Everyone knows who Jesus was, but many people have never heard of Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher who lived about 50-135 CE. Christianity took over a lot of Stoic ideas; but, in their totality, the two systems of thought are quite different. The Stoics believed that God was immanent in the universe as a corporeal Logos, Divine Reason materially co-existing with ordinary matter. Alexander Pope (approximately) expresses the idea in this couplet:
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.
Christianity, of course, sees God as transcendent, existing apart from the creation. Also, Christians want to achieve union with God, mediated by the action of Love. For Stoics, on the other hand, Virtue is the supreme goal and is to be achieved by the exercise of that Reason implanted in us by God. Nevertheless, it is here, in the domain of ethics, that Jesus and Epictetus hold similar concepts.
For example, Epictetus told his students, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” Jesus expressed a similar sentiment when he said, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life…. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” For Epictetus, Virtue and happiness are attained by concentrating on what we can—in fact—do something about. For Jesus, human beings should “seek first” God’s Kingdom and his righteousness, putting aside useless worries about the future.
Epictetus also joked to someone who had insulted him, “You do not know my other faults, or you would not have mentioned only these.” In other words, Epictetus responded to criticism with gentle irony. Jesus did the same thing when the Pharisees criticized him for eating with tax collectors and sinners. He remarked, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The pharisees no doubt assumed that Jesus was sincere about calling them righteous. We know he wasn’t. By his table companionship with sinners, Jesus was modeling the wise man’s version of righteousness. Or, as Epictetus said, “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”
So, Jesus and Epictetus were kindred spirits. He who follows Epictetus’ advice will not have much trouble following Jesus. Yes, these two men are on different paths—but perhaps those paths lead to the same goal. Perhaps Virtue is The Kingdom of God.
~ Richard Russell
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