Author’s Note: This is a repost from an earlier version of Dunebat Country from 2012. The text has been updated to reflect recent events.
Stoicism was a school of ancient Greek philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium that espoused the reasonable governance of one’s emotions and the rule of logic. Contrary to the form of “stoicism” practiced by a certain pointy-eared spaceman, classical Stoicism did not espouse the suppression of emotions, but rather controlling them, allowing the positive emotions freedom without letting them overrun one’s logic and eliminating the negative emotions altogether. In this regard, classical Stoicism has more in common with Jedi philosophy – itself steeped in Zen Buddhism and bushido – than it does with the peculiar Vulcan “logic” devised by Surak. While it was not necessarily a theistic philosophy, it did have a spiritual aspect that was purely Greek in origin, and its teachings — greatly influenced by the works of Plato and primarily expounded upon by the great Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger — would later serve as the primordial foundations of humanism.
Naturally, as Stoicism was deemed “pagan” by the early Christian luminaries, the advent of Roman Christendom meant the decimation of all forms of Hellenistic philosophy, and all schools of classical philosophy — especially the Stoics — were closed by order of Emperor Justinian I in 529 AD. This closure would not last: in 1584, Belgian philologist and Catholic humanist Justus Lipsius read the works of the ancient Stoics and found great virtue in their ideas. He sought to revive a form of Stoicism syncretized with Reformation Era Christianity known as Neostoicism. This variant on classical Stoicism eliminated the pagan ideas and concepts the Church deemed offensive, yet successfully married the Bible’s teachings on temperance and proper self-governance with the teachings of the ancient Stoics. Stoicism itself was studied by numerous scholars throughout the Reformation Era, including the great bard himself, William Shakespeare. Unfortunately, Neostoicism and the revived interest in classical Stoicism prevalent during the Renaissance did not catch on that well after the Renaissance, and it disappeared from most Christian writings after the 18th Century though its influence remained during the Neoclassical period and the proceeding Age of Enlightenment.
Classical Stoicism itself, however, would experience a revival during the Modern Era thanks to the advent of the Internet.
In 1964, Erik Wiegardt, author of Path of the Sage — then a 19 year-old Private in the United States Army — discovered the classical Stoic work Discourses of Epictetus (as set forth by Epictetus‘ pupil, Arrian of Nicomedia, circa 108 AD) and dedicated himself to the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. On 8 May 1996, over thirty years later, he realized his dream of devising an official registry of Stoics when he founded the Stoic Registry website. Later, Wiegardt’s efforts birthed the College of Stoic Philosophers.
Since then, Stoicism has seen a resurgence in popularity, served as the subject of a 1998 Tom Wolfe novel A Man in Full, and served as one of the central themes of Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator. Even the briefest of Google searches shows a small but bustling — and growing — online community of Stoics, the foundations of the re-emergence of an ancient and revered philosophy.
As those close to me can attest to, I have experienced tremendous emotional upset of late. Since 2010, I have suffered severe mental health issues following a painful divorce, several unplanned moves, ill health since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and rapid frequent job changes caused by economic uncertainties and the loss of my chosen career. I briefly engaged in counseling sessions to address the core concern behind my problems (when I could afford the sessions), and I have recently felt a conviction to return to my religious roots and have taken small steps toward reconnecting with my Creator.
In another effort to resolve my personal problems, I began all-too-brief flirtatious studies of various philosophies hoping to find something to latch onto that might provide some sense of stability amidst the chaos. For a time, I briefly perused the samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo‘s seminal work of bushido warrior ethics, the Hagakure, and somehow this ultimately led me to Stoicism. In Stoicism, I found what seemed to be a valid path to true enlightenment.
However, all true Stoics are pantheists who (as popularized by Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose works influenced Albert Einstein) believe in an all-encompassing and impersonal God found in Nature. To the Stoic, Nature or “the Universe” is God. God is in all things, and all things are in and created by God.1
I am not a pantheist, though I do find some of their concepts intriguing, and am a committed believer in Adonai — the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — and that He incarnated in human form approximately 2,000 years ago as a pious rabbi from Nazareth named Yehoshua or Joshua (often shortened to “Yeshua” and translated into Greek as Iesus or Jesus). This is, naturally, at odds with pantheism, and it is a tenant of my personal faith that I refuse to relinquish.
I learned of the Neostoicism of the Reformation soon after I began studying Stoicism, and I wondered: If Stoicism can be revived, why not Neostoicism?
To my honored Stoic compatriots: I am not attempting to supplant your noble revival of Stoicism nor am I attempting to create a philosophy counter to yours. What I do is simply the result of a disagreement with one tenet of modern Stoicism and my attempt — as Justus Lipsius, Bishop Joseph Hall, and Francis Bacon did before me — to harmonize my beliefs with the teachings of the ancient Stoics in a suitable fashion.
According to the tenets of modern Stoicism, as posted at the (now defunct) Stoic website New Stoa’s FAQ page, Stoics believe in the following basic principles:
- “We are pantheists and Nature is our God.”
- “We are created by Nature to use reason, our greatest faculty, to learn how to live well and happily in accordance with our Nature.”
- “All human beings are members of the same family, and both your friends and enemies are to be treated with respect — as if they really were members of your family.”
- “First, you study how to live in accordance with Nature, then you practice. Study alone is not enough. Stoicism is a wisdom philosophy, a living philosophy. It’s not some abstract intellectual exercise — as is the case with academic philosophies today. We actually live by what we believe.”
I agree with the three latter tenets, but — respectfully and humbly — I must, as a matter of personal conviction, disagree with the first tenet. As stated earlier, I am not a pantheist, and I believe that Nature was created by God. Nature is not my God, but it should be respected and cared for as a creation of the same God that I believe created me and all other living beings in Nature.
The majority of Stoic pantheists are agnostics, atheists, or deists; however, as was stated at New Stoa, “The Stoic community has a large tent, and we are tolerant of disagreement within it.” All that I am proposing is a loose syncretism, a further enlargement of the communal tent, but one under the name of Neostoism to emphasize its religious slant and the faith of its practitioners (if any exist aside from myself and maybe a handful of modern Catholic scholars), and to differentiate myself from the modern Stoic community at large, lest anyone come to the erroneous belief that I speak for any of you. I have the utmost respect and admiration for the modern Stoic community, and I would never seek any discord with you.
To my fellow believers in Adonai, be ye Jewish or Christian: At its core, Stoicism — and its religious offspring, Neostoicism — teaches freedom from the Stoic passions (referring to forms of emotional turmoil and their sources, not necessarily to the strong emotional compulsion we call passion today) by using sound reason as a guide. Again, this does not mean suppression of emotion (Star Trek‘s Vulcans would not be considered exemplars of classical Stoicism), but the control of one’s emotions through the applications of logic, reflection, concentration, and wisdom.
Does scripture not stress similar self-control? Stoicism stresses freedom from suffering through peace of mind — an inner peace reflected by clear judgment and unshakable inner calm — attained by living in harmony with the divine order of the universe. Do we not believe in a similar philosophy? Do we not believe that living in harmony with Divine order, be it (for my Jewish friends) the edicts of the Torah or (for my Christian compatriots) the instructions of Jesus, will bring us the magnificent “peace of God, which passeth all understanding” from Philippians 4:7 (KJV) and free us from internal suffering?
Moreover, Stoics believe in four cardinal virtues as derived from the works of Plato: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Don’t Judaism and Christianity strongly encourage those same virtues? Stoics are cosmopolitan by nature: they believe that all men and women are equal and that we should treat each other with familial love and strive to help those less fortunate than ourselves. Does Judaism not teach: “And oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor; and let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart (Zechariah 7:10)” and place great emphasis on the importance of charity? Does the Christian writer James not inform us (in James 1:27) that “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world”?
Epictetus once said (in the Discourses of Epictetus): “Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men’s desires, but by the removal of desire.” Compare this to II Timothy 2:22 (KJV): “Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”
The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius — whose writings were read by many early Christians (even though his government persecuted them) — once penned in his Meditations: “How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything that happens in life!” This echoes Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NIV), attributed to the Jewish emperor Solomon: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
I believe Neostoicism provides a perfect syncretism of the teachings of Stoicism and the Judeo-Christian scriptures. According to its teachings, humanity should not submit to the passions — defined by Neostoism as greed, joy (more specifically: over-indulgence, inflated ego, and apathy toward the suffering of others), fear, and sorrow — but instead submit to God and to the way He has designed us to live, as revealed by the Torah, by the Holy Spirit and by our divinely-guided conscience, our God-given intellect, and by wisdom painfully gained through years of trial.
Am I saying that all Jews and Christians should become Neostoics? No, I am not.2 However, I am stating that Stoicism — specifically the works of renowned philosophical luminaries such as Zeno of Citium, Seneca the Younger, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius and its daughter Neostoism as expressed in the works of Justus Lipsius — are subjects that bear thorough investigating for all Jews and Christians.
- While this appears to fit loosely with the apostle Paul’s discourse at the Areopagus in Athens from Acts 17 (ISV) upon an initial reading — specifically verse 28 (KJV): “For in Him we live, and move, and have our being…” — Paul (an associate of the Sanhedrin and a Pharisee of the school of Hillel trained by Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder) firmly believed in and preached about a personal, relatable God, one represented in the person of Yeshua ha Mashiach — the Messiah, Jesus, Himself a Jewish rabbi whose teachings aligned well with those of Hillel the Elder — and far more anthropomorphized than even deistic Stoics might allow.
- I would not, in good conscience, make such a recommendation. If everyone were Stoics or Neostoics, we would likely live in a happier, more peaceful world. However, Stoicism can be a tough path for some to follow, and such temperance and self-governance may not be for everyone.