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. 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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  2. 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.


  3. Labnut,

    “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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