Stoicism was one of the most significant philosophical movements of the Greco-Roman world at the time of the New Testament. In contrast to the immoral atmosphere of that time, Stoicism was sternly moral, concerned with ethics and practical living, calling its followers to live a life in harmony with nature and being detached and indifferent to anything external. It was probably the most moral and noble philosophical or religious expression in the Greco-Roman world.
The Stoics, followers of Stoicism, derived their name from the Greek word “Stoa”, the porch or colonnade built around temples, public buildings or private homes. In the market place in Athens was the Painted Porch (the “stoia poikile”), which was decorated with mural paintings of Greek battles. It was here that Stoicism was first taught by Zeno, and where he gathered his first disciples.
The English word “Stoical”, meaning to be emotionally detached and unaffected by negative aspects of life, is still in popular use today, keeping a similar meaning to the original Stoics.
History of Stoicism
The founder of the school of the Stoics was Zeno of Citium, in Cyprus (335 - 263 BC). His nickname “The Phoenician” implies he had Phoenician ancestry. The centre of Stoicism was maintained in Athens, even though most of its significant thinkers and leaders were not of Greek origin.
There are three periods in the development in Stoic teaching:
1. The Early Stoa (4th and 3rd centuries BC)
Zeno unintentionally arrived in Athens in 313 BC after losing all his possessions in a shipwreck. Because of this he decided to dedicate his life to philosophy. He attended lectures in the Academy and other philosophical schools. Initially he joined the Cynics, studying under the Cynic philosopher Crates. He also read the works of their founder, Antisthenes, and the philosophy of Socrates. The strict morality of the Cynics attracted him, but he became repelled by their crudities.
After the death of Zeno, in 263 BC, Cleanthes of Assos (331 - 232 BC) took over the leadership of the school. He was an older man, and not a particularly able philosopher, so he did not develop Stoic thinking, but merely passed on the teachings of his master.
Chrysippus of Soli (c.280 -207 BC) was an able thinker who took over the school in 232 BC. He expanded Zeno’s thought, and was the first person to arrange Stoic thought in a more systematic form. His work established the Stoics as a philosophical movement and gave them a firm foundation which lasted for the next four centuries. He is known as the “second founder” of Stoicism. He used allegorical interpretation in an attempt to show that the earlier writers Hesiod and Homer were in reality Stoics. This promoted the allegorical approach to interpretation, which was later developed and applied to the Jewish Scriptures by Philo of Alexandria.
2. The Middle Stoa (2nd and 1st centuries BC)
During this period, Platonic elements were introduced into Stoicism. Panaetius of Rhodes (c. 185 - 110 BC) extended Stoic teaching to make it appeal to a wider audience, particularly to the Roman world, so it could be appreciated by those in public life, and not merely restricted to the philosophers.
3. The Later Stoa, or Roman Stoicism (1st and 2nd centuries AD)
By this time, Stoicism had become leading philosophy of the Roman Empire, with a large following. Roman Stoicism concentrated exclusively on ethics. The prominent Stoic teachers were: the philosopher Seneca (c.4 BC - AD 65), the childhood tutor then chief adviser of Nero, the slave Epictetus (c. AD 55 - 135), and Marcus Aurelius (AD 121 - 180), the Roman Emperor, philosopher and persecutor of the church. Far more Stoic writing from this period has survived and some is still read today, like the “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius.
After this, the school of Stoicism gradually declined, but some of its characteristic teaching was assimilated by both pagan and Christian philosophy, where it influenced the writings of some of the church fathers, particularly Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Athanasius.
Appeal of Stoicism
Stoicism appealed to more educated and cultured people, so it flourished in the intellectual centres of the Roman Empire. Its centre remained in Athens, but it spread to other cities such as Rome, Alexandria, Ephesus and Tarsus.
Stoicism grew up at a turbulent time of great fear and insecurity in the third century BC, when most people were concerned with the mere struggle for physical survival against disease, war and famine. In contrast to more apocalyptic escapist philosophies, it attempted to enable its followers to live a life of contentment in the present by making sense of suffering and tragedy. People had become disillusioned with the Greek gods, who seemed to ignore human suffering and be powerless to prevent injustice. People who had reacted against the immoral behaviour of the gods in the Greek mythologies, were attracted to the high ethical standards of Stoicism.
Origins of Stoic thought
While in Athens, studying with the Cynics, Zeno developed his philosophy, drawing from several sources. From his Cynic teacher, Crates, he took the idea of “autarkeia”, independence from the world’s cares and joys. From his reading of Socrates, he emphasised the need for self-control. And from Heraclitus, he developed the understanding of the “logos”, the fiery spark guiding and ordering the universe.
During its five hundred year history, the teaching of the Stoics changed and developed significantly, so it is difficult to give a general summary of their thought. Another problem is that no copies of the writings by the early Stoics are still in existence. All we possess are fragments and quotations by later writers, who either adapted earlier material to support their own view, or otherwise opposed earlier thought.
It was probably Zeno himself, or otherwise Chrysippus, who divided Stoic thought into three parts: logic, physics, and ethics, with logic being the foundation for physics and ethics.
1. Stoic Logic
Their system of logic was based on the teaching of Aristotle. However, they added a distinctive teaching about the origin of knowledge. At birth, they believed that the human mind is like a blank slate. All knowledge entered the mind through the senses and was written in the mind. This is in contrast to Plato’s teaching that the mind was the source of all knowledge. Chrysippus was the first to call this the “cognitive impression”. Cleanthes compared the impressions on the soul with the impression made by a signet ring pressed into wax. From this basis, truth became merely our personal reaction to impressions received through the senses. Real objects were distinguished from concepts through a personal feeling or conviction of their reality. Therefore truth was not objective, but based on feelings.
2. Stoic Physics
Stoics were materialistic, believing that “nothing incorporeal exists”. All things are made of matter, including the soul, and even God himself. They believed this monistic understanding avoided the tension between matter and thought in the dualism characteristic of Plato.
The Stoics took the idea from Heraclitus that the original matter which formed the universe was fire. This fire was identified with Zeus, and was also described as reason (logos), or spirit (pneuma), both of which were also material. Their belief was pantheistic, that the fiery God, logos or spirit, permeated the whole universe, just as the soul (which was also fire) permeated the human body. They believed that matter came in two forms, the spirit or logos were made of finer matter which permeated the coarser matter which made up the world. The logos was the eternal principle of order in the universe, making it an ordered whole. Different Stoic writers described it in different ways, as fiery air, or fiery vapour which had the property of thought. The divine fire was breathed into the first man to form his soul, and this was passed down the generations. At death, the soul returns to God, or is re-absorbed into the world Soul. They had no hope of any individual immortality.
The concept of the logos implied that the world had purpose, order, beauty and design, and is governed by the law of cause and effect. Even when people make voluntary decisions, they are still not free from this law. This led to a strong belief in providence or fate. Their view of history was circular. God changed the fire into air, then water, then earth, which formed the world. At the end the world will be consumed by fire and the cycle will be repeated. Because of the law of cause and effect, the history of each successive world is identical, and nothing new ever happens.
3. Stoic Ethics
Discussion of ethics came to dominate the later Roman period of Stoicism. Their system of ethics was built on their understanding of physics and logic. Their maxim “Live according to nature” came from their belief that the universe was governed by absolute law, and that man’s nature is reason. Their understanding of the logos gave the Stoics the basis for a rational moral life, giving the standard for conduct and order of life for a rational person. People therefore need to live according to the laws of the universe and their own reason. The wise person searched for and discovered the destiny of the universe and then consciously submitted his own life to it. The moral teaching was summed up in their ideal of the wise man, whose characteristic was a calm passionless mastery of all emotions and independence from all circumstances, but purity in one's self, love toward all men, and reverence toward God. Because fate cannot be avoided, a person would find life easier if they cease to struggle against their fate, but accept it gladly. Individual people needed to see that they were merely a small part of the grand design of the universe, a small cog in a great machine. This conviction led to great moral strength, as well as the ability to endure and achieve noble actions.
The greatness of Stoicism was found in its high ethical concepts and doctrine of human brotherhood. They strove for a world state (cosmopolis) in which all free souls had rights as equal citizens, breaking down national and class distinctions.
Stoics saw human passions as irrational, in conflict with the reason behind the universe. Life was seen as a battle against the passions, which needed to be suppressed, so the Stoic aimed to live a rigorously ascetic life. The highest goal of a Stoic was to find inner tranquillity and freedom from emotional reactions to the events of life. This impassive acceptance of the natural order enabled the Stoic to live successfully in the midst of the sufferings and tragedies of life.
Because the logos controlled all events and destiny, neither riches nor poverty, life nor death, health nor sickness were considered to be good or evil. Evil was seen as good in disguise. The only absolute good was virtue, and everything else, including health, wealth, beauty, life or death, was considered to be indifferent, making no difference to a person’s happiness. Because destiny was wise and good and because the basis of the universe was rationality, all events served the divine purpose in some way. The Stoic aimed to accept everything with forbearance (apatheia), which gave the Stoic a sense of self-sufficiency and detachment from the anxieties faced by other people. When faced with suffering or tragedy, it was necessary to meditate on the logos to find the divine purpose for what had happened, which would lead to contentment. For example, Chrysippus said that even bed bugs had the positive purpose in preventing lazy people from staying in bed too long, and mice teach us to be careful where we put things.
Although the Stoic sought to co-operate with fate, their other ideal was “autarkeia” or self-sufficiency, independence from the will of other people. They tolerated other people rather than loved them. A Stoic served other people, not out of love, but because a life of service was the natural purpose of mankind. If life became too intolerable to endure with dignity, then suicide was seen as the proper way of escape, as life was not seen as anything valuable.
Practical conduct which was in accordance to nature was described as “fitting”, in contrast to “unfitting” conduct which was in conflict with nature.
Stoics in the Bible
The only place where Stoics are explicitly mentioned in the New Testament is when Paul visited Athens on his second missionary journey, where he debated with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (Acts 17:18), and addressed the Aeropagus.
In his speech to the Aeropagus he quoted two Greek poets (Acts 17:28). Firstly he quoted the Cretan poet Epimenides (c.600 BC), who rebuked his fellow Cretans for claiming that the tomb of the immortal Zeus could be found on Crete. Zeus is not dead, for “in him we live and move and have our being” - words which Paul applied to the One True God in the biblical understanding as the true source of life as creator and sustainer of the universe. The second quotation was from the Stoic poet Aratus (310 BC), who was a friend of Zeno. His poem on “Natural Phenomena” begins with a celebration of Zeus as the supreme being of Stoic philosophy, saying that “we too are his offspring”. Again Paul applied this to God as the creator of all. The Stoics would understand this in a pantheistic sense, that all people are the offspring of Zeus, who was also identified as the fire, logos, or spirit which was the positive force behind the universe in Stoic philosophy. Paul used the words of the Stoics as a point of contact between them and his message of the Gospel. However, Paul used their words in the biblical sense that we are the offspring of a transcendent God because we were created by him in his image (Gen 1:26-27). The Stoic and Epicurean philosophers reacted to Paul’s speech by scepticism and mocking, rejecting Paul’s proclamation of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, accusing him of proclaiming foreign gods (Acts 17:18). Some scholars have suggested that the Epicureans where those who mocked, but the Stoics wished to hear more (17:32), but it cannot be certain that the divide was simply between the two groups.
Stoicism compared and contrasted with Christianity
In the New Testament, Stoic terms and phrases were often used to describe Christian beliefs. This does not imply that the words have the same meaning, as the world-view of the Christians was radically different from the Stoics. Stoicism differs from the gospel at many essential places. It is only in the area of ethics there would be some agreement between Christians and Stoics.
Many scholars have attempted to identify connections between Stoicism and Christianity, asking whether N.T. authors were dependent on Stoicism for their ideas. However, the fundamental incompatibility between Christianity and Stoicism is shown by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was an austere Stoic moralist, but a severe opponent and persecutor of the church. However, Stoicism was probably the philosophy in the Greco-Roman world which was closest to Christianity, with its appreciation for ethics, and high view of compassion and service. In this, it was very different from other contemporary pagan religions and philosophies.
Paul almost certainly would have been familiar with Stoicism. His home-town of Tarsus was a local centre of learning, which attracted teachers from other cities. One famous teacher was Athenodorus the Stoic, who became the civic leader of Tarsus about the time of Paul’s birth.
The most fundamental difference was in their understanding of the nature of God. The Stoic belief was essentially pantheistic, that God, identified as Zeus, logos, or spirit, permeated through all the universe and the souls of all people. In contrast, the Biblical revelation describes a transcendent God, who is the origin of all life as the creator of the universe, but who was distinct from his creation. This does not imply that God is remote from his creation, but rather he is actively involved in it.
There are times when Paul’s description of God can appear similar to the Stoic view. Paul’s statement: “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom 11:36) may appear similar to Stoic statements about God, but Paul never identifies God with nature in the pantheistic way of the Stoics. The “natural theology” expressed by Paul, describing God being known through creation (Rom 1:19-20) has often been thought to have similarities with Stoic thinking. However, Paul is speaking about how the wonders of the created world speak of the Creator (cf Ps 19:1), not an identification of the creation with God.
The Stoic logos was an impersonal force, not the personal God who acted in history and became incarnate in the person of Jesus (Jn 1:14). The pneuma (spirit) was also an impersonal force, “a fine invisible fiery gaseous substance that interpenetrated all the visible world”, in contrast to the Holy Spirit who is described in the New Testament, as a personality and part of the god-head, who indwells each believer (Rom 8:9, 1 Cor 3:16).
Christians would also reject the Stoic materialistic world-view, their fatalism, and their circular repetitive view of history. The Stoic had no hope of a future resurrection and eternal fellowship with a personal God, in contrast to the great Christian hope of an eternal relationship with God, at the return of Jesus Christ, frequently presented in the New Testament.
Places where NT uses Stoic language
As Paul preached the gospel in the Greco-Roman world, he encountered people who were followers of all the different pagan philosophies and religions. He used their catch-words and phrases, as well as quoting their writings, to make a connection with them, as a basis for presenting the Gospel to them, as he did in Athens. This could be seen as an early attempt at cross-cultural communication. These people were genuinely seeking peace, fulfilment and meaning in life, so Paul and other Christian missionaries showed that true peace could not be found through various philosophies, but only through faith in Christ. At no time did Paul compromise the truth of the gospel and the exclusive claims of Jesus with the teaching of Stoicism or other philosophies. In this, he was very different from Philo of Alexandria who made a deliberate attempt to combine Jewish teaching with Greek philosophy.
Because people were converted to Christianity from these pagan philosophies such as Stoicism, it was inevitable that they brought their ideas with them into the church, with the potential danger that these would influence the teaching of the church. Therefore, one of the aims of the letters would be to correct their understanding and bring it in line with the Biblical revelation, as part of the process of renewal of the mind and Christian sanctification (Rom 12:1-2).
An example of Paul using Stoic concepts is probably found in 2 Cor 9:8. Where he says that they “may share abundantly in every good work”, he uses the Greek word “autarkeia”, meaning “self-sufficiency”. Also, in Phil 4:11, where Paul says he “has learned to be content with whatever I have”, he uses the Greek word “artarkes”, for contentment. Both these words were used by the Stoics to describe the life of a wise man who lived in according to nature, independent from other people or material things. Paul uses the same words, but with a shift of meaning. Both Paul and the Stoics were free from dependence on possessions, but the Stoic achieved this through self-effort of the will, whereas Paul did so through dependence on the presence of God, in order to serve others. Paul also wrote about contentment, or self-sufficiency (“autarkeias”) in 1 Tim 6:6-8. This again superficially sounds similar to Stoic teaching.
The New Testament has several examples of “household codes” (Col 3:18 - 4:1, Eph 5:21 - 6:9, Titus 2:1-10). These instructions for life in family households were quite common in Greek writings. Paul has given them Christian content by adding “in the Lord”. The Stoic would be told by his teacher to behave in a certain way because it was “fitting”, being in harmony with nature. Christian disciples were told that right behaviour was “fitting in the Lord”.
The church in Corinth was probably influenced by Stoic thinking. Paul appears sometimes to quote their slogans, or popular sayings, then correct them. One example is in 4:8, where they claim to be rich and to be kings. Some scholars suggest that these express Stoic ideas of the wise man being king. Another slogan is “all things are lawful for me” (1 Cor 6:12), a key idea among the Stoics and Cynics. Paul’s lists of his hardships and the dishonour resulting from his ministry, especially found in (1 Cor 4:11-12, 2 Cor 11-12), are similar to lists found in other writings, including those of the Stoics.
Because the Stoics taught that the universe will be eventually consumed in fire, many scholars have suggested the Peter was influenced by Stoicism when he wrote that on the Day of the Lord the earth will be dissolved with fire (2 Pet 3:10). However, this is only a superficial similarity, as the Stoic teaching was very different from Peter’s understanding. The Bible does not share the Stoic understanding that the force behind the universe is fire. Peter was predicting the single sudden coming of God’s judgement on sin by fire, similar to the flood, in contrast to the Stoic understanding of the regular expected natural cycles of disillusion by fire and reformation.
Probably the most significant term which would be familiar to the Stoics would be John’s use of the “logos” (Jn 1:1). The Stoics would understand the logos as an impersonal force consisting of fire or spirit which was the force for good pervading the universe as the “world soul”. Heraclitus was the first to teach about the eternal logos, and his idea was particularly developed by the Stoics. From the Stoics it became a widely known term among the Greeks, so John took a familiar term but radically changed its meaning, which would be shocking to them. Instead of being an impersonal force, John declared that the logos became flesh (Jn 1:14). The logos was not distant or detached, but personal and intimately involved in the world. John would have been aware of the popular understanding of the term, but was probably did not derive his thought from Greek thinking. It is more likely that his concept is derived from the Old Testament understanding of the creative word of God, and wisdom of God.
In some of his letters, particularly in Romans, Paul employed a Stoic method of argument called the diatribe. Questions are asked by a imaginary or hypothetical objector, then answered. One example is, “Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound?” (Rom 6:1).
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