Are You Stoic or Epicurean?

 

Stopicism and Epicureanism are philosophies that originated with the Greeks, but were adopted later by the Romans who greatly admired the learning and knowledge of the Greek, or Hellenistic, culture. These two philosophies played key roles in much of Greek and Roman writing and thinking, and also in the later Christian writings of the early church as it fought against various heresies some of which were inspired by one or other of these Greek world-views.

 Stoics—

Main points:Greek philosoper Senaca, a stoic

  • Free will is an illusion
  • All good and bad must be accepted without emotion
  • Emotions are a hindrance to logic and are deceptive.
  • The ideal man is a strong, non-emotional man of reason who accepts whatever happens.
  • Virtue is the highest good and is based on reason. 

According to the Stoics, the universe is controlled in every detail by God (Zeus), who ordered everything for ultimate good. Humans alone of all creatures are enabled by their reason to perceive this Divine Order; reason is therefore regarded as humanity’s special link with the mind of God. The Stoics were deeply deterministic (or fatalistic) and believed that everything in life has been foreordained. Thus man must strive to accept unemotionally whatever good or ill the gods have ordained. Man’s free will is an illusion and man himself has very little to say about what happens to him.

The Stoic ethic is mainly a struggle to overcome passion (emotion), which is seen as the great enemy of reason, and a hindrance to virtue. In particular, Stoics fought the emotions of pleasure, desire, fear, and melancholy (sorrow or depression). They strove to be indifferent, to live above their emotions. Their ideal was a man of pure reason who was not moved by feelings.

People use the word today to mean someone who is not showing emotion but rather being “strong” in the face of grief or pain. Someone might say, “He took the punishment like a Stoic.” Or, “She suffered stoically without so much as a word of complaint.”

EpicureansGreek philosopher Epicurus

Main points:

  • Free will is central
  • Human beings are solely responsible for their own fate (more or less)
  • Religion is an illusion
  • Live with moderation in all things

The Epicureans (founded by a man named Epicureus) were at the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum from the stoics. Epicureans believed that nature runs the universe without the aid of gods.  Consequently, humans do have free will making them solely responsible for their own actions and, more or less, their own fate. They thought that belief in a god or gods is simply fear of the supernatural, and therefore a superstition. Religious beliefs are an illusion that diminish one’s free enjoyment of life. Basically, “what you see is what you get,” so you better try to be happy now because this is all there is. “Carpe diem,” Latin for “Seize the day!” is a well known saying and a quote from Horace, an epicurean poet and philosopher.

Epicureans believed that moderation in all things was the best way to be happy. However, over time, Epicureanism became coupled in most people’s minds with hedonism–the belief that you should not deny yourself any pleasure. This was the “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you may die” crowd. People often call Hollywood stars “hedonistic.” Next time you hear that, you can add, “Yes, they are such raging Epicureans,” and you’ll sound really brilliant.

Both Groups

Both Epicureans and Stoics believed that the chief purpose in life is to be free from pain and fear. However, they differed sharply in their beliefs in how best to achieve that freedom.

Discussion questions:

  1. How would you define Christianity’s view of pain and fear and the role they play? Are we to make our aim in life to rid ourselves of pain? How about fear? Do they have a purpose?
  2. What is the role of emotions for a Christian? Should Christians try to get rid of our emotions like the Stoics?
  3. Two mainline protestant churches–the Methodists and the Presbyterians–see the issue of free will differently. Which church is closer to the stoics and which is closer to the Epicurians on this issue?

Presbyterians adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith, here’s where you can read what it says about free will. 

Here’s an article that spells out the basics of what Methodists believe about free will.