Exploring Stoicism & Christianity: Unhappy Bedfellows?

Zeno of Citium
Zeno of Citium (founder of Stoicism)

Stoic philosophy, with its roots in Greek culture and developed before Jesus Christ was born, has a surprising affinity with Christianity. That it was regarded ostensibly as a pagan philosophy by the Early Church Fathers does not detract from the areas of overlap. For example, terms such as logos, Spirit, and conscience make their presence felt in both philosophical worldviews.

But there is more to it than that. The concept of freedom of action, connectivity between creation and the divine, detachment from possessions, the mastery of emotions and the practice of spiritual ‘exercises’ (prayer or meditation/reflection) are yet more areas of convergence.

Consider for example the similarity between Seneca the Younger’s statement: ‘Let Nature deal with matter, which is her own, as she pleases; let us be cheerful and brave in the face of everything, reflecting that it is nothing of our own that perishes.’ (De Provid. v.8).  There is much here that finds an echo in Matt 6: 25-31 and parallels: ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’’

Or what about Marcus Aurelius’ reflection: ‘Outward things cannot touch the soul, not in the least degree; nor have they admission to the soul, nor can they turn or move the soul; but the soul turns and moves itself alone.’ (Meditations v. 19).  Now consider what is written in Romans 12:2: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’.

The UK-based ‘Stoicism Today’ (http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday) project run by an inter-disciplinary team of philosophers, psychologists, psychotherapists and others and followed by an eclectic mix of practitioners have just finished their 2013 ‘International Stoic Week’.  By making accessible modernised Stoic resources, the project is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in exploring Stoicism.  Those who do will no doubt find it to be more compatible with a Theistic worldview, particularly Christianity, than they may previously have thought.  Moreover, its emphasis on reflection and meditation fits well with the more contemplative strands of Christianity.

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