Introduction to Stoic Philosophy

When you read the writings of Epictetus and Marconius Rufus, two of the leading Stoic philosophers, it seems like you are reading the Epistles of St Paul.  Clearly stoicism and early Christianity both sprung from the same Graeco-Roman soil.

The ancient Stoic philosophy is eternally relevant, the Stoic teachings can help us be better Christians and become better persons.  Take for example the perennial question, the question many use as an excuse to leave the Church, the question, Why do bad things happen to good people?  The stoic answer is simply that everyone will suffer, the question is not whether life is unfair, the question is whether you will be strong enough to endure the suffering that is your lot.  Stoicism instructs us that we should not complain, we should not let our passions rule our life, we should control our anger, we should not hold grudges, we should always treat our neighbor with dignity and respect.  The true stoic is not selfish, the true stoic is selfless.

Why is there so much evil in the world?  Many take this as an excuse to walk away from their faith, when it is really an issue of control.  Should we have free will, or should be God’s puppets?  If we have free will, some people will make rather poor choices, and there will be evil in the world.  But nobody wants to be a puppet.  What everyone really wants is for God to grant free will to themselves, but everyone else in the world, they need to be controlled, they need to be puppets, so the world can be a predictable and happy place.  This is a totally unrealistic expectation, but people tend to make the best situation.  Sometimes we try to make our children into puppets, or we may try to make our spouses or our employees into puppets, treating them not with dignity and respect, but more like slaves.  Such expectations are foreign to stoicism, stoics do not complain.

Stoic philosophy is not about chalk and blackboards and dry discussions on ethics, on merely matters of right and wrong, Stoicism is about how to best live a meaningful life of purpose and virtue, stoicism is not about the classroom, stoicism is about how you can better live your life tomorrow in the real world, how you can improve yourself each day, how you can improve your habits, how you can control your emotions, how you can stoically and courageously face all of life’s challenges, how you can control your passions so you never sink to the level of the beasts.  As Marconius Rufus tells us, “philosophy is the practice of noble behavior.”

Indeed, Stoicism is not opposed to Platonism, Stoicism can enrich Platonic thought, and indeed suffuses much of Platonism more than is realized.

How central is Plato to ancient Greek philosophy?  There is no doubt that the famous maxim that all of western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato is true, since western philosophy argues with the dialogues of Plato, which pose so many questions and leaves us to provide the answers.

My contrary position is that Stoic Philosophy is actually more central to ancient Greek philosophy, and also to early Christianity, than it Platonic and Aristotelian Philosophy.  Furthermore, my proposition is that it is more profitable to view Plato through the lens of Stoicism than to view Stoicism through the lens of Platonism.  The great Homeric epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey are best viewed through Stoic lenses.  The 300 Spartans all dying to hold the pass of Thermopylae against the vast Persian army were true Stoics.  Socrates bears his fate at his trial and execution with true Stoic composure.

My contrary position is best proved not by argument, but by assuming that it is true and seeing if contradictions arise.  Our bias in our position is simple, we study philosophy for the same reason we study Scriptures, we study philosophy to learn how to live a godly life.  Love God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your mind and with all of your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself, all else is commentary.  You witness these instructions over and over again in stoicism.

HOW I DISCOVERED THE STOIC PHILOSOPHERS

For the past twenty years I have listened to most of the Teaching Company lecture series in religion, philosophy, and history.  The lecture collection that completely changed my perspective on life is the course “Practical Philosophy: The Greco-Roman Moralists.”  The lecturer, Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, shared that he first came into contact with the stoics with a book containing the writings of Epictetus, his favorite and my favorite of the philosophers, that he found in a used book store in his youth.  Epictetus opened his eyes, Epictetus changed his life, and Epictetus and the other Stoic Philosophers can change your life if you but pick them up and read.[1]

Reading Epictetus is like reading one of St Paul’s Epistles.  The primary influence for the New Testament is the Jewish Scriptures, but clearly the Stoic Philosophers are a secondary influence.  Many of the themes of the early Church Fathers, particularly the writings of the Philokalia, are common with the Stoic tradition.  Who influenced whom?  What we can say for sure is the New Testament and the Stoic writings both developed in the first few centuries AD, so they could have influenced each other.

Johnson mentions a novel by Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full, that is about a prisoner who is sent a collection of writings by Epictetus and the other Stoic Philosophers by the prison library by mistake, whose life is changed, and whose changed life changes the lives of those around him, which is really all we can hope to achieve in life, that those around us will be slightly better people because we were in their lives.[2]

The stoic philosophers are mostly neglected by scholars.  The Teaching Company lecture above is a download only set of lectures, and it sounds like Johnson had to push to teach a course on the Stoic Philosophers.  The probable reason is the Stoic Philosophers are primarily interested in questions of morality rather than epistemology.  Johnson mentions that even in antiquity they are neglected by the first known compendium of philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, the Loves of Eminent Philosophers.  Diogenes defines philosophy as the study of physics, logic, and ethics, philosophy “is all about ideas, moral exhortation does not fit.”[3]  Likewise, the modern History of Philosophy by Copleston likewise devotes only a few precious pages to the Stoic Philosophers studied by Johnson.[4]

The editor’s preface to the works of Marconius Rufus says that according to the Stoics, the best way to live a good life is to pursue virtue, and the best way to pursue virtue is to fulfill the wishes of the gods by living in accordance with nature.  Since the gods granted us reason, “the Stoics concluded that if we want to live a good life, we need to behave rationally, we need to learn how to control our emotions, for those whose emotions are out of control, who are given to fits of anger, fear, envy, lust or despair, are little better than beasts in the field,” unable to live a godly life.[5]

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, “Practical Philosophy, The Greco-Roman Moralists,” lectures recorded by The Great Courses, (www.thegreatcourses.com, 2002).

[2] Tom Wolfe, “A Mind In Full,” (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1998).

[3] Johnson, “Practical Philosophy, The Greco-Roman Moralists,” lectures 1 and 24.

[4] Frederick Copleston, “History of Philosophy, Volume 1: Greece and Rome, From the Pre-Socratics To Plotinus (New York, Doubleday 1962), pp. 428-437.

[5] Musonius Rufus, “Lectures and Sayings,” translated by Cynthia King (published by www.CreateSpace.com, 2011), Preface by William Irvine, p. 10.

About Bruce Strom 140 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.

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