Neo-Stoicism and the relationship between Stoicism and Christianity

Discussion in 'Religion and Philosophy' started by Roy Fokker, Jan 28, 2017.

  1. Roy Fokker Forum Veteran

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    The ongoing attempts to revive and update Stoicism for the 21st century go under a number of names, usually along the lines of “Modern Stoicism” or “Stoicism Today.” But people don’t use the obvious term: neo-Stoicism.

    There is a reason for that. “Neo-Stoicism” actually describes an earlier project for the revisitation of Stoicism, mostly associated with Justus Lipsius, who in 1584 published a book entitled De Constantia (“On Constancy”), which tackled the issue of how to reconcile Stoic philosophy with Christianity, and which ended up influencing a number of other important figures, including most famously Michel de Montaigne.


    The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent article about neo-Stoicism, penned by John Sellars (there is also a separate entry on Lipsius, also by Sellars). I will discuss here some of the highlights from that entry.

    Apparently, the term “new Stoics” was introduced by Calvin, and not as a compliment. He was referring to those (misguided) people who attempted to revive the idea of apatheia (the Stoic tranquillity of mind) rather than embracing the Christian virtue of, as Sellars puts it, “heroically enduring suffering sent by God.”

    The IEP article is interesting because it points out that a reconciliation between Stoicism and Christianity had been attempted pretty much from the beginning of Christianity itself. For instance, both Augustine and Tertullian were sympathetic to the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, although they certainly stopped short of endorsing it. It is also well known that Epictetus’ Enchiridion was adapted for use in monasteries (where references to Socrates were changed to Paul…), and Seneca’s Letters enjoyed wide circulation during the Middle Ages. Indeed, Augustine and Jerome accepted as genuine the existence of a correspondence between Seneca and Paul, which unfortunately was apparently forged. Both Peter Abelard and John of Salisbury were influenced by Stoic ideas as well.

    While prominent Christians were willing to grant a significant value to Stoic ethics, Stoic physics was another story: Sellars tells us that when David of Dinant tried to revive it, the episode ended up with the burning of his books due to the charge of heresy (pantheism, to be specific). Dinant’s books are known to us only through the hostile treatment they received by Albert the Great and Aquinas.

    When we get to the Renaissance, even before Lipsius there was renewed interest in Stoicism, for instance by figures like Petrarch and Politian. But it is Lipsius’ De Constantia that really marks a purposeful effort in the Stoic direction. According to Lipsius, when Christians find themselves going through hard times they can draw inspiration from Stoic ethics, although he also immediately makes it clear that ancient wisdom needs to be coupled with Christian holy scriptures in order to succeed.

    Sellars gives us a list of the Stoic doctrines that Lipsius explicitly rejected because in contravention of Christian teachings, namely: “the claims that (a) God is submitted to fate; (b) that there is a natural order of causes (and thus no miracles); (c) that there is no contingency; (d) that there is no free will.”

    Another controversial issue was represented by the above mentioned Stoic concept of apatheia: according to the Stoics this ideal state of detachment and tranquillity can be achieved by a Sage via rational analysis of one’s judgments, while Augustine claimed that it also requires the grace of God. Even Pascal, much later, criticized the neo-Stoics for their reliance on reason over faith, which makes perfect sense from a Christian perspective.
    Nonetheless, according to Sellars the neo-Stoics had a number of points in their favor, especially the affirmation of virtue over pleasure (unlike the Epicureans, whom Christians always had a strong antipathy for). Indeed, here is an interesting remark from the first English edition of the Enchiridion (published in 1567): “the authoure whereof although he were an ethnicke, yet he wrote very godly & christianly.”

    Lipsius wasn’t the only neo-Stoic, and the IEP entry goes on to give brief mention to Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), Pierre Charron (1541-1603), Guillaume Du Vair (1556-1621), and Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645).

    Sellars concludes on a somewhat negative note, remarking: “Although Stoicism may be characterized as a pantheist philosophy, it is also a materialist and determinist philosophy. The orthodox Christian can never, at the same time, be a Stoic.” That may be true of the “orthodox” Christian (whatever that may be, nowadays), but the sustained interest in Stoicism by some of the most important Christian figures, throughout pretty much the entire history of Christianity, certainly attests to some degree of compatibility. And these days I’m much more interested in emphasizing commonalities rather then differences among philosophies of life. I think that’s the best way forward for humanity.

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