Stoicism and Christianity, I: Seneca

On a number of times I have commented on the differences and similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism (insofar I understand the latter, I’m certainly no expert). But there are some interesting parallels between Stoicism and Christianity as well, parallels that were famously highlighted by Justus Lipsius, the founder of Neo-Stoicism, in the 16th century. The occasion to revisit the topic is being afforded by the fact that I’ve been reading with much interest a recent book by C. Kavin Rowe entitled One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions.

Rowe is professor of New Testament at Duke University Divinity School, and the author of Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke and World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age. I will use Rowe’s book as the basis for a multi-part discussion on how Christians see Stoics, and vice versa, helped in this by the fact that I grew up Catholic, and I’m therefore much more familiar with Rowe’s perspective than with the Buddhist one.

Rowe proceeds in this manner: the first part of the book devotes one chapter each to what the author sees as the major themes found in the three great Roman Stoics, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus. The second part examines the main themes of three great Christian thinkers who were contemporary of the Stoics: Paul, Luke, and Justin Martyr. The third part, finally, discusses whether and in what sense the two traditions may be compared. Spoiler alert: Rowe develops an argument in part III according to which the Stoic and Christian traditions are incommensurable and therefore mutually exclusive. I will comment on that, and attempt to reject the very idea of incommensurability among traditions (which finds ample, though certainly not universal, usage also in my own scholarly field, philosophy of science). I will conclude that the idea of a Christian Stoic is not an oxymoron.

So, beginning from the top, let’s talk about what Rowe sees as the main themes in Seneca’s work. Seneca, of course, is a much controversial figure even among modern Stoics, but Rowe characterizes his writings, and particularly his Letters to Lucilius, on which he focuses, as “outstanding exemplars of a Stoic philosopher and real human being at work.”

The first Senecian theme treated by Rowe is that of death: “his focus upon death is born not solely of a consciousness of the dying around him but of a sense of what the human being actually is. Our lot is to die.” Rowe reminds us that Seneca thinks that for most people death is a major cause of unhappiness, originating from the fact that our judgment about it is incorrect. Seneca’s remedy is that we have to practice how to die: “cotidie morimur, ‘daily we die.'” We die every day just in the same way as the water clock is emptied of water every moment that passes, not just by the very last drop.

“Each day, therefore, can be seen as a kind of schooling in death, a foretaste of the last day. And well might it be, says Seneca, for we never know which drop is the last to empty the clock.” Moreover, we don’t actually know how many drops are stored in our own water clock, so the next one may very well be the last one.

Seneca on death sounds at times very modern: “You will not die,” he tells Lucilius in a startling turn of phrase, “because you are ill, but because you are alive.” So “despise death! Indeed, such scorning is not only the proper cure of your disease, Lucilius, it is the remedy for ‘the whole of your life.'”

Rowe highlights four points that Seneca makes about death: i) It is unpredictable, so why worry about the future, if you could die today simply by ingesting a nut? ii) Contemplation of death will teach us that we have nothing to fear after we die, because we will be in the same state as we were before we were born. iii) Death treats everyone equally, rich or poor, powerful or powerless. iv) Meditating on death allows us to appreciate that what matters is not how long we live, but the quality of the life we have.

For Seneca, moreover, death is the source of our freedom, as we can walk through what Epictetus later called “the open door” if things are truly unbearable: “a wise man should live as long as he ought, not as long as he can.”

The second major Senecian theme is Fortuna: “Fortuna, for Seneca, is not personal, does not operate according to intention or plan, has no mind of its own. It is, quite simply, the name for the world in all its excess.”

Seneca says that human beings are constantly at war with Fortuna, and that she “conquers us unless we conquer her.” Fortuna wages her battle at two levels: that of the occasional major catastrophe that affect human existence (earthquakes, floods, and the like), as well as whenever ordinary life takes something from us that we value (as in the loss of a loved one, or when we contract an illness).

But Fortuna also attempts to conquer us by bribing us with gifts: “‘Picture now to yourself that Fortuna is holding a festival and is showering down honors, riches, and influence among a group of mortals.’ What happens? Fortuna’s gifts are ‘torn to pieces in the hands of those who try to snatch them.'” Seneca’s warning, says Rowe, is that “gifts draw us in and accustom us to their presence, thus creating a set of dependencies that fundamentally determine us away from the happy life.”

Fortuna’ great ally, and our own enemy, is time: “Nothing, whether public or private, is stable. … Amid the greatest tranquility terror arises, and though no external agencies stir up commotion, evils nevertheless burst forth from sources where they were least expected … Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the sea is moved to its depths.”

Seneca tells Lucilius that there are two defenses available against Fortuna. The first one is an inward turn: “We must thus defend ourselves from behind the only wall that cannot be breached — the internal wall of a soul shaped by virtue. … because Fortuna cannot take away what she did not give.”

The second defensive strategy is to focus ourselves on the present, hic et nunc (here and now). Both the past and the future cause dread, the past because we remember our mistakes or misfortunes, the future because we expect more mistakes and misfortunes. But in the present, we are here, and we can live fully.

Seneca also advises his friend to engage in a practice self-deprivation: “Set aside a certain number of days during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’ … Let the pallet be a real one, and the cloak coarse; let the bread be hard and grimy … so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby; [thus will we become] intimate with poverty, so that Fortune may not catch us off our guard.”

The third theme Rowe identifies in Seneca is that of God and Nature. On this topic Rowe talks about three components of Seneca’s view. First off, it is clear that Seneca, just like Cicero before him, did not believe in the Olympian gods, regarding them as superstition. Neither man would have wanted to abolish the traditional religion, but that doesn’t mean they bought into it. Rather, the divine permeates the cosmos, and human reason is literally part of the divine.

Second, Seneca sometimes speak of God in very much a personal manner: “[philosophy] will encourage us to obey God cheerfully but Fortune defiantly; she will teach us to follow God and endure chance.”

And yet, third, at other times he uses a rather impersonal approach, congruent with the general Stoic pantheism: “there is no room for a categorical difference between the referent of the words god and world. … Seneca’s word for the ultimate ordering principle of the cosmos is Natura.” If the reader doesn’t take talk of Fortuna as anything more than metaphorical, as a stand-in for whatever the universe throws at us, then there is no reason to take talk of God any differently either.

But, the objection is always heard (even from some in the modern Stoic camp), what about invocations of God that seem very personal, almost Christian, and what of talk of praying? Rowe doesn’t buy it: “Pray, invoke, and so on, is all mythical language, a way to speak piously about the need to train the rational soul — the divine within us — to be in accord with Nature. … Neither God nor Fortuna is personal in any kind of significant sense. They are, rather, textures of the cosmos, reasonable and wild, respectively.”

The fourth theme that Rowe picks up in Seneca is that of the passions. Seneca was no Chrysippus, who allegedly believed that we can completely control our emotions. Indeed, Seneca is very comfortable with a lot of the so-called preferred indifferents: “for Seneca, as long as we refrain from overindulgence, it is only natural that hunger should be relieved, thirst quenched, cold kept away with clothes, and bad weather fought with good shelter.”

Rowe takes the Stoics to be serious about their materialism, “and if emotions are corporeal, so are the diseases of the spirit — such as greed, cruelty, and all the faults that harden our souls.”

In differentiating himself from the Peripatetics, who maintain that emotions like anger are a good thing, in moderation, Seneca says: “Would you call a man well who has a light fever?”

“‘It is easier to stop [the passions] in the beginning than to control them when they gather force.’ … Why must we fear their growth? Quite simple, Seneca says: ‘Reason is no match for them.'”

But in response to those who accuse the Stoics of pushing an inhuman philosophy devoid of emotional responses Seneca is pretty clear: “[Do you think] that I am advising you to be hard-hearted … not allowing your soul even to feel the pinch of pain? By no means! That would display inhumanity, not virtue.”

And more of the same, about grief: “‘Let us allow [the tears] to fall. … Let us weep according to the emotion that floods our eyes.” But not as much as we want; indeed, only as such tears are “wrung from us by the necessity of Nature.’ There is a crucial difference, Seneca chides, between tears that fall by ‘their own force’ or ‘against our will’ and tears that we ‘allow to escape.'”

Rowe mentions the dichotomy of control, a basic Stoic doctrine that Seneca followed, and quotes one of my favorite phrases by the Roman statesman: “Life is neither a good nor an evil; it is only the locus of good and evil.”

Again on grief, “Seneca argues that when grief is appropriately in accord with Nature, memory is the proper way to honor the time we have had with a friend or a son,” instead of wallowing in one’s grief.

The fifth Senecian theme is that of philosophy herself. For Seneca philosophy is first and foremost practice, and indeed he sees no division between morales and intellectus. As Rowe puts it, “philosophy is nothing short of the lex vitae, the ‘law of life,’ that according to which we must live if we are to live well in this world, and the ars vitae, the ‘art of life,’ the actual manner by which we live the law of life.”

Indeed, in several of the Letters to Lucilius Seneca openly mocks the sort of logic chopping that passes for philosophy in the modern academy, referring to it as “childish nonsense.”

“If philosophy is the practice of a wise life, its truth cannot be learned apart from its embodiment. … ‘Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno, if he had merely heard his lectures,’ Seneca tells his pupil. That is why ‘he shared in Zeno’s life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules.’ … ‘I hold that no man has treated humanity worse than he who has studied philosophy as if it were some marketable trade, who lives in a different manner from that which he advises.'”

And how do we learn good philosophy as a way of life? From good role models, of course: “Go ahead, Lucilius, ‘and choose a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit.’ The main thing is ‘to choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern (exemplum).'”

Seneca tells Lucilius about a series of spiritual exercises, both mental and physical: “Self-observation, Seneca advises, comes by way of imagining oneself from the perspective of another: ‘Act in whatever you do as you would act if anyone at all were looking on’ … Lucilius should spend a predetermined number of days ‘content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, [and] with coarse and rough dress.'”

Here is a passage where we see Seneca giving advice, talking about his own practice, and yet admitting to fallibility: “‘I have forsaken oysters and mushrooms forever since they are not really food but are relishes to bully the sated stomach into further eating. … I have also throughout my life avoided perfumes. … My stomach is unacquainted with wine … and I have shunned the bath.’ Now, truth be told, Lucilius, ‘other resolutions have been broken. But all in such a way that in cases where I ceased to practice abstinence, I have observed a limit which is indeed next door to abstinence.'”

As Rowe points out, the Stoics were socially and politically active, and even in retirement they sought to be useful. Seneca says to Lucilius: “I am working for later generations, writing down some ideas that may be of use to them. There are certain wholesome counsels, which may be compared to prescriptions of useful drugs; these I am putting into writing; for I have found them helpful in ministering to my own sores, which, if not wholly cured, have at least ceased to spread.”

Overall, summarizes Rowe, “Philosophy … is the wise way of life that enables us to die daily, to build and fortify the inward fortress against Fortuna, to become aligned with God and Nature, and to control the passions.”

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103 thoughts on “Stoicism and Christianity, I: Seneca

  1. E.O.Scott: “if I exercise virtue by whistle-blowing, and then a tyrannical governor tortures and executes me, then I have not been ‘objectively harmed,’ no more than a tree is harmed by shedding its leaves in the fall! To the contrary: I have been benefited, because I fulfilled my potential for virtue, which is the single most good and beautiful thing a human can do.”

    While I applaud this kind of courage and devotion to virtue, I do not understand how you can say “I have not been ‘objectively harmed,’” even if you are executed. The Christian can say this because the Christian has guarantees of an eternal life in a much better place.

    Besides, the Christian has trouble understanding your devotion to a mere impersonal idea or philosophy. In contrast, the Christian follows God for many other reasons:

    • Gratitude: Christ has loved and died for me, even though I didn’t deserve anything from Him.

    • Service: There is nothing more ennobling than knowing that we are serving our Creator and Redeemer. It is relational and partakes not only of Truth but also of Love. Besides, to serve Him is also to live in concert with the truths He has implanted within us. This means that living for Him is the best way to take care of ourselves, even though He comes first, the very essence of a love relationship.

    • Hope: Life can be overwhelming, but I know that my Savior is in complete control, working everything together for my good. He has also assured me that I will be with Him always. This assurance enables me to begin to be other-centered. Without this, stoicism, however much wisdom it might have, is still just another self-help program.

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  2. Daniel,

    ‘While I applaud this kind of courage and devotion to virtue, I do not understand how you can say “I have not been ‘objectively harmed,’” even if you are executed. The Christian can say this because the Christian has guarantees of an eternal life in a much better place.’

    There is indeed a big gulf between the two world view in that regard!

    I appreciate your explanation of several of the ideas and motivations that underly the Christian ethics and story. I think you’ve done a good job of articulating it, and it mirrors my experience with Christianity. I’m reminded in particular of Jürgen Motlmann’s famous “Theology of Hope,” in which he argues that Christians ought to strive to make the world a better place now, even when the odds are against them, specifically because of the hope they place in the coming kingdom of Love.

    Stoicism approaches these questions quite differently, however. In Stoicism, eternal life is neither good nor bad. They sought to convince us to radically change our value system, so that we believe that how long you live does not matter, but only how well you live. Theirs was a philosophy of heroism and self-sacrifice—the Sage ought to give his life for others in a heartbeat, because she genuinely believes that is what is the best and most beautiful thing She can do for its own sake—without regard to any other reward. They taught us to embrace our mortality, and to realize that no-one can harm us in any way that matters, if only we have virtue.

    In practice, this is actually very similar to the Christian’s “hope.” And the ancient Stoics, at least, even backed it up with something like an appeal to Providence: just as God has made so many things in nature well-fitted to their environment, so also He has given humans the faculties of reason and virtue—which makes us well-fitted to anything that circumstances throw our way, no matter how terrible it may seem. Gratitude, then, also plays a very big role in Stoic spiritual practice.

    The Stoics offered an answer to Job’s questions: God is good, and the universe is good, because the only thing that is truly “good” is our choice to practice Temperance, Courage, Prudence, and Justice/Benevolence. These are gifts from God, and nothing can take them away from us—not even death. Reflecting on the goodness of God helps reinforce our belief that virtue is the highest good for human beings.

    Atheistic Stoics like Massimo and I don’t take this story of Providence and design literally. But, I, at least, have found some value in something like it—when the going gets rough, I try to stare Fortune in the phase and say: “The Universe has made me well-fitted for what is to come, by giving me the capacity for virtue. This challenge, then is an opportunity, then, for me to flourish, and it is good. What an amazing and wonderful Universe we live in that makes this possible!”

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