The self-help industry is a dominant cultural force in many people’s lives and has recently seen expedited growth resulting from COVID-19. Expanding from a $9.9 billion industry in 2016 to a projected value of $13.2 billion by the end of 2022, the self-help industry shows zero signs of stopping. Motivational speakers, authors, and other influencers have taken advantage of the potential payout by flooding every platform with new-age wisdom promising fulfilled lives and material wealth.
One unique aspect of self-help’s growth is the resurgence of Stoic philosophy. Using social media, Stoicism and other philosophies have been made easily accessible to general audiences. Due to this, thousand-year-old works from Stoics like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius are becoming commonplace on the shelves of virtually every reader, including Christians. In addition to accessibility, Stoicism is appealing because it teaches undeniably desirable values. These virtues are based on four fundamental principles: Courage, Temperance, Justice, and Wisdom. Along with these principles, Stoicism promises perseverance and strength to endure life’s difficulties.
The Stoic’s ability to withstand hardship revealed to its leaders the potential longevity and benefit of their worldview. Seneca explained in Letters from a Stoic, “I have withdrawn from affairs as well as from society, and from my own affairs in particular: I am acting on behalf of later generations. I am writing down a few things that may be of use to them.” Seneca lived through the same turmoil as Christians, which boosted his indomitable outlook. Seneca was exiled for eight years beginning in AD 41 but returned eight years later to tutor Nero. Characterized by his ruthlessness, Nero commanded Seneca to commit suicide in AD 65 following a plot to assassinate Nero in which Seneca was innocent. Seneca’s death is frequently compared to Paul’s death under Nero. While the Bible does not directly state how Paul died, it is believed that he was martyred less than one year prior to Seneca following the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64. Nero blamed the fire on Christians initiating their persecution in Rome. Through Seneca’s demise, Stoicism, like Christianity, illustrates a noble death’s capacity to influence individuals towards a more virtuous life.
In addition, Stoicism initially appears to align with common biblical themes. Verses like Joshua 1:9, Proverbs 14:29, Hosea 12:6, and James 1:5 are just a few of the passages that command Christians to adhere to values that directly reflect the Stoic’s four principles. Stoicism’s attractive claims of endurance and fortitude make it easy to understand why Christians are turning to this ancient wisdom during a troubling time. However, Christians should approach Stoicism with a degree of caution.
Marcus Aurelius displays a primary distinction between Christianity and Stoicism in his treatise Meditations, writing, “If, at some point in your life, you should come across anything better than justice, honesty, self-control, courage — if you find anything better than that, embrace it without reservations — it must be an extraordinary thing indeed — and enjoy it to the full.” While Courage, Temperance, Justice, and Wisdom are incredible qualities worth striving after, without a relationship with Jesus they are utterly worthless.
The sufficiency of scripture makes the Bible the perfect starting point for Christians beginning to read any form of philosophy. Scripture is the final authority on all issues of faith and godliness for Christians. This doctrine is best described by 2 Timothy 3:16-17 which states, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Paul emphasizes that the authority of Scripture rests on the fact that all Scripture is “breathed out by God” rather than its human authors.
Although the sufficiency of Scriptures shows that the Bible is the utmost authority for Christians, it does not imply that all resources outside the Bible are of no value. Philosophy can be incredibly helpful to Christians. Not simply because philosophies like Stoicism may achieve limited good, but also because through grappling with challenging ideas Christians can experience significant spiritual growth. In Learning in War-Time, C.S. Lewis writes, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy must be answered.” For this reason, Christians must equip themselves to intellectually contend in the secular world through exposure to adversarial ideas. Not only do Christians acquire the skills to combat opposing views through philosophy, but they can further discover the limitations of man and the inevitable need for a savior. Christianity and Stoicism look inward to the self, but where one finds only fleeting happiness and worldly virtue, the other finds a promise of hope and eternal life that should be embraced without reservation and enjoyed to the fullest.