What is Stoicism?
Question: "What is Stoicism? What did the Greek Stoics teach?"
Answer: Stoicism is one of many ancient Greek philosophies. While Paul was in Athens, a group of Stoics met him and engaged him in a debate (Acts 17:18) that started in the marketplace and continued in the Areopagus. In speaking to the Stoics and other philosophers gathered on Mars Hill, Paul gave a presentation of the gospel and made a point of mentioning the Athenian altar to the “unknown god” as proof of their spiritual ignorance.
Stoicism, which emphasizes rationalism and logic, is commonly considered to be the opposite of Epicureanism, which is seen as promoting feeling and comfort. Many people think Epicureanism is all about pleasure in life while Stoicism is all about rejecting pleasure. This view is over-simplified to the point of inaccuracy. In reality, Epicureanism teaches to arrange one’s life in such a way that it is completely free of stress—including the stress brought about by over-indulgence and pleasure-seeking. True Stoicism says to align one’s expectations with the logos—the natural law of the cosmos—and not to worry about the rest.
Stoicism was first taught by Zeno around 300 BC in the stoa poikile (painted colonnade) in the Agora in Athens. The philosophy is comprised of three disciplines. The philosophical base of Stocism is physics, or the natural world. Stoicism teaches materialism—that all of creation is made of material stuff, including god/logos and human souls (which are made of fire). When our five senses interact with other material objects, their reality is impelled upon us. But we can only accurately interpret those sensations through logos, which defines how the world works. All our assessments, whether concerning the temperature of a beverage or the feeling of imminent doom, are only accurate insofar as we are in tune with the logos. Ethics—the way we should act—is based on logos. The closer we are to the logos, the more ethical we will naturally act, according to Stoicism.
Stoicism says that the alignment of one’s perception with the logos is a journey. Someone who is completely immature in the ways of logos acts impulsively and with passion (appetite and/or fear). His reactions to external forces are so uninformed by reason that he actually limits his ability to make choices in the future—like the man who gets angry and kills and is imprisoned. It is this detachment and preference for reason-based decisions that give the Stoic his reputation as a repressor of feeling. With maturity into the logos, one realizes that everything that is external to him is neutral; it’s oikeion. Money, home, companionship, and sometimes even life are neutral. There are varying degrees of oikeion. Life, in general, is preferable to death. But if life were to be contrary to logos, death would be preferable.
The final stage of Stoicism is the sage. The sage is completely ruled by logos. His decisions are always logical, and he is never so impassioned that he cannot think things through to make the best choice. He does experience joy, watchfulness, and wishing, but he is not controlled by his emotions or by the actions of the outside world. Think of the character Spock in Star Trek as one trained in the Stoic philosophy.
One area in which Stoicism contradicts Christianity is in the physics; the entire Stoic god is wrong. Stoicism teaches a kind of pantheism—that god is not only logos, but logos is god. The reason logos reigns in the cosmos is that it is in everything and a part of everything.
However, parts of Stoicism are relatable to Christianity—in fact, John calls Jesus the “Logos” in John 1, where the title is translated as “Word.” Psalm 119 is filled with verses that explain joy comes with following God’s law. And it’s true that ethics are based on God’s character. But there is one big difference: the logos is not an apathetic, material force that ordains the working of the universe. The Logos is a loving Person who intimately interacts with our lives and responds to us.
Whereas Epicureans discuss and debate only as much as they need to understand what they believe, Stoics meditate constantly. In order to properly respond to the world, Stoics consider different scenarios and reason out what the appropriate reaction should be. The Bible teaches that we should meditate on God’s Word (Psalm 1:2). The Stoic tradition of meditation is similar in some ways to what we call inductive Bible study—learn the law, discover what it means, apply it to your actions.
Stoicism, in some cases, has stumbled onto truth. Hold the things of the world lightly. Know that God’s point of view is truth, and ours can be distorted. Act in a reasonable way based on the truth of the logos, not your impulsive passions. Christians have been given the Spirit of Truth. We understand that “alignment” with the logos does not come from a deeper, more reasonable understanding of the natural world; rather, righteousness comes from a relationship with God through Christ, the true Logos. God not an impersonal, immovable force; He is the loving, caring Jesus who entered our world, sacrificed Himself for us, and rose again. When Paul spoke of the resurrection on Mars Hill, his speech was interrupted by the philosophers there, and “some of them sneered” (Acts 17:32). However, others “became followers of Paul and believed” (verse 34). May many more Stoics find the Savior.
Recommended Resource: Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland
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Questions about Worldview
What is Stoicism? What did the Greek Stoics teach?