By Rodrigo Ferreyra, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
It is no secret that the origins of Christian thought are closely related to other Mediterranean philosophies and religions. Already determined by its Jewish heritage, Christianity additionally borrowed for itself different elements such as the Golden Age myth, the fatalism of living in a fallen world, and Zoroastrian duality. Greco-Roman influence is no less present. It was Stoicism, however, that held a remarkably special position in early Christianity.
To the recognition of the Stoics as “ecclesiastical writers” by church fathers like Saint Ambrose and Saint Jerome, we shall add the apocryphal correspondence maintained between the Latin writer Seneca and the apostle Saint Paul. Sadly, these documents, which have reached us in the format of fourteen letters, have been proved false. This does not, however, dismiss the fact of an existing bond between the Stoic school of thought and the genesis of Christianity.
First of all, we are to immediately notice how broadly linked their discourses are… This is especially so in their understanding of philosophy as lecturing on ethics, that is, the idea of a practical philosophy that is composed to assist one on how to act.
At the same time, they both developed an ethic extremely interested in self-improving by detachment from the mundane activities of the mind and body. Christianity finds its grace in salvation personified in the resurrection of Christ. The Christian life, as a sum of practices, guides to it.
The Stoics, for their part, found guidance in being in harmony with nature throughout their everyday lives. Although these ethical positions seem to invite virtue to be part of our beings, it is interesting to notice how the Stoics ‘deal’ with these virtues. In On the Tranquility of Mind, Seneca writes:
I like for my servant a young house-bred slave without training or polish, for silverware my country-bred father’s heavy plate that bears no maker’s stamp, and for a table one that is not remarkable for the variety of its markings * or known to Rome for having passed through the hands of many stylish owners, but one that is there to be used, that makes no guest stare at it in endless pleasure or burning envy.
Seneca’s renouncement of commodities as fulfilling what he understands as the true nature of life does not show any disagreement with his attachment to slaves. From our modern point of view, it would not be stoic at all to own slaves. It wouldn’t be very Christian either. And yet, Pope Gregory I the Great (540-604), one of four Fathers of the Western Christian Church, was indeed both a stoic at heart and a slave dealer.
Nevertheless, Seneca admittedly defended slaves as humans and preached for a just and kind behavior in dealing with them. As a matter of fact, in both Seneca and Gregory’s writings slaves are integrated into their ethical safeguard judgments: They too are to reach salvation/harmony.
How come, then, that these two schools of thought have shown a similar hypocritical ethic or, at least, no signs whatsoever of impugning the social order with their own ethical judgments?
In his Phenomenology, Hegel argues that the historical development of Stoicism was a movement from a collective to an individual consciousness: the “freedom of self-consciousness”. It was after the fall of the Roman Republic that the most influential Latin Stoics appeared. Stoicism was a response to the ending of the institution in charge of society’s mind. The Republic was replaced with a ‘State’ in which these new thinkers had no part.
Yes, both servants and slaves are free owners of their consciousness, but at the same time, they are unable to address critical thinking in order to change any nature nor salvation they may be pursuing. Judgment remains solely within the “rational”, that is, the Latin or Christian social order. Control always remains in the self without reaching, as Hegel states, the further skepticism required for the true realization of this freedom: Where mere self-discipline and awareness find its limit.
We can acknowledge, then, that both Christianity and Stoicism preached ‘self-improving’ as a means to an end. And while their purpose was certainly different, the adepts of both philosophies identically adopted a passive role over the world in which they lived to achieve it.