Ecclesiastes warns us that there’s nothing new under the sun. This applies to Stoicism, an ancient philosophy that’s making a modern comeback.
Ryan Holliday has written a bestselling book on Stoicism called The Ego is the Enemy. Tim Ferriss has turned Seneca’s letters into an audiobook series. The New York Times published an article called “How to Be a Stoic.”
What is Stoicism, and why does it matter?
What is Stoicism?
Stoicism is a philosophy that arose during the Hellenistic period. It was founded by Zeno of Cyprus (334-262 BC).
According to Stoicism, the world is governed by impersonal forces, and the totality of the universe is divine. The universe, including the divine, occasionally collapses into fire, and then the cycle repeats again.
Everything happens as a result of natural law. The only thing that exists are physical objects. Even intangible objects, like the soul or virtues, are actually physical. Knowledge comes through reason. Ethics, like everything else, are based on natural law.
We should live an accord with nature, simply accepting our fate. We shouldn’t strive to get what we want; we should instead strive to want what we get.
According to Stoicism, we should accept the way the world is. At the same time, we should be engage in public life and embrace humanity as a brotherhood. We’re all, after all, manifestations of one universal spirit.
Living well comes from promoting self-control, inner calm, and unbiased thinking through practices like meditation and living in the moment. The primary thing we can control, according to Stoicism, is our attitude.
Marcus Aurelius writes:
If you accomplish the task before you, following right reason with diligence, energy and patience…if you can hold to this, without fear or expectation, and find fulfillment in what you’re doing now… you will live a happy life” (Medit. 3.12)
Why Is Stoicism Making a Comeback?
It’s not hard to see why Stoicism is enjoying a renaissance. Practices like gratitude, mindfulness, and meditation, advocated within Stoicism, seem attractive. In some ways, Stoicism is the western equivalent of eastern philosophies like Buddhism that have also become more popular. It’s also a counterbalance to other trends, like positive thinking (as in The Secret), that have left people disillusioned.
Stoicism is also attractive to people who want to reject the idea of a personal God and who are interested in abandoning organized religion. It adapts well to anyone’s belief system, whatever that may be. It provides an ethical system without demanding submission to a personal God. It also focuses on personal mastery and self-development as keys to effective living.
Stoicism was the dominant philosophical school at the time of the early church, and remained popular for centuries. Paul is recorded as engaging with Stoics in Acts 17:18. According to Paul Tillich, Stoicism was “the only real alternative to Christianity in the Western world.”
There’s a lot to like about some of the Stoic virtues. Self-control, after all, is a Christian virtue. But Martyn Lloyd-Jones reminds us, Stoicism “may be very noble, I will grant you that, but it is noble paganism.”
Stoicism rejects the God of the Bible. It advocates pantheism. It also rejects the gospel, which is our only hope and the complete antithesis of self-reliance. While we can affirm aspects of Stoic ethics, we certainly can’t affirm its worldview or belief system.
Stoicism was the context in which the early church flourished. We shouldn’t feel threatened by Stoicism, but it’s important to understand it, and to communicate how Christianity provides an even better hope than the best of what Stoicism offers.