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“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.” ― Epictetus
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” — Marcus Aurelius
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” — Marcus Aurelius
Philosophy literally means love of wisdom and how better to show a love of wisdom than to express it with your actions. To show true philosophy is to demonstrate a heartfelt love for truth and wisdom which shapes your character, not merely an intellectual exercise.
Those of you who have read other articles on this page will know that a lot of the topics discussed here tend to be quite philosophical in nature. Today, we are doing something a bit different. We are looking at what real philosophy looks like with references to a particular historic school of thought, Stoicism, alongside Christianity. We will explore how ideas in each of these systems shape your behaviours and how you embody their values.
Stoicism and Christian theism are often considered philosophical systems, however, are incredibly practical and focused on day to day life. At the heart of Stoicism are the four pillars of courage, temperance, justice and wisdom. Wisdom in Stoicism begins with knowing what you can and can’t control. The three biggest names in Stoicism are Greek philosopher Epictetus, Spanish born Roman philosopher Seneca and the best known of all, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
In Christianity, great character is also highly important. However, this stems first and foremost from a love for Christ (John 14:15) and a recognition of the sinful condition you have been saved from. Christianity, moreover, claims to be rooted in historical events (of prime importance is the resurrection of Jesus) and is thus far more than a bunch of ideas.
Marcus Aurelius spoke of philosophy as a kind of medicine for the soul, not a worthless cage for intellectuals to fight in. He is quoted in his Meditations, “Don’t return to philosophy as a task-master, but as patients seek out relief in a treatment of sore eyes, or a dressing for a burn, or from an ointment. Regarding it this way, you’ll obey reason without putting it on display and rest easy in its care.”
He also recognised the importance of how your philosophy shapes how you view everything, stating, “Our life is what our thoughts (ie. philosophy) make it.”
He added, “If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”
Now you might be asking what any of this has to do with Christianity. A love of wisdom (literally philosophy) and truth is crucial to the Christian’s daily life and walk with God. Proverbs 4:7–8 teaches wisdom should be prized extremely highly. Proverbs 2:6 reads, “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”
Christ is described as “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24), the Logos (Word of God — John 1:1- links to an Ancient Greek and Stoic concept!) full of “grace and truth” (John 1:14) and in the synoptic gospels, in passages such as Luke 9:58 and Matthew 11:16–19, Christ uses allusions to the wisdom of God to describe himself. Jesus taught in John 8:32, “know the truth, and the truth will set you free” while the Holy Spirit is described in 1 John 4:6 as “the Spirit of truth.”
Thus, wisdom and truth are inextricably linked to God’s character. A love of wisdom and truth is centred on a love of Christ. Christ embodies wisdom and truth, meaning love for Christ is life changing. Just as Aurelius spoke of truth as being that “by which no one was ever truly harmed”, the light and truth of Christ sets people free and exposes darkness.
Does this mean it is a comfortable process? Absolutely not! “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20).
Christian theism as defended throughout this blog is thus far more than a mere intellectual position. It is rooted in history and a love for the very wisdom of God, centred on Christ. What does embodying this love of wisdom or true philosophy look like? Here are 5 brief thoughts.
- Understand the depths of your own darkness
This is an area where the approach between Stoicism and Christianity is quite different. Stoics did not believe in original sin and often encouraged seeing the good in others. However, they were not ignorant of the depths of the darkness of humanity.
Aurelius advised in Meditations, “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognised that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own — not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.” The solution for the Stoics, however, was to be found primarily in your own mind and perception, implying a type of intrinsic goodness in humanity.
The Bible teaches man is created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26), yet following the fall is conceived in sin (Ps. 51:5), has a deceitful heart (Jer. 17:9) which brings forth evil (Matt. 15:19), a sick head (Is. 1:5) and is devoid of the Spirit (Jude 19). Thus, we see both the beautiful and the ugly Aurelius speaks of. However, in Christianity this desperately wicked state of man has one solution (an external one unlike in Stoicism) which shapes everything else- salvation through Christ (Romans 6:23).
This reality about the state of our own hearts, keeps us humble and wary of the many pitfalls we can easily fall into. It also adds a level of realism to what you can expect from others in life. Deception, greed, lust and pride intermingled with beautiful traits endowed by God such as reason, love and care. Much like ink which spoils clean water, there is no escaping this darkness in all parts of our lives, even though it is not as bad as it could be it is found everywhere.
2. Grace and humility- shapes how you act- love and forgive
Forgiveness was a key part of Stoicism. Seneca recognised the danger of anger, exclaiming, “Anger always outlasts hurt.” Epictetus taught, “Forgive others for their misdeeds over and over again. This gesture fosters inner ease.” Meanwhile Aurelius believed, “The best way to avenge yourself is to not be like that.”
Christianity is well known for its emphasis on forgiveness and turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). Forgiveness after all is what Jesus offers man (Matthew 20:28). Jesus taught us to pray in Matthew 6:12, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Before the parable of the unforgiving servant, Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times (Matt. 18:21–22)”.
The forgiveness Christ expected his followers to show others, stemmed from the forgiveness God showed towards man through Christ. Jesus had power on earth to forgive sins (Mark 2:10). A man forgiven by Christ must then recognise the desperate situation they have been saved from and forgive others accordingly (Matt. 18:23–35), much like a servant forgiven by their master who then chooses to forgive others following the grace they have been granted.
Modern day Stoic, Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy, warns of the danger of ego and its destructive nature. He sets a reminder, “You’re not as good as you think. You don’t have it all figured out. Stay focused. Do better.”
From a Christian perspective we have no right to boast given we have been saved from a desperate situation through grace (Eph. 2:8–9). Grace, not hard work, saves us. However, recognising this grace places us in a position where we want to act us humble stewards for Christ, utilising the gifts he has given us.
In 1 Corinthians 4:7, Paul asked, “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” If everything you have is a gift, including your salvation, what grounds does that leave for you to repeatedly act in bitterness to others or as if the world owes you something?
3. Trust things happen for a reason- grow through hardships
The Stoics had a famous saying, “Amor Fati.” This literally means to love one’s fate or whatever happens to them. Atheist philosopher Nietzsche in discussing this idea in his book Ecce Homo, exclaimed, “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.”
In his famous book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl encouraged us to understand in true Stoic like fashion, “You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.” This dichotomy between what you can and can’t control lies at the heart of Stoicism. You accept what happens with love and joy but do everything to change what is within your control, including your mindset itself.
In the Bible, Christians are encouraged to express joy in all situations and trust whatever occurs is within God’s will. This does not at all mean Christians should sit back and not try and change what is within their control, for self control, hard work and discipline are a crucial part of being a Christian. The role of the Christian is often likened to that of an athlete (eg. 1 Cor 9:24–27) or a soldier (Eph. 6:10–20). Hardly occupations where you can simply sit back, laze around and hope for the best.
Nevertheless, the Bible is realistic plenty happens outside of your control and offers comfort in this regard. In Romans 8:28, Paul reminds us, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” All things in the context of this chapter includes betrayal, tribulation, sickness and even death itself. Paul adds in 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Moreover Paul warns against complaining about unfortunate events in Philippians 2:14 and 1 Corinthians 10:10, implying that you can control your mindset about external events.
After all, if humans are created for God’s glory (Isaiah 43:7), God is glorified in both wrath and forgiveness (Romans 9:22–23) and “from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36), there is every reason to accept and not just accept but love what happens.
There is a subtle difference here between Christianity in Stoicism. In both, you are encouraged to accept and even love what happens to you, while focusing on what you can control (in particular your character). However, many modern Stoics accept fate as a matter of practicality (although ancient ones tended to view it as the will of the gods) while in Christianity it is accepted first and foremost as it is believed to be in the sovereign plan of God.
Let’s not forget whenever we get worked up about something to ask if we can or cannot control that which we are getting worked up about. Are we misplacing trust in the wrong things? Are we getting angry based on false delusions we cannot change? Are we lacking trust in God’s plan?
4. Exercise self control- be disciplined
The Stoics had a big emphasis on self control with temperance being one of the four key pillars of Stoicism. Aurelius wrote, much like how Paul described the Christian life as that of a soldier or a boxer, “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in that it stands ready for what comes and is not thrown by the unforeseen.” He also spoke of making the most of today with hard work, “ Remember how long you have been putting this off, how many times you have been given a period of grace by the gods and not used it… there is a limit circumscribed to your time- if you do not use it to clear away your clouds, it will be gone, and you will be gone, and the opportunity will not return. ”
From a Christian perspective in Galatians 5:23, self control is described as a fruit of the Spirit. Paul describes his ministry as one of toil and struggle (2 Cor. 11:27), not laziness and comfort. Proverbs 18:9 says, “Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys”, while Proverbs 13:4 teaches, “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied”. Moreover, Proverbs 16:32 holds a person of self control who controls their own spirit, temptations and urges in more high regard than a mighty soldier who takes over cities.
Thus the Christian life is one of hard work, toil and struggle where trials and temptations are the path of growth. 1 Peter 1:6–7 adds, “ In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
In some ways this mirrors Aurelius famous quote, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” However, “the way” as defined in Christianity and Stoicism, are not identical. For the Christian the end is “glory and honour” on Christ’s return, while for the Stoic it is the way of moral and character development. Both place an emphasis on character, however, the Christian “way” has a distinct focus on Christ himself.
5. Treat time as a gift
The Stoics often spoke of the finite nature of life. “Memento mori” is a famous Stoic saying which literally means remember you have to die. A few Stoic quotes on this topic are outlined below.
“Don’t behave as if you are destined to live forever. What’s fated hangs over you. As long you live and while you can, become good now.” — Marcus Aurelius
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” — Seneca
“It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live.” — Marcus Aurelius
“Let each thing you would do, say, or intend, be like that of a dying person.” — Marcus Aurelius
“I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.” — Epictetus
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly. What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness.” — Marcus Aurelius
The finite and fleeting nature of life is outlined in Scripture many times.
Jesus urges his disciples in Matthew 24:42, “stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
In Luke 12:19–21, Jesus speaks of a rich fool who boasted in his plans and wealth but died soon after. “And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
James 4:13–15, echoes this sentiment, “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
Moses prays in Psalm 90:12, “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Numbering our days means we see every moment as a precious undeserved gift from God where we seek to pursue wisdom, goodness, and the kingdom of God over the fleeting pleasures and whims of this life. Paul adds to this by urging us to make “the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:16).
In summary we see both Christianity and Stoicism have a very practical focus. They are by no means mere philosophical intellectual exercises for the confines of insecure intellectual snobs writing unrealistic literature from their comfortable offices. No. They recognise the disappointment, failure and heartache which comes in life and use it as fuel for growth. From a practical standpoint there is a lot of similarity- perseverance, a love of what happens in life irrespective of the situations, an emphasis on moral character, forgiveness of those who mistreat you as well as constant reminders of the fleeting and undeserved nature of life.
Nevertheless, the idea of the depravity of man and the desperate need for a saviour distinguishes the two. The mind is powerful for the Christian and to be controlled using discipline, however, it is simply not enough to give you a right standing with God or true peace. That alone comes from Christ. In Stoic like fashion, once you accept truth does no harm and accept the truth of your situation before God, Christ is the only viable option in Christianity.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”- Jesus, John 14:27.