Pope Benedict XVI once remarked that Catholicism is a religion of philosophy. While the Pope’s comments were meant to place Catholicism in opposition to the various pagan practices of the ancient world, it is undeniable that the great western philosophical tradition has influenced Catholicism. One such philosophy that has had its influence on Catholicism is stoicism.
In this paper, I will seek to explain what stoicism is and why and how it has affected Catholic thought.
An Introduction To Stoicism
Stoicism traces its origins to ancient Greece, specifically the Hellenistic period, roughly three hundred years before the birth of Christ.
The Stoics divided philosophy into logic, physics, and ethics. However, their main concern was with ethics. The Stoics thought that happiness was acquired by attaining virtue or excellence of character.
While stoicism draws on Socratic thought, stoicism tends to differ from the abstract and theoretical forms of philosophy in that its focus is more practical. It is chiefly concerned with achieving what the Greeks called the eudaimonic life. Eudaimonia is usually translated as happiness or fulfillment. For stoics, this fulfillment is achieved by practicing the four cardinal virtues of justice, courage, temperance, and wisdom.
According to stoicism, it is human nature to seek our interests and goals, identify with other people’s interests, and finally, figure out ways to practically navigate the changes and difficulties of life.
The Stoics related these dispositions to the four cardinal virtues of temperance, courage, justice, and practical wisdom. Stoics taught that temperance and courage are required to pursue our goals, justice addresses the natural human concern for other people, and wisdom is the virtue that best allows us to deal with our daily lives.
Often, when one thinks of stoicism, we think of a person who is devoid of emotion. However, stoicism seeks to divest the individual from negative emotions. This is done by cultivating a joy that is based on one’s own being. As the Roman philosopher and stoic Seneca writes, the stoic should “necessarily be attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources, and desires no joys greater than his inner joys.” (Lucius Seneca, Letters from a Stoic).
Having provided a brief introduction to stoicism, I turn now to how this unique philosophy has affected Catholicism.
The Influence Of Stoicism On Catholic Thought
There are two significant strains of thought within stoicism which Catholicism builds and expands upon. The first of these stoic influences on Catholic thought occurs within the discipline of ethics.
As indicated above, the ethical system of stoicism was predicated upon the cardinal virtues of justice, courage, temperance, and wisdom. The use of the word cardinal is telling. Cardinal is an English translation of a Latin word that means hinge or principal.
For Catholics, the cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude are the virtues upon which the ethical life turns (i.e., is hinged). Within this context, cardinal virtues are those virtues upon which the other virtues depend.
While it is evident that the cardinal virtues of stoicism influenced the Catholic cardinal virtues, there appears to be a significant difference. The stoic virtues are much more akin to ethics than the cardinal virtues of Catholicism. Where ethics is the adherence to descriptive norms of behavior, virtue is acting in a manner that perfects one’s nature, which requires knowledge of God. Put differently, it is possible to be ethical without having faith in God.
The second area where stoicism has influenced Catholicism occurs in cosmology. Stoicism teaches that the universe is imbued with intelligibility and that this intelligibility is due to a divine mind.
Stoic cosmology is based on two principles; matter and pneuma or spirit, which stoicism understands as the logos or divine reason that organizes the universe. (Dirk Baltzly, “Stoicism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
Here again, one sees similarities between stoic cosmology and the Catholic teaching that the universe is composed of two distinct substances; matter and spirit. Most significantly, both stoicism and Catholicism recognize a logos, which undergirds the intelligibility of the universe. That is to say that stoics and Catholics alike recognize a design and an order in the universe.
However, as in the area of virtue, there are significant differences between stoic and Catholic cosmology. Of particular note are the dissimilarities of what stoics and Catholics mean by God. For stoics, God is the inherent principle governing the world, variously identified with creative fire, nature, or fate. In a sense, God and the universe are essentially the same entity. This view lends itself to a pantheistic worldview, which would have been very prominent in ancient Greece and Rome.
This is NOT what Catholics (or the Bible) mean by God. For Catholics, God is the cause of the universe. In other words, God is the ground of creation itself. Since a cause must be distinct from an effect, Catholics believe that God exists eternally “outside” of and as the cause of creation. This in no way entails a deistic cosmology; Catholics do not believe God created the universe and then wandered away. Rather, God is intimately involved in His creation both as the cause of creation and as the power which sustains the universe.
Without a doubt, western philosophy has significantly affected Catholic theology. One such philosophy is stoicism. In this paper, I have sought to show how stoicism has influenced Catholic thought. While the similarities that exist between stoic and Catholic thought are important, it is also clear that there are significant differences as well.