Stoicism and Christianity

For a while now, I’ve been struck by the similarity between Christian concepts and Stoic ones. To the end, I recently bought the book “Stoicism in Early Christianity”, which contains a number of essays talking about potential or even presumed direct influences that Stoicism had on early Christianity. Now, of course, it’s difficult to find these because it is believed that early Christianity was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and Aristotle and the Stoics are similar in a number of ways. However, there are a few things that are more properly Stoic than Aristotlean.

In reading the second essay “Stoicism as a Key to Pauline Ethics in Romans” by Rumar M. Thorsteinsson, it seems clear that some kind of Virtue Theory view solves the whole “worship vs works” issue in Christianity. As the essay points out — referring explicitly to Stoicism — for a Virtue Theory and particularly for a Stoic Virtue Theory worshiping and revering the true source of rationality means acting in accordance with that source and emulating it. In a Virtue Theory, if asked whether you are virtuous by following the source of all rationality or by acting how that source dictates you should act would get you nothing more than a confused look, because in a Virtue Theory the two aren’t separable. So should you worship God in order to be truly good? Yes. Or should you act good in order to be truly good? The answer is, again, yes. The two are inseparable. If you strive to become one with God, you also strive to achieve the virtue that God possesses, and thus also act in accordance with that once you possess it. The closer you get to God, the better you act. This is not a coincidence, but a necessity. So, in a Virtue Theory, the distinction between worship and works doesn’t exist.

This passage from Matthew has also struck me as one that fits a Stoic mindset quite well (Matthew 19):

16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

18 “Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’[a] and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]”

20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Many interpret this and the following passages as an insistence that people leave everything behind and follow Jesus, or else they can’t be saved. Using a Stoic interpretation, though, it is more about being willing to leave behind all indifferents in order to act virtuously. Here, we can see that the man, essentially, asks what he needs to do in order to be properly virtuous, and when he says that he follows all the rules that follow from the One, Jesus asks him to give up his indifferents. And he can’t do it. He is unable to abandon the indifferents and give them up in order to become perfectly, rationally virtuous. So, in line with Seneca, it isn’t the fact that he has wealth that’s the problem, but instead the fact that he values his wealth more than he values virtue. And while rich people don’t have to be the sort of people who value wealth ahead of virtue, rich people will tend to value wealth greatly … and so will have a very difficult time giving it up in order to act virtuously. Thus, we don’t have an issue in Christianity where we all have to give up all worldly goods in order to be virtuous, but we have to be willing to … and the best way to test whether you’re willing to give them up is, indeed, to do so.

Anyway, I hope to explore this in a bit more detail once I’ve finished that book and done some more writing and thinking on my own, hence the new tag. We’ll see if I’m more successful at that than I have been at my other projects [grin].

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