This 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.
We now get to the third of the three great Roman Stoics as seen from a Christian perspective, following along C. Kavin Rowe’s One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions. (Part I on Seneca is here; part II on Epictetus here.) Of course the analysis is based entirely on the Meditations, about which Pierre Hadot said: “Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations … are not the spontaneous outpourings of a soul that wants to express its thoughts immediately, but rather an exercise, accomplished in accordance with definite rules. … [The Meditations ] presuppose a pre-existing canvas, upon which the philosopher-emperor could only embroider.” And a significant part of that canvas was provided by the work of Epictetus, which Marcus had read and studied. Also keep in mind, throughout the following, that the Meditations are characterized by Marcus going back over and over to the three Epictetean disciplines of desire, action, and assent.
We have recently taken a look at Seneca from the Christian perspective, as expressed in C. Kavin Rowe’s One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions. Rowe continues his analysis of Roman Stoicism with a theme-by-theme description of the philosophy of Epictetus.
On a number of times I have commented on the differences and similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism (insofar I understand the latter, I’m certainly no expert). But there are some interesting parallels between Stoicism and Christianity as well, parallels that were famously highlighted by Justus Lipsius, the founder of Neo-Stoicism, in the 16th century. The occasion to revisit the topic is being afforded by the fact that I’ve been reading with much interest a recent book by C. Kavin Rowe entitled One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions.
Let me conclude my brief commentary of Christopher I. Beckwith’s intriguing (and controversial, see also here) Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, following up on yesterday’s post on the alleged relationship between Buddhism and Pyrrhonism (and, indirectly, other Hellenistic philosophies, including Stoicism).
We are now going to tackle the phenomenon of the Greek Enlightenment, to which Beckwith devotes chapter 4 of his book, and which he provocatively subtitles “what the Buddha, Pyrrho, and Hume argued against.” (On David Hume and his take on both Pyrrhonian skepticism and Stoicism, see here.)
I often say that Stoicism is the Western equivalent of Buddhism, since there are many similarities between the two philosophies, based on what little I have read about Buddhism, and what I am told by friends and colleagues who know much more about it than I do. But could it be that some of these similarities are not the result of convergent cultural evolution, but rather of direct historical influence? It is not a crazy idea, given that we know that the Greeks came into extensive contact with Indian culture at the least in the time of Alexander the Great, and likely significantly earlier.
It is thus with more than a little curiosity that I tackled the reading of Christopher I. Beckwith’s intriguing Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia.
Is (or was) Stoicism a religion? I would say no, because there are substantive differences (though there is also overlap) between religions and philosophies, and Stoicism was (and is) primarily a philosophy. It is certainly the case that Stoics can be religious or not — this sort of ecumenicism is one of the main reasons I like Stoicism. It is also true that most if not all the ancient Stoics believed in a god, though they embraced a materialist, pantheistic conception of the divinity, something that moderns can somewhat easily accommodate in the guise of Spinoza’s (sometimes referred to also as Einstein’s) God.
But it wasn’t sophisticated philosophical arguments that recently reinforced in my mind the distinction between religion and philosophy. It was, rather, the simple art of traveling and paying attention to what you see around you.