30 August 2017

The Stoics of Athens and their
influence on Christian thinking

The Stoa of Attalos beneath the Acropolis in Athens … is this where Saint Paul met the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

One of the many splendid buildings beneath the slopes of the Acropolis in Athens is the Stoa of Attalos, a stoa (στοά), covered walkway or portico in the Agora.

It was built by and named after King Attalos II (159-138 BC) of Pergamon. Its arcades were divided into shops and stalls, and it was a popular place for wealthy Athenians to meet and gossip.

There were many stoas in Athens, including the Stoa Poikile (ἡ ποικίλη στοά) or Painted Porch, originally called the Porch of Peisianax (ἡ Πεισιανάκτειος στοά), built in the fifth century BC on the north side of the Agora.

The Stoa Poikile was one of the most famous sites in ancient Athens, owing its fame to the paintings and loot from wars displayed in it. It was in this porch that Zeno of Citium taught Stoicism, the philosophical school that takes its name from place.

The Stoa Poikile stood for over six centuries, but was damaged when Athens was sacked the Goths in 267 AD, and again when paintings were removed by a Roman governor around 396 AD. The Stoa may have continued to stand for another 50 to 100 years until it was demolished used for building material for a city wall.

The Stoa Basileios (στοά βασίλειος) or Royal Stoa, was built in the sixth century BC and rebuilt in the fifth century, in the north-west corner of the Agora. Socrates met Euthyphro in front of this stoa, and had the conversation recreated by Plato in his Euthyphro, and it was here that Socrates was formally charged with impiety.

The Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, in the north-west corner of the Agora, was built ca 425 BC-410 BC and was one of the places where Socrates taught.

The large Middle Stoa took up the major part of the central marketplace or Agora, and its aisles were lined with Doric columns.

Close to the Theatre of Dionysos and the Asclepion on the slopes of the Acropolis, the Stoa of Eumenes was built by Eumenes, King of Pergamon. This colonnade was used as a shelter and promenade for theatre goers.

The Stoa of Eumenes on the slopes of the Acropolis was a shelter and promenade for theatre goers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Stoics took their name from the Stoa Poikile, where Zeno of Citium (ca 333-262 BC), who taught in the early third century BC. As a school of philosophy, Stoicism flourished in the Greek and Roman world until the third century AD.

The Stoics believed in a God, and this God played an important role in their general philosophy. But Stoic theology was fluid in its conception of god. The theology of the Stoa began with its founder, Zeno of Citium, presenting arguments that the cosmos is an intelligent being, although he seems not to have explicitly identified that intelligent being as god.

But there is confusion about the true intent of Zeno’s arguments because the sources have been distorted. Sextus Empiricus, for example, presents several of Zeno’s arguments for the rationality of the cosmos as if they were intended as arguments to establish the existence of God.

Zeno was followed by Cleanthes, and he in turn was followed by Chrysippus of Soli, the third head of the school, who died of laughter. Chrysippus claimed that the cosmos is the ‘substance of god,’ while Epictetus speaks of God in a clearly theistic fashion.

According to the Roman orator and philosopher Cicero, in his De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods), the Stoics recognised four main questions in theology: they prove that the gods exist; they explain their nature; they show that the world is governed by them; and that they care for the fortunes of humanity.

Essentially, Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics that is informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. It teaches that the path to happiness is found in accepting this moment as it presents itself, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner.

The Stoics taught that emotions resulted in errors of judgment that were destructive, due to the interaction between cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will that is in accord with nature. To live a good life, one had to understand the rules of the natural order since they taught that everything was rooted in nature.

Later Stoics, including Seneca and Epictetus, believed that virtue is sufficient for happiness.

During his visit to Athens, the Apostle Paul debated with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in the marketplace or the agora, probably at the Stoa of Attalos rather than the Stoa Poikile. They took him to the shrine of the unknown god at the Areopagus (see Acts 17: 16-19).

In his letters, Saint Paul drew on his knowledge of Stoic philosophy, using Stoic terms and metaphors to assist his new Gentile converts in their understanding of Christianity.

In his translation of the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the Anglican Patristic scholar, the Revd Maxwell Staniforth, discussed the profound impact Stoicism had on Christianity. He claimed connected the use of term Logos for Christ in Saint John’s Gospel was influenced by a term that ‘had long been one of the leading terms of Stoicism, chosen originally for the purpose of explaining how deity came into relation with the universe.’

He says other theological thinking that is influenced by Stoicism includes debates about the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. Stoic influence can also be seen in the works of Saint Ambrose and Tertullian, and Stoic writings such as the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius have been highly regarded by many Christian writers throughout the centuries.

Stoicism went into decline after Christianity became the state religion in the fourth century. Yet Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390), in his Five Theological Orations, uses Stoic and Aristotelian logical rules to develop a systematic approach to major doctrines such as the Trinity and Christology. In Duties of Saint Ambrose (339-397), Maxwell Staniforth says, ‘The voice is the voice of a Christian bishop, but the precepts are those of Zeno.’

In 1952-1956, the Stoa of Attalos was fully rebuilt and the Ancient Agora Museum was established by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. The Stoa of Attalos now houses the Museum of the Ancient Agora, and its exhibits are mostly connected with the Athenian democracy.

The Stoa of Attalos beneath the Acropolis at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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