Most people see Stoicism and Christianity as polar opposites, but the belief systems do overlap in several ways. While more differences than similarities exist between the two, we shouldn’t let that preclude us from considering what both schools of thought offer as answers to that perennial question: how should we live?
Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophy formed in Athens, found its following when the Greek world was in chaos. Alexander the Great had died young after all his conquests, and Greece was left floundering. Offering security and peace in the face of violence, the Stoics believed they could find happiness by relying on their inner self. They taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge, and that the wise can live in harmony with the divine Reason that permeates nature.
Christianity, based on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, teaches love, compassion, charity, and forgiveness. Like Stoicism, it emerged during chaotic times, and offered a security and peace that could lead to happiness. The relation has its foundation in Jesus as the physical manifestation of God. According to Christianity, it is only through Jesus that people can achieve eternal salvation. Humans save themselves through grace instead works, while the forgiveness of sins comes by faith alone.
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.
Among the parallels between Stoicism and Christianity, both are 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.
Moreover, both Stoicism and Christianity pose the question, “Who or what is a person serving?” All one does is based on the answer. Rather than be a slave to others, both Stoicism and Christianity involve evolving from focusing on the self to a self rooted in serving God. In Matthew 6:24, it is written that it is impossible to worship two gods at once. Adoration for one feeds contempt for the other. So one cannot worship both God and money or God and other people’s opinions. Serving the self focuses on outer appearance; serving the God within breaks the chains of slavery to public opinion and enables the follower to seek good.
Finally, both Stoicism and Christianity seek simplicity in worship. If worship is showy, it may mean a person wants others to notice him or her, which is serving the outside self rather than the inner God. As Matthew 6:6 states, “If you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then, your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
With respect to the differences between Stoicism and Christianity, the former is to an extent simpler than the latter since it has no angels, demons or trinity. Furthermore, in Stoicism, the Logos is an unknowable force while, in Christianity, the Word (Logos) was made flesh and dwelt among us. For the Stoics, a relationship with the Logos is distant, intellectual, and based on the ideas of duty and virtue. In Christianity, a relationship with the Logos is much more personal. It teaches that God wants our love and praise, and is willing to die for it.
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. On the flip side, the Stoics viewed the mentally handicap as defective, while in Christianity, they are viewed as children of God worthy of love and respect.
Stoicism and Christianity also have diverging points of view about the afterlife. In Christianity, this world is but a shadow of the world yet to come. At the end of time, the dead will rise, Christ will return to separate the sheep from the goats, and the Kingdom of God will be established on Earth. Conversely, the Stoics made little mention of an afterlife and were agnostic about what, if anything lies beyond the grave. 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.
The phrase “God helps those who help themselves” nicely combines Stoicism and Christianity, offering the best of both worlds. Instead of endlessly debating about which worldview reigns supreme, let us take elements we admire in both traditions while constructing a philosophy about how to live, and demonstrate two heads are better than one.