It is said that the cruel master of the stoic Epictetus took hold of his slave's leg and twisted. "If you keep twisting, the leg will break," Epictetus reportedly said. The master kept twisting and the leg broke. "See?" said Epictetus, "I told you it would break."
What is the definition of stoicism? What did the stoics believe?
Whether this story is true or not, it has come to represent the cold apathy modern people associate with Stoicism. This view, like the story, is a simplified explanation that doesn't incorporate all the nuances of the philosophy.
Stoicism originated with Zeno of Citium who taught on a porch ("stoa") off the Agora of Athens. It is based on Aristotle's tabula rasa and rejects Plato's belief that we all have the truth in us and that the material stuff of the universe is an illusion that reflects the true spirit of the thing. Like Epicureans, Stoics believe in materialism — that all the cosmos is made of the physical, including gods. As matter, the universe is subjected to logic, law, and reason &mdash the logos.
Stoicism is, first and foremost, about the logos. The logos is the underlying truth of the universe, the fundamental way that all of life operates. The goal of the stoic is to understand the logos and fully live out of that understanding.
The logos is not only what guides the world, it is what brings life to the living. In the beginning, when the gods first created humans, they gave humans the fire of logos as their souls. Every subsequent generation has received the logos from their parents, making us all dependent on and governed by reason. It is when we understand and live by this reason that we are fulfilled. But this takes deep consideration of the natural world and our part in it.
First come feelings, such as Epictetus feeling that his leg was starting to break. Objects external to us will impel their reality on us, and we sense that reality through our senses. But we can only correctly interpret the data if we can accurately compare the feeling to the truth of the logos. In this case, it was evident that the logos affirmed continued twisting would break Epictetus' leg.
Next comes the analysis of the situation. For those who are not one with the logos, this means passion — an undisciplined reaction to the pain. The passions are appetite and fear; in this case, fear that the leg will be broken. Passion leads to an excessive and irrational act — perhaps jumping out of the grip of the attacker and bashing his head in with a flowerpot. But by their nature, acts ruled by passion keep you from making further analysis through logos. Seeing your master passed out and surrounded by blood from a head wound may feel satisfying for a moment, but it doesn't bode well for your future if you're a slave.
Instead, the sage who is in tune with the logos will stop and make several considerations:
- Not only are the master's actions not in tune with the logos, it is evident that he is not in tune with the logos. Therefore he is not to be held accountable for acting according to his immature nature.
- Everything outside of oneself is oikeion — it is morally neutral. Some oikeion things are closer to logos than others, but if you have no control over an action, it is not logos to allow it to adversely affect your own heart (for lack of a better word). You live by communion with the logos, not the actions of others.
- A whole leg is of a higher oikeion than a broken leg, but refraining from murdering your master is of a higher oikeion yet. It is not ultimately beneficial for a slave to bash in his master's head because it might lead to execution or imprisonment in the mines which would hamper his ability to make logos-based decisions in the future.
- At the same time, a slave with a broken leg is not beneficial for his master. Therefore, the logical thing to do is to explain the repercussions of the act in a way that will hopefully lead the master to act according to logos.
- Once the leg is broken, there is nothing you can do about it. It has to be accepted as a reality. The important matter, however, is the option to act logically is still intact. The slave has not succumbed to passion or done anything that will keep him from living in logos in the future.
The story of the abusive master and the stoic slave illustrates a few other beliefs of stoicism:
- It is only the stoic sage who truly has free will. Those who do not live according to the logos of the universe are ruled by their passions. Even their works that appear to be aligned with the logos are done for selfish reasons.
- Although everything outside of your control is neutral, there are levels of neutrality — oikeion. Money is neutral. Money for food is closer to the logos. Money for heroin is further. A broken leg is far from logos, but a broken relationship with your master is even further. It is compared to drowning thirty meters from the surface of the water vs. one meter — both situations are dangerous, but in the latter, rescue is easier.
- The greatest happiness isn't accumulating the preferable oikeion, it's being mature enough in the logos that you can make a conscious choice to base your actions on reason.
Stoicism bears many similarities to cognitive-behavior therapy. Cognitive-behavior therapy teaches that what happens to you is not as important as what you think about what happened. It would say that a broken leg is bad, but it would be worse to allow your owner's actions cause you to believe bad things about yourself. The main difference is that cognitive-behavior therapy leads the practitioner to replace bad thoughts with helpful thoughts, while stoics replace impulsive thoughts with truth.
Stoicism is based on three fields: ethics, logic, and physics. One's ethics are determined by applying logic (logos) to the natural world (physics). It is the physics of stoicism that goes astray. It says that everything is material, including logos which is made of fire. Of course, stoicism does not include the God of the Bible or Jesus. "Salvation," such as it is, means becoming in tuned with the logos so that your soul lives on during the current cycle of the world until the god of the world destroys everything with fire again.
Besides the physics, however, there is room for some aspects of stoicism in Christianity. The Apostle John refers to Jesus as the logos in John 1. Jesus is the logic that governs the workings of creation. The more we are in tune with Him, the less we are concerned with things of this world (Matthew 6:33; Luke 16:13). It's helpful to adapt the stoic way of seeing others; we should not be surprised when people without God act out of their godlessness. It is damaging to our relationship with logos to react emotionally and thoughtlessly — and it will limit what actions we can take in the future. It is when we live within God's law that we have the most joy (Psalm 119; Jeremiah 15:16).
The main difference would be that while the logos of the stoics is an apathetic system of rules, our Logos is a living being Who loves us and wants to interact with us both logically and emotionally. He also teaches us to mourn for the brokenness in the world, instead of rationally dismissing it. To value God and others, not just analyze them.
Stoicism has a reputation for being a cold, heartless, indifferent philosophy. This isn't exactly fair. The entire point of stoicism is to accept the world as it is and act accordingly. For the believer, that isn't a bad way to see the world if we add just a bit: the love of God for us and the value He gave to each person. In Christ's logos, it is logical to love.
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