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. virtue42015

    “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 ” On the face of it that sounds rather close to my own stance, I’ll have to look into ‘genealogy’.


  2. Robin Luethe

    There are many believers in all traditions who are also ‘deep agnostics’. It is interesting that when such people meet they recognize in each other a kindred spirit. I spent several hours this week reading blogs and articles by John Horgan, a blogger for Scientific American. Per my habit, I am reading a number of books he recommends. Darwin, O E Wilson and such people are those by which I assess my philosophy. And an Orthodox Jew, David Flusser wrote much of the best analysis on Jesus which greatly informs my Christianity.

    That Heidegger and Sartre could each defend such deplorable and opposing political evils permanently damaged any deep attachment to existentialism. Interestingly, Camus, whom I admire, denied that he was an existentialist. Christendom itself has far too much to account for to be that admired.

    Oddly enough the stoics we admire lived in and had to adapt to the Roman Empire with all of its evil and contradictions. We in the west have to cope with Christendom. But most of us would concur, “The Papacy is not other than the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.”
    – Thomas Hobbes; Adding only there is no shortage of tin hat politicians who have sought, wore and destroyed societies throughout the west.

    I cannot recognize any Purist approach to anything. I don’t think anyone taking evolution seriously can either. Pragmatically there are glimmers of Reason and Virtue that have emerged in our specie. At best we can do what we can to support those two things. I am indifferent, as I think you are, as to what tradition someone chooses to live with those two.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ron Peters

    I think you are to some degree forced to take a pragmatic approach, since (as you point out) Christianity and Stoicism are both presented to the modern reader in a range of somewhat independent versions. Is Christianity all about grace or are good works essential? Are the Stoics right who say all fools are madmen and the sage alone is free, or is Seneca closer to the mark when he says it’s reasonable to live life by saying that you’re no sage but Stoicism can help to make you better than some? You’ll always hear differently from some of those ‘some’, who have made the encyclopedist’s choice, and know that their version alone is correct, but there’s simply no talking with purists.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Massimo Post author


    No, faith is not a virtue for the Stoics, clearly. Then again, the seven Christian virtues as listed by Aquinas begin with the four Stoic ones and add faith, hope and charity.


  5. jbonnicerenoreg

    I think that the main problem in comparing the two is that they both have been around a long time and there are many versions especially of Christianity. Further, we don’t have any of the numerous founding documents of Stoicism. Also, Christianity is primarily a religion and not a philosophy which means we might be comparing apples and oranges. I think this quote from Paul indicates the flexibility of a Christian Philosophy:
    Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.
    Php 4:8
    (There is also the problem of levels of understanding during a comparison.)

    Liked by 2 people

  6. labnut

    whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think on these things. 9 Whatever you have learned and received and heard from me, and seen in me, put these things into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

    That was a good point you made. It goes right to the heart of Christian thinking. Note the emphasis on what is lovely, excellent, admirable and praiseworthy. Here we see the influence of Aristotle and the central role that the transcendentals, the True, the Good and the Beautiful play in Christian thinking. Note also the emphasis on action, contrary to the uninformed debate about faith:

    …put these things into practice. And the God of peace will be with you

    In verses 11 and 12 he says

    I am not saying this out of need, for I have learned to be content regardless of my circumstances. 12 I know how to live humbly, and I know how to abound. I am accustomed to any and every situation—to being filled and being hungry, to having plenty and having need

    Here we see sentiments remarkably Stoic in character.

    He carries on to say

    I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength

    Here we see that Christian behaviour goes beyond the endurance of Stoicism and is motivated by the second theological virtue, Hope. It is this that ignites Christian behaviour, impelling them to transcend endurance by enduring gladly.

    I have a remarkable photograph that illustrates this. During the Mexican Revolution large numbers of priests were executed. In this photograph the priest can be seen moments before being shot by a firing squad. He is standing erect, his head held high and his arms stretched out in the form of a cross. Here we see how hope transforms endurance into something magnificent. That iconic photograph has inspired generations of Catholics.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Massimo Post author


    The Stoics don’t need a separate entry for charity, the concept falls under the cardinal virtue of justice. Regarding hope, Stoics believe in the hear and now, because that’s what one can affect. The past is gone, and outside of your control; the future is not here yet, and it is also outside of your control. So your best “hope” to make things better is to act in the moment. As for faith, no the Stoics has no concept of it, it is a philosophy based on reason.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Robin Pennie

    The Church has obviously absorbed a certain amount of Stoicism in the past, but I agree with you that there is a clear difference between the two over the issue of faith. This means that the absorption has been selective, and any parts which are inconsistent with the faith and Church teaching have been ignored, such as the absence of a definite creator, and the (physically) materialist view of the universe.

    Some of us prefer our Stoicism straight, even if it has to be modified in parts in line with modern scientific discoveries, rather than mixed with anything else.


  9. Brett Allen Elhoffer

    I think you said it correctly at the end and that most philosophers would agree with the nation. The entire purpose of all of these is the make ones life better in some form or another. The creators of philosophies and religion do so because it makes their lives better and they share this because they believe it will help others. Ultimately it is up to the individual what will actually work and so if you can meaningfully combine these two, or any number of ideas, and live a better life for that it seems that you have achieved the goal we all set out for anyway. This may make you a poor stoic or a bad christian in the pure sense of the terms or according to their founders but that doesn’t mean you are a bad person who lived a bad life. Solid thoughts here. Thank you for the information!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. labnut

    The Stoics don’t need a separate entry for charity, the concept falls under the cardinal virtue of justice.

    It is a question of emphasis. Where does Stoicism place its greatest emphasis? Where does Christianity place its greatest emphasis? When you answer this question you expose the fundamental divide between the two systems.

    The words of Jesus Christ makes it absolutely clear where Christianity places its emphasis, that love is the first and greatest commandment:

    37Jesus declared, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22)

    In everything, then, do to others as you would have them do to you. For this is the essence of the Law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12, see also Luke 6:31).

    And thus charity is one of the three theological virtues.

    In Stoicism this is hidden away, somewhere under Justice. And this hiddeness shows :). Read through Massimo’s blog about Stoicism and you will see charity receives short shrift, mentioned on a few occasions, almost as an afterthought, along with circles of compassion. The overwhelming amount of attention goes instead to how the individual should cope with his circumstances.

    One is left with the impression that Stoicism is a philosophy of the self(it is even being called a life-hack), in contrast to Christianity, which is a philosophy of the other. You need only read Pope Francis public pronouncements to see this come through clearly.

    Now I am sure Massimo can produce a few quotes to bolster his assertion. But where did the bulk of his attention actually go? This is the real measure. We know the answer because it is recorded in his blog. The bulk of his attention went to things like fortifying the self in the face of adverse or trying circumstances and, by comparison, little attention went to charity or compassion.

    I suggest that where the attention of the Stoic is primarily focussed defines what Stoicism is really about, the self. You need only read a few modern accounts of Stoicism to note the high degree of self-absorption.

    I am not going to argue which emphasis is better since one can make a case for healthy self-interest vs. self-destructive compassion. Or, for that matter, for pathological self-interest vs life-affirming compassion. That would be a good debate for another time. But regardless, it is absolutely clear beyond all doubt that the two philosophies, as ways of life, have diametrically opposed emphases, the self vs the other. One cannot reconcile such diametrically opposed emphases, it has to be one or the other.

    It is this diametrically opposed emphasis, the self vs. the other, as a way of life, that makes the philosophies fundamentally incommensurate.

    And to make my point even more clear. Watch/listen carefully to this achingly beautiful song, ‘Make me a channel of your peace’. Every Catholic would instantly recognise this and resonate with its sentiments. It was written by a Catholic and represents the deepest yearnings of Christianity.

    Now ask yourself, where is the Stoic equivalent? Why is there not one?


  11. viennahavana

    Thanks, Massimo.
    Since I have been thinking about amathia (specifically relating it to Nazism) for the past few months, your post is quite helpful.

    I would like to say that a Philosophy attempts to describe the way the world works, whereas an Ideology attempts to change a society based certain beliefs about the way the world works. So a philosophical viewpoint is required for an ideological one. Religion lies somewhere with those two on the intersecting Venn diagram between changing and observing, and because of its lack of need for explaining reality (based on faith in the unobservable), it does not require a philosophy. (what do you think of that brief explanation?)

    To your argument: 20th century German Nazism subscribed to a (false, pseudo-) “scientific” theory of social Darwinism, not a completely biological evolutionary theory: “…natural resources allowed individuals with certain physical and mental traits to succeed more frequently than others, and that these traits accumulated in the population over time, which under certain conditions could lead to the descendants being so different that they would be defined as a new species.” (cf.
    Foucault’s geneological theory had much to do with the (false) relational premises of power, which is why his ideas are helpful for understanding ideologies–perhaps not so much for philosophies or religions (or maybe in the places where they overlap with ideological movements, for which he focused on studies of colonial power).

    For me, there seems to be a problem with trying to fit Stoicism into the ideological or religious and it doesn’t seem to belong with either of those definitions (therefore “incommensurable”?). Until convinced otherwise, I will refrain from comparison.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Massimo Post author


    Interesting points, but I’m going to partially disagree. Only natural philosophy (what today we call science) attempts to describe the world. Ethics, for one, is in the business of telling us how the world ought to be, not how it is.

    Now, Stoicism is a practical philosophy that takes its point of departure from a description of human (and cosmic) nature and turns it into a prescription of how to live a fulfilling life. You are right, it isn’t an ideology or a religion, but it is a hybrid of descriptive and prescriptive philosophy.

    Religions are yet another beast, since they do make claims about reality, but without investigation, by way of revelation. They also, obviously, are prescriptive, and they connect the two aspects very directly. I guess what I’m arguing for here is that religions can be ideological, but they must include a philosophical component. The same goes for straightforward ideologies like Nazism.

    And at any rate, for MacIntryre these all count as “forms of life,” and one can choose among them. The difference between myself and him is that he thinks the choice can only be done pre-rationally, and I don’t.


  13. Massimo Post author


    Stoicism is quite openly a philosophy of the self, and it makes no beef about it.

    That doesn’t mean that regard for others, as instiantiated in Epictetus’ discipline of action (one of three), or in the virtue of justice (one of four) is an “afterthought.”

    Moreover, one could argue that Christianity too is a philosophy of the self: it concerns whether one will or will not be saved, which seems extremely self-centered to me, especially since many Christians do not actually think that good works will get you to heaven, only faith.


  14. labnut

    since many Christians do not actually think that good works will get you to heaven, only faith.

    Evangelical Protestants are a minority. You were addressing Christianity as a whole so it is useful to direct the discussion to the dominant part, Catholicism. I am sure you would not want me to characterise Stoicism by the beliefs of a minority sect. We Catholics believe our evangelical Protestant brethren are guilty of a narrow, selective reading of the Scriptures that disregards context. It makes for an interesting argument but it is one conducted in love.

    That doesn’t mean that regard for others, as instiantiated in Epictetus’ discipline of action (one of three), or in the virtue of justice (one of four) is an “afterthought.”

    You are misreading what I said. Sure, it was mentioned by some ancient teachers. But where does the emphasis go in practice(which is what I am talking about)? Your blog is a clear indication of the emphasis being almost wholly on the self rather than the other.

    Moreover, one could argue that Christianity too is a philosophy of the self:

    That is much too simplistic. Every action for the good of another contains a selfish calculation. There quite simply is no wholly altruistic person. Our altruism is always tempered by self-interest and it could not possibly be any other way. So that is not an argument, it is an observation of human nature.

    The whole point of Christianity is to motivate us to act in the interests of others despite self-interest. Christianity supplies a complex motivation for this and your statement is a breath taking simplification. What is so interesting is the manner in which I have seen people change in response to that motivation. The motivation begins as a kind of external nudge in the direction of altruism. Then a fascinating thing happens. They are changed by the process and become genuinely more altruistic.

    But I think we are losing the point which is that Christianity has a focus on the other while Stoicism has a focus on the self. This focus evidences itself in the different emphases of the two traditions. And I maintain that you cannot reconcile an emphasis on the self with an emphasis on the other. It is a contradiction and therefore the two traditions are incompatible.

    I say this respectfully because I think there is much to admire about Stoicism. I especially admire the work you are doing and sympathise with your aims. We urgently need a moral framework for society to function properly. For some that is religion but for many it is not. Stoicism might be ideally suited to them. I see Stoicism as a belief system I can work with and along side in a productive and respectful manner. You will continue to think my belief system has shortcomings and I will return the sentiment but that need not prevent us from cooperating in a friendly manner.


  15. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    Although Stoicism does focus primarily on the self, it tends to mitigate the particular types of self-centeredness that are most likely to cause injustice: namely, an inordinate desire for more than what’s needed or chanced upon and an inordinate fear of “dispreferred” situations like bankruptcy, singlehood, or death. Arguably, continued oppression is largely a result of an inordinate fear among the privileged classes of losing their status and the material advantages that come with it, for example. The ancient Stoics argued that self-centeredness was part of human or even just general animal nature, and they probably wouldn’t have seen any sense in fighting human nature since to them Nature was God. Instead, they sought to bring out what they saw as the best in it, and honoring our social nature was part of the best of our human nature, though not the star of the show. The star of the show, at least in Epictetus, was getting our heads out of our backsides regarding our fears and desires, fixing vicious self-centeredness.

    If they put too little emphasis on our social nature in the end, well, maybe we’ll have to update its importance in Stoic practice much as we have updated our understanding of nature itself via science, and thus no longer see sexism and homophobia as in agreement with (the best of our) nature.


  16. Massimo Post author


    Again, I have said explicitly that it is no mystery that Stoicism is focused on the self. But this, in Stoicism, is not in opposition to others. On the contrary, the Stoics understand human nature as that of an essentially social animal, so they reject the standard dichotomy between selfishness and altruism.

    So, Stoicism’s emphasis on self improvement is also, immediately, about improving life in society. One cannot simply ignore or brash aside ideas like oikeiosis, the virtue of justice, or the discipline of action. They are an integral part of the philosophy.

    That said, Protestants are hardly a minor position within Christianity, as much as Catholics don’t like it. Moreover, I maintain that the alleged other-directed focus of Christianity is superficial, since the essence of the religion is not to help others, but to find salvation through faith in the resurrection of Jesus. That’s a doctrine that is much more inwardly directed than you seem willing to admit.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Shane Sullivan

    If my options are pragmatism and panpsychism, I guess my hands are pretty much tied. Much as I enjoy a good mystical-mythological spin, I don’t believe in panpsychism, and I can’t force myself to. Incidentally, I’m quite sympathetic to pantheism, if we define pantheists, as per John Toland, as “those who believe in no other eternal being but the universe”, which doesn’t necessarily entail vitalism, teleology, pyramid power, or any other hocus pocus.

    Regarding Alasdair MacIntyre’s “forms of life”, one thing that has always interested me is how much overlap there is between various philosophies. I find it fascinating when two schools of thought, on radically different grounds derived from radically different assumptions, can come agree on anything at all, but it’s actually pretty common. I never really hear philosophers talk about it, but I assume a lot of those conclusions are reached through intuition and then justified logically, rather than the other way around. I can’t imagine how else so many internally consistent systems would reach the same destinations–Nietzsche says remorse is “stupid”, Spinoza calls it “pernicious”, Buddhists and Epicureans reject it along with other forms of suffering, Taoists say that such imbalances lead to illness, etc.

    In conclusion, according to Chad Hansen, the Zhuangzi recommends that we learn from learn from many different ways of living, not necessarily in the spirit of eclecticism, but to get a clearer perspective on our own way. This seems like a good idea to me. For this reason, although I do adhere to as coherent a philosophy of life as I’m able, I’m something of an ethical orthoprax; when so many agree on how we should behave, I’m less concerned about why we do so.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. labnut

    see my reply, in the video below. Try really listening to it. Do so, don’t just brush over it. Absorb its profound beauty. Feel and then understand the ethos expressed by it. It even has Italian sub-titles, just for you 🙂 . This brings out more clearly than any debate could the deep difference between the self-absorption of Stoicism and the otherness of Christianity.

    I know the people who live by this ethos. I see the great good they do, helping the suffering. I live at the coal face in a suffering country. These are ordinary people motivated to do extraordinary things by love. Your disparaging remarks about their motivation is far off the mark and it really is an injustice to them. Here is one small example, close by where I live. I wish you could meet Sister Ethel Normoyle in person and see the radiant beauty in her face. You would never doubt her motivation. She lives her love for our suffering people. She does not deserve your disparagement.

    Now listen to this and understand her motivation. No, don’t jump over it, listen to it.

    Then contrast this with the profound self-absorption expressed in these three recent articles(and they are typical of the genre).


    Sister Ethel Normoyle is a hardy, resilient woman and would also be an exemplary Stoic, having worked for decades in our brutal townships under appalling conditions. But more than that, she is an exemplar of how love motivates people to do extraordinary things.

    As I said before, I welcome and support the work you do with Stoicism. I think it is important and necessary. But is is self-evident that the self-absorption of Stoicism and the otherness of Christianity make them incommensurate. This is not to judge them but to point out they do different things for different people. Given the complexity of society there is an important role for both traditions. Should Stoicism really build on the practice of a virtuous life it would play a vital role. I support your work with Stoicism because it has this potential.


  19. Massimo Post author


    I will listen to it. Now I plead for you: i) try not to be as condescending as you’ve been lately, please. It really doesn’t help your cause, or the pleasantness and constructiveness of this forum. ii) Try to respond to what I actually write, instead of picking articles by Ryan Holiday, who is — as you well know — very controversial within modern Stoicism, and hardly representative of the ancient version (as much as I think Ryan gets far too much of a bad rap in the press). Two can play that game, and I could provide you with plenty of skewed examples from the history of Christianity — but that wouldn’t advance discourse, now, would it?


  20. Massimo Post author


    Agreed. I too am far more interested in the similarities than the differences among several philosophical-religious traditions. By now I consider myself a Stoic, but I both think of Stoicism as a broad tent, and am convinced that people should be encouraged to take seriously and practice whatever philosophical tradition works best for them — Christianity, Buddhism, even Epicureanism! 😉


  21. Massimo Post author

    No labnut, as you should know, on the WP platform any comment that includes two or more links automatically goes into moderation. It was approved minutes ago, and I responded to it.


  22. labnut

    I have argued against the bricolage approach to belief systems, maintaining that Christianity and Stoicism are incommensurate. My argument has been that belief systems are not primarily a matter of intellectual assent, but are instead lived systems. To drive my point home I pointed out that Stoicism was primarily about how the self related to the world whereas Christianity was primarily about the good of the other. One’s focus had to be one or the other, making the systems incommensurate as ‘lived‘ systems since one could not be both.

    There is another way to look at it, and that is to consider them as performative systems. Here an analogy with sport is useful. Sports are superlative examples of performative systems. Consider soccer(perhaps analogous with Stoicism?) and rugby(perhaps analogous with Christianity?), both sports I have played with passion. You may take an intellectual approach to these sports, examining their rules, history, organisation and patterns of play. You would note the deep similarities and the academic philosopher would conclude they are not incommensurate.

    But an (ex)sportsman like myself would immediately know that is nonsense. When you play these two sports you viscerally understand the vast gulf between the elegant, balanced athleticism of soccer and the intense, committed physicality of rugby. You simply cannot be both. You cannot take a bricolage approach to these two sports because the result would be neither. It would instead be a new sport. But that would go nowhere because of the deep, embedded traditions of the existing sports.

    The problem with much of the debate about Christianity vs Stoicism is that it is an academic exercise in intellectual assent. But belief systems are not a matters of intellectual assent. They are performative systems, just as sports are.

    To stretch my sports analogy further. You have players and you have spectators. By far the majority are spectators and this is equally true of belief systems where the great majority are spectators. Spectators may watch one or both games and enjoy both. Indeed they will be passionate about their sports interests. They will have strong opinions and argue fiercely the merits of their sports and teams. Exactly the same things are true of belief systems.

    But there is a crucial difference. Spectators play an important role in maintaining the health of sports. But spectators to belief systems contribute nothing useful. In fact they are downright harmful. They can be seen as the spectators who wonder around on the sports field while the game is in progress. That is because in sports the playing field is clearly demarcated from the spectator seating. But in belief systems there is no clearly demarcated playing field. The whole world is the playing field.


  23. jbonnicerenoreg

    It seems to me that you are looking at individuals practising Stoicism and Christianity at different levels of development. The perfected Stoic as well as the perfected Christian will love everyone but without passion. It is not an accident that Epictetus’ Enchiridion was used in monasteries since even the training methods were similar. Training methods differ depending on the personality of the student but the the final practical end is the same.


  24. Massimo Post author


    Interesting thoughts, but arguments from analogy are usually suspicious in philosophy. Regarding your analogy with sports, you are right that one cannot simultaneously be a pro in two different ones, and more to the point, that one couldn’t mix the rules of two sports. That’s because there are socially sanctioned rules for sports, enforced by sports governing bodies.

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

    Yes, if you wish to be a purist, either Christian or Stoic, you will have to make a choice and that’ll be it. But many people are not purist, and both Christianity and Stoicism are themselves practiced in different ways by different people. Especially Christianity, since it has a longer history than Stoicism (the latter lasted five centuries and got interrupted… by Christianity!).

    I reject the idea that this is just an academic debate, since I know a number of people, non academics, who think of themselves as both Stoic and Christian. Or Stoic and Buddhist. Or…


  25. labnut

    I reject the idea that this is just an academic debate

    [grin] Yes, it must be tiresome to have the term used in a pejorative way. I was expecting some pushback.

    … for personal philosophy, so people are able to make their own decisions as to mixing and matching.

    That is of course true. But…later, the thought can wait while I go for a long trail run.


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