The development of early Christian philosophy was greatly influenced by ‘pagan’ philosophical schools that were at that time in the state of decline and mutual synthesis (Jaeger 44). The founders of Christian philosophical theology understood that they had to present a grand narrative of individual and social life that might successfully compete with those of their predecessors and rivals. Accordingly, Christian notion of salvation was intertwined with a Hellenic, and specifically Stoic, narrative of “good life”. However, Christian interpretation of“good life” sufficiently differs from that of the Stoic’s, which may lead to conclusion that Stoicism was just one of the influences on early Christianity, and not its direct progenitor.
It is important to bear in mind that “good life”was a notion commonly used by almost all Hellenistic philosophical schools, with exception of Skeptics, who denied the very possibility of finding objective criteria of activity or cognition (Jaeger 42). Nonetheless, it was a Stoic tradition that supplied the most comprehensive definition of a “good life”. Specifically, the Stoics ascribed utmost importance of moral duties of individuals to each other and the society in general, which may be viewed as corresponding to similar concerns of Christian thinkers.
Still, a Stoic concept of ethics significantly differed from a Christian one. Whereas the Christians place all their hopes on divine deliverance from the evils of this world, the Stoics generally regard imperfection of the earthly existence as its natural state (Colish 39). While the Stoic thinkers may have been pondering on a future egalitarian community of sagacious citizens or cosmopolis (Colish 39), they felt no need for immediate attainment of this state of existence. Unlike early Christians, who were usually consumed with flares of millenarian faith, the Stoics lacked any narrative of impending ontological transformation.
Accordingly, the notion of duty in Stoicism is rather different from its Christian counterpart. In the Stoic interpretation, a sage (who is an ideal of a man in general) should follow two ways. He may prefer the vita activa (active life), fulfilling his obligations to an extant political community, or serve the same community indirectly by withdrawing from public life and pursuing philosophy – not as a means in itself, but as a method of guiding his fellow citizens in their life and mores (contemplative life, vita contemplativa) (Colish 40).
Despite its possible similarities with Christian moral prescriptions, the very criterion of Stoic behavior is sharply different. As noted by Stob, the Stoics regarded human nature as unambiguously divine and thus were opposed to imposing any external laws and commandments upon it (220). Such formulation had its repercussions in the Stoic philosophers’ position on the regulation of sexual mores that would be rather unacceptable to Christians, with the latter’s insistence on an essentially wicked human nature (Stob 221). For instance, Stoics were ready to accept such practices as homosexuality and masturbation (Colish 39), which were clearly condemned in the early Christian moral teachings. At the same time, Stoics and Christians were unanimously inimical toward adultery, which both groups viewed as a breach of mutual trust.
In general, the contrast between Christian supernatural didacticism and Stoic natural libertinism may be derived from their different views of human destiny. While Christian millenarianism proceeded from assumption that a community of believers would transcend the boundaries of earthly existence and live under God’s tutelage after the Final Judgment, the Stoics viewed the Providence as an embedded law of nature that lacked any transcendental qualities or supernatural meanings (Stob 221). This impersonal nature of Stoic philosophy prevented its proponents from efficiently appealing to the search for the sublime that was to grasp the mass consciousness of late Roman Empire – and contributed to eventual victory of Christianity.