Courage and Wisdom: The Stoics

The larger concept of courage which includes an ethical and ontological element becomes immensely effective at the end of the ancient and the beginning of the modern world, in Stoicism and Neo-Stoicism. Both are philosophical schools alongside others, but both are at the same time more than philosophical schools. They are the way in which some of the noblest figures in later antiquity and their followers in modern times have answered the problem of existence and conquered the anxieties of fate and death. Stoicism in this sense is a basic religious attitude, whether it appears in theistic, atheistic, or transtheistic forms. Therefore it is the only real alternative to Christianity in the Western world. This is a surprising statement in view of the fact that it was Gnosticism and Neoplatonism with which Christianity had to contend on religious-philosophical grounds, and that it was the Roman Empire with which Christianity had to battle on religious-political grounds. The highly educated, individualistic Stoics seem to have been not only not dangerous for the Christians but actually willing to accept elements of Christian theism. But this is a superficial analysis. Christianity had a common basis with the religious syncretism of the ancient world, that is the idea of the descent of a divine being for the salvation of the world. In the religious movements which centered around this idea the anxiety of fate and death was conquered by man’s participation in the divine being who had taken fate and death upon himself. Christianity, although adhering to a similar faith, was superior to syncretism in the individual character of the Savior Jesus Christ and in its concrete-historical basis in the Old Testament. Therefore Christianity could assimilate many elements of the religious-philosophical syncretism of the later ancient world without losing its historical foundation; but it could not assimilate the genuine Stoic attitude. This is especially remarkable when we consider the tremendous influence of the Stoic doctrines of the Logos and of the natural moral law on both Christian dogmatics and ethics. But this large reception of Stoic ideas could not bridge the gap between the acceptance of cosmic resignation in Stoicism and the faith in cosmic salvation in Christianity. The victory of the Christian Church pushed Stoicism into an obscurity from which it emerged only in the beginning of the modern period. Neither was the Roman Empire an alternative to Christianity. Here again it is remarkable that among the emperors it was not the willful tyrants of the Nero type or the fanatical reactionaries of the Julian type that were a serious danger to Christianity but the righteous Stoics of the type of Marcus Aurelius.