Stoicism and Christianity, IV: can we compare?

the Cross and the LogosThis post concludes my mini-series commenting on C. Kavin Rowe’s One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions. (Part I; Part II; Part III) I have so far discussed Rowe’s excellent take on each of the three Roman Stoics, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, where he explores what he (correctly, I think) sees as the major themes of their philosophy. The book then enters its second part, where Rowe applies the same approach to three great early Christian thinkers, Paul, Luke, and Justin Martyr. I will not discuss those here because my focus is on Stoicism, not Christianity, but I highly recommend those chapters as well, because they provide the reader both with a very good introduction to early Christian thought, and they serve as excellent benchmarks to compare the Stoic and Christian traditions. The resulting picture of the two “forms of life” puts them in striking contrast with each other.

Part III of the book then gets down to the business of exploring whether it is meaningful to compare Stoicism and Christianity, as much modern scholarship has done, even seeking elements of syncretism between the two. Which, of course, informs Rowe’s overarching question: can one (coherently) be both a Stoic and a Christian? His answer is no, mine is a qualified yes.

Before we can get there, however, I need to summarize Rowe’s treatment of the philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre, a Christian philosopher who has been instrumental — for instance with his landmark book, After Virtue — in re-introducing virtue ethics into modern philosophy. (He wasn’t the only one, Philippa Foot, best known for the (in)famous trolley dilemmas thought experiments, also contributed greatly.)

MacIntyre proposed that there are three ways to compare forms of life — such as, for instance, Stoicism and Christianity: the encyclopedic approach, the genealogical one, and the traditionalist one.

Encyclopedists take their name from the Enlightenment thinkers who produced the first encyclopedias. The basic idea is that there is one form of human knowledge, and one rationality. From those assumptions it follows that any forms of life can be meaningfully compared to each other, rationally assessed, and one declared to be better (according to whatever rational criteria have been specified) than the other(s). For instance, as an evolutionary biologist I can (and have!) discuss the relative merits of Darwinism and creationism and confidently declared the former to be an example of sound science and the latter an instance of ideologically driven pseudoscience. (And I’m sticking to that judgment, in case you were wondering.)

Genealogists, like for instance Nietzsche, or more recently Michael Foucault, instead reject the very idea of universal standards of reason, and tend to cast everything in terms of power struggles — including, when they are coherent, their own positions. Foucault, for instance, famously discussed the evolution of the concept of madness in Western society, denying that it has any objective status, and explaining instead as a political tool of oppression of “the other,” of control of undesirable elements within society.

Finally, traditionalists accept the existence of different, incommensurable, and yet internally coherent, “traditions” of thought. For example, Stoicism and Christianity are forms of life that do have standards of rationality, meaning that one can reasonably argue about the internal soundness of this or that interpretation of Stoic or Christian precepts and ideas. In this respect, traditions are unlike genealogies. However, they are also distinct from the encyclopedist approach, because there is no meaningful way — according to MacIntyre — to compare different traditions, since there is no external standard of rationality to appeal to. The only thing one can do is to make a “pre-rational” decision to embrace either Stoicism or Christianity, and then operate within that tradition during one’s own life. Since we all get just one life to live, it also follows that one cannot possibly be both a Stoic and a Christian.

I have recently published (over at my other blog, Footnotes to Plato) an extended treatment and critique of MacIntyre’s three forms of inquiry, as he calls them, but I will summarize my position again here, specifically with the example of Stoicism vs Christianity in mind.

While I started my intellectual life very much as a son of the Enlightenment, so to speak, I have eventually come to the conclusion that the strict Encyclopedist position is, in fact, untenable. I know enough about logic, for instance, to realize that one can begin with very different sets of assumptions (akin to different sets of axioms in mathematics) and come up with very different, yet logically coherent, and therefore “rational,” conclusions. It is true that empirical evidence can usefully narrow down the sets of assumptions that are defensible or useful, but empirical evidence itself is not independent of the chosen theoretical framework, even in science, and it often underdetermines choices in, say, ethics (meaning that a given set of observations about the world is compatible with more than one ethical stance).

The genealogical approach never particularly appealed to me. It leads quickly to nihilism (Nietzsche) and/or epistemic and therefore also ethical relativism (Foucault and the post-modernists). While I do agree that claims of rationality, and even scientific soundness, are made in the service of ideological agendas and power grabs more often than one might like to think, it seems obviously false to reduce all human discourse to that level. Evolutionary science provides us with an objectively better account of how the world works than creationism does. And if the creationists disagree that’s just because they don’t understand, or cannot accept, the pertinent reasons and evidence.

I am, however, increasingly sympathetic toward the tradition approach. For one thing, it kind of follows from the rejection of the other two that it is the most viable option on the table. (Of course one could argue that MacIntyre ignored other forms of inquiry, but — as a colleague recently put it — he seems to have carved up the available logical space pretty well, so the burden is on those who would claim incompleteness to show what other forms of inquiry are there.)

What I do reject is MacIntyre’s strong claim that traditions are always incommensurable. I think sometimes they may be, but also maintain that in other instances one can “go meta,” so to speak, and still arrive at useful contrasts. Let me give you an example, which I chose as extreme on purpose to better make the point.

Let’s say that instead of comparing Stoicism and Christianity we set out to compare Stoicism and Nazism. I take the fundamental ideas (i.e., assumptions) underlying the two forms of life to be roughly the following ones:

Stoicism: the only true good for human beings is the pursuit of virtue, because virtues are the only things that can always be used for good. Everything else falls into the two categories of preferred and dispreferred indifferents, which are respectively to be pursued and avoided, provided such activities don’t get in the way of a virtuous life. Also, a major way to implement the virtues is to accept and internalize the dichotomy of control: some things are under our control, other things (ultimately) are not, and we should focus our energy and attention on the former and treat the latter as indifferents.

Nazism: there exists a “master” race, the Aryan one, which ought to dominate — if necessary by force — all other races (especially the Jews). Germany, the Fatherland of said master race, has a right to expand its geographical and political influence as much as possible, again, if necessary by use of force. Women’s only role in society is to produce children and take care of them, so women ought to be confined to the spheres of “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (Children, Kitchen, Church). Homosexuality is a disease, and homosexuals need to be exterminated.

Now, according to MacIntyre, if we deploy the tradition type of inquiry we can debate either Stoicism or Nazism internally, in terms of the coherence and fruitfulness of different schools and currents within each form of life. What we cannot do — on penalty of slipping back into the encyclopedist approach — is to say that in any sense Stoicism is better than Nazism.

But I very much want to say that Stoicism is better than Nazism, and I think I can defend my contention with both arguments and empirical evidence. In the following, please note that if I can show that even one of the fundamental assumptions behind either doctrine is either (empirically) false or (logically) incoherent, then I have rejected that doctrine.

To begin with, both Stoics and Nazi want to achieve what they consider a “better” world, but while Stoic doctrines are applicable anywhere and at any time, meaning that they may benefit people from different cultures regardless of other circumstances, the Nazi approach manifestly favors a particular group (Germans) over everyone else (especially Jews). Of course the Nazi can say something along the lines of “too bad for everyone else,” but that means that Nazism is not universalizable and there is no reason for anyone who is not a German to adopt it. (Germans themselves, needless to say, have plenty of reasons to reject a resurgence of Nazism, but that’s a different issue.)

Second, the Stoic claim that wisdom (which includes the four cardinal virtues) is the only thing that can exclusively be used for good is empirically falsifiable, but I can’t think of a reasonable instance in which it has been. This by itself is insufficient to establish that Stoicism is the preferred form of life for human beings. The ancient Stoics did think so, but I don’t. I think Stoicism is one of a number of roughly equally viable philosophies that we can adopt in order to flourish. Others certainly include Buddhism, a number of versions of Christianity and Islam (not the fundamentalist ones, in case you are wondering), and many of the other Hellenistic philosophies with which the ancient Stoics did intellectual battle.

Third, by contrast, several of the basic Nazi doctrines are empirically false, quite irrespectively of their repugnant moral implications. For instance, there are no such things as human races, at all. “Race” is a technical term in biology, which indicates populations of individuals within a given species that have been reproductively largely isolated for a long time, so that they are diverging phylogenetically, on their way to become separate species. We have plenty of examples of good races in both the animal and the plant world. But not in humans. The markers that differentiate folk races, such as skin color, are very superficial, do not reflect deep genetic dissimilarities, and they are certainly not indicative of any ongoing process of speciation. Take the concept of race (Aryan or otherwise) away from Nazi ideology and the whole damn thing collapses into incoherence.

Fourth, a similar argument can be made against the idea of women’s role in society. To confine them to “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” is something that finds no support in either biology (the human female has ancestrally played many more roles, and women are, of course, perfectly capable of doing much more than that in modern societies) or in the expressed desire of millions of women themselves. And Nazi ideology provides no internal resources for why such desire should be overridden by a bunch of white (presumably non-homosexual) males.

Fifth, again similarly, homosexuality is not a disease. It is a natural condition of a certain fraction of the population, a condition, incidentally, not unique to humans. Even if it were, there are very good ethical reasons — accessible from a variety of moral frameworks — not to “exterminate” so-called “deviants” from society, regardless of whether a Nazi would accept, or even understand, such ethical reasoning.

I could go on, but I think I made the point sufficiently clear: while one cannot claim that Stoicism is the only viable philosophy of life for human beings (it manifestly isn’t), one can definitely reach the conclusion that it is a hell of a lot more viable than Nazism.

What about the comparison between Stoicism and Christianity? Here I’m going to partially agree and partially disagree with Rowe. First off, I don’t think one can meaningfully say that one tradition is “better” than the other. Each offers certain precepts that may or may not work for people seeking to live a meaningful life.

That said, there are assumptions adopted by both philosophies that may successfully be challenged by a critic. Ancient Stoics, for instance, were pantheists and something like what we today call panpsychists. But modern science — our best tool to understand the world, and one that the ancient Stoics would have respected, given their own interest in natural philosophy — gives us no reason at all to believe in a Logos understood as a vital force permeating the universe. (One can, however, still interpret the Logos as simply the observation that the laws of nature are intelligible on rational grounds.) Moreover, panpsychism is a position that at best is not based on any empirical evidence whatsoever, and that at worst risks being either incoherent or contradictory of modern science.

Christianity, in turn, is based on a number of ideas that can be reasonably challenged “from the outside,” so to speak. The notion of a creator God who is simultaneously omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent has been challenged on philosophical grounds, because it provides no answer to the problem of evil, especially of natural (as opposed to human) evil. (Yes, I’m aware that there are theological responses to this charge. I don’t find them in the least persuasive, but the details of that debate don’t really belong here.)

Moreover, Christianity fundamentally relies on accepting the reality of a series of miracles, most crucially that of the resurrection. Not only we have no convincing empirical evidence of any miracles occurring, ever; we do have excellent philosophical arguments against the very idea of miracles.

(Again, the point here is not to engage in a debate on the specifics, but only to show that such criticism is possible. Indeed, the very fact that Christians, or Stoics, can reply to these issues shows that both traditions can be coherently criticized from the outside, and that their practitioners can defend themselves by appealing to standards of rationality external to their own tradition.)

So let’s say that you are considering a choice between Stoicism and Christianity. According to Rowe, such choice is entirely “pre-rational,” because one cannot deploy reason or evidence to decide whether one tradition or the other is more promising. But of course one can, and people often do. (Otherwise the whole phenomenon of people abandoning the faith and embracing atheism, on what they see as reasonable grounds, would make no sense at all. Christian apology, meant to address objections to the faith raised by critics, also would make no sense.)

What you could do is to go through a comparative analysis similar to the one I just sketched above and assess whether — all things considered — you think that the Logos (however interpreted) is more or less defensible, on rational and evidential ground, than miracles and the notion of an all-powerful/good/knowing God. You may be mistaken about your assessment of the pertinent arguments, but that’s a different issue. The fact is, such arguments are available, and a comparison is therefore possible.

There is one more, very important, sense, however, in which Rowe may be right that Stoicism and Christianity are incompatible. Not because — as he argues on the basis of MacIntyre’s philosophy, they are incommensurable, but more simply and modestly because adherence to either philosophy requires buying into a set of assumptions that are mutually exclusive. (It should be clear that mutual exclusivity is a much weaker condition than incommensurability: in the first case, one can compare two notions and choose between them; in the second case even the possibility of a comparison is out of the question.)

Most importantly, says Rowe, the Stoics think that human reason and virtue are necessary and sufficient for a flourishing life. Christians, by contrast, think that faith in God is necessary, and that reason or virtue are insufficient because of the inherent flaws in human nature. (Never mind, of course, that human nature itself, on the Christian account, is a result of God’s will. For the Stoics, by contrast, human nature is the result of the universal web of cause-effect that characterizes the cosmos, that is, it just is what it is.)

Here, however, I think is where Rowe becomes a bit too rigid. For one thing, his version of Christianity — based as it is on the early writings of Paul, Luke and Justin Martyr — is indeed arguably incompatible, or at the very least much more difficult to reconcile — with the late Roman Stoa as instantiated in the writings of Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus. But Christianity has evolved in a myriad directions over the intervening two millennia. The Protestant Reformation, for instance, maintains that salvation is neither a matter of faith nor of good works, but depends entirely on the grace of God, which he provides of His own accord and for His own reasons. There is also the famous bit in James 2:26: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” The interpretation of this, its (alleged) contradiction of Paul’s writings, and the extent to which “good works” are necessary for salvation (as distinct from, and in addition to, faith) has been widely debated.

I’m not a theologian, but it seems to me that one could be a Stoic who interprets the Logos as the Christian God, and then do good works through the practice of the virtues. Indeed, something like this has been proposed before, for instance by Justus Lipsius and his attempt at synthesizing Christianity and Stoicism in what is known as neo-Stoicism.

From the Stoic perspective, we also need to take into account that modern Stoicism is not strictly bound to whatever Seneca, Epictetus and the rest wrote. Stoicism is being re-interpreted and updated for the modern world (including the findings of modern science). I have argued elsewhere that Stoic metaphysics underdetermines Stoic ethics, which means that one can freely adopt a number (but not all!) of metaphysical frameworks and still coherently call herself a Stoic.

More importantly, let us not forget that Stoicism, Christianity, and the like are, quite properly, what Rowe calls “forms of life.” This means that, regardless of what Seneca or Paul wrote, Stoicism and Christianity are living and lived philosophies, and that individuals will inevitably pick and choose whatever combination of precepts and doctrines actually makes their lives better (I personally know a lot of Catholics, for instance, who straightforwardly reject a great number of Papal injunctions and still very much think of themselves as good Catholics). This isn’t a recipe for an “anything goes” approach to a philosophy of life, since any tradition, once stretched beyond a certain point, does break down. This is, however, a pragmatic recognition that, ultimately, if one thinks that one can bridge the two traditions and forge a new way forward there isn’t much that Rowe, MacIntyre, or anyone else can meaningfully object to.

I am very much interested in readers’ reaction to this: to what extent do you think that a more purist vs a more pragmatic approach to the comparison of Stoicism and Christianity is feasible, or advisable?


53 thoughts on “Stoicism and Christianity, IV: can we compare?

  1. labnut

    arguments from analogy are usually suspicious in philosophy.

    1) that might be true when writing a paper in a philosophy journal, but I’m not. I writing a comment where the rules of discourse are flexible, informal and forgiving(unless one’s interlocutor is Massimo 🙂 ).

    2) analogies are illustrative and not formal arguments. They are well known, widely used and very useful provided that we understand their limitations (disanalogy, forced analogy, lack of relevant similarity, etc)

    3) to condemn something merely on the grounds of being an analogy is just a way of dodging the bullet. Something more substantive is required.


  2. labnut

    But no such body and sanctions exist for personal philosophy, so people are able to make their own decisions as to mixing and matching.

    That is true if you are a solo-Stoic or a solo-Christian. But that is about as nonsensical as being a solo-soccer player.

    We are social animals and very rarely hermits. We seek out consensus and cooperative living for obvious reasons that need no explanation. You are the first example of that. You ground your Stoic ideas in a long tradition of teaching, using that as a basis for your teaching. You organise Stoicon, you publish articles and essays, like this one. These are all aspects of seeking a cooperative consensus and this means you are not a solo-Stoic. Therefore you subscribe to a set of rules and norms that define your community. You cannot do that as well as mixing and matching your beliefs to your heart’s content because that would result in a splintered community with a gazillion varieties of belief. You need this cooperative consensus to give your movement strength, recognition and persuasive power. In fact you are actively working to attain this and you are anything but a solo-Stoic.

    Moreover subscribing to an agreed body of beliefs confers substantial benefits. We learn from each other. We find role models and mentors. We give each other support, encouragement and guidance.

    As people do this over a long period of time a tradition is established. This traditions give the set of beliefs its own special character. The tradition becomes performative and is anchored in the teachings of founder figures. These things give the tradition its appeal, longevity and protect it from splintering into multiple incompatible parts. I see this in the way you repeatedly quote from Seneca, Epictetus or Marcus. By placing your arguments in a powerful tradition you borrow the authority of the tradition.

    You can only mix and match to a very limited extent without straying outside the boundaries of your tradition. You can’t do this without harming your work to establish Stoicism as a viable belief system.

    You are anything but a solo-Stoic.


  3. Massimo Post author


    Arguments from analogy are notoriously sloppy regardless of the context in which one makes them, not just when debating with me or in a formal setting. Analogies can be informative, but they can also be misleading. I maintain that yours falls in the latter category.

    I didn’t criticize your analogy “merely” because it was an analogy, I went on to explain why I think it was misleading. Please do not accuse me of a degree of sloppiness I do not actually display.

    I never talked about solo-Stoics or Christians. Contra to your statement, there is a lot more variety among Christian communities than you seem to acknowledge, even within Catholics. Such variety encompasses which tenets of the faith are held in high regard or ignored, how people think of the faith itself, how they practice it and so on. And of course something like that holds also for the Stoics, where less variety is simply a result of fewer practitioners and of the 1500 years interruption in the tradition.

    I never said that one should mix beliefs “to one’s heart’s content,” I simply stated that there is more mixing than you acknowledge. Obviously, beyond a given point one is no longer a Stoic (e.g., if virtue isn’t the chief good), or a Christian (e.g., if you don’t believe in the redemptive value of the life of Christ). But where that point lies cannot be established ex-cathedra, and it definitely varies for different people.

    In terms of authority, my quoting Epictetus and the rest I simply remind people of what these wise men have said. But notice that in no way does anything the ancients say constitutes a dictate to which there cannot be any objection. Even for Christians there is a long tradition of arguing about what exactly Jesus said and what it meant, and a lot of disagreement. The only difference, of course, is that Jesus’ is supposed to be the word of god, while no Stoics ever spoke with anything more than the authority of a wise person.


  4. masaudsite

    Hi Massimo,

    First of all I would like to say that I’m a huge fan from Libya and really enjoy your blogs.
    On this topic, It seems to me that you end up using the Encyclopaedist approach (which you said is unatenable) in order to challenge the assumptions of Christianity as an outsider.
    Do you agree with that or did I miss something?


  5. labnut

    By an interesting coincidence one of the hymns at Mass tonight was ‘Make Me a Channel of Your Peace‘. It was a favourite and we all joined in with feeling, though we lacked the consummate skill of Susan Boyle. I looked around and was struck by the hearfelt sincerity I saw on the faces around me. I could see that they really felt those sentiments and wanted to make them happen. Some would succeed and many would fail, because at heart, we are weak people. But that was what we wanted, succeed or fail. We were trying to live a philosophy that wanted good for other people. At the entrance to the church is a box where we leave groceries for the unfortunate. I felt a sharp pang of regret as I realised I had brought nothing with me. My excuse is that a long trail run left me with no time, but it is a bad excuse.

    As I entered the church friends once again expressed their sadness and compassion at my bereavement. After Mass I sat for a few minutes in the Garden of Remembrance and shed some tears for my son. It has been six months since the unthinkable and the unendurable happened and sometimes the pain is unbearable. But it helps so much to be in a community that is caring, loving and supportive.

    In times like this I know I made the right choice when I abandoned atheism and embraced Catholicism. There is a wonderful nobility to this community that is absent in the outside world.

    This small snapshot brought home to me with renewed force the essential nature of our belief system. It is a lived set of beliefs that wants good for other people. I don’t see people doing this in fear of not finding salvation. They would be quite shocked by that accusation. What I see is people doing this out of love. The love is so palpable that we would never think of questioning it. The language of the Church is love. It permeates the rituals, the liturgy, the gospels and the homilies. It is the language of our parish priest. It is a remarkable thing to see because we hardly see any of this in the outside world of brutal commerce and exploitation.

    It is from this background of a lived belief system that places love for others first and foremost that I view Stoicism. I fail to see this otherness in Stoicism. What I see instead is a strong absorption in the self and its relationship to the outer world. These blog postings reflect this and I see it in the many popular articles about Stoicism.

    How can two lived systems be compatible when one is based on the self and the other is based on otherness? These are fundamentally incompatible worldviews that must be lived in different ways. To live as a Stoic I would have to give up the deepest and most important parts of my Christianity. For a Stoic to live as a Christian he would have to become a Christian. It is true that I can practice certain elements of Stoic beliefs but why would I do so when I find so much strength in my Christian beliefs? This is the strength that has enabled countless Christians to endure martyrdom. Are Stoics really prepared to endure martyrdom for their beliefs?

    Here again is Susan Boyle’s version of Make Me a Channel of Your Peace. There is no Stoic version of this and there never will be. There are many Catholic versions of this, which is after all Catholic in origin.


  6. labnut

    Christ has no body but yours,
    No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
    Yours are the eyes with which he looks Compassion on this world,
    Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
    Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
    Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
    Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
    Christ has no body now but yours,
    No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
    Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.
    Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

    St. Teresa of Avila

    I quote this famous prayer by St. Teresa because it expresses so clearly the other-directed ethos at the heart of Christianity and places it in stark contrast with the self-directed ethos of Stoicism.

    Note that Christ is taken as the ultimate role model. One is called to emulate Christ and act in his place by performing compassionate acts of good on his behalf. In the call to follow the example of a role model one can see a slight similarity with Stoicism but the similarity ends there.

    It ends in part because Stoicism has no believable role model of such nobility. It lacks a beacon figure that can powerfully inspire emulation.

    But at its heart the problem is this. How can I embrace the tenets of Stoicism with its overwhelming emphasis on how the self will cope with the challenges of the world and at the same time make my life primarily concerned with the challenges faced by other people?

    My primary concern must either be for the self or the other. Christianity has placed its primary concern on the other. The result is a perceived nobility of purpose that inspires beautiful writing, like the poem by St Teresa or the derivative of the Peace Prayer, Make Me a Channel of Your Peace. I quote these but there is a vast multitude of similar Christian writings. It has also inspired the Church to become the largest charitable organisation in the world.

    Stoicism has produced nothing that even remotely resembles this. This , more clearly than anything else, shows Stoicism’s powerful absorption with the self. Christianity offers me inspiring ideals of great nobility and Stoicism offers me what? The aphorisms of Marcus? A Roman emperor with great power, great wealth and every conceivable advantage consoles himself with a handbook of aphorisms? Or Seneca, an inordinately wealthy man at the heart of the Roman power structure?

    It is the perfect life-hack for today’s narcissistic millenial who aspires to power and wealth and who is trying to navigate the challenges to his narcissism. So it will gain some traction, and if(a very big if) they subscribe also to the virtue ethics of Stoicism some good will come out of it. I really hope so because we, in the Church, need partners to work for a better world. This article show how important this is (Eight billionaires ‘as rich as world’s poorest half’)


  7. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    I don’t think Stoicism is lacking in the means to address economic injustice, even if that’s far from its current most popular use and even some of its most famous ancient practitioners did not use it this way. If the only thing we should pursue actively and passionately is Virtue, or living up to the best of human nature, pursuing anything else like money should be done only in a way that leads to better character and thus more capacity to act justly. Clearly, pursuing material things as ends in themselves is frequently (if not always) harmful to the physical and social environment, whereas trying to manage and distribute those things in a way that makes it easier for others to thrive and develop their own character can benefit the physical and social environment. So by helping ourselves to develop better character, we help others by mitigating the desires to do those traditionally “selfish” things that harm others. It’s not the mere focus on the self that’s the problem in our modern capitalist society, necessarily, so much as the focus on the self’s material possessions, physical pleasures, and social status. The poor are kept poor because the rich are addicted to their money and power and fearful of being average or worse…not very advanced Stoics if they practice at all.

    The focus on pursuing true good within our own character and the classification of other things, including benefits to others, as “indifferent” may sound cold and heartless, but I think it’s meant to just be pragmatic: there is nothing we can affect more powerfully and directly than our own conscious mind, and the thing we can second most powerfully and directly is our own subconscious mind. Making anything else a primary goal, noble-spirited as it may be in principle, risks leading to frustration: for example, what if you donate to charity, and either the middlemen/women distributing that charitable money or food or the charity recipients themselves misspend it, or someone else steals it? You’d be tempted to get angry and want to go medieval on them. But the Stoics would advise against this: you did what you could to promote your own good character, but factors outside your control intervened, and that takes nothing away from the development of your character, but getting to the point where you might do something stupid in response does take away from your character. Granted, the Christians do too, to be fair: Jesus advised “turning the other cheek” in a lot of those kinds of situations.

    Maybe Christianity (or at least, heavily charity-oriented sects thereof) is to justice much as Cynicism (ancient Cynicism, that is, not the nihilism-light that gets called “cynicism” today) is to temperance: it’s a shortcut to the virtue in question and can create some remarkably admirable characters that even a Stoic can appreciate as a role model (Epictetus was a huge fan of Diogenes), but the Stoics acknowledge other means to become virtuous and recommend them to the average person who might not handle the other paths so well. You can focus on the self, for instance, without being “selfish” in the sense of having immature and unjust desires, and this is the approach Stoics recommend, just as you can practice temperance without literally giving up every single comfort in life, although in both cases you have to be careful because it’s very easy to end up betraying your principles. Although this understandably gives Stoicism a bit of a bad rap, this gentler path can attract a lot of recovering wealth addicts to look into improving their character. Maybe it’s still not perfect, but I’d prefer it to them not showing interest in their character.

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  8. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    As for the objection that Stoicism has produced no great role models…well, the Stoics themselves considered Cato, who tried to save ancient Rome from tyranny, as a master of their craft trained in their tradition, and Epictetus strikes me as having been no slouch, though he could have had a more open mind on some fronts. Musonius Rufus, I know less about, but he promoted vegetarianism and (proto-)feminism way before the late 20th Century, while many Christian sects still cling to the older “feminism is against nature” view (which is not to trash some of the great justice work some of these same sects do, and I also acknowledge that Jesus impressively opposed taboos on menstruating women and the sick). And even the not-so-great role models, the likes of Seneca and Marcus, were probably a lot more admirable than most wealthy political insiders both in the ancient Roman Empire and the modern global capitalist empire.

    Maybe what Stoicism lacked to produce more role models, and more impressive ones, was diffusion to a wider segment of the population. Formal philosophical schools usually trained only affluent men whose peers were very heavily entrenched in a materialist culture, not unlike the life-hacking young business upstarts of today, although Epictetus somehow got in as a relatively lowly disabled freedman. Perhaps they ought to have taken Musonius Rufus’s advice and taken on more women students, and trained more people from humble backgrounds as well, and it would have done better still if some level of education in logic and critical thinking that could be used to adopt a wide variety of ideas could be distributed throughout the population. Formal public education for a wide variety of classes is a very new and still imperfect thing, and is probably necessary for a logic-based system to go mainstream and recruit from the widest possible talent pool.

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  9. labnut

    those were very interesting comments. What is notable is the Stoicism and Christianity give emphasis to different virtues and this results in different patterns of behaviour. Some 52 virtues have been identified. The way we classify them and give different virtues priority reflects often our background. Christianity, with its roots in the poor and suffering people places its emphasis accordingly in the way it selects from these 52 virtues. Stoicism, drawing mainly from ruling classes inevitably selects virtues differently with different emphases.

    Is there a right selection? Massimo maintains that Wisdom must have preeminence since one can derive all else from Wisdom.

    By contrast I, and Christianity in general, argue that Love must have preeminence and that all else follows.

    The Stoic selection I think reflects the interests of ruling classes while the Christian selection reflects the interests of the poor classes. The results we see in very different patterns of behaviours.

    Can these two approaches be melded? Christianity has done this by including the four Stoic(Platonic) virtues in their list of seven cardinal virtues.

    What is necessary, I think, is that Stoicism adds Love as their preeminent virtue, making their cardinal virtues five in all. That means removing Love from its subordinate position somewhere below Justice and elevating to the number one position.

    That would reshape and redirect Stoic behaviour in a wholly more favourable direction. It won’t happen of course because modern day Stoics would never do anything that might affirm Christianity. Which is very sad. After all Christianity showed just that flexibility by importing the four Platonic virtues.


  10. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    Well, I think part of what draws a lot of modern day people to Stoicism is that some sects of Christianity have not lived up to the tradition’s ideals as a shortcut to Justice/Philanthropy and thus potentially to Wisdom (since all virtues are connected). Ancient Stoics had a similar beef with many of the Cynics of their time: they did not reach the great heights of Temperance, Wisdom, and Moral Courage that, say, Diogenes had reached, but instead did a lot of things for show. They acknowledged the potential of the tradition, but recognized that its path might not be for everyone and that many could get lost down said path. I think today’s Stoicism could take the same view of Christianity and lose nothing…maybe even gain something.

    I’m not sure if adding Love as a cardinal virtue is necessary, if Love (or Justice) can simply be emphasized more as a natural outcome of Wisdom: it’s foolish, after all, for human beings, who evolved to live in groups and cooperate, to betray the best of their nature by fighting among each other for status and material goods when there’s a better way to do things. I think this is how the ancient Stoics largely tried to deal with the issue. To the Stoics as I understand them, the other three virtues were aspects or manifestations of Wisdom, so not necessarily lesser virtues.


  11. Massimo Post author


    Wow, glad to hear someone is reading the blog from Libya! You ask a very good question, so let me try to articulate my middle position between the encyclopedist and the traditionist. The encyclopedist thinks that there is one rational, empirically grounded, answer to every question. What I’m saying, instead, is that there are different sets of logical systems, defined by their own axioms and internal structure, so that a given question may have more than one rational answer, depending on assumptions. Even so, one can compare some systems to others, examine the soundness or empirical ground of their respective assumptions and decide that one system is better — according to specified criteria — than another.

    This is all very theoretical, so let me give you two examples. The reason I personally reject Christianity is because one of the crucial elements of the faith is a belief in miracles (especially that of the resurrection of Jesus). And I think I have very good reasons not to believe in miracles.

    But now consider two Hellenistic schools, like Stoicism and Epicureanism. One can argue in favor of one or the other school, but I don’t see empirical evidence or logic definitely settling the issue of whether virtue (Stoicism) or avoidance of pain (Epicureanism) ought to be the overarching goal of a human life. So there I can say that I have made the truly pre-rational (not irrational!) decision to follow Stoicism and not Epicureanism. But I can’t coherently say that the Epicureans are “wrong.” An encyclopedist would.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Massimo Post author


    You cannot coherently say that the stoic selection of virtues reflects the preferences of the ruling classes and then read Epictetus, or Musonius, or Hierocles — none of whom belonged to the ruling classes.

    As for love, the Stoics actually explicitly defined their philosophy as one of love. So, there too one needs to be careful not to read one’s own projection and prejudices into someone else’s philosophy.

    Also, pretty much everything else Julie wrote…


  13. jbonnicerenoreg

    I think there is an interesting similarity here. The Bible is full of wisdom and prudential literature but Jesus says love is the basis. Likewise Epictetus et. al. are all about practical reason yet Marcus says his Stoic teacher was ” Free of passion, yet full of love.”!!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Paul Braterman

    Justice and charity are closely linked in rabbinical Judaism; less so, I think, in Christianity.

    The Patrician oligarchy that Cato was defending seems to us enormously unjust. Should this affect our evaluation of Cato?

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Massimo Post author


    Yes and no. One key point is embedded into your “seems to us.” It is always too easy to judge people of other times and cultures by our modern, I think more advanced, moral perspective (I do believe in moral progress, though I don’t believe it is either inevitable or permanent).

    But yes, the Gracchi brothers, who lost their lives in defending the rights of the Roman plebe a few generations before Cato, are certainly more admirable than Cato, in terms of liberal-progressive politics.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. labnut

    read one’s own projection and prejudices into someone else’s philosophy.

    Hmm, one’s own prejudices? Nope, I think it is best to ignore that imputation and see instead if it can lead somewhere useful.

    You see, what you dismiss as projection and prejudice can more charitably be called quite reasonable expectations. Let me explain.

    I have always believed in finding truth by going to ground zero. This was especially important when working in a very large engineering company where truth had to be found by leaving one’s office and going onto the shop floor. And so it was that I once spent three months working on the assembly line and another occasion spent three months working at one of our large dealerships, all in the quest of ground zero truth. So you will see that for me this was an important belief.

    After many long years of atheism I looked at the evidence and the evidence persuaded me that it was very likely that God existed. But what kind of God was this? The founding documents of Christianity spoke of a God of love, but what happened at ground zero, on the shop floor, as it were? So I went to ground zero, to the shop floor of the Church.

    And what I found at ground zero, among the ordinary, as it were, working class of the Church, quite astonished me. My immersion in atheism had prepared me to see an evil Church(now that really was ‘projection and prejudice’). But what I saw was the very opposite. I saw people working in love to help the poor, the sick and the suffering. They were by no means perfect in this but their sincerity was unquestionable and their belief in love was unquenchable. This was quite a shocking discovery. It was shocking because, not only had my atheist ‘projection and prejudice’ been overturned, it also meant as a consequence of my new-found beliefs that I had to radically re-orient the way I lived. I am trying and to be quite frank about it, I am only a small way along the path to that destination of living a life based on love. But I try and make small steps along the way.

    Inevitably then, given my experiences, I bring this expectation to the way I evaluate other philosophies. You may uncharitably call this projection and prejudice. I call it the hope and expectation that our species can achieve its highest potential, a life based on love.

    From that background I ask the question – what is really happening at the ground zero of the practice of Stoic beliefs?(and if necessary I will reorient my beliefs once again)


  17. labnut

    Justice and charity are closely linked in rabbinical Judaism; less so, I think, in Christianity.

    Can you explain why you think justice and charity are less linked in Christianity?


  18. Paul Braterman

    Possibly my ignorance. In many versions of Christianity, love (specifically God’s love as manifest by the self-sacrifice of the crucifixion) redeems us from sin, for which, otherwise, we would be justly punished. In Judaism, by contrast, the words for justice, charity, and Saint (or sage?) come from the same three-letter root, and charitable giving and conduct are simply the right thing to do.


  19. labnut

    thanks for the clarification. I thought you might be referring to something else, the tension between the Christian concepts of love and justice.

    Christ said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.“. And then he also said “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

    By this I understand that the Old Testament concept of strict administration of justice was to be extended and administered with love and this was the fulfilment of the law. Thus we see Jesus preventing the stoning of a woman for adultery. Jesus also commands us to forgive one another, to exercise mercy, to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek. In the same spirit he tells us that the greatest commandments are love(for God and one another). We are told to open our homes to the unfortunate and to give all that we can to the sick, suffering, poor and imprisoned.

    But how do we reconcile these radical teachings of love for all, including our enemies, forgiveness and submission to wrong with the demands for justice? It is a difficult question that has exercised fine theological minds.

    For example, what of the thugs who stoned me a year ago and injured me so badly that I am still in pain? Should I forgive them? I do, but is that just a notional forgiveness? What if the police arrested those thugs? Should I therefore ask the police to dismiss the charges? Now that is more difficult because it might be imperilling other potential victims.

    The best explanation I can give is that our society is in a state of transition between the strict harshness of an absolute justice system that is administered to the letter of the law and a society of love and forgiveness that depends on self restraint(which, as Jesus said, would be the fulfilment of the law). We are somewhere on that trajectory and should exercise the maximum of love, mercy and forgiveness that is compatible with the needs for justice in a well functioning society. Achieving this makes high demands on our capacity for wisdom.


  20. labnut

    It is interesting that Massimo quoted Epictetus as follows(speaking of friendship):

    … But you can’t be a hit in both roles. To the extent you cultivate one you will fall short in the other.” (Epictetus, Discourses IV, 2.6-7)

    I’m glad Massimo recognised this. It is the whole point of my argument against the compatibility of Stoicism and Christianity. Epictetus’ advice is even more pertinent when applied to the diametrically opposed self-directedness of Stoicism and the other-directedness of Christianity.

    You cannot be a hit in the role of cultivating the Stoic self-directed, self-absorbed approach to life and simultaneously be a hit at cultivating the Christian other-directed approach to life. The one, whichever you choose, by its very nature, excludes the other.


  21. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    I think calling the Stoic approach “self-absorbed” is a little like when I called imperfect ruling-class Stoics “hypocrites” for the sake of argument a while back. I used the term “hypocrite” loosely to mean “someone who doesn’t live up to his or her principles” thinking that this might be how these people are seen by non-Stoics, even though the term is more commonly reserved for people who also don’t admit to doing so, and the ruling-class Stoics do at least tend to admit their weakness. Similarly, “self-absorbed” implies not just focusing on the self, but focusing on a narrow conception of the self, most notably a rather hedonistic one that cares way too much about the individual’s pleasure and pain, wealth and poverty, status and powerlessness, health and illness, beauty and ugliness, and other indifferents.

    For me, Stoicism, like Buddhism (the philosophy that got me to keep on coming back when I fell off the wagon until I found out enough about Stoicism to take a good hard look at it), promises a way out of self-absorption: it requires me to update my sense of self to include the ethical and big-picture implications of what I’m doing, and so it works to expand my focus beyond those pesky indifferents. It’s inspired me to get over the unpleasantness of fears of failure or incompetence and discover that they’re based on a huge overestimation of just how important my incompetence is in the causal chain of things (never mind ignoring the fact that a lot of incompetence can be mitigated). It’s also inspired me to take a good hard look at my relationship to desires, and realize their connection to the self-absorbed-by-any-definition values of mainstream consumer capitalism that do so much harm to the natural and social environment, and so since I made this connection (and found a not-Stoic-but-compatible blog post about how identity can help with self-control), I’ve been changing my activity patterns to avoid doing things just for pleasure’s sake on the basis that “they’re not my thing” as a Stoic and make more decisions with both the natural and the social environment in mind. Inspired by this thread, I even made my first charity donation in a while other than giving change to street musicians, realizing that an earlier stage of my practice I probably would have spent that same cash on some favorite luxury foods, which brings back harm. This plan also seems to be working so far: it’s so much easier not to do something wasteful after only 2 days of this.

    Perhaps this doesn’t hold a candle to the charity work of some Christian laypeople (not to mention the best monks, priests, and nuns who formally devote themselves to trying to be like their role model), but it’s done things for me that Buddhism couldn’t quite pull off as well as replicated some of its positive results. I think the problem with Buddhism was that I tended to get hung up on the “enlightenment” thing, waiting for that magical “insight” that “there’s no self” to free me from my fears and desires. With Stoicism I just follow the logic wherever it takes me: using the ancients and modern teachers with more advanced practices as guideposts, I can come up with logical insights of my own based on my own evolving understanding of Nature and my place in it. Yes, there are doctrines, but I can make sense of them in my own way, and rather than being a distraction like it would be in Buddhism (monkey mind), it’s a legit part of the path.

    So take this as just one, almost surely unconvincing, Ground Zero report from one aspiring Stoic with 3 1/2 years on-and-off interest and the last two months “on” with better results than ever regarding things I hardly thought I could advance in (namely some very old and pesky fears and desires around indifferents).

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  22. labnut

    Hi Julie,
    I loved your ‘ground zero’ report and found it convincing. Yes, the term ‘self-absorption’ is a little strong. My preferred term is ‘self-directedness’ as opposed to ‘other-directedness’ but it also conveyed the sense of steering one’s own destiny which I did not mean.

    You account brought out two messages.

    1) you found the belief system allowed you to take control of your life and that freed you up to broaden your concerns to others.

    2) you embraced virtue ethics and this inherently broadens one’s concerns to others.

    I think these are important messages and they are the reasons that I, as a Catholic, have been supportive of Massimo’s work. I have been, and remain critical of aspects(which are unfortunately dominant).

    In these comments I have been critical of the thesis that Christianity and Stoicism are compatible but that does not mean I oppose Stoicism. On the contrary I welcome Stoicism because it is an ethical system that has at its heart a system of virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is also at the heart of Christianity and this is where their commonality lies, though their dominant focus goes in different directions.

    What I would like to see is Stoicism making virtue ethics its primary focus and the development of inner hardiness/resilience its secondary focus.

    Stoicism and Christianity can become partners in working for a more ethical world. I would love to see that happen. Thanks for writing your ‘ground zero’ report. It was a useful corrective for aspects of my comments that may seem overly critical.


  23. Massimo Post author


    “What I would like to see is Stoicism making virtue ethics its primary focus and the development of inner hardiness/resilience its secondary focus.”

    But what I’ve tried to explain is that Stoicism, like virtue ethics in general, actually rejects that dichotomy. For a virtue ethics the pursuit of virtue is the same things as the improvement of character, which brings resilience as a side effect.

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