Three Advantages of Stoicism

I’m told that the best way to have a useful conversation with those who hold different convictions is to step into their shoes—to view the world as they do. So it’s time for me to try on a Stoic view of faith. Here are some insights I’ve taken from the exercise.

But first I need to explain to new readers what I’m talking about—what is Stoicism?

In a nutshell it’s a philosophy from the classical Greek era formulated by Zeno. He portrayed God as the ultimate Mind whose presence diffuses to all humanity as a fine, intangible substance. The ambition of the Stoic was to achieve tranquility through an informed self-rule. In various forms it carried on into the Roman era and was promoted by Seneca. It remained a popular option during the New Testament era as reflected in Paul’s meeting with some Stoics in Athens (Acts 17:18). In early church history it was embraced by Evagrius Ponticus who, in turn, passed it along to later generations of Christians.

One of the most significant of these was the semi-Pelagian, John Cassian, who in turn was followed by Benedict of Nursia and, later, by the Benedictine Pope, Gregory the Great. Through Gregory and the Benedictine Order many of its assumptions became an embedded presence in the medieval church. So while Stoicism—as a formal school of philosophy—disappeared long ago, its portrayal of the soul’s operations was and still is widely held by Christians.

What features of Stoicism remain active today? The key premise is that the soul is self-ruled so that all choices are products of a person’s private, inward conversation. The conversation relies on the activities of three motivational centers in the soul: the mind, the will, and the affections. Each of these faculties offers a unique dimension: the mind processes information; the will processes options and takes action; and the affections process various appetites and desires.

The result is a continuing and sometimes competitive conversation among the three faculties. The mind and the will are held to be primary because they represent the stable features of the soul—the faculties aligned with God’s own being. The affections, on the other hand, are viewed as disruptive and unstable—and not found in God’s being. Thus they need to be ruled by the informed mind and the disciplined will. In classic Greek terms the goal of the Stoic practitioner was to achieve a stable life—what they labeled “apatheia“. To follow the affections is to be ruled by the ungodly aspect of life.

As Luther helped launch the Protestant Reformation, all this was sub-biblical nonsense and was central to his reforming efforts—something he argued with exceptional force in his Bondage of the Will in opposing the implicit Stoicism of Erasmus. Luther held, instead, that according to the Bible there is only one motivational center of the soul: the heart. The heart, in turn, is meant to be affectively attuned to and aligned with God’s heart: in a love of ongoing response to God’s love as freely offered by the Father, revealed by Christ, and poured out into the hearts of believers by the Spirit. The mind and the will, in this view, are merely instruments of the heart, without any motivational power of their own.

Readers are welcome to pursue matters of Stoicism on their own with Evagrius deserving special notice. It’s time, now, to ask why this approach has such enduring force even if it’s not promoted in the Bible. What are some of its advantages?

Advantage 1: It establishes human responsibility before God. By celebrating the duopoly of the mind and the will the Stoic worldview portrays us as suitable conversation partners with God. In Stoicism the problem of sin resides in the realm of the affections. This is where human appetites, passions, and desires override clear thinking and self-control—qualities that God, as a pure Spirit, does not share with a material world.

Thus we are called to overcome sin by employing education to separate right from wrong; and to then to apply personal disciplines so that we always choose the right behaviors God expects. Our feelings are abandoned, treated as the irresponsible features of our being and meant only for private use. In this arrangement we are given a basis for achieving true moral freedom. In effect we become like God, knowing how to determine and fulfill matters of good and evil on our own initiative.

Advantage 2: It reduces the disruptive role of love in our day-to-day life. In the Stoic vision of life we are to approach God in strictly rational and volitional terms. God, who lacks any of passions or desires associated with affections, is seen to deal with us in strictly objective terms. This, in turn, sets up Christian relations with God as contractual and judicial functions: He gives us the requirements he expects us to follow and we then apply our minds and wills in achieving those demands.

These contracts present certain benefits—to the degree we meet and fulfill them—and penalties when we fail. The key task of this approach, then, is to determine the boundaries of God’s will—i.e. the lines where we need to stop short or else face the threat of judgment.

To love God on the basis of an affective devotion, on the other hand, is vastly more involved—as is love in any human relationship. The Stoic version of faith replaces an affective version of love with a rational and volitional version. The biblical term, heart, is in turn redefined by Stoics to represent our collective mind and will—as a disaffected center for choices to be made. So we are not expected to “like” God (i.e. in affective terms) since he doesn’t actually like us. Instead faith is all about our obedience. This is manageable for the good Stoic and it allows us to keep our actual affections hidden—used in strictly private and personal ways. The great benefit, then, is a disaffected God and a disaffected faith that allows our actual desires to go unexposed and our outward moral efforts to be rewarded.

Advantage 3: It gives the uniquely intelligent Christian the burden of leadership. Since God is seen as the ultimate Mind, all intellectuals who are Christian contract-keepers (i.e. those who affirm the key doctrines of Christianity) and who are exceptionally bright, deserve to be treated as priests. They alone can determine which of God’s many demands need to be taken more seriously and those which can be treated as optional or as culturally obsolete. They set up wonderful systems of theology that collate and refine the awkward documents that the Bible represents. In place of wandering narratives, unfocused and subjective poetry, and the “occasional literature” of New Testament letters that make up the Bible we are now given pristine books of Systematic Theology that largely displace the Bible in our newly rational faith. The great benefit, then, is that the intellectuals are our true guides in faith and we, the less brilliant, only need to listen to them in order to make proper decisions.

There are many other benefits, I’m sure, but these are useful starters. What we might notice is that each of the three listed advantages share this common benefit: they make God’s calling a bit easier to deal with. The alternative call, to love him with a truly affective devotion—a love of heart, mind, soul, and strength—is much too complex and involved for many of us. It intrudes on our freedom to do what we really want to do.

But somehow I prefer the latter alternative because that’s how he first loved us: with the same expansive and expensive passion that he and the Son have shared for all of eternity, and that the Spirit now offers all of us who are captivated by Christ’s beauty. For all the non-Stoics among us, let’s enjoy his love with all the delight it invites.

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4 Comments

  1. Rob

    I really like this approach to the subject, Ron. It’s nice to see the problems with Stoicism put in one place, and to identify why it is so tempting to believe.

  2. Bobby Grow

    Ron,

    Excellent! You’re not seeking popularity, are you! 🙂

    This post just proves the importance for Evangelicals and all Christians to understand the history of ideas. I think a required class at all seminaries and Bible Colleges (and churches 😉 ). Should be on the reality of interpretive tradition and the history of theological ideas; so we would have the critical distance to see whether how we approach scripture is actually scripturally and Trinitarianly shaped, or whether it’s not.

  3. Bruce

    Ron,

    Excellent! You’re not seeking popularity, are you! 🙂

    This post just proves the importance for Evangelicals and all Christians to understand the history of ideas. I think a required class at all seminaries and Bible Colleges (and churches 😉 ). Should be on the reality of interpretive tradition and the history of theological ideas; so we would have the critical distance to see whether how we approach scripture is actually scripturally and Trinitarianly shaped, or whether it’s not.

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