Thursday, March 29, 2007

'Being philosophical': Christianity vs Stoicism

Christianity vs Stoicism
Today, upon hearing that I work for a church, a doctor told me that I must be approaching my situation 'very philosophically'. In my experience, this phrase is used to mean that one is being 'stoic' despite bad circumstances. I understood what he meant, but had to disagree. I think that on this score, being Christian is the opposite of being Stoic.

The ideal in Stoicism is to cut oneself off from the world, to avoid making emotional attachments, to experience apatheia (apathy!), to become numb. (In my limited knowledge, this is similar to Buddhism in many respects.) Suffering is inevitable and the healthiest response is to avoid the attachments that will inevitably lead to pain when such transient things pass away. This includes (in fact, perhaps begins with) family members and other 'loved' ones. To be Stoic is to be pessimistic and so to avoid love out of fear of loss.

However, apathy is not a valid Christian response to suffering. Instead, loving God means loving what is good in creation for God's sake, and groaning in hope for its redemption. Because of hope, it is possible - even necessary - to love.
I would offer points for the identity of this sculpture, but I can't remember myself who it is! Instead, I'll offer eight points for the country is it located in. Bonus points if you can give me a convincing answer about the identity of the subject (preferably with a link to an image proving it).


Anonymous said...

As it happens, Marcus Aurelius' Meditations (in particular, its circular cosmology concominant with its affirmation of "infinite regress" (which is ruled-out a priori by time-bound variants of the Cosmological Argument)) was highly instrumental in triggering my apostacy shortly following my confirmation around the turn of 1994/1995.

Anthony Douglas said...

Hmm. Something old, but you'd already seen so much that you can't remember the details. Sounds like it's stored in the antiquities warehouse...I mean, the British Museum.

John P. said...

I may have said this before, but my current studies have been focused on the function of sorrow in Augustine's theology of the Christian my reading of his sermons on the "Psalms of Ascent", i believe the bishop actually exhorts his congregation to a kind of sadness that embodies Christian eschatological hope.

not to toot my own horn or anything, but I will be presenting on this topic at next years AAR.

I would love you thoughts and discussion on this issue as research progresses.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what the alternatives are to "approaching things philosophically?" For instance, what would be the difference between philosophy and religion?

Anonymous said...

While I can't definitely answer your query of identity, I can say that that bust looks rather similar to this mosaic of St Paul.

byron smith said...

Michael - that old emperor is still killing people, huh? Or perhaps not, since I presume you have since de-apostacised?

Anthony - it was in an antiques warehouse, but not that one.

John - sounds fascinating, combining Augustine and eschatology in a very interesting way. I haven't read the relevant sermons, but would love to have a look at your paper at some stage.

cyberpastor - wouldn't one alternative be 'approaching things Christianly'? (i.e. in resurrection hope, not pessimism)

Drew said...

further to that, perhaps approaching things joyfully?

I think it's older than st Paul... looks greek rather than Roman

joel hunter said...

Well, when Boethius was imprisoned and awaiting execution ca. 526, he wrote his masterwork Consolation of Philosophy. He, a Christian, finds consolation under the instruction of the lady Philosophy (clearly a pagan authority). Now why do you suppose that is? :-)

byron smith said...

I was not attempting to make a comment about the relationship of theology and philosophy (or faith and reason) more generally - my target was simply Stoicism (which is common usage is what people usually mean by 'being philosophical' about difficulty), and the common (but disasterously mistaken) conflation between a stoic stiff-upper-lip and Christianity.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Your deep faith and grasp of the heart of Christianity keeps showing through, Byron.

Anonymous said...


Yes of course, the Gospel and more. I was actually wondering what was going on in the mind of your physician :)

Christopher said...

Ok when I started typing I three great points, but now I can only remember the first, and not so fantastic point.

1 - Sometimes I wish for the Stoic detachment. Not in an aloof or stiff-upper lip kind of way but when I find myself thinking that all of my close relationships will end in pain and maybe it would have been better not to have started those relationships. Of course with the hope of the resurrection that changes things dramatically, but that hope comes and goes, and the despair of future loss is sometimes overwhelming. I remember thinking shortly after "courting" my now wife, that I had past a point and that whatever happens now it will be painful in the end. I suppose all that I am saying is sometimes I see the practical wisdom in the Stoic stance, but I also see the foolishness.

psychodougie said...

i've been reencouraged to feel more as a Christian. Ecclesiastes has been instrumental in this, esp 7:2,
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.

to unfeelingly continue in this life, as the stoics sought (seek) to, approaching things only rationally, is to miss out on so much. sure, so much pain, but also the resolve, rethinking and rejoicing that comes out of it.

joel hunter said...

Sorry Byron, didn't mean for my elliptic comment to come across so cheeky. Since I'm also an evangelist for philosophy, I tend to see remarks like the doctor's as a protoevangelium. No argument from me about your point. Suffering and death are the enemy.

byron smith said...

Joel - no worries; what kind of philosophy do you think is good news?

Cyberpastor - my mistake (again), sorry. That makes a lot more sense now. I suspect from his tone and reaction to my comments about Christianity vs Stoicism (my post was a longer version of what I tried to say to him) that for him my faith (or rather, my job, which implies my faith) was something quaint and slightly unintelligible, in the face of which he was trying to find something positive to say. Perhaps he even considers himself to be one who takes life philosophically (though without needing a 'faith' to buttress this approach?). Guessing further, maybe the alternative in his mind might be to be overwhelmed by the tragedy of life.

byron smith said...

Doug - a very thought-provoking verse. Of course, the true Stoic would avoid the house of feasting too (at least metaphorically, if not actually). Death is only a tragedy if you love life. By reducing love for life, the Stoic sought to lessen or even dissolve the tragedy of mortality. So, despite Koheleth's advice, I'd say go to both the house of feasting and the house of mourning - indeed, this is what he says elsewhere: to enjoy the good things (even though this makes death 'worse').

Chris - thanks for your honesty. I'd love to hear your other two points if you remember them. You may have heard this before, but the most frequent command in the Bible is "fear not". It is fear that makes Stoic detachment attractive. The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? (Ps 27.1).

Chris Tilling said...

Very thought provoking post, Byron.
However, I'll have a pop at the sculpture.
Obviously his nose has been bashed, and his chin looks sturdy, so I conclude he is a boxer.
Second, it would appear that the sculpture is fairly old, so it isn't of a present day boxer.
Third, a big clue is cleary that the sculpture is made rock.
Fourth, teh design looks Roman, i.e. Italian.
So, an italian born boxer sculture made of rock.

It's of Rocky Marciano.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit perturbed by your depiction of Buddhism as akin to Stoicism. The Buddhists I know - mainly from a Mahayana tradition - certainly wouldn't recognise themselves in it. For them compassion is central and their commitment to the liberation of all sentient beings is something in which I as a Christian find deep inspiration.

byron smith said...

Chris - I'll pay ten points for that. It would have been more, but you didn't link to a photo.

byron smith said...

Macrina - I apologise. I should have been more precise. I was basing this claim on the Four Noble Truths, that as I understand it, lie at the heart of at least Theravada Buddhism, in which the reality of universal suffering is due to attachment to existence/life and the craving for pleasure. It is only by withdrawing one's attachment to the world that one can be free.

Mahayana Buddhism has a different version of these, which do not have the same emphasis on freedom from craving as the solution to suffering.

Of course, I am certainly no expert and am very willing to be corrected.

Anonymous said...


I'm a college student doing research a research paper on Christianity and stoicism. this blog is somewhat related to my to my thesis. I'm looking at the differences of both groups perceptions of the body and spirit. Does anyone have any ideas? I've come to believe that they are very different even though the Bible does allude to stoic teachings through the words of the Apostle Paul. Does anyone have any thoughts? Please share comments--it would really help with my assignment. Thanks so much!

byron smith said...

Hi Melody, thanks for stopping by. I'm guessing that it might just be me replying here since this post is a little old.

Where in Paul's writings are you thinking of?

As for a Christian view on the body, I can make a few suggestions, but you might find that it is a contested topic! I'd be happy to send you a short piece I wrote on the topic a few years ago if you email me (check my profile for details).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for replying!I have responded more fully to your response and answered your questions in my e-mail.

Nathan said...

"To be Stoic is to be pessimistic and so to avoid love out of fear of loss."
I shared this misconception of the Stoic philosophy until recently. In fact, you do not avoid love or any passion out of fear. They viewed virtue as the only good, it's opposite as evil, and all else as indifferents. Of those indifferents (not good but neutral), some are preferred or not (wealth and poverty being classic examples). Fear is the opposite of one of the four primary virtues - Courage. One doesn't avoid emotions, one avoids passions that can compromise virtue. Lust and ecstasy for example are dangerous due to their compromise of living in accordance to nature, to Virtue. "The ideal in Stoicism is to cut oneself off from the world". This statement is another common misconception. Below are quotations from Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, a definitive Stoic if there ever was one that address some of your post. It's great that people are taking interest in philosophy though, carry on!

“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”

"Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural."

“Perfection of character is this: to live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretence.”

“Men exist for the sake of one another.”