The Porch and the Cross
by Kevin Vost
There is quite an interesting history of the intersecting courses of Stoic philosophy and Christian theology. Seneca’s own elder brother, the governor Gallio, is quoted within the pages of the New Testament itself (Acts 18: 14-15), where he refuses to hear a case against St. Paul. There was once even a book claiming to have correspondence between Seneca himself and St. Paul, but it was found to be unauthentic. Epictetus made only a few passing comments about Christians in his writings (recall that he died long before the Bible had been assembled), but lessons from his Enchiridion were incorporated into some ancient monastic rules. Indeed, some medieval Christian writers would even “Christianize” the Enchiridion by substituting, for example, the name of St. Paul when Socrates was mentioned! Although Marcus Aurelius’s reign was marked by some persecution of Christians, it is unlikely that he himself instigated it — but his failure to stop it may point to the limitations of the Stoic philosophy, or at least, to Marcus’s limited knowledge of the Christian faith.
Some early Church Fathers, such as St. Justin Martyr, Origen, praised the lives and lessons of Musonius Rufus and Epictetus. Tertullian described Seneca as “often ours” in his sentiments. In the Middle Ages, Scholastic schoolmen were also well aware of Seneca, who wrote in Latin. Blessed Humbert of Romans cited him three times in his Treatise on the Formation of Preachers, a tome designed to guide the new Dominican Order in the most effective means to spread the gospel of Christ, and we will see (in a later chapter) that St. Thomas Aquinas would cite him in many places within the Summa Theologica.
The Stoics also had a very influential role regarding my own personal journey back to Christianity. Since my early 20s, I had been a big fan of Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy because I knew it worked. I also respected the Stoics because I knew they were its main precursors. There was no doubt in my mind that these three ancient sages (Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius – I had yet to encounter Musonius Rufus) knew far more of value about the human mind, emotion, and behavior than any gaggle of modern behaviorist or psychoanalytic psychologists.
Oddly enough, though, while Ellis was an avowed atheist, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus were, in their own ways, believers, one and all. (I figured at the time that nobody’s perfect.) Though we tend to think of the ancient Greeks and Romans in terms of their classic polytheistic pantheon of Olympian gods, some of the Stoics were much more likely to speak of God with a Capital “G.” They did not know Christ, but their reason led some to a belief in one God, which they sometimes referred to as Zeus, or Nature, or Providence, as well. Epictetus, in particular, though, spoke of God in personal terms. Recall this “lame old man’s” hymns to God at the start of this chapter (a citation from Epictetus’s Discourses 1.16). And here’s an anonymous epigram found in the writings of St. John Chrysostom: “Slave, poor as Irus, halting as I trod, I, Epictetus, was the friend of God.” It was when I had obtained that leisure which Seneca advised that I found myself freer to focus on my own moral purpose à la Epictetus — and before long, to say of all things and events around me, like Marcus Aurelius, “This has come from God.”
Actually, though, I profited greatly from two groups of ancient Greek wise men bearing gifts: not only the Stoics, but also the Aristotelians. In the next chapter, we’ll turn to a modern Aristotelian, a contemporary of Albert Ellis, who had actually once debated Bertrand Russell. It was in revisiting his thoughts in my early 40s that I was soon drawn back to Aristotle, over to St. Thomas Aquinas, and all the way up to Christ, the same path that this Aristotelian had taken in his 90-plus years of life.
TRUTH BOX #7
God is one and the same with Reason, Fate, and Zeus.
The Stoics were no atheists. Though there were, of course, no new Darwinian atheists at the time of their philosophical heyday, there were indeed materialistic atheists of other schools, such as the Atomists, most notably Democritus and Leucippus, who saw all of reality as composed of atoms moving about according to chance, leaving no room for the soul or for spiritual beings. Other philosophers, like the Epicureans, most notably Epicurus himself and Lucretius, drew from the Atomists; and, while still believing in gods, paved the way for further atheism by arguing that the gods were uninterested and unable to intervene in our affairs. They also denied an afterlife.
The Stoics did not deny the spiritual realm, and some saw the reality of a single God. Aided by reason but lacking in divine revelation, they had varied conceptions of God that captured pieces and parts of the truths of His nature.
God was considered a spiritual and active principle that gives shape and meaning to a primary passive principle of undifferentiated matter. The ancient Greeks, you see, had a conception of an eternal universe (“existence exists”) and perceived God as a First Cause in terms of changing matter, rather than bringing the universe into existence ex nihilo — that is, out of nothing. The Stoics had rather vague and sometimes conflicting understandings of God as the shaper of the cosmos or universe (which was believed to periodically perish in cataclysmic fire and then begin anew); as the “soul” of the universe; or as the universe itself. Some held, therefore, a rather pantheistic view that everything is God, or a part of God. Some saw Him as synonymous with Nature or with Fate. Others at times, especially Epictetus, did see God as a personal, father-like figure interested in our existence.
Regardless of their rather varying and rather murky concepts of God, the Stoics acknowledged him based on reason alone. They also deduced from his existence our need to live lives of virtue and self-control, and they developed very effective techniques to help us achieve this. There is still much that good Christians and all people can learn from those teachers on the porch.
Kevin Vost, Psy.D. taught psychology at the University of Illinois at Springfield and at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee. An author of books on memory and on Thomistic philosophy, Dr. Vost has studied the Stoics since the 1980s. These excerpts are adapted from parts of chapter 7 “Stoic Strivings: The Slave, the Lawyer, the Emperor, and God” in his memoir From Atheism to Catholicism:How Scientists and Philosophers led me to Truth (Our Sunday Visitor, 2010) which is available here. He is now completing The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2015) which will highlight the lives, lessons, and legacies of Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.