Guest Column: A Reflection on Stoicism & Christianity by Edward Reid II

Artistic impression of Epictetus, including his crutch

Historically, it appears Christians have regarded on occasion the nature of “philosophy” as an outside influence that could and can be dangerous to their doctrinal positions, while in fact, some philosophy actually became compatible with Christian thinking and behavior. The stoic philosophy being an example.

Epictetus with his manual for living – the Enchiridion (handbook) was influential to various thinkers and leaders as well as for a foundation in Western Civilization and modern psychiatry. His handbook actually had Christianized versions.  The first was historically attributed to St. Nilus Ancyranus in AD 43, the second Christianized version was titled Paraphrasis Christiana of unknown authorship. The third and final version of the handbook is called Vaticanus graecus 2231 edition written sometime between 1317 and 1338.

Chapter 1 of the Enchiridion of Epictetus from a 1683 edition in Greek and Latin

In 1497, Epictetus ‘s Handbook was translated from Greek to Latin in Bologna, Italy.  The book was exceptionally well received and translated into other languages.  A host of great Western thinkers (and Eastern with little doubt) since that time have been influenced to some extent by the writings of Epictetus.

One was Justis Lispius (1547 – 1606) a professional philologist at the University of Louvain in the Netherlands, trained as a Jesuit that became a Lutheran that returned to Catholicism.  His enduring professional interest was in early Roman Stoicism and Roman History.  As for his opinion of the “Divine Epictetus” he stated,

“He was a man who relied wholly on himself and God, but not on fortune.  In origin, low and servile, in body, lame and feeble, in mind most exalted, and brilliant among the lights the lights of every age… There is no one who better influences and shapes a good mind.  I never read that old man without a stirring of my soul within me, and, as with Homer. I think more of him each time I re-read him, for he seems always new; and even after I returned to him. I feel that I ought to return to him once more.”

As described by Lispius, Epictetus’ handbook is not a one-time read.  It is a handbook for life and how to live properly and virtuously.  That is why one can return to it over and over for more wisdom each time it is read. In practice this could be considered a guide for a Christian philosopher.

Catholic mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) was also an adherent to the teachings of Epictetus and seemed to deeply appreciate the prolonged and intensive training Epictetus had in mind for anyone who would even approach virtue and tranquility and freedom from vice.

A century later in 1762, an even more famous man, a graduate of William and Mary College included Epictetus in his recommended reading and ordered a complete Greek text of the entire corpus of Epictetus for the school he founded, the University of Virginia.  He also wrote that he considered Epictetus, along with Epicurus, masters in dealing with self as Jesus is in the duties and the charitable actions that we owe to others.

Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776

 

The man’s most famous written work includes words partially inspired by Epictetus: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness...”  The work is of course, the Declaration of Independence. The Epictetus admirer was Thomas Jefferson, who would become the third US president. Jefferson would also write extensively on the Gospels. Jefferson emphasized the efficacy of the philosophical approach rather than the theological. And in a letter to William Short on October 31, 1819, Jefferson wrote, “I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. Epictetus indeed, what was good of the stoics; all beyond, of their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace.” He later adds in the same letter, “I have sometimes thought of translating Epictetus (for he has never been translated into English) by adding genuine doctrines of Epicurus from the Syntagma of Gassendi, and an abstract from the Evangelists of whatever has the stamp of the eloquence and fine imagination of Jesus.”

Famous 19th century American literary figures who were influenced by Epictetus, or who openly sang his praises for the way that he championed personal liberty, included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.  The poet Walt Whitman even told a friend that Epictetus was a “universe in himself” and the day Whitman first read Epictetus he was “born again”.

Concerning the similarities with the stoicism of Epictetus and Christianity, for Epictetus there was a singularity to God unlike how many other pagans believed at the time, which was in praise to the many different Gods.  Epictetus even knew of Christians and wrote of them.

What matters most to Epictetus is to live a good life in accordance with nature or the universal law.  As for God’s primary role in achieving this goal Epictetus states: “Now the philosophers say the first thing we must learn is this: “That there is a God, and that He provides for the universe, and that it is impossible for a man to conceal from Him, not merely his actions, but even his purposes and his thoughts.”

Christian thinkers and Western Civilization can be grateful for the stoic Epictetus and his Enchiridion or Handbook which was truly a world-changer within the context of how people thought and actually believed and rationalized a higher power.

Natural reason leads to the concept of one God. “What kind of being is He, and how does he govern it (the universe)? And what are we, who have we been created by Him, and for what purpose were we created?  Do we, then, really have some contact and relation with Him or none at all?”

Epictetus goes on to say that we must learn what God is like and try to please him resembling Him in things like faithfulness, freedom, beneficence, and high-mindedness.  In sum, “therefore, in everything he (the person who would please God) says and does, he must as an imitator of God”.

There is much in resemblance with early Christians and the Stoic Epictetus and his works.  Epictetus even writes about those early Christians in Discourses II.9.  He refers to those who claim to be “Jews” (probably meaning Christians) who are “counterfeit baptists” in that they proclaim their faith but do not live it out in their lives.

He implies that to confess Christian faith and to live it is a rare and rigorous undertaking, mastered only by a few. He urges his students not to be like “counterfeit baptists” by failing to practice the principles they preach.

In Discourses IV.7 he describes the “Galileans” as people who can overcome fear of tyrants through their faith in God. He urges his students to use their reason to grasp God’s providence and likewise relinquish their fears.

As Epictetus said, “Death and pain are not frightening, it’s the fear of pain and death we need to fear.  This would be good advice to the “Galileans,“that were always being threatened and could at any time be put to death.  It seemed also that many early Christians were quite fearless and kept their principles and the love of God and others at the forefront of their living.

One has to wonder if those “Galileans” knew of Epictetus as he knew of them?  We do know that the stoicism of Epictetus and the doctrine of Christianity have compatible features. Theology and philosophy together may be key for some people that are struggling with how to cope in this world.

During these current unsettling times it might be worth remembering that the raucous and revolutionary spirit of the 18th century was also a time for the spirit of Enlightenment, collectively and individually.

Sources:

Thomas Jefferson – Letters

The Works of Epictetus

The Porch and the Cross – Kevin Vost