, and humanistic. A good Stoic would have nothing to do with thinking about divinity.

On the other hand, Christians will often try to compare modern Christianity and the Bible with Stoic teachings and practices. The biblical figure of Job is frequently brought up as an example of stoical behavior. Christians focus, of course, on the eponymous figure of Jesus. They take something Jesus is reported to have said or done and draw a comparison to something said by someone like Seneca, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius or to a philosophical practice. Frequently someone will ask about “St. Paul” and Stoicism and will get rebuffed. Paul was like a Jewish rabbi writing midrashic treatises in his letters and going from city to city arguing in synagogues.

Both sides of the discussion get caught up in the terminology. Christianity has to do with sin, salvation, and believing. Whereas, Stoics talked about progress, training, tranquility, self-mastery, the passions, and self-sufficiency. Too often those who make these arguments don’t understand the ancient contexts for the language but rely on English usage.

In my book, Rewriting Paul, I carefully work through the language game of contextual meaning. For example, Christians do talk about sin, salvation, and believing, but so do Stoics. They use the same Greek words, but the terms are translated differently: “moral error” for sin; “preservation” for salvation; “fidelity” for believing. Likewise, Paul uses the same type of language related to progress, training, tranquility, self-mastery, the passions, and self-sufficiency (see page 43 for a list with references).

The language and rhetoric of Paul is thoroughly Hellenistic and not just an accommodation of Hebrew language and Jewish thought put into Greek for the pagan masses. In my translation of Romans, I structure Paul’s use of the diatribe (a turning to the side to converse with an imaginary discussion partner for the purpose of correcting misperceptions and wrong behavior within a school setting) by indicating Paul’s address to the “interlocutor” and Paul’s expression of what the other person might say. If you are familiar with the book of Romans, reading these sections in my translation should blow your mind.

When having conversations about Christianity and Stoicism, we should avoid equivocation and be more careful about language. We need to stick to “apples to apples” instead of the “apples to oranges” comparisons. Before making comparisons or differences, people should take some time to understand the language and historical context of antiquity. Remember that the Gospels were composed in the latter half of the first century. I contend that they reflect a more Jewish approach by a sect of Jewish followers of Jesus who are trying to demonstrate that they represent the true heritage of the ancient Scriptures and not the Jews. The earliest representative of Christian origins is Paul and his letters (not necessarily the Paul of the book of Acts).

Humanists who advocate for a modern Stoicism make assumptions about Christianity that has little to do with the early Christian movement. There’s a difference between religion and theology. In antiquity theology was part of philosophy. Philosophers were theologians; priests were practitioners of religious rites and sacrifices. Philosophical discussion was often engaged in at a shared meal which would probably have had a libation poured out to the gods. Perhaps the students of Cleanthes might have sung his “Hymn to Zeus.” It may have been Stoic orthodoxy to believe that at death the soul leaves the body and dissipates into the world soul, but later, more eclectic philosophers considered the sage to be worthy of ascension to the gods.

There’s no way that a Stoic purist and a devoted Christian are going to be able to have a conversation. Both might be staring at their separate age-old trees and not able to see the forest mixed with all sorts of trees and all sorts of possibilities for new growth.

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