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Stoics and Christians: a common intuition

11 August 2017

The ancient philosophy is undergoing a revival but its theological roots must not be missed, says Mark Vernon

THERE is an odd set of documents, purportedly written during the first Christian decades, which consists of a series of letters supposedly exchanged by St Paul and Seneca, the Roman senator and tutor to Nero.

They are undoubtedly fabrica­tions. But they bear witness to the most widespread philosophy that the earliest followers of Jesus would have known: Stoicism, of which Seneca was a sophisticated advocate.

Today, Stoic philosophy is under­going a substantial revival. And it’s worth considering how the two relate to each other now, much as some early Christians pondered the question way back then.

There is one thing that all mod­ern Stoics will tell you about their convictions. Stoicism doesn’t mean keeping a stiff upper lip and sitting on feelings. Rather, “it is about acknow­ledging our emotions, re­­flect­­ing on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good,” as the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci puts it in his new book, How To Be A Stoic (Rider, 2017).

He is one of the leading lights working out how to apply insights from the ancient Stoics to modern times. If there were a single principle around which the philo­sophy revolves, it is the one penned by another Roman Stoic, Epictetus. He argued that it is not what happens to you that matters, but how you respond to what happens. Train yourself not to be swept along by the ups and downs of your reactions to events, and you begin to train yourself to live radically differently.


EPICTETUS wrote a guidebook, The Handbook, possibly the first self-help book in history. Interest­ingly, it survives because it was frequently copied by early Christian monks.

They treated it as a kind of “Monasticism 101”, and so advised new recruits to follow its guidance in the first years of ascetic training. Epictetus asks his read­ers to pay particular attention to the reactions that they have to the most trivial events of the every­day. They offer the best chance for the kind of reflection that can lead to change.

One illustration that he dis­cusses concerns waiting at the cabbage stall in the marketplace. (Stoics gained their name because, in the fourth century BC, their Greek founder, Zeno of Citium, taught in the colonnaded stoa that surrounded the Athenian marketplace.)

Imagine you’ve joined the queue because the cabbages are on offer at half price, Epictetus suggests. You wait your turn, only to find that, just as you reach the front of the queue, the half-price cabbages run out. The seller informs you that the cabbages are now full-price because they were picked this morning, not yesterday.

A good Stoic seizes such mo­­ments. They are opportunities to learn something about yourself. Do you become angry? Or disap­pointed? Or distressed — feeling that such bad luck haunts you all the time? Or worried that chastisement now awaits you at home for over­spending on cabbages? It is amazing what self-illuminating informa­tion tracks you throughout the day, if only you can learn to take notice.

Ancient and modern Stoics alike say that, if you do take notice of such feelings, you are less likely to be thrown about by them. An inner space opens up that, over time, leads to a sense of stability and freedom. Instead of living reactively, the Stoic starts to live life more deliberately — able to tame emotions and even control how attention is directed.

For modern Stoics, this is the main benefit of Stoic practices. It has been explicitly operationalised by the founders of cognitive behav­ioural therapy (CBT), the first-line treatment of the talking therapies recommended by the NHS. Essen­tially, CBT is a series of exercises undertaken by individuals suffering from anxiety or depression which are aimed at yielding insight into their responses to events, and so to foster a capacity to change them.


FOR ancient Stoics, however, this therapeutic benefit was only the beginning of the journey. They noticed something else. If you become less preoccupied with your worries and obsessions, something remarkable comes into view. They detected a deeper pulse of life which runs through the everyday flow of things. The Stoic sages discovered that this harmon­ious shape to life is easily masked by preoccupations, but becomes clearer if you let go of them.

They called it the Logos, from the Greek for “word” — meaning “word” in the performative sense: a word that causes all things to happen. The first Stoics testified to it being benign and divine, always working for the good, even when it doesn’t seem like that at first.

In fact, the earliest extant piece of Stoic writing that survives, from the fourth-century BC, is a hymn penned by Cleanthes the Stoic. It offers praise to Zeus, the highest of the high gods, for the Logos that brings order to chaos and evil to good. The fundamental task and greatest joy of the ancient Stoic was to learn to adore the manifestations of the Logos in the cosmos. As Epictetus put it: “I am a rational creature; so I must sing hymns to God.”

The use of the term “rational” might be unexpected. The ancient Stoics meant that it was entirely sensible to align your wants and desires with the Logos, as the Logos was the divine patterning within which “we live and move and have our being”. That is the Stoic phrase that St Paul self-consciously deploys in his speech from the Areopagus
to the philosophers in Athens, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. The implication is that he sensed the intuition of the Stoics was akin, at least in part, to what he had come to learn of Jesus Christ. Both were realisations of the truth of the Logos. The early Christians ran with the idea, incorporating and transform­ing Greek Stoicism in the process.


MODERN Stoics are inclined to reject these theological roots. Pigliucci has explained why, in a keynote address to a recent confer­ence on science and reli­gion organ­ised by the University of Oxford’s Ian Ramsey Centre and the Inter­national Society for Science and Religion.

Modern people, he argues, don’t have to believe that reason and morality rest on divine revelation. Rather, they can trust evidence that the seeds of morality have evolu­tionary origins, as observed in the sociable behaviour of our Darwinian cousins, the bonobos and chimps. Human beings can develop these innate tendencies, not least when guided by Stoicism.

There is, however, a deeper wis­dom in the ancient philosophy. It is partly that morality and reason find a more robust grounding when rooted in the divine. But it’s also that ancient Stoics were clear that their practices cultivated a powerful, felt perception of the divine in their lives.

In the beginning was the Word, the Logos, wrote St John. For the first Christians, ancient Stoicism was a preparation. It led to a direct sense of what Jesus called “life in all its fullness”.


Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and the author of The Idler Guide to Ancient Philosophy (Idler Books).

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