Stoicism and the Christian Faith
There’s a lot of interest today in stoicism. And it’s not surprising. Given the crazy temper of our world, with unprecedented extremes and factions on almost anything you can think of, exacerbated by a blatant lack of reason, people are seeking a state of mind in which they can make some rational sense of it all.
While many systems of philosophy exist, two which emerged from the ancient Greek culture (in the Hellenistic period) were Epicureanism and Stoicism. They are essentially opposites of each other.
Epicureanism, founded by the philosopher Epicurus, taught that the highest goal in life was to achieve sustainable pleasure and tranquility. Stoicism, founded by Zeno, advocated the attaining of virtue and reason in accordance with nature, as the highest goal. Both schools of thought championed deep, thought-provoking concepts which have attracted students all over the world for centuries.
Stoicism has a particularly unique attraction because of its focus on reason and virtue. The truth of stoic philosophy is apparent in everyday life; agreeing with its axioms isn’t a challenge for most. The difficult part is putting those truths into daily practice. Similarly, much of the Christian faith is palatable to the average mind, but living out the faith (faithfully) is something else altogether.
Are Christianity and Stoicism compatible? Through history, many have posed this question. Here in this article I’d like to propose some ways in which they are, focusing on the work of philosopher Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus Aurelius and Scripture
Marcus Aurelius, the famous Roman emperor in the 2nd century AD, was a staunch supporter of Stoicism, and wrote a famous book called Meditations, which details his thoughts on life through the lens of Stoicism. While in no way was he a Christian (he actually thought of Christians as “fanatics”), his personal perspectives aligned with Christian philosophy in more ways than you might think.
Here below are some of the more well-known quotes from his book. Notice how closely they parallel verses from the Bible:
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” Marcus Aurelius
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” Marcus Aurelius
“For as a man thinks within himself, so he is.” Proverbs 23:7 “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” Philippians 4:8
“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” Marcus Aurelius
“… in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18
“There is but one thing of real value – to cultivate truth and justice, and to live without anger in the midst of lying and unjust men.” Marcus Aurelius
“The works of His hands are truth and justice. All His precepts are sure.” Psalm 111:7 “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” Ephesians 4:31
“Do not be wise in words – be wise in deeds.” Marcus Aurelius
“Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.” James 3:13
This is a small sampling; there are many more. While it’s clear the philosopher Marcus Aurelius had no Christian faith, many of his recorded words agreed with the concepts taught all throughout the Bible. This discovery brings me to a conclusion which has developed in my mind over time, formed throughout years and years of consistent study, both of God’s Word and competing philosophies. While I believe wholeheartedly God’s Word is the ultimate source of truth, and all things are measured by it, there are powerful concepts in other works and we are benefited greatly by studying the minds of great men, even when they are sometimes wrong.
We learn the truth best when we weigh all else against it. Ideas apart from God’s Word, whether in support of or standing against, can hone our understanding of what is true and right.