Stoic Practice vs. Christianity

“No person is free who is not a master of himself.”

This quote is usually attributed to Epictetus, but found in works attributed to Pythagoras, and stated as: “None can be free who is a slave to, and ruled by, his passions.”

—As quoted in Florilegium, XVIII, 23, as translated in Dictionary of Quotations (1906) by Thomas Benfield Harbottle, p.368

“The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, because an artful life requires being prepared to meet and withstand sudden and unexpected attacks.”

—MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 7.61

I often see Christians projecting their beliefs on Stoicism, let us compare them and be clear how these world views differ and overlap. I practice Stoicism and like to associate with others doing so, ancient and modern. There seems to be a tendency toward atheism these days among Stoics. Ancient Stoicism had the concept of Logos which represented a God figure, Zeus, but this concept was not defined by a personal relationship, as it is in Christianity. Zeus represented nature. I am not debating those differences between Stoics in this little essay. Disclaimer, I have no interest in Jesus or Christianity, beyond studying their historical impacts. I grew up as an evangelical Christian. I find the Stoic spiritual practices of ethics and virtue to live the best life, far superior to belief and faith in things unseen. Stoics help themselves using their reason and will.

Stoicism and Christianity are both concerned with how best to live, but Christians feel this life is a shadow of a life to come. The Stoics didn’t talk much about an afterlife and were agnostic about what, if anything lies beyond death. For the Stoics, what matters isn’t so much what may or may not happen after death, but how we make best use of the time we have now. This is one of the main reasons I practice Stoicism and not a religion idolizing people or worshipping a god beyond nature or the life we know now.

I do not agree with the Christian world view on original sin and death, which is why I practice Stoicism and not the Christian or any other religion. Stoics are focused on the life we have, not one to come. The Stoics viewed death as natural, a return to Nature. The Stoics believed that life should be lead through actions rather than words. I concur. What we do matters to us. The Stoics provide practices to help you control your reactions to thinking and difficult physical circumstances now, which is the only thing in your control.

Discourses Book 1.1 “About things that are within our power and those that are not.”

Epictetus speaks for Zeus/Nature, from Discourses,

“…I’ve given you a certain portion of myself, this faculty of motivation to act and not to act…the power to make proper use of impressions.”

—Epictetus Discourses, Fragments, Handbook, translated by Robin Hard, Book 1.1.12

Stoicism is an Ancient Greek philosophy formed in Athens while the Greek world was in chaos after the death of Alexander the Great. Zeno of Citium founded the Stoic school of philosophy, which he taught in Athens from about 300 BC. Stoicism is based on the moral ideas of the Cynics. Stoicism laid great emphasis on goodness and peace of mind gained from living a life of virtue in accordance with nature.

“Now, If virtue promises to enable us to achieve happiness, freedom from passion, and serenity, then progress towards virtue is surely also progress towards each of the states.”

—Epictetus Discourses, Fragments, Handbook, translated by Robin Hard, Book 1.4.3

(Epictetus does seem to often have a personal view of the divine as related by Arrian in Discourses.)

The Greek term for word is Logos. Five hundred years before Jesus was born, Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, used Logos (the word) to explain what he saw as the universal force of reason that governed everything. He said all things happen according to the Logos. This belief became the foundation of Stoicism. Greek speaking Jews came to view the Logos as a force sent by God. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is referred to as the Word, and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; he is the driving force sent by God.

Modern day Christianity has a splintered past and is practiced differently between the Protestants and Catholic Church. Eastern Christianity is often thought closer to the original church that formed after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. I would argue that the Pauline Gospel is the foundation for the modern Western church more than other competing strains of early Christianity. This form of Christianity developed from the beliefs and doctrines espoused by the Hellenistic-Jewish Apostle Paul through his writings in the New Testament. These are muddy waters.

According to Christianity, it is only through Jesus of Nazareth that people can achieve eternal salvation. Humans save themselves through grace instead works, while the forgiveness of sins comes by faith alone.

I do not concur due to my experience. I take no one’s word as final on life and death. I am living this life now. Christian belief to me is a tyranny and not well reasoned or aligned with natural life and death. There are no similar concepts in Stoicism, where what you do is its own reward or punishment now, in the moment. We practice to be ready to act with reason and not be overwhelmed by emotions or fear.

Stoicism and Christianity are both monotheistic. Stoicism follows Heraclitus and believes in one Logos; Christianity follows Jesus, and requires followers to believe in the one true God and have no other gods before him [her]. Additionally, both Stoicism and Christianity serve the will of the Logos/God. They teach we can liberate ourselves from fear and anxiety by submitting to the will of the Divine.

In Christianity, the Word (Logos) was made flesh and dwelt among us. In Christianity, a relationship with the Logos is much more personal.

“The Stoics also referred to the seminal logos (“logos spermatikos”), or the law of generation in the Universe, which was the principle of the active reason working in inanimate matter. Humans, too, each possess a portion of the divine logos. The Stoics took all activity to imply a logos or spiritual principle.” — https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logos#Stoics

“The Stoics often identified the universe and God with Zeus, as the ruler and upholder, and at the same time the law, of the universe. The Stoic God is not a transcendent omniscient being standing outside nature, but rather it is immanent—the divine element is immersed in nature itself.”

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoic_physics#God

“The Stoics [defined] free will as a voluntary accommodation to what is in any case inevitable. According to this theory, man is like a dog tied to a moving wagon. If the dog refuses to run along with the wagon he will be dragged by it, yet the choice remains his: to run or be dragged. In the same way, humans are responsible for their choices and actions, even though these have been anticipated by the logos and form part of its plan.”

—(xix-xx) Gregory Hays

Another big difference between the two worldviews is Christians ask God for help, while the Stoics seek help from within. Through prayer, Christians ask to be released from suffering, healed when sick, and comforted in sorrow. By contrast, Stoicism tells us that if we want any good, we need to get it from ourselves. No spirit will relieve us from our pains.

Stoicism and Christianity have competing views about human nature as well. For the Stoics, nature has instilled people with the capacity to reason, which we can exercise to live out virtuous, dutiful lives. Christians, on the other hand, believe people are born with original sin, which has corrupted our internal moral compass. While it is possible to better ourselves by using reason, it is only by the grace of God that people are improved and saved.

This was just a high level survey of some of the differences between Stoicism and Christianity. I have nothing against Christians or anyone practicing Stoicism. The historical Jesus was not a Stoic as far as we know. We practice Stoicism here to live the best we can in a chaotic world beyond our control, bounded by birth and death. I’d argue Stoicism is about being the best Human Being we can be here now. We should not hold dogmatically to the ancient Stoics or cultural beliefs in my personal view. Epictetus said roughly the same. I think discussing these and other worldviews is beneficial if you can keep an open mind. But the words are just pointers to how to choose the best action any given moment.

“Such is the law that God has laid down, saying, ‘If you want anything good, you must get it from yourself.’”

—Epictetus Discourses, Fragments, Handbook, translated by Robin Hard, Book 1.29.4

How Best to Live Your Dreams

With all your being!

Life may be but a dream. Dream or not, we appear here as dreamers of dreams, so how best shall we live? The stoics still have some of the best practical advice in my opinion.

The below is from a stoic discussion board. I did not write this, but thought it damn good.

Stoicism 101: The Stoic Love for Mankind

The Stoics believed that we are essentially social creatures, with a ‘natural affection’ and ‘affinity’ for all people. This forms the basis of Stoic ‘philanthropy’, the rational love of our brothers and fellow citizens in the universe. A good person

“displays love for all his fellow human beings, as well as goodness, justice, kindness and concern for his neighbour’, and for the welfare of his home city (Musonius, Lectures, 14).” – Donald Robertson

Humans are rational and social beings.

Although we learned that friendship and other people are ultimately indifferent, they are very much preferred. The Stoics prefer to live with a friend, a neighbor, and a housemate, but they do not depend on them for the Good Life.

Basically, Stoics are able to live the eudaimonic life without a friend but they prefer not to go without one. Why? Because of their natural affection for mankind and because they can practice the virtues much better when around others (think about justice and courage).

“We ought to do good to others as simply as a horse runs, or a bee makes honey, or a vine bears grapes season after season without thinking of the grapes it has born.”
– Marcus Aurelius

It’s our human nature to do good to others and we should not care whether they care or not. Marcus goes so far as to say that all our actions should be good ‘for the common welfare.’ This is our nature, it’s our job.

And he could practice this very well since he was the Roman emperor… Wouldn’t we like that the people in power only had the common good in mind rather than their own?

There’s a caveat to this: The main reason to act for the common welfare is the underlying virtue of justice. We live in accord with virtue and therefore benefit ourselves when we act for the common welfare. Also, the better a person has developed himself, the better he can serve mankind. As Rudolf Steiner said, “If the rose adorns itself, it adorns the garden.”

“Man is born for deeds of kindness; and when he has done a kindly action, or otherwise served the common welfare, he has done what he was made for, and has received his quittance.”
– Marcus Aurelius

Do good for the sake of doing good. Expect nothing in return, remember, virtue is its own reward.

And what if others do wrong?

The Stoics believed that nobody errs on purpose. People act the way they think is best for them. They don’t know any better.

Massimo Pigliucci said it well:

“The wrongdoer does not understand that he is doing harm to himself first and foremost, because he suffers from amathia, lack of knowledge of what is truly good for himself. And what is good for him is the same thing that is good for all human beings, according to the Stoics: applying reason to improve social living.”

The wrongdoer does wrong to himself. We should not blame them but rather pity them. As Epictetus said,

“As we pity the blind and the lame, so should we pity those who are blinded and lamed in their most sovereign faculties. The man who remembers this, I say, will be angry with no one, indignant with no one, revile none, blame none, hate none, offend none.”

Don’t hate the wrongdoer, he does not know any better. It’s your job, because you see, to act as an example and do the right thing for its own sake. Do it for yourself (at the same time it will benefit everybody else).

It’s what you do that matters. It’s what you do that makes your character.

The Greeks had a word for this, Agape.

Epictetus on Philosophy as a Way of Life

“No thing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.”

—Epictetus – Discourses  – Book I, ch. 15.

See http://classics.mit.edu/Browse/browse-Epictetus.html

As I have practiced stoicism, what I find online is often superficial and analytical and unsourced. Pierre Hadot is an exception with his books “The Inner Citadel” and “Philosophy as a Way of Life.” He presents the stoic spiritual practices that must be practiced to benefit from.

I have noticed a trend in the modern stoics relying heavily on written commentary and readings and not a lot of talk on practical application. Many argue esoteric points missing the heart of Epictetus in my opinion.

Books are good weights, but not the real thing.

“Epictetus’s chief concerns are with integrity, self-management, and personal freedom, which he advocates by demanding of his students a thorough examination of two central ideas, the capacity he terms ‘volition’ (prohairesis) and the correct use of impressions (chrēsis tōn phantasiōn), Heartfelt and satirical by turns, Epictetus has had significant influence on the popular moralistic tradition, but he is more than a moralizer; his lucid resystematization and challenging application of Stoic ethics qualify him as an important philosopher in his own right.”

—From Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epictetus/

Thus it is very difficult to discuss these topics online without coming off as a moralizer of your own viewpoints when no one can see the application of said practices in your life.

Should we then say nothing online? Perhaps. But there is benefit in discussing and wrestling and pointing to the gold imho, but these dialogues are no substitute for practice and application.

I, as all of you, am a work of art in progress.

Epictetus spoke from the heart and was funny, not just in his mind. His philosophy was lived and practical.

You have to attain on your own. We can’t just moralize our viewpoints to others. Around normal folks not versed in these practices, example is the best teacher.

The below from “A SELECTION FROM THE DISCOURSES OF EPICTETUS WITH THE ENCHEIRIDION”

https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10661/pg10661-images.html

LII.

In every thing (circumstance) we should hold these maxims ready to hand:

Lead me, O Zeus, and thou O Destiny,
The way that I am bid by you to go:
To follow I am ready. If I choose not,
I make myself a wretch, and still must follow.

But whoso nobly yields unto necessity,
We hold him wise, and skill’d in things divine.

And the third also: O Crito, if so it pleases the gods, so let it be; Anytus and Melitus are able indeed to kill me, but they cannot harm me.

Fear Falling, Courage Rising

“Courage is the mother of all virtues because without it, you cannot consistently perform the others.”

—Aristotle

Courage is not dead in me yet. I am thankful for that. It lives in individuals. Like a Lion waiting to move. But one can’t really know if courage will be there when needed until they are tested. Truly, we fear our own weakness most. Nothing and I mean nothing can replace experience. Courage is one of the 4 Stoic virtues. Courage is the ability to exert one’s will in the face of risk. Aristotle said that the highest risk was death and that the most courageous man was the one that acted fearlessly in the face of death.

I recently faced my own death, twice in a month. I can’t say I was fearless. But something arose inside me. Something I haven’t known very well, my will. I pushed myself forward beyond my fear and it was a catalyzing experience. Do what is necessary when it is necessary. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. One day, it won’t.

Why not give all you have to what you do? In your relationships. In your work. In your play. What are you saving your fear for? Fear is a corrective and it can be a poison. Honestly, I didn’t know I had much courage left in me. I have been reckless with my life and opportunities at times. But I have cultivated my focus and it paid off when I needed it to. The feeling of possible death feels like falling off a ladder from a 1000 feet up. You are totally alone and feel powerless. It is humbling, but necessary to know how life is like balancing on a pin. One day I will fall off and that’s how it will be. The one thing we can know for sure in life.

Don’t go looking for trouble, but when it comes, be ready. Until death and I meet again, I’ll smile like I mean my life. Every second of it. Success is just the next breath, the rest is gravy. Yum.

Golden

“I do not teach a definite Philosophy—I have no cocked and primed system—but I outline, suggest, hint—tell what I see—then each may make up the rest for himself. He who goes to my book expecting a cocked and primed philosophy, will depart utterly disappointed—and deserves to! I find anyhow that a great many of my readers credit my writings with things that do not attach to the writings themselves but to the persons that read them—things they supply, bring with them.

Epictetus says: “Do not let yourself be wrapt by phantasms”—and we must not: that is very profound: it often comes back to me.

Epictetus is the one of all my old cronies who has lasted to this day without cutting a diminished figure in my perspective. He belongs with the best—the best of the great teachers—is a universe in himself. He sets me free in a flood of light—of life, of vista.

My contention is for the whole man—the whole corpus not one member—not a leg, an arm, a belly alone, but the entire corpus, nothing left out of the account. I know it will be argued that the present is the time of specialization, but that don’t answer it.”

—Walt Whitman from “Walt Whitman Speaks”

There is a reason Marcus Aurelius sat at the feet of a crippled ex slave to learn what a human being looks like.

He saw gold and I see it in Walt and I see it in others and I see it in myself and I love it.

ICECREAM

I heard a wise sheriff say today, I want to make this a PARADE, not a PROTEST!

There is yet one good person around and thus we are all given the benefit of the doubt.

I feel the same way as he does…YES!

Let’s celebrate our lives!

Not follow lies.

Trump doesn’t represent us. 

We love each other, we want the best for each other, we love nature and we feel a deep desire to be One and also to be known and respected as persons. 

We all just want our best lives here now minus the anger and fear.

This morning, watching the riots, I saw children marching instead and they were all laughing. I walked up to one and asked why are you marching and he said, ICECREAM!

The riots are complete lies. Personal rights are misunderstandings. 

Everything is a sign of this.

Then Seneca wrote me a letter, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Moral_letters_to_Lucilius/Letter_16

Every moment, pointing here…

“You must persevere, must develop new strength by continuous study, until that which is only a good inclination becomes a good settled purpose. 2. Hence you no longer need to come to me with much talk and protestations; I know that you have made great progress. I understand the feelings which prompt your words; they are not feigned or specious words.”

“How can philosophy help me, if Fate exists? Of what avail is philosophy, if God rules the universe? Of what avail is it, if Chance governs everything? For not only is it impossible to change things that are determined, but it is also impossible to plan beforehand against what is undetermined; either God has forestalled my plans, and decided what I am to do, or else Fortune gives no free play to my plans.”

It doesn’t matter if God, Fate or Chance is rolling all this out. 

“Whether the truth, Lucilius, lies in one or in all of these views, we must be philosophers; whether Fate binds us down by an inexorable law, or whether God as arbiter of the universe has arranged everything, or whether Chance drives and tosses human affairs without method, philosophy ought to be our defence.”

“There is no reason why you should put confidence in yourself too quickly and readily. Examine yourself; scrutinize and observe yourself in divers ways; but mark, before all else, whether it is in philosophy or merely in life itself[1] that you have made progress. 3. Philosophy is no trick to catch the public; it is not devised for show. It is a matter, not of words, but of facts. It is not pursued in order that the day may yield some amusement before it is spent, or that our leisure may be relieved of a tedium that irks us. It moulds and constructs the soul; it orders our life, guides our conduct, shows us what we should do and what we should leave undone; it sits at the helm and directs our course as we waver amid uncertainties. Without it, no one can live fearlessly or in peace of mind. Countless things that happen every hour call for advice; and such advice is to be sought in philosophy.“

We let philosophy hold the wheel. 

“She will encourage us to submit to God with cheerfulness and to Fortune with defiance; she will show you how to follow God and bear what chance may send you.”

Seneca advises to not let the spiritual enthusiasm cool off or fall away. 

He says now that you have it, keep a hold on it and put it on firm footing, so that what is at present an enthusiasm may become a settled spiritual disposition. 

So it goes, even smelly goats learn self integrity is the most valuable substance in creation come hell or high water. 

What are you gonna do when alone with the alone?

How will you act?

How will you know what to do when it is only you?

Others have been generous with me and I pass that on joyfully. Kindness has taken hold of me. This is the best way to be. To freely give and receive. But there is a balance between loving fool and deadly bastard, we must draw from both aspects.

Natural desires are limited, but falsity has no point of termination.The false has no limits. The road must have an end or one wanders in falseness forever. 

What wisdom humanity has realized, and haven’t we asked the questions we do today yesterday so much more clearly it seems to me. Seneca is a human being and his account of life is true wisdom, practical knowledge, the greatest stuff really. I love Seneca as another Father. When I read him, he sets me straight and is a clear mirror.

It is like the Tarot how I find this letter. This letter was written to me across time. That creates a wormhole. Space collapses between us. The universe sees me struggling and in it comes to set me straight. 

Who guides my steps indeed.

“But it is not my purpose now to be led into a discussion as to what is within our own control, – if foreknowledge is supreme, or if a chain of fated events drags us along in its clutches, or if the sudden and the unexpected play the tyrant over us; I return now to my warning and my exhortation, that you should not allow the impulse of your spirit to weaken and grow cold. Hold fast to it and establish it firmly, in order that what is now impulse may become a habit of the mind.“

“Recall your steps, therefore, from idle things, and when you would know whether that which you seek is based upon a natural or upon a misleading desire, consider whether it can stop at any definite point. If you find, after having travelled far, that there is a more distant goal always in view, you may be sure that this condition is contrary to nature.“

My deepest voice says to me…you must never believe anyone else can help you. 

Damn, so it’s like that.

And so it is, but I suspect still, this all is for our best. 

I have found my Fathers, now I must know my Mothers.

Straight on.