Biblical and Stoic Ethics

It is sometimes argued that the New Testament owes some of its theological ethics to Greco-Roman Stoicism. At my present state of knowledge I can’t enter into that debate, but I find the following parallels interesting.

I

Scripture: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. ” (Gal. 5:22-3)

Scripture: “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” (1 Tim. 6:7)

Scripture: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Mt. 6:34)

Scripture: “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. ” (1 Tim. 6:9-10)

Seneca: “For if you compare all the other things from which we suffer, deaths, illlnesses, fears, desires, endurance of pains and toils, with the evils which money brings us, the latter will far outweigh the others….Let us learn to increase our self-restraint, to curb luxury, to moderate ambition, to soften anger, to regard poverty without prejudice, to practise frugality, even if many are ashamed of it, to apply to nature’s needs the remedies that are cheaply available, to curb as if in fetters unbridled hopes and a mind obsessed with the future, and to aim to acquire our riches from ourselves rather than from Fortune.” (“On Tranquillity of Mind,” in Seneca: Dialogues and Letters, ed. and trans. C.D.N. Costa (New York: Penguin Classics, rep. 2005), pp. 42-44)

II

Scripture: “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:11)

Seneca: “…you have to get used to your circumstances, complain about them as little as possible, and grasp whatever advantage they have to offer: no condition is so bitter that a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it….Abandoning those things which are impossible or difficult to attain, let us pursue what is readily available and entices our hopes, yet recognize that all are equally trivial, outwardly varied in appearance, but uniformly futile within… ” (“On Tranquillity of Mind,” pg. 46)

Seneca: “Let every man contemplate the individual occurrences which bring us joy or grief and he will learn the truth of Bion’s dictum, that all the activities of men are like their beginnings, and their life is not more high-souled or serious than their conception, and that being born from nothing they are reduced to nothing.” (“On Tranquillity of Mind,” pg. 54)

III

Scripture: “We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.” (2 Thess. 3:11)

Scripture: “Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to.” (I Tim. 5:13)

Seneca: “We must cut down on all this dashing about that a great many people indulge in, as they throng around houses and theatres and fora: they intrude into other people’s affairs, always giving the impression of being busy…Their roaming is idle and pointless…you could not unjustly call it busy idleness.” (“On Tranquillity of Mind,” pg. 50)

IV

Scripture: “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.” (James 4:13-16)

Seneca: “…a man who is occupied with many things often puts himself into the power of Fortune, whereas the safest policy is rarely to tempt her, though to keep her always in mind and to trust her in nothing. Thus: ‘I shall sail unless something happens’; and ‘I shall become praetor unless something prevents me’; and ‘My business will be successful unless something interferes.’” (Ibid., pg. 51)

V

Scripture: “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife. The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts.” (Prov. 6:20-22)

Seneca: “…even madmen need some hope to stir them: the outward show of some object excites them because their deluded mind cannot detect its worthlessness…This evil leads him in turn to that most disgraceful vice of eavesdropping and prying into public and secret things about many matters which are safe neither to talk about nor listen to” (“On Tranquillity of Mind,” ibid., pg. 51)

VI

This one is perhaps a bit less firm, but it wouldn’t surprise me if somebody somewhere has argued that there are similarities between Paul’s advocacy of looking to the things which are above and the Stoic ideal of philosophical contemplation:

Scripture: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” (Colossians 3:2)

Scripture: “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Cor 4:16-18)

Seneca: “We should also make ourselves flexible, so that we do not pin our hopes too much on our set plans, and can move over to those things to which chance has brought us, withotu dreading a change in either our purpose or our condition…the mind must be recalled from external objects into itself: it must trust in itself, rejoice in itself, admire its own things; it must withdraw as much as possible from the affairs of others and devote its attention to itself; it must not feel losses and should take a kindly view even of misfortunes.” (“On Tranquillity of Mind,” pg. 52)

There are undoubtedly more such parallels, but that’s all I’ve found as of this time. And, no doubt, every entry I make like this already has a doctoral thesis written about it somewhere. Don’t mistake my purpose in this entry -I’m not saying that Scripture is parasitic on unbelieving Stoicism or anything like that. I suppose to those who do argue that way one might from the Christian point of view just as easily argue that the Stoics sometimes sound like Scripture because of general revelation. In any case, the parallels are interesting.

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