Stoicism and Christianity – Are They Compatible?
This will be a hasty (but hopefully not too hasty) excursion in philosophical comparison. I spent many years studying the Stoic thinkers, particularly during that time I was super into Buddhism and seriously considering becoming a vegan. But having since become a Christian and not a vegan, I thought it might be interesting (maybe even helpful) to discuss some of the differences to see if they’re compatible. Not between Christianity and veganism, but between Christianity and Stoicism, of course.
So, I was very much into Stoicism in high school, like I said. To me, Stoicism offered a practical framework for how to live without any heavy metaphysical commitments. As an agnostic/atheist (at the time) I appreciated that. Metaphysical commitments—for example, the concept of God or other supernatural entities like angels or demon–was something that made me uneasy. I just didn’t like them. I was one of those, “Well, show me the evidence,” types.
But where Stoicism helped was in dealing with suffering. Like Buddhism, all the great Stoic thinkers will teach you to face life with a certain poise; at times, even a certain indifference. It’s like a noble nihilism, in some ways. Life is cruel, suffering inevitable, so just deal with it, OK? Grow up; stop being a baby. It’s a romantic ideal, and one many people admire. I certainly did.
Of course, I’m somewhat misrepresenting the school of thought, here—a school of thought, I think much better represented by the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, of which I would highly recommend. But notice—for anyone who has ever read Meditations—that this is by no means a complete work of philosophy, nor is it supposed to be. It’s merely one man’s notes on how to live simply and honorably, with a few vague statements about the metaphysical nature of things (“death is but a release from the senses”, etc.). And this is where I think Stoicism shines, on the how-to, day-to-day, type stuff.
But press it a few steps further, and you’ll see where Stoic philosophy breaks down. Since Stoicism is materialist, they believe there is nothing but matter. So, they believe in “God” but only very loosely in the pandeist sense that God is the universe. So really, what they believe in is “Nature”—which makes it somewhat hard, at least so far as we’re along, to differentiate Stoics from people who teach Yoga in southern California. For example, when Seneca (prominent Stoic philosopher) talks about providence, it’s hard to figure out exactly what he’s saying. Is he saying that this all just happened by chance? Because on the Stoic worldview, I don’t see how it could be anything but, since everything is the byproduct of matter as opposed to mind. Yet that clearly isn’t what Seneca is implying in his letter On Providence. So, this is where the philosophy—as an actual philosophy, rather than a prescription for suffering—becomes unclear. Some stoics seem to claim a spiritual dimension, yet others proclaim the soul is an illusion springing from matter, and subject to fate.
Is The Universe God?
Chrysippus, however, (love that name, who wouldn’t?) one of the later Stoic philosophers, did outline a more thorough worldview, that went something like this.
The universe is “God” and everything is determined by Fate or a “hidden cause.” (A “hidden cause” is what hard-determinists might say is just atoms clanking into other atoms.)
Now, not many of the today’s popular purveyors of Stoicism talk about this side of the philosophy, but I think if you’re going to adopt any philosophy, you better be able to go all the way with it. And that’s what stopped me from becoming a Stoic: I couldn’t square away the inconsistencies.
Because Chrysippus, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, was actually something of a compatibilist, and not a hard-determinist. So, in his view, the universe mostly determines what happens, but we have some small (metaphysically yet to be explained) say in the matter. (“Co-Faters”, as he put it.) So, he also was not, as we would describe them today, a materialist reductionist, who believes free will is an illusion. He imagined there to be some sort of interplay—though again, it’s hard to say how.
Interesting aside: Chrysippus even made a teleological argument for the existence of God, which ran something like this.
My version: Humans can make things, but if there is something better than what humans can make, it must be made by something better than humans. But there is something better than what humans can make—the universe, duh! So, there must exist something better than humans. And what is better than humans, if not God?
A teleological argument is an argument from design. In Christian philosophy, the most prominent teleological argument today would be something like the argument from a finely-tuned universe, which we’ll get into later. But let’s go back to the example of Chrysippus (such a good name), because I don’t think his is a terrible argument. There are, of course, ways to challenge a few of the premises, just as you can challenge the premises of any argument, but overall, it’s logically valid—meaning if the premises are true, the conclusion will follow. That said, it does nothing to prove that God IS the universe (as Stoics and people from California would often believe), it only aims to prove that God exists. So as an argument in itself, it doesn’t support Stoicism in itself. God could very well have created the universe without becoming the universe, which is exactly what Christians would, or at least ought, to say.
And so it is to Christianity that we turn, now.
And Now, a Christian Perspective.
The Christian worldview is very much different from Stoicism in some ways, and very much similar in others; largely they differ in their descriptions of reality, more than how to live within the day to day. And let it be said, before we begin, that there have since been philosophers, particularly in the Neo-Stoicism tradition, that have attempted to reconcile the two. But we’ll leave that for another time.
First, a brief overview of Christian philosophy, since this is a topic that even some Christians are not familiar with. Of course, I speak mostly from a Catholic tradition, since that is where all my philosophical seeking brought me, and where I am today. To be more precise, I would fall somewhere in line with the Aristotelian-Thomistic crowd.
So, unlike Stoics, Christians believe there exists a supernatural and transcendent dimension of reality, and that God created the universe but did not become the universe. (God, in other words, is what sustains the universe; what holds everything together, so to speak.)
This position may be summarized by the famous argument from contingency, posed by Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz.
Our universe exists but doesn’t have to exist—we can imagine the universe not existing at all. We can also imagine the universe existing differently, with different laws and different creatures and different planets. So, there must be some reason why the universe exists in the way that it does, and since the universe fails to explain itself, it must find an explanation from without. And that explanation is God.
A more formal statement:
Anything that exists must have an explanation for its existence, either through an external cause, or a necessity of its own being.
So if the universe exists, it too must be explained either by an external cause or a necessity of its own being.
But the universe does exist and is not explained by a necessity of its own being (we can imagine the universe not existing or existing in different ways.)
So the explanation of the universe is an external cause.
Therefore, God exists.
People wonder why the cause must be God, but a simple reflection upon the premises will provide an answer. The universe is all of space and time. And since all of space and time cannot explain itself, there must exist something BEYOND space and time, that DOES explain the existence of the universe. That entity we philosophically know to be God—a time-less, space-less, immaterial, and absolutely simple mind that exists by a necessity of His own being.
(Just one note about the contingency argument: It’s not about what “started” the universe, so much about what “sustains” the universe—what holds it in being, here and now. This has nothing to do with the big bang, or whatever. This is a common misunderstanding and leads to naïve arguments about what the original argument isn’t arguing about.)
But there is one very clear implication about this argument, which I think ravages the pandeist position of Stoicism. The universe does NOT explain itself. Therefore, the universe requires an explanation from beyond. That explanation is God. Therefore, God is NOT the universe, and Stoicism is wrong. Rather, God created the universe and holds it in being, which is exactly what Christians’ propose.
This is a fundamental and significant difference. Christians—unlike Californians—do not see the universe as sacred or something to be worshiped. Christians see the universe as something created and not something that is divine. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be respected or admired. But it does mean it can be studied and experimented on, which is, in part, one theory as to why the Christian worldview led to the development of modern science, whereas others did not, because it wasn’t theologically “wrong” to experiment on the universe, since the universe wasn’t (or isn’t) God.
So, while the Christian worldview is compatible with Chrysippus’ argument from teleology, Stoicism is not compatible with the Christian argument from contingency. Nor is it compatible with the Christian argument from teleology either, which goes something like this.
The universe is finely-tuned for the existence of life.
The explanation for that fine tuning is either chance, necessity, or design.
There is no reason or evidence to suggest our finely-tuned universe is necessary (we could imagine it not being finely-tuned.)
The probabilities of our universe being finely-tuned by chance are too fantastically and ridiculously remote to accept as an explanation, and speculative theories such as the multiverse have no evidential support, and even if they did, would require fine-tuning of their own.
Therefore, the best explanation of our finely-tuned universe is design.
So, God exists.
But this argument again puts God OUTSIDE the universe. So, it’s not only a refutation of atheism, but of the Stoic worldview, as well.
Now, why does any of this matter? Well, before we get into the similarities of Christianity and Stoicism, it’s important, I believe, to know the differences between the two, because it’s important, I believe, to not subscribe to philosophies that are more probably untrue than not. That is, even if Stoicism is helpful, if the philosophy is inconsistent or unsound, it should be abandoned for a philosophy that is more probably true than not—and, hopefully—just as equally helpful.
So where does Stoicism and Christianity align? Well, they have a lot in common with regards to virtue and ethical living, for one. Stoicism is very much about developing temperance and fortitude, as is Christianity. And both philosophies recognize that suffering is inherent to life, and both philosophies offer insights on how to deal with that, and both, I would say, are pretty good at it. Because a lot of these insights are the same or close to the same. But Christianity can offer one thing that Stoicism cannot, and that is hope.
Because on the Stoic worldview, there is no transcendent realm. You have this life, and that’s it. Memento mori, as the Stoicis say, “Remember death.” The idea is by reminding yourself that you could leave life right now, it ought to compel you to do the best you can and focus on what’s important. And I think that’s a wonderful exercise, when put under the right philosophy, which I don’t think Stoicism is.
Stoicism says – Live well, because in the end, what difference does it make?
Christianity says – Live well, because in the end, it makes all the difference.
Stoics doesn’t say that explicitly (so far as I know), but it’s implied within the philosophical materialist worldview, to which Stoicism is inherently attached. Meaning if everyone is doomed to death and the universe is doomed to death also (and science says that it is), does it really matter how we live our lives? Frankly, it does not. It may make us feel better while we are living, but what does that matter, because we won’t remember any of how well we lived when we’re dead, and nobody will remember anything at all when the universe decays and everybody is dead. So, while it may be subjectively appealing to live well (according to the Stoic view of temperance, fortitude, etc) while living, there is ultimately and objectively no compelling, philosophical reason to do so. You might as well be a hedonist.
What Difference Does It Ultimately Make?
This is treading some deep philosophical waters, but the principle is clear. For something to “matter” it needs to make some kind of difference, wouldn’t you agree? And to make a difference is to affect an outcome, to be able to change the course of events in some way. That’s what makes something “significant.” But if everything ends the same way, no matter the choices we make, then how can anything matter? How can anything be significant? This is why I earlier called Stoicism a sort of noble nihilism. It somewhat assumes the cold, pitiless reality of everything ending according to “Fate”, but somehow manages to float it in a romantic way, like what we do actually makes a difference, when it, in fact, does not. This has always been my problem with materialist-compatibilism and materialist-reductionism worldviews, and I see no reason not to raise the same objection within Stoicism. Either we are free, or we are not free. And either the way we live makes a difference in some significant way (either in this world, or the next), or it does not make any difference, at all. You can’t invent gray area when the only options are black and white.
But let’s go back to what I said before about “memento mori” being a wonderful exercise under the right philosophy. For example, Christianity.
Or, actually, because before we do that, let’s get clear on what Christians believe. Again, I’m coming from an Aristotelean-Thomistic view, and I get not all Christians believe what I’m about to say, which is why those debates are worth having, as well. Again, for another time.
But to summarize the Christian viewpoint: God created the universe but is not the universe. And God created the universe for a reason, and that reason is to bring people freely into a loving relationship with Himself.
The implications of this worldview are as follows: There is a transcendental realm and a supernatural other. And we can establish these positions through reason alone—for example, through the arguments above, along with others. But we cannot get to the other part of that worldview (God’s reasons for creating the universe) without revelation. So, that’s where Christianity cannot (through reason alone) break apart from Judaism or Islam, which could equally be established from either the arguments from contingency or teleology, since they are all monotheistic, which those arguments point toward. So, this is where that nice man Jesus comes in—do we all remember him? Well, you have to look at the evidence around what happened there, of which I will attempt to quickly explain.
Modern scholarship around Jesus agrees primarily upon three things: Jesus existed. He was killed on the cross. People saw him after his death and those people, genuinely believing what they saw, led to the rise of Christianity as we know it today. Those are the facts to be explained. The only question is, how to do you explain them? Skipping a whole lot of important steps (since the purpose of this post isn’t to argue for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus—let’s add that also to the list of “things for another time.”) the most plausible explanation in terms of power and scope is that Jesus was who he said he was. That Jesus was God and on the third day he rose from the dead. I get that is quite a leap for some people, as it was quite a leap for me, but one, ultimately, I accepted after investigating the matter as much as I could.
So, let’s bring it back. Because now that we know how we got at our Christian philosophy, we can begin to explain what some of that philosophy is. In short, suffering is here for a reason. Because suffering is something God permits (but does not create) so that we can learn from it and develop our character. All this is very much in line with Stoicism–that there is no such thing as justice without injustice, compassion without crime, etc. Christians believe in the importance of the four cardinal virtues—prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice; as well as the three theological virtues—faith, hope, and love. That is how the Christian is to live, through right reason, and in service to others, and especially in service to God. Of course, not every Christian lives that way; I, hardly, am able to live that way. But just because not every Christian is a perfectly good person, doesn’t mean the philosophy of Christianity isn’t about encouraging people to be good, because it is. There are many philosophies about creating good people which are full of people who do wrong and terrible things. That’s human nature, which is something Christianity is very familiar with. In fact, Christianity starts from the position that people are fundamentally flawed and likely to screw up. So, thank God for grace.
I guess the biggest difference to draw from the practical standpoint—because hopefully by now it’s obvious how these philosophies differ on their overall view of “the way things are”—would be something like this. Stoics face life with a noble indifference—they work to control “unruly emotions”, in other words. And Christians, too, take on their share of the cross, understanding that part of life is assuming the burden and learning to deal. And both philosophies promote good moral character: Living charitably, not getting attached to material things, speaking the truth, offering forgiveness, all that fun stuff. But only Christianity provides a perfectly thorough philosophy for why any of those actions matter and are significant–and, in fact, why we should follow those values as opposed to any other set of values, including hedonism.
To summarize. Stoicism is a nice set of ideas that can help people get over themselves and deal with the realities of life (though I don’t think it does so quite as well as Buddhism). But on the deepest philosophical level, I believe Stoicism is either inconsistent or incomplete, and cannot offer the extensive moral framework that Christianity provides, nor sufficient reasons to comply. Stoicism suffers from many of the same deficiencies as many (if not all) other materialist philosophies, though is not quite as subjective or bleak. I like Stoicism. I think there’s a lot to be learned from Stoic thinkers. But I would not adopt Stoicism as a worldview.
My Podcast – Lot of philosophy Talk: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-pat-flynn-show/id1253261458