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 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 inspired by one or other of these Greek world-views.


Main points:

  • Free will is an illusion
  • All good and bad must be accepted without emotion
  • Emotion is not a good thing and the ideal is a strong, non emotional man of pure 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 simply 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 strived 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.”


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

At the opposite end of the pole, the Epicureans (founded by a man named Epicurus) taught that “nature runs the universe without the aid of gods.”  Consequently, humans have free will and they are 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 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.

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 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 all emotional entanglements 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? Do some research to find out.