Stoicism

STOICISM (stō'ĭ-sĭzm). Although the influence of Stoicism on the NT writers was apparently next to negligible (cf. Morton Scott Enslin, The Ethics of Paul, pp. 14-44), this school of philosophy is of interest to Bible readers because Paul encountered it in Athens (Acts.17.18). Boasting a galaxy of distinguished exponents, both Greek and Roman—e.g., Zeno, Cleanthes, Seneca, Cicero, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius—Stoicism was a system of pantheistic monism. It held that fire is the ultimate substance with God, the active principle of the cosmos, permeating everything as a sort of soul. Nature, it taught, is a hierarchical unity controlled by the universal Logos, an impersonal reason at once immanent and divine. As participant in the Logos, man is also participant in deity. Indeed, the true essence of humanity is nous or mind, the capacity to understand the rational order veiled by phenomena. As a logos-being, man can perceive and assent to the determinism that makes all events necessary and therefore reduces evil to mere appearance. By assenting to this determinism—indifferently called fate or providence—man is able to live in harmony with nature. Hence the Stoic ethic is egocentrically negative. Nothing lies within man’s power except imagination, desire, and emotion; thus by cultivating not only detachment from the world outside him but also mastery over his reactions to the world’s impingement on himself, the philosopher achieves freedom, happiness, and self-sufficiency. Impressively noble and lofty when practiced by, say, a Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism was aristocratic and austere, rigorously excluding pity, denying pardon, and suppressing genuine feeling. Its view of sin was hopelessly shallow, since it did not think in terms of obedience to a personal God. Sin was simply an error of judgment, easily rectified by a change of opinion. But among its virtues were cosmopolitanism and egalitarianism. Whatever his position or handicap, any man, Stoicism affirmed, even a slave like Epictetus, can be inwardly free. Moreover, as partakers of a common rational nature, people everywhere are subject to the same law. Implicit in Stoicism, accordingly, was the idea of a universal morality rooted in the universal Logos.——VCG