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.
Vost 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?
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.”
That 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.