It’s pretty remarkable to think that two of history’s greatest philosophers walked the earth at the same time.
That’s right, Seneca and Jesus were both born in the year 4BC. Not only that, they lived roughly parallel lives despite being separated by geography, culture, and social station. Indeed, they are both written about by Tacitus, and Seneca’s brother even appears briefly in the Bible! Again, it’s incredible. Ultimately, the two men met very similar ends, killed by the long reach of an emperor’s tyranny. Both have lived on far beyond their deaths—Jesus it was claimed, rose from the dead after three days, and Seneca, through his writings, feels as alive to us as he would have to many Romans.
What’s lovely too is just how much their teachings overlap. We will explore this in more detail below, but until then, here’s an example:
“You look at the pimples of others when you yourselves are covered with a mass of sores.” Seneca
“And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” Jesus
Now Seneca was obviously just a man—a flawed and contradictory man at that—while Jesus—depending on your beliefs—was both a man and God. But both lived these magnificent lives, leaving behind much for us to follow, to consider and to question. In this article, we are going to detail the similarities and differences between Stoicism and Christianity. This is a long post. It should be bookmarked and revisited. It can be read straight through or if you prefer, feel free to click the links below to navigate to a specific section:
The French novelist Gustave Flaubert observed a little discussed pivot point of Western Civilization:
“Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.”
He is referring to the period between the fall of the gods and the rise of God.
Flaubert isn’t strictly correct. As we will see, Christianity was a rising sect well before Marcus Aurelius and indeed one of the most shameful parts of Marcus’s regime is his persecution of Christians, but Flaubert’s point is generally an interesting one. During this period before Christianity, what did people do instead of worshiping God?
Well, many of them practiced philosophy. It had been 300 years since Zeno founded Stoicism. Chrysippus, Cleanthes, Publius Rutilius Rufus, Cicero, Cato, just to name a few—these great philosophers had all lived and died before Christ had come.
The Cynics, the Stoics, the Epicureans—this was their heyday. In fact, we can see Stoicism as a kind of civic religion, a guide for behavior and a framework for living. It was a time when man was alone in the universe and forced to come up with, on his own, an answer to that timeless question: What is the meaning of life and how should I live it? As you will see, the Stoics and the Christians came to many similar insights in the pursuit of answering this timeless question.
The early prophetic message of Jesus would get help from Paul the Apostle and his successors, who sought to refine Jesus’ teachings for a wider audience.
Born only a few years after Jesus, Paul the Apostle was a Pharisaic Jew who was steeped in the philosophical teachings of the Stoics. Paul was born in Tarsus, Cilici, the birthplace of Stoic thinkers like Chrysippus and Athenodorus. Therefore, as Paul moved across the Mediterranean developing his message, he was constantly in dialogue with Stoicism.
The only dates we have for the two key episodes in the life and ministry of Paul the Apostle are tied up with the Stoics. In the late spring or early summer of 51AD, Seneca’s brother Novatus, a high Roman official using his adoptive name of Gallio, undertook a year-long governorship of Achaia in southern Greece.
The first of these events occurred in Athens, where Paul spent every day in the agora, debating with Stoic philosophers. Paul got in a dispute with the Stoics, which led to accusations against his teaching about foreign divinities. He was hauled before the court of the Areopagite to defend himself.
In his famous speech—what would become known to us as the Mars Hill speech—Paul commends his audience for their religiosity while chiding their devotion to “unknown gods.” He appeals to a creator, God, who made everything and has power over heaven and earth, giving “to all mortals life and breath and all things,” and adds that this God we search for is “not far from each one of us…for in him we live and move and have our being…for we too are his offspring.”
In presenting these ideas of a creator who has power over everything and from whom we ourselves have descended and are intimately connected, Paul is directly quoting the words of the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes’ brilliant Hymn to Zeus.
Paul’s defense appealing in part to Stoic theology converted one member of the court, Dionysius, as well as many others in attendance. Dionysius would become the first Christian Bishop of Athens and to this day is the patron saint of the city and seen as a protector of the judiciary.
Next, Paul departs for Achaea, where Seneca’s brother Gallio was governor. In 52 AD, just as Seneca was recalled from exile to serve as the tutor to a young Nero, Paul was accused, we learn in Acts 18:12, of “persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the law.” He was brought before Gallio dismissed the charges. And for the next seven years, Paul successfully grew his Churches across the empire while Seneca moved from being Nero’s tutor to right-hand man in his administration.
We mentioned above that Seneca was recalled from exile and elevated to the center of the Roman imperial court, first as Nero’s tutor. Then roughly five years into his employment at court, Nero’s mother Agrippina had her husband, Claudius, killed by way of poisoned mushrooms. When Nero was made emperor at age sixteen, Seneca became the emperor’s advisor. His first task was to write the speeches that Nero would give to convince Rome that it wasn’t totally insane to give this dilettante child nearly godlike powers over millions of people.
Time would quickly reveal Nero to be deranged and flawed. In 64 AD, the Great Fire struck Rome, and, boosted by strong winds, would destroy more than two-thirds of the city. Rumors begin to spread. As we learn from James Romm in Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero:
Some said that torchbearers had been seen setting the blaze, who, when accosted, claimed they were acting on high authority. Others said that vigiles [the corps that oversaw fire fighting and civic safety] attempting to douse the blaze had been prevented. The most damning rumor of all claimed that the princeps had stood on his palace battlements and strummed his lyre while the city burned, reciting his own verses about the destruction of Troy.
We still don’t know for certain whether or not Nero started the fire. What we do know is that he couldn’t stand that people thought he did. So, Romm continues,
He began a campaign to shift blame from himself to others. The sect the Romans called Christiani, and their founder Christus, appear first in Latin literature in Tacitus’ account of the great fire. According to this famous passage, the Christians were arrested on spurious charges and brought to Nero’s palace grounds for horrendous ordeals. They were dressed in animal skins and then were set upon by wild beasts; they were wrapped in pitch-soaked cloth and set on fire; or with a significance Nero could not have intended, they were nailed to crosses to suffocate to death.
How many he ordered to be rounded up and killed we do not know. Paul, however, was added to Nero’s pile of bodies.
Did Seneca and Paul ever meet while Paul was in Rome? We don’t know for sure. Very little is known of Paul’s time in Rome. There is, however, a fascinating legend that the two philosophers did strike up a correspondence. An apocryphal collection of letters survives purporting to be between Seneca and Paul. How do we know the letters are fake? Here is the first letter supposedly from Seneca to Paul:
I suppose, Paul, you have been informed of that conversation which passed yesterday between me and my Lucilius, concerning hypocrisy and other subjects; for there were some of your disciples in company with us;
For when we were retired into the Sallustian gardens, through which they (disciples of Paul) were also passing and would have gone another way, by our persuasion they joined company with us.
I desire you to believe that we much wish for your conversation:
We were much delighted with your book of many Epistles, which you have written to some cities and chief towns of provinces, and contain wonderful instructions for moral conduct:
Such sentiments, as I suppose you were not the author of, but only the instrument of conveying, though sometimes both the author and the instrument.
For such is the sublimity of those doctrines, and their grandeur, that I suppose the age of a man is scarcely sufficient to be instructed and perfected in the knowledge of them. I wish your welfare, my brother. Farewell.
“It is clear from their (postclassical) language,” Emily Wilson writes in The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca, “that this set of letters cannot possibly be genuine; they were probably composed in the third century ce, or perhaps early in the fourth. But the fact that somebody went to the trouble of faking them suggests how desirable it seemed to find a pagan author who could be assimilated into the Christian tradition.” As we will get into further below, Stoicism and Christianity had enough in common that for centuries, Stoics and Christians alike thought it perfectly feasible that Seneca and Paul were close friends.
A century after the Great Fire, Christians were living and teaching in Rome. And still subject to persecution.
At some point in Marcus Aurelius’ early twenties, he was assigned a tutor named Junius Rusticus, who was a consul under the emperor Hadrian. It was, from the looks of it, a transformative period of study. As Marcus would later reflect, he learned from Junius matters big and small, from how to carry himself with dignity to how to write clearly and effectively. Almost immediately after Marcus became emperor, Junius was given major roles serving the state. In 162 AD, he served his second term as consul. For five years, he was urban prefect, essentially the mayor of Rome, supervising its police, legal enforcement, public works, and the city’s food supply. Given the vast corruption that had been endemic in Rome, this was a position of immense responsibility and trust. By all accounts, he acquitted himself honorably. It would also put Junius on a collision course with an event that would, unfortunately, define his legacy for most of history.
In 165 AD, a seemingly minor court case came to Junius’s desk. A Christian philosopher named Justin Martyr and a Cynic philosopher named Crescens had become involved in some sort of nasty dispute that had spilled out into the streets. Denounced by Crescens, who accused these Christians of being atheists, Justin and six of his students were charged and brought in to face questioning. Justin had in fact studied under a Stoic teacher in Samaria but left the school in favor of the burgeoning Christian faith. Many of Justin’s writings would evoke similarities between the Stoics and the Christians and he may well have been familiar with Junius’s own philosophical work. He quite reasonably expected a favorable ruling from his Stoic judge. As a devout Christian, he knew that a century before, Seneca’s brother had fairly judged and and freed Paul.
But this was Rome in a very different time. Rusticus’ job was to protect the peace. These Christians refused to acknowledge the Roman gods, the supremacy of the Roman state. That was crazy, disruptive, dangerous. Wasn’t Rusticus’s job to enforce the laws? To prevent these kinds of things from happening? And, perhaps, with Marcus away at the front and no one to check him, Rusticus was a little lost in the sway of his own power.
In Blood of the Martyrs, Naomi Mitchison has a Stoic philosopher, Nausiphanes, attempt to explain this collision course between the Stoics and the Christians. “[The Christians] were being persecuted,” he says, “because they were against the Roman state; no Roman ever really bothered about a difference of gods; in religious matters they were profoundly tolerant because their own gods were not of the individual heart but only social inventions—or had become so. Yet politically they did and must persecute: and equally must be attacked by all who had the courage.”
The proceedings of the trial are recorded in The Acts of Justin:
Rusticus: You are a Christian, then?
Justin: Yes, I am a Christian.
Rusticus: You are called a learned man and think that you know what is true teaching. Listen: if you were scourged and beheaded, are you convinced that you would go up to heaven?
Justin: I hope that I shall enter God’s house if I suffer that way.
Rusticus: Do you have an idea that you will go up into heaven to receive some suitable rewards?
Justin: It is not an idea that I have, it is something I know well and hold to be most certain.
Rusticus: Now let us come to the point at issue, which is necessary and urgent. Gather round then and with one accord offer sacrifice to the gods.
Justin: No one who is right thinking stoops from true worship to false worship.
Rusticus: If you do not do as you are commanded you will be tortured without mercy.
Justin: We hope to suffer torment for the sake of our Lord JJesus Christ, and so be saved. For this will bring us salvation and confidence as we stand before the more terrible and universal judgment-seat of our Lord and Savior.
Rusticus: Let those who have refused to sacrifice to the fods and to obey the command of the emperor be scourged and led away to suffer capital punishment according to the ruling of the laws.
In the name of Marcus Aurelius, at the order of Rusticus, this poor man was sent off to be cruelly beaten, whipped until the skin was torn from his body, and then beheaded.
It would be a stain on two otherwise flawless reputations.
Given that a Stoic ordered one of the most famous executions in Christian history, you might think that Stoicism and Christianity are obviously not compatible. But keep in mind, it was only in retrospect that the clash between Rusticus and Justin Martyr became famous.
This “martyrdom” was barely notable at the time. Rome was in the middle of the Parthian War and a conflict with Germanic tribes on the border was bubbling up. A plague was ravaging the empire. Millions would die. A death sentence for one lawbreaker would not seem like the kind of thing that history would remember.
So the question of Stoicism and Christianity’s compatibility is nuanced.
As Kavin Rowe, Professor of New Testament at Duke University Divinity School, writes in One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians, “Stoicism has long been an explicit and even close conversation partner for Christian thinkers and saints.”
We mentioned the invented collection of letters between Seneca and Paul above. There was also the 2nd century Christian Author Tertullian, who referred to Seneca as saepe noster (“frequently ours”). A century later, Saint Jerome dropped the saepe and said Seneca was noster (“ours”) in his On Illustrious Men. And Saint Augustine references passages from Seneca in City of God.
So the relationship between the Stoics and the Christians runs deep. But can a Stoic be a Christian? Can a Christian be a Stoic? The debate continues to this day. Books have been written by scholars attempting to unite Stoicism and Christianity, just as books have been written by scholars attempting to separate Stoicism and Christianity.
We’ll start with Kavin Rowe’s conclusion in One True Life, which is that Stoicism and Christianity are “rival traditions of life.” Of the works that attempt to unite Stoicism and Christianity, Rowe argues, “the indispensable assumption that underlies such such comparative work—or conversation construction—is that the Stoics and Christians share fundamentally the same, similar, or at least commensurable commitments. These commitments are to some sort of reality called God or the Divine, or to a particular doctrine called Providence, or to a goal called Human Betterment, or to certain common aspects of human experience called the Passions or the Virtues, and so on.”
This assumption, Rowe writes, is false. “The stories that make Stoic/Christian commitments intelligible as Stoic/Christian commitments do not overlap or run parallel in the way that would be required for the existence of commensurable commitments or shared agreements.”
Most scholars do seem to be in agreement that it is difficult to be both a Stoic and a Christian. But they are also in agreement that a Christian can become a better Christian through reading the Stoics and a Stoic can become a better Stoic through reading the Christians.
For instance, when we talked to Joseph Dodson—an Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, who has written multiple volumes of work on the connections between Seneca and Paul—he cited the line from Seneca about how we should seek wisdom in all philosophical schools. “As for me, I believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life,” Professor Dodson told us. “I admit I’m skeptical that one can be both a Stoic and a Christian, if one takes their core beliefs seriously…I can say with confidence, however, that God has used what I’ve found in Stoicism to make me a better Christian.”
Not long after interviewing Professor Dodson, we spoke to Dr. Kevin Vost, the author of The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living. He largely agreed with Professor Dodson’s insights then said, “I will also note that in researching for my book, The Porch and the Cross, I read Musonius Rufus’ lecture fragments for the first time and was astounded by how closely his views on issues like marriage, the family, abortion, and even contraception aligned with modern Catholic teaching. I don’t mean to make Christians out of the ancient Stoics themselves. I do believe the Stoics offer valuable lessons for all people of Christian faith, other faiths, and non-believers.”
Let’s explore some of those…
As unique as the individual circumstances of Jesus, Seneca, Paul, Rusticus, and Justin Martyr were, ultimately Stoicism and Christianity have more in common than not.
In the works of both the Stoics and the Christians, we find similar lessons…
“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” — Saint Paul
“It is the attitude [not the circumstance] that must be appraised: we must investigate whether the rich man can be content if he falls into poverty and whether the poor man can be content if he falls into riches.” — Seneca
On getting revenge:
“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” — Jesus
“It is a petty and sorry person who will bite back when he is bitten.” — Seneca
On the Golden Rule:
“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” — Jesus
“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” — Seneca
“In whatever you do, remember your last days, and you will never sin.” — Sirach 7:36
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” — Marcus Aurelius
“Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.” — Proverbs 12:25
“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.” — Marcus Aurelius
“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly.” — Peter
“To be free of passion and yet full of love.” — Marcus Aurelius
“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” — Hebrews 12:11
“If you accomplish something good with hard work, the labor passes quickly, but the good endures; if you do something shameful in pursuit of pleasure, the pleasure passes quickly, but the shame endures.” — Musonius Rufus
“Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.” — Ecclesiastes 7:9
“There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on its own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insane.” — Seneca
“Be still, and know that I am God.” — Psalms 46:10
“To move from one unselfish action to another with God in mind. Only there, delight and stillness.” — Marcus Aurelius
On role models:
“Be imitators of God, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” — Paul
“Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or pattern. For we must have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” — Seneca
On loving your enemies:
“But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head.” — Romans 12:20
“Kindness is invincible, but only when it’s sincere, with no hypocrisy or faking. For what can even the most malicious person do if you keep showing kindness and, if given the chance, you gently point out where they went wrong—right as they are trying to harm you?” — Marcus Aurelius
Ernest Hemingway opens his book The Sun Also Rises with a Bible verse: “One generation passeth, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever. The sun also riseth, and the sun goeth down, and resteth to the place where he arose.”
It was this passage, his editor would say, that “contained all the wisdom of the ancient world.”
And what wisdom is that? One of the most striking things about history is just how long human beings have been doing what they do. Though certain attitudes and practices have come and gone, what’s left are people—living, dying, loving, fighting, crying, laughing. “Think by way of example on the times of Vespasian,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “and you’ll see all these things: marrying, raising children, falling ill, dying, wars, holiday feasts, commerce, farming, flattering, pretending, suspecting, scheming, praying that others die, grumbling over one’s lot, falling in love, amassing fortunes, lusting after office and power. Now that life of theirs is dead and gone . . . the times of Trajan, again the same . . .”
Christians and Stoics—in fact, people from all philosophies and religions—with a few exceptions, we are largely the same as people have always been and always will be.