Depending on your impression of Stoicism and Christianity, you might assume that they don’t have much in common. In this article, we want to explore how they’re similar– and different.
Both the religion of Christianity and the philosophy of Stoicism are rich, multifaceted, and worthy of deep and thorough study. Like all things worth knowing about in life, neither one can easily be boiled down to a series of bullet points.
That being said, the overlap between the works of the great Stoics and the teachings of Jesus appears to be quite significant in some instances. One fascinating aspect of the whole situation is that Jesus and Seneca the Younger lived similar lives at the same time– they are thought to have been born the same year, though 5600 km apart as the crow flies.
Let’s take a look at where these two impactful and rich belief systems converge and diverge.
Stoicism began in the early 3rd century BC in Athens. Founded by Zeno of Citium, this is a philosophy that proposes that virtue is the only good and that living in accordance with nature is the path to a smooth and peaceful life.
For a much deeper dive into the world of Stoic philosophy, check out our guide to Stoicism.
Christianity is the largest religion in the world with something around 2.8 billion followers (one-third of the population of the world, for those that are counting. An Abrahamic monotheistic religion, Christianity is based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
People have dedicated their entire lives to Christianity both intellectually and spiritually, and it is, frankly, an enormous topic that is incredibly complex. Describing it in a few short paragraphs will never do it justice. After all, the term Christianity doesn’t just encompass the original teachings of Jesus, but also the thousands of years of history that followed.
That being said, here are some of the commonly held beliefs of Christians around the world:
Both Stoicism and Christianity emerged during chaotic times and offered people a way to find happiness despite the shortcomings of existence. Though there are stark differences between the philosophy of Stoicism and the religion of Christianity, there is a remarkable amount of overlap to be found in the teachings of each.
In both Stoicism and Christianity, you can find teachings that reflect the idea that our level of contentment has to do with our own mindset, not with external events.
“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” — Saint Paul
In this quote from Saint Paul, we find him proposing a very Stoic mindset indeed. Over and over again in Stoic texts, we find the ancient philosophers discussing that it isn’t our wealth, status, or luck that influences whether we are happy, it is about our ability to control our mind and draw power from our inner resources.
“It is the attitude [not the circumstance] that must be appraised: we must investigate whether the rich man can be content if he falls into poverty and whether the poor man can be content if he falls into riches.” — Seneca
Here, Seneca touches upon precisely the same idea as St. Paul above. Our attitude is what leaves us feeling like we are rich or poor, not the contents of our bank account or the extravagance (or lack thereof) of our homes. In fact, it is surprisingly just as easy for a wealthy man to be stressed and unhappy as it is for someone that is in the depths of poverty.
We all heard it a million times in childhood– treat others the way you want to be treated. This idea wasn’t born in kindergarten classrooms, though, but reaches back thousands of years in the history of western philosophy.
“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” — Jesus
In the Ten Commandments, we are instructed to never “bear false witness against” our neighbor. Jesus takes things to a whole new level, telling his followers that we should literally love our neighbors in the same way that we love ourselves. This is a lofty proposition and one that you could spend the rest of your life thinking about.
“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” — Seneca
Though Stoicism has a reputation as being emotionless and cold, there are many calls for compassion from the great Stoic philosophers. Here, Seneca proposes that the opportunity to treat others well is everyone around us and that we always have a choice when it comes to how we interact with others.
In the same way that we can control the way we see situations, we can control whether we treat others with kindness or with cruelty.
The Stoics believed that we are all in this together– everyone and everything is interconnected. We have a duty in being alive to live virtuously, and our actions are inherently entangled with everyone else in existence.
A major theme in the works of the great Stoics is that of death. They frequently discuss the fact that it is not death, but rather the fear of death, that is problematic. After all, we will all die, and it is therefore a natural process of the Universe that we must work to accept.
Of course, death plays a big role in Christianity as well. The birth of Jesus, in the eyes of Christians, is a truly remarkable story, but not one that outshines the story of his death and resurrection. Through belief in Christ, Christians are promised eternal life and salvation.
“In whatever you do, remember your last days, and you will never sin.” — Sirach 7:36
The Book of Sirach is accepted as a part of the Canon by Catholics, most Oriental Orthodox Christians, and Eastern Orthodox Christians. Here, we find a very Stoic thought– the idea that if you remember your death you will be much more likely to act virtuously.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” — Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius discussed death at great length in Meditations. The sentiment of the above quote is quite similar to that of the quote from the Book of Sirach– basically, remembering that you will die can have a tremendous impact on how you act and live. When we lose sight of the fact that we will die someday, it’s easy to waste time, abandon virtue, and distract ourselves with earthly pleasures.
When someone wrongs you, you might find that every fiber of your being stands up straight and screams for revenge. In both Christianity and Stoicism, though, there are calls to not stoop to the level of the offender.
“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” — Jesus
Are you taking the higher road when you don’t give your enemy the satisfaction of getting a rise out of you, or are you being weak? In the teachings of Jesus, we find the famous advice to “turn the other cheek” when someone strikes you.
“It is a petty and sorry person who will bite back when he is bitten.” — Seneca
Seneca makes a similar point here, expressing that getting revenge is actually the action of a “petty and sorry” person.
“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” – Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius also makes this point, that the best way of being and the virtuous path to walk is to not be like your enemy.
Ah, anxiety. The topic of many conversations these days, it seems, as nearly 20% of the adult population of the US suffers from some form of anxiety disorder. As the most common mental illness currently afflicting the population, finding ways to overcome anxiety are a major focus for millions of Americans.
Anxiety isn’t new, however– it’s really a tale as old as time. Both Christian literature and Stoic texts talk about anxiety and how to deal with it.
"And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?" – Jesus, Matthew 6:27
Jesus begins this statement by asking his listeners to “look at the birds of the air” and realize that they are fed despite the fact that they don’t “sow or reap or gather into barns.” As is common in the teachings of Jesus, he continues using agricultural metaphors to help his followers understand his message.
It’s really remarkable, when you think about it, that these illustrations are still so powerful thousands of years after they were first spoken. There is so much truth in this quote– burning your energy by being anxious about something won’t get you anything, and, in fact, is simply wasting precious hours of your earthly life.
“It’s ruinous for the soul to be anxious about the future and miserable in advance of misery, engulfed by anxiety that the things it desires might remain it's own until the very end. For such a soul will never be at rest— by longing for things to come it will lose the ability to enjoy present things.” — Seneca
Anxiety is considered an unpleasant emotional state by the Stoics, just as, one could argue, it is by most modern Americans. We can spend our whole lives miserable because our minds are focused on potential fears of the future. It doesn’t have to be that way. If we can learn to accept what is real, stop desiring things we don’t have, and take control over the things we can, we are able to be fully present in the moment and enjoy our experiences while alive.
Both Christianity and Stoicism recognize the importance of discipline and the fact that– while it might not feel this way at the time– discipline actually produces the greatest good and sense of peace in the long run. While short-term pleasures might seem like what you want, they actually lead to despair quite quickly.
“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” — Hebrews 12:11
It can feel incredibly painful to give up something you want right now in order to reach a goal or accomplish something greater down the road. If you are willing to let yourself try, though, you’ll find that your life improves greatly and you can find much deeper happiness and satisfaction in your existence.
“If you accomplish something good with hard work, the labor passes quickly, but the good endures; if you do something shameful in pursuit of pleasure, the pleasure passes quickly, but the shame endures.” — Musonius Rufus
Musonius Rufus has a lot of fascinating things to say about hard work as well as exile. This is the type of quote you might consider hanging up somewhere in your house as it touches upon something that we could all use a reminder of from time to time.
It’s easy to avoid doing difficult things because they seem too hard, the experience seems unpleasant, and we could simply lay down and veg out instead. We all have our own vices that tempt us away from being disciplined, but the pleasure we gain from these things typically doesn’t last very long and leaves us wanting soon again.
However, when you put in a hard day’s work, you learn about the fact that discipline is the gift that keeps on giving.
It would be easy to write a whole book on the topic of love and how it is discussed in Christianity and Stoicism. In brief, though, one similarity between the two is the call to love other people sincerely. I think it’s easy to think of love as a sentimental concept, but if you are able to push all of our cultural notions about it aside, love is something with exponential and infinite depth.
“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly.” — Peter 4:8
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” – John 15:9
It’s not easy to love the people around us. They are selfish, they lie, they are thoughtless, and they betray us. One of the scariest thoughts is to consider whether we ourselves are just the same (hint: yes, we are.)
In Christianity, we find calls to earnestly love one another despite how hard it might be.
“To be free of passion and yet full of love.” — Marcus Aurelius
This is a truly beautiful quote from Marcus Aurelius that helps to confront one of the biggest misconceptions about Stoicism in the modern era. Many people assume that you need to be emotionless and, well, stoic, in order to practice the philosophy.
Here though, Aurelius makes a very important distinction. He wants to be “free of passion,” i.e., the crazy storm that can overtake you when you’re compelled by lust, fear, anger, etc., but “full of love.” You aren’t turning off your emotions and your engagement with the world, you’re working to control the lesser emotional experiences to tap into those that are deeper, more real, and produce the greater good.
Anger can arise for a lot of different reasons, and each person has their own set of issues that get the fire of rage burning inside them.
The complicated thing about anger is that it’s possible that you are righteous in your anger. It’s possible that you are, from every reasonable perspective, completely justified in your anger.
On top of that, releasing your anger can feel so good. When you’re angry, you have an incredible amount of energy coursing through you. When you externalize this anger, it leaves your body and, in some cases, you feel a sense of peace.
However, both Stoicism and Christianity warn us against being quick to anger and reminds us of the pitfalls of letting our anger control us.
“Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.” — Ecclesiastes 7:9
Sounds pretty Stoic, doesn’t it?
“There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on its own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insane.” — Seneca
Even though unloading our anger on others can feel like a release in the short term, anger isn’t something that we aren’t fully in control of. Seneca reminds us of the negative implications of anger whether it manages to get us what we want or not.
When we think about mindfulness, Buddhism might be the first thing that comes to mind. Both Stoicism and Christianity, however, urge us to stop wading in the muck of the past and fretting about what will come tomorrow. Life, after all, only happens in each fleeting moment.
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” – Matthew 6:34
It’s so easy to spend your entire life thinking about everything but the present. While planning for the future is certainly something that can benefit you, it isn’t beneficial to be so focused on future outcomes that you forget to be alive today.
There is something so poignant in this advice– each day has enough trouble of its own. What if we did focus our attention in the present rather than being so concerned with everything but the present? We might just find that things work out better and that we are better able to achieve, in the words of Zeno of Citium, a smooth flow of life.
“Don’t fill your mind with all the bad things that might still happen. Stay focused on the present situation.” – Marcus Aurelius
Do you lay awake at night thinking about all of the horrors of tomorrow, next week, or next year? As Mark Twain said, “some of the worst things in my life never even happened.” You can spend your whole life putting your energy towards things that will never come to fruition, which points to a tremendous and (some might say) unaffordable opportunity cost.
Loving our enemies is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do. Remembering that the person who has wronged us, the person that is gunning for our job, or the person that broke up our marriage is a human and, in Christian eyes, a child of God, can be one of the hardest accomplishments to achieve.
“But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head.” — Romans 12:20
This quote from Romans speaks to the reality that treating your enemy with compassion is actually the best form of revenge. It gets tremendously more difficult to hate your enemies when they are treating you with respect and kindness.
“Kindness is invincible, but only when it’s sincere, with no hypocrisy or faking. For what can even the most malicious person do if you keep showing kindness and, if given the chance, you gently point out where they went wrong—right as they are trying to harm you?” — Marcus Aurelius
Here, Aurelius proposes that continuously showing kindness in the face of maliciousness is the proper way to be. However, kindness can easily become fake or hypocritical, and sincere kindness is hard to come by.
Of course, there are also a lot of differences between Stoicism and Christianity that distinguish them from one another.
In many ways, Stoicism is simpler than Christianity in that it is a practical philosophy rather than an entire major world religion. While Stoicism has had a major impact on western thought and history (not to mention Christianity,) the impact of Christianity on western civilization and the world at large is practically unparalleled.
Perhaps the biggest elephant in the room when comparing Stoicism and Christianity is Jesus himself. Christianity is centered around the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Stoicism, of course, doesn’t have anything to do with this narrative.
In fact, Stoicism isn’t centered around any one figure at all. When Zeno of Citium began teaching in the Stoa Poikile, the new philosophy was named Zenonism for a short time. However, out of a concern that it would become a cult of personality, they changed the name to Stoicism.
It’s also worth noting that while the Greek concept of logos is important in both Stoicism and Christianity, Jesus is considered to be the Logos made flesh, according to St. John.
One idea that is important in Christianity is that of original sin. Everyone is born with this original sin and we can only be improved and saved through the grace of God, even if we are able to better ourselves through the use of reason.
The Stoics, on the other hand, believed that the capacity for reason was given to humans by nature. In their eyes, we can use reason to live virtuous and good lives.
Essentially, the Christian worldview proposes that human nature is fallen. In Greek philosophy, however, human nature is perfectible, even though it is tremendously difficult and rare to actually become wise.
There are definitely Christian traditions that are warier of emotions than others, but overall, Christianity is a much more emotional worldview than Stoicism. In prayer, there can be an element of pleading and even begging God to release us from our suffering– a sentiment that really isn’t present in Stoic thought.
Epictetus once wrote “Zeus says: ‘If you want any good, get it from yourself.’” Here you can see the self-reliance proposed in Stoic thought. In Christianity, there is a major focus on external assistance from God and belief in grace and its power to transform people who have hit rock bottom. This doesn’t mean that Christianity is anti-self-reliance, but Christians ultimately believe that there is a power greater than them in the form of God.
In Stoicism, the only evil is vice and the only good is virtue. Everything else that we usually think of as good or evil is actually indifferent, though they do parse out preferred indifferents from those that are less desirable.
While it is, again, difficult to paint with a broad brush regarding all of Christianity, it’s worth mentioning the belief in the devil or Satan that is present in the religion.
The afterlife is discussed in both Christianity and Stoicism, but the concept of what happens after we die is far more certain in the former than in the latter.
Most, but not all, Christians believe that there is divine judgment at the end of life and an individual is given either eternal life or eternal damnation. However, the whole realm of Christian eschatology is a world in itself that is far too complicated to get into here.
On top of what happens to people personally when they die, Christians also largely believe that the second coming of Christ will happen at the end of time and the Last Judgment will occur before the Kingdom of God is established on earth.
The Stoics, on the other hand, seem to have differing opinions about what happens after you die. Stoicism was certainly not an atheistic worldview, but different philosophers deal with the issues of the afterlife differently. In general, the focus of Stoicism is much more on making the best use of the time we have now rather than focusing on identifying what happens after we die.
While Stoicism is a philosophy that largely appeals to our sense of reason, Christianity also has many aspects that appeal to our emotions, the body, and spiritual reality. There are many different branches and sects of Christianity, so it’s difficult to speak with a broad brush about specifics, here. However, it’s likely fair to say that, in general, Christianity employs ritual, myth, symbolism, music, dance, and stories in a way that Stoicism simply doesn’t.
Even in such a long post, we can only really scratch the surface here when it comes to the similarities and differences between Stoicism and Christianity. Each of these belief systems have such rich histories, texts, and contexts that are endlessly fascinating.
If you’re intrigued by the world of Stoicism, though, you’ve come to the right place. Be sure to check out our blog for more Stoic quotes and articles.
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