Jesus Wasn’t a Stoic (Or, the Difference Between Socrates and Christ)


Spock, the perfect Stoic. Kinda, not really.

It’s often remarked that the Christian moral ethic we see in the New Testament and the Fathers shares a great deal of similarities with Ancient Greco-Roman philosophies on offer at the time such as Platonism, and especially Stoicism. And it’s true, that superficially, there are. I remember in one early medieval philosophy class, reading Augustine’s comments on how much closer to Christianity the Stoics were as opposed to the Epicureans, who were universally condemned by the Fathers, (and, well, anybody not Epicurean).

That said, while many of the moral precepts are shared across the two systems, Christianity and Stoicism, their moral grounding, or logic, are structurally in different universes. Charles Taylor highlights this difference with respect to “affirmation of ordinary life” and the two systems’ “asceticism” or ethics of self-denial:

Christianity, particularly in its more ascetic variants, appears a continunation of Stoicism by other means, or (as Nietzsche sometimes says) a prolongation of Platonism. But for all the strong resemblances to Stoicism–for instance, its universalism, its notion of providence, its exalting of self-abnegation–there is a great gulf. In fact, the meaning of self-abnegation is radically different. The Stoic sage is willing to give up some “preferred” thing, e.g. health, freedom, or life, because he sees it genuinely as without value since only the whole order of events which, as it happens, includes its negation or loss, is of value.  The Christian martyr, in giving up health, freedom, or life, doesn’t declare them to be of no value. On the contrary, the act would lose its sense if they were not of great worth. To say that greater love hath no man than this, that a man give up his life for his friends, implies that life is a great good. The sentence would loses its point in reference to someone who renounced life from a sense of disenchantment; it presupposes he’s giving up something.

Central to the Judaeo-Christian notion of martyrdom is that one gives up a good in order to follow God. What God is engaged in is the hallowing of life. God first called Israel to be a “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). But the hallowing of life is not antithetical to its fulness. On the contrary. Hence the powerful sense of loss at the heart of martyrdom. It only becomes necessary because of sin and disorder in the world…to turn to the paradigm Christian case, that Christ’s teaching led to his crucifixion was a consequence of evil in the world, of he darkness not comprehending the light. In the restored order that God is conferring, good doesn’t need to be sacrificed for good. The eschatological promise of Judaism and Christianity is that God will restore the integrity of the good.

This is, of course, what makes the death story of Jesus so different from that of Socrates, however much they have been put in parallel. Socrates tries to prove to his friends that he is losing nothing of value, that he is gaining a great good. In his last request to Crito, to pay his debt of a cock to Asclepius, he seems to imply that life is an illness of which death is the cure (Asclepius being the god of healing whom one rewards for cures.) Socrates is serenely troubled. Jesus suffers agony of soul in the garden, and is driven to despair on the cross, when he cries, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” At no point in the Passion is he serene and untroubled.

-Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, pp. 218-219

In Christianity, the world is good and so are the world’s goods. God made them and to suffer their loss is true suffering. While there is evil in it, and the satan works corruption throughout it, creation is still of inestimable value.  And so, self-denial, when it involves something other than sin, is not a denial of the goodness of those things we give up.

This is why Jesus was not a Stoic. When he gave up his life for us on the Cross, he was truly giving something up–it was a real sacrifice. This was no mere, cost-less martyrdom for the truth, but a painful, arduous self-giving for our sakes. In giving his life, he was affirming the value of life and working to restore it to its intended glory. But, of course, this leads us to the truth of the Resurrection. Christ’s sacrifices of the good for us was total, but not final. It was not an end in and of itself, but a means to a greater end–the redemption of creation.

The same is true for us at a microcosmic level. We sacrifice all things, excepting sin, with a knowledge that, while a real loss, all that was good about it will be received from God’s hand once again: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”(Matthew 19:29) That actually puts Christians in the ironic position of being able to more readily sacrifice natural goods–for others, for righteousness sake, etc.–while still appreciating them in a way that a Stoic never could. We should enjoy them with great joy while we have them, grieve them when lost, joyfully anticipate their restoration in the glory to come.

All that to say, Jesus wasn’t a Stoic–neither are his followers.

Soli Deo Gloria