Chalcedon Report No. 334, May 1993
Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy from the fourth century b.c. which still has an influence on us today. Stoicism has been given varying emphases, but its essential meaning is a radical naturalism. Its three areas of concern were physics, logic, and ethics or morality. Some Stoics were religious in their emphasis, others cynical, but the gap between them was not great.
Their physics was a stress on the natural world as the only real world. Therefore, conformity with nature was their goal. Rationality meant the acceptance of the natural order as definitive, ultimate, and determinative. The moral is that which conforms to the natural.
There were Stoic thinkers, like the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who sought to find nobility and order in the natural world, but all Stoicism was heavily fatalistic. To conform with the natural was to be moral. If this world gave you troubles and unremitting evil, you accepted it as also the moral. Whatever is was seen as the right, and the philosopher lives with that reality. Marcus Aurelius regarded clemency as the evidence of true morality; this meant, you do not judge, interfere, or condemn. Life according to nature meant that one did not interfere to correct or condemn if at all possible. As a ruler, this was not entirely possible for Marcus Aurelius. He did have a belief in a divine reason in nature, but that divine reason had no law whereby men were to be judged. Divine reason was simply reason and logic, not a moral law. He was a follower of Plato’s thinking that philosopher-kings, not a higher law, should govern men and nations. His cyclical view of history led to his belief that change is superficial, not real.
The thinking of Marcus Aurelius was not unlike that of a man who came centuries later, at the time of the French Revolution, the Marquis de Sade. They differed in that, for Marcus Aurelius, the life according to nature meant a retreat in reason and thought, whereas for Sade, the natural was total sexual freedom. Not surprisingly, the son of Marcus Aurelius was the emperor Commodus (a.d. 161–192), a Roman Sade. Commodus as emperor could do what Sade could not; being an emperor, he could afford a double harem of three hundred boys and three hundred women. (His mistake was that one, Marcia, was a Christian, and she had him assassinated.) A coin of Commodus’ reign declared, “Under the reign of Commodus the world experiences an age of blessing.” The “blessing” was the radical contempt for morality that a life according to nature means.
A life according to nature can mean the quiet thinking of Marcus Aurelius, or the active immoralism of Commodus and the Marquis de Sade. In either case, it is passive towards active moral reform in terms of a supernatural law. Not surprisingly, Stoicism has been the philosophy of choice with those unwilling to work for the moral reformation of the world in terms of God’s law.
Stoicism is a form of moral pacificism, a belief that no moral progress is possible. Its inroads into the church in the twentieth century have been extensive. Tied to eschatologies of defeat, Stoic “Christianity” waits for the rapture rather than seeking to make the world God’s Kingdom.
One of the most common expressions of “Christian stoicism” asks people to suffer for Christ’s sake when in fact they should be working and fighting against evil for Christ. (Once when I was faced with very evil forces, a prominent pastor, a kindly man whom I could never dislike, told Dorothy that I should surrender and suffer “as He did on the cross.” Christ’s passion brought us atonement, and no man’s suffering can add to His atonement for us. Such talk is blasphemy, but it is also common.)
For men to adopt a Stoic retreatism leads to victimhood, and there is no holiness in allowing ourselves to be victimized!
But, in our time, in and out of the church, the Stoic mentality is all too much in evidence. Many popular expressions witness to the Stoicism of our time, e.g., “don’t make waves,” “go with the flow,” and so on. Americans were once anything but passive, but, with the spread, among Christians and non-Christians, of a Stoic attitude, they have too often been passive and even wimpish.
But victimhood is not holiness but cowardice or retreat. The idea that there is virtue in making ourselves victims is an evil one. In the early church, at times the Stoic temperament of some converts led them to court martyrdom, as though it were a merit to do so. We see this attitude in too many of those who take part in Operation Rescue demonstrations.
In Matthew 10, however, our Lord warns His disciples against courting needless hostilities. If they were not heard, they were to move on (Matt. 10:14). They were not to waste words nor time. Saint Cyprian, who himself died a martyr, still rebuked Christians of his day who sought to make demonstrations against evil. His mandate to them was simple and direct: “Not demonstrations but profession.” They were to show their faith in their lives and action; they could not change things by vain demonstrations.
Neither Stoic passivity nor aggressive demonstrations can alter the fact that men need rather the saving power of Christ. Christian action is positive, not negative. It is reconstructive, not demonstrative. Stoics have always been losers. Our calling is to victory.
(Debts must be acknowledged. My Dorothy and Grayce Flanagan were having tea earlier today and, as usual, discussing things great and small. As I stopped briefly, Grayce asked a telling question about “Christian” Stoics today, an original insight with her, and here is the result.)
- R. J. Rushdoony
Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.