Who Were the Stoics?


When you hear the word 'stoic,' the first thing that often comes to mind is someone that is not very emotional. A blank slate. While that image isn't altogether undeserved, there is much more to it than that.

Stoicism is a school of Greek philosophy that began in the 3rd century BC. Founded by Zeno, stoicism gets its name from the Greek word stoikos, which simply means "porch." (Zeno would teach from his front porch.) It held prominence in the Hellenistic culture for over six centuries, and has had periods of revival throughout history. It's currently having a resurgence due to thinkers like Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle Is the Way.

There were many prominent Stoic philosophers like Zeno, Chrysippus, and Cato, but this blog will pull mainly from the "Big Three" of late Stoicism-  Seneca (4 BC-65 AD) , Epictetus (55-135 AD), and Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD).

While the Stoic thinkers offer a lot of rich, practical advice, a few key themes stick out. First, while there are many external factors in our lives that we cannot control, we can control ourselves and our perception of those events. We can control and are responsible for our thoughts, words, and actions. Much of our suffering comes from disappointment between how we think things should be and how they actually are. Epictetus wrote:

"Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”

Second, while emotions are a natural part of the human experience, they don't have to dictate our behavior. We should instead be guided by our values and by reason. Marcus Aurelius said it like this:

"Don't let yourself be enslaved by emotions any longer, don't be pulled like a puppet by every impulse." 

Third, our virtues should guide our lives, not our desires. This stands in stark contrast with Epicureanism, a rival philosophy around during the same time, which valued pleasure as the highest pursuit in life. The four key virtues of Stoicism are wisdom, courage, justice, and self-control.

Was Jesus a Stoic?

In short, Jesus was clearly not a Stoic. He grew up in a Jewish context and used the framework of a Rabbi with his disciples, not a philosopher. But many of Jesus' teachings would be embraced by the Stoics, and I imagine Jesus would embrace many of their teachings as well.

Jesus continually emphasized the importance of one's thinking and emotions in relation to how it impacted their behavior. He often sought to get to the internal root of the issue, not the external behavior. When Jesus used the word "repent", it was the Greek word metanoia, which meant to "change the way you think about something." If you read Matthew 3:2 in that light, it'd be something like this:

"If you change the way you see things, you'd recognize that the Kingdom of God is already here."

Jesus would constantly challenge a person's worldview. The way they saw God, the way they saw their own situations, the way they saw other people and the prejudices they brought to the table. He pushed against those who were materialistic. He knew the danger of toxic emotions on a person's life. He challenged his followers to not be overcome by anxiety, worry, or fear. Self-control was a staple in the teachings of not only Jesus but also Solomon and Paul.

Stoicism presents itself as less of a philosophy and more as a way of life that leads to joy and serenity. It's a street-level, practical philosophy, much like Jesus' Sermon on the Mount or Solomon's Proverbs. The way of Jesus is also a way towards a life of fulfillment and joy. As he stated in John 10:10:

"I have come that you may have life, and have it more abundantly."

What are the differences?

There is tremendous overlap between the teachings of the Stoics and the teachings of the Christian Scriptures. John described Jesus as the "Logos" (Reason) that the Greeks referenced in their philosophy. (Though Jesus as Logos was certainly different than their understanding of the term.) Paul used the overlap to build a bridge between the two cultures in Acts 17. Early Church Fathers like Tertullian, Augustine, Cyprian, and the desert fathers were drawn to some of the tenets of Stoicism. Stoicism popped up again in the Church during the Renaissance period. Even with a lot of similarities, there are some key differences worth noting.

The Stoics were essentially pantheistic, meaning they believed that everything was god. God was impersonal. Christians, by contrast, believe that while God is imminent (among us,) God is also separate, personal, interactive, and transcendent (beyond us.)

While Stoics do have a tendency to diminish the value of emotions, Jesus demonstrated that emotions like anger and guilt did have a proper place in the human experience.

While Stoics believe that each man has enough inner strength to be his own master (and Christians could use more of that in terms of taking ownership and responsibility for themselves,) the Scriptures teach that all of us are are impacted by the weight of sin and need the work of the Holy Spirit to help us overcome our sinful tendencies.

While Stoics might esteem reason as the highest virtue, Christ is abundantly clear that our highest virtue is love. So while there are certainly plenty of cohesive themes between the two ways of life, I believe that Christianity offers a better foundation and the Stoic thinkers can add to the wisdom that we gain from the Christian Scriptures.

This blog will pursue a better way of living as espoused by Jesus, Paul, and Solomon that is enhanced by the teachings of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.