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§ 90. Stoic Morality

ED. Zeller: The Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics. Translated from the German by O. J. Reichel. London (Longman, Green & Co.), 1870. Chs. x-xii treat of the Stoic Ethics and Religion.

F. W. Farrar (Canon of Westminster): Seekers a after God. London (Macmillan & Co.), first ed. n. d. (1869), new ed. 1877 (Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, 336 pages).

Comp. also the essays on Seneca and Paul by Fleury, Aubertin, Baur, Lightfoot, and Reuss (quoted in vol. I. 283).

Let us now turn to the bright side of heathen morals, as exhibited in the teaching and example of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Plutarch—three pure and noble characters—one a slave, the second an emperor, the third a man of letters, two of them Stoics, one a Platonist. It is refreshing to look upon a few green spots in the moral desert of heathen Rome. We may trace their virtue to the guidance of conscience (the good demon of Socrates), or to the independent working of the Spirit of God, or to the indirect influence of Christianity, which already began to pervade the moral atmosphere beyond the limits of the visible church, and to infuse into legislation a spirit of humanity and justice unknown before, or to all these causes combined. It is certain that there was in the second century a moral current of unconscious Christianity, which met the stronger religious current of the church and facilitated her ultimate victory.

It is a remarkable fact that two men who represent the extremes of society, the lowest and the highest, were the last and greatest teachers of natural virtue in ancient Rome. They shine like lone stars in the midnight darkness of prevailing corruption. Epictetus the slave, and Marcus Aurelius, the crowned ruler of an empire, are the purest among the heathen moralists, and furnish the strongest "testimonies of the naturally Christian soul."

Both belonged to the school of Zeno.

The Stoic philosophy was born in Greece, but grew into manhood in Rome. It was predestinated for that stern, grave, practical, haughty, self-governing and heroic character which from the banks of the Tiber ruled over the civilized world.569569    Zeller, l.c. p. 37: "Nearly all the most important Stoics before the Christian era belong by birth to Asia Minor, to Syria, and to the islands of the Eastern Archipelago. Then follow a line of Roman Stoics, among whom the Phrygian Epictetus occupies a prominent place; but Greece proper is exclusively represented by men of third or fourth-rate capacity."69 In the Republican period Cato of Utica lived and died by his own hand a genuine Stoic in practice, without being one in theory. Seneca, the contemporary of St. Paul, was a Stoic in theory, but belied his almost Christian wisdom in practice, by his insatiable avarice, anticipating Francis Bacon as "the wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind."570570    Niebuhr says of Seneca: "He acted on the principle that he could dispense with the laws of morality which he laid down for others." Macaulay: "The business of the philosopher was to declaim in praise of poverty, with two millions sterling at usury; to meditate epigrammatic conceits about the evils of luxury in gardens which moved the envy of sovereigns; to rant about liberty while fawning on the insolent and pampered freedman of a tyrant; to celebrate the divine beauty of virtue with the same pen which had just before written a defense of the murder of a mother by a son." Farrar (l.c. p. 161): "In Seneca’s life, we see as clearly as in those of many professed Christians, that it is impossible to be at once worldly and righteous. His utter failure was due to the vain attempt to combine in his own person two opposite characters—that of a Stoic and that of a courtier .... In him we see some of the most glowing pictures of the nobility of poverty combined with the most questionable avidity in the pursuit of wealth." For a convenient collection of Seneca’s resemblances to Scripture, see Farrar, ch. XV., 174-185. The most striking passages are: "A sacred spirit dwells within us, the observer and guardian of all our evil and our good ... there is no good man without God."Ep. ad Lucil. 41. Comp. 1 Cor. 3:16."Not one of us is without fault ... no man is found who can acquit himself." De Ira I.14; II. 27. Comp. 1 John 1:8. "Riches .... the greatest source of human trouble. "De Tranqu. An. 8. Comp. 1 Tim. 6:10 ."You must live for another, if you wish to live for yourself."Ep. 48. Comp. Rom. 12:10. "Let him who hath conferred a favor hold his tongue." De Benef. II.11 Comp. Matt. 6:3.70 Half of his ethics is mere rhetoric. In Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius the Stoic theory and practice met in beautiful harmony, and freed from its most objectionable features. They were the last and the best of that school which taught men to live and to die, and offered an asylum for individual virtue and freedom when the Roman world at large was rotten to the core.

Stoicism is of all ancient systems of philosophy both nearest to, and furthest from, Christianity: nearest in the purity and sublimity of its maxims and the virtues of simplicity, equanimity, self-control, and resignation to an all-wise Providence; furthest in the spirit of pride, self-reliance, haughty contempt, and cold indifference. Pride is the basis of Stoic virtue, while humility is the basis of Christian holiness; the former is inspired by egotism, the latter by love to God and man; the Stoic feels no need of a Saviour, and calmly resorts to suicide when the house smokes; while the Christian life begins with a sense of sin, and ends with triumph over death; the resignation of the Stoic is heartless apathy and a surrender to the iron necessity of fate; the resignation of the Christian, is cheerful submission to the will of an all-wise and all-merciful Father in heaven; the Stoic sage resembles a cold, immovable statue, the Christian saint a living body, beating in hearty sympathy with every joy and grief of his fellow-men. At best, Stoicism is only a philosophy for the few, while Christianity is a religion for all.

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