Stoics Paved the Way to Christianity

I just got done reading a surprising book: The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living, by Kevin Vost. It unveils the striking connection between the Stoics and Christianity.

More Than a Feeling

I admit my knowledge of the Stoic philosophers was thin. I equated Stoicism with responding to life with cold, unemotional stiffness.

Vost disabuses readers of that false notion immediately:

As we’ll see in the chapters ahead, this could hardly be farther from the truth. Their powerful life lessons live on…..They can teach us to live calmer, happier, more productive, humane, noble, and virtuous lives whether we live in Rome, Italy, in Athens Greece, or in Athens, Illinois.

The Stoics actually lived lives full of joy, peace, and meaning. Though bereft of God’s divine revelation in the Old and New Covenants, they stretched their God-given powers of reason to the limit, reaching many of the same conclusions that Christians came to regarding life, liberty, and love.

Four Stoics Walk Into a Bar

Vost focuses on the four most well known Stoics: Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.

These men ranged from slave to Emperor and had dramatically different personalities, yet each embraced the Stoic philosophy that sought to live a worthy life, a truly human life, and so they were united.

vostVost examines the life and history of each of these men, recounts the most memorable stories (and legends) about them, then synthesizes their writings. He compares their teachings with Christianity and (in most cases) demonstrates how closely they came to the truth.

How close were they to divine truth? Musonius Rufus is considered one of the first pro-life philosophers. He praised large families, extolled fidelity in marriage, argued against abortion and contraception, and connected the purpose of marriage to procreation and the unitive value between husband and wife. Quite astounding for someone who was born a few decades before Jesus Christ.

The Stoic philosophers were not interested in pie-in-the-sky theorizing. Rather, they focused on eminently practical topics like: should a child obey his parents? How should we dress ourselves? What is the meaning of pain and hardship? Must we learn what is good and follow it?

Practical Wisdom

My wife was going through a difficult event, one in which she was fearful of what another person was going to do. Fortunately I had just read an idea in this book and relayed it to her: “you can’t control what that other person is going to do; you can only control how you choose to respond to it.”

vost1That reminder was liberating for her. And she continued to repeat it to herself when she began to worry again. I had to take my own medicine shortly thereafter with a situation that I found myself in, concerned about what someone was going to do that could adversely affect me. The Stoics faced exile and worse for their philosophy, yet wherever they were, they bore it in peace, content to be at home wherever they were sent. This detachment is quite Christ-like, an acceptance of suffering that the saints of the Church have often lived out, and spoken of.

A friend of mine a few years back told me he had left Christianity and become a Stoic. I was confused when I heard this, as I had not read Vost’s book. But now I get it more. He was a liberal Protestant before, and that watered down version of Christianity he ultimately found less compelling than the practical wisdom of the Stoics. I plan to tell him about this book, in hopes it will plant a seed for his return to Christianity one day.

Kevin Vost has written an excellent book, enlightening us about this treasure of ancient times, the Stoic philosophers, and how they came right up to the entryway of Christianity.

4 thoughts on “Stoics Paved the Way to Christianity”

  1. Fascinating and I will get this book. As a lifelong learner I studied cpvaried forms of Roman philosophy and was immediately drawn to Sticism, particularly to the writing is Marcus Aurelius. This sounded amazingly like what I’d heard about Christianity during my heathan days. I only learned subsequently the he was no friend to Christians. Still his teaching had a few nuggets that are universal in a healthy society.

  2. If by Christianity is meant the Western Christianity with its Germanic ethos, then, yes, it harkens back to Stoicism. Fortunately, Christianity is greater than its Western expression.

    1. Fortunately. Also, I recently read one author’s contention that Stoic thought helped to downgrade the centrality of healing prayer which was a major part of the early church, leading to the effort now to bring it back to its rightful place.

  3. Very interesting. I have also had a long standing interest in Stoicism and, as a Christian, have found value in applying some of the wisdom found in this tradition to my daily life. I just finished up a book (One True Life) by a C. Kavin Rowe (NT Theologian at Duke Divinity) that evaluates Stoicism and Christianity as rival traditions and the book’s conclusions were compelling. Namely, an apples to apples comparison of the two philosophies of life fails because they come from such vastly different trajectories. The “God” referred to in Stoicism is a completely different deity from the Christian God. The same goes for the nature of humanity, fate/providence, cosmology, etc. So different that a true comparison fails before it gets off the ground. Rowe’s exposition of the Christian Faith is worth the price of the book. Very lucid, clear, and compelling. I’ll definitely pick up Vost’s book as well. Very interesting conversation!

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