Stoics: They still walk among us


I had a professor in Seminary (Richard Hayes) who once quipped in a class I took that if he ever lost his Christian faith, he’d probably become a stoic. Since I had and still have a great deal of respect for Prof. Hayes, I promised myself that one day, when I had sufficient spare time, I’d try to understand what he’d meant by that remark.

I haven’t done so well in the spare time department. But technology and the Internet has come to my rescue. One of my favorite blog sites (Boing Boing) has been posting a series of essays about Stoicism in modern times. In particular the essay published today talks about the bad rap stoics tend to get a dour aloof (grim) sorts who abstain from pleasure and emotion to avoid the pains brought on by transient life. That ain’t exactly what the Stoics were like.

The author of the series, William B. Irvine, came to his modern stoic beliefs out of his time in Zen Buddhism. So this particular article uses that transition as the narrative to string together what makes Stoicism so appealing to him. He uses Zen as sort of foil to proclaim the better qualities of living a stoic way of life.

For instance:

“if Zen and Stoicism share the same goal in living, namely, the attainment of tranquillity, won’t they count as the same philosophy of life?

No, because although they share this goal, they offer different advice on how to attain it. Thus, a Zen Buddhist might advise those wishing to attain tranquillity to spend hours each day trying to empty their mind of all thought. And when they are not doing this, they should spend time trying to solve koans, those paradoxical questions, the most famous of which is ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’

The Stoics, by way of contrast, would recommend neither of these activities. Your time would be much better spent, they would suggest, analyzing what it is in your daily life that disrupts your tranquillity and thinking about what you can do to prevent such disruptions. And to aid you in your thinking, the Stoics would go on to suggest that you take a look at the writings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus. There you will find much advice on how to deal with insults, how to overcome grief, how to avoid getting angry, how to take delight in the world you inhabit, and so forth.”

Read the full article here.

A number of early Christian writers did borrow from Stoic authors by the way. According to the wonderful Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Christian theologians were certainly receptive to some of the elements of Stoicism. There exists an inauthentic correspondence between St Paul and Seneca included in the Apocrypha. This forgery is a very ancient one, since it was referred to in both Jerome (de Viris Illustribus 12) and Augustine (Epistle 153.4). Augustine, alas, chose to follow the Stoics rather than the Platonists (his usual allies among the philosophers) on the question of animals’ membership in the moral community (City of God 1.20).

However there are fundamental differences in the way Stoics come to their balanced perspective on life than the Christian path. As one online source points out:

The ethical system of the Stoics has been commonly supposed to have a close connection with Christian morality; but the morality of stoicism is essentially based on pride, that of Christianity on humility; the one upholds individual independence, the other absolute faith in another; the one looks for consolation in the issue of fate, the other in Providence; the one is limited by Periods of cosmical ruin, the other is consummated in a personal resurrection. (Acts 17:18) But in spite of the fundamental error of stoicism, which lies in a supreme egotism, the teaching of this school gave a wide currency to the noble doctrines of the fatherhood of God, the common bonds of mankind, the sovereignty of the soul.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. I’m not sure the comment at NETBible was actually made by someone who understands Stoicism in the slightest, if they believe it is based on “supreme egotism.” It’s always a problem to take a view from someone determined to prove that their embraced belief system – in this case, Smith’s Christianity – is superior to another, rather than simply seeking to present the “other.”
    There is no reference to the “submission to the gods” in Aurelius and Seneca, nor to the references to acting for the general good as the Stoic’s duty, nor to Epictetus’ concept of living as example for the improvement of the whole.

  2. Correction:
    “There is no reference to the “submission to the gods,” which is a recurring theme in Aurelius and Seneca . . .”

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