Stoicism: it’s the one pagan belief that has anything like a mass following today—there are popular Stoic YouTubers, there are “Stoic Academies” where you can take a weekend away, there are university courses on Stoicism, and it’s socially acceptable to call yourself a “Stoic” in the mainstream corporate environment, whereas “Odinist” might raise eyebrows. Why so?
Stoicism is endogenous Roman Christianity—it took off just before Christianity and, in a way, laid the way for Christianity to be accepted by Romans (Christians would say that its similarities to Christianity are providential). Stoicism is a democratic cosmopolitan belief that is for master and servant alike—it tends to speak about “God”, not gods, and has some sense that God is active in the world. It’s egalitarian and posits a universal law—it presents a series of techniques to help you endure suffering (cf Christians and their cross to bear).
As noted, Christianity took hold in the Roman Empire because the Romans were decadent—that means feminised. It spread fastest among bored Roman matrons, just like woke ideas today, and it came from “the slums and the sewers” of Rome (a fact even agreed to by Cardinal Newman in his history of Christianity, although, doubtless, that is presented by Christians as paradoxical evidence that it must be true—“only Christ’s truth could make such a humble faith conquer the world”). So the decadent Romans were attracted to this Semitic religion from a feminised people, the Jews, that suggested, in the words of Bob Marley, “one love (let’s get together and feel alright)”.
Yet there is a lot of ruin in a nation—and the Romans had been on the slide long before Christians like St. Peter rocked up. So before Christianity said “there is no slave and master in Christ”, the Stoics had already advocated that slave and master could follow the same ethical code—and, in fact, both faced, in different ways, the same tribulations in life.
Stoicism, like Christianity, is a religion for a people in decline (although Christians argue they broke late Roman pessimism, they really just deepened and completed it). Youthful and vigorous civilisations (like young people) don’t give much thought to suffering and pain and tend to live in the moment, quite optimistically. Late civilisations, like elderly people, just try to endure through another day of chronic pain and malfunction (just look at president Biden and the country he leads and you get the impression).
Stoicism is all about how to endure pain, so it’s for the decadent and pessimistic. Its most notable exponents were a slave and a master—Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Epictetus was a slave who had his leg broken by a master; and, on the other hand, Aurelius’s grandfather, Hadrian, once stabbed a slave in the eye in a fit of anger (and then felt terrible remorse, as well as providing a salutary lesson to his grandson)—both stories, from these different Stoics, illustrate quite what “slavery”, a word thrown around very loosely today, really meant in ancient times (because there was no come back for Epictetus’s master and no repercussions, obviously, for the emperor Hadrian).
Nevertheless, both men understood that there needed to be a philosophy—a philosophical religion, really—to help you bear through the day. Aurelius, as leader of a large late-stage bureaucratic empire, just had to plough on with the endless imperial bureaucracy—Epictetus, meanwhile, just had to carry on under his master’s lash. It’s a pessimistic outlook: here we are, we have no choice but to chew glass—how can we develop mental strategies to make it bearable to chew glass?
The alternative philosophy to Stoicism, that which has no popular following today, is Epicureanism. This approach, favoured by Nietzsche, suggests that rather than endure a negative situation you should withdraw from it (hence we talk about Epicureans today as people who enjoy food and the finer things in life, shrink away from pain—it has become pejorative). The Epicurean retreated behind his walled garden with a few select friends, his library, and his fine wine. Rather than a belief in “one God”, he thought the gods had either left this realm or were indifferent to man’s affairs (essentially, he was agnostic).
Why aren’t people Epicurean today? Why is there a “modern Stoa” but no retreat for Epicureans? It’s because Epicureanism is elitist—you literally build a wall around yourself to keep the hoi polloi out. You’re selective about your friends, whereas the Stoic tries to put up with everyone (not in a super-nice Christian way, but with forbearance—still, it’s a related idea). The Stoic expects privation, perhaps submits to voluntary privation to prepare himself for hard times to come—the Epicurean works to avoid privation and hardship.
This is all elitist—a slave can’t be an Epicurean, he can’t have a walled garden and a nice vat of wine and a library. Hence no one has any interest in Epicureanism—we live in a democracy, so we have lots of rather smug people who can’t be Christians, because it’s a bit too low-status and superstitious, but claim to be Stoics instead (it’s virtually the same thing, so far as ethos goes—it’s literal slave morality, in the case of Epictetus).
A bit like Aurelius in his late empire, there are many people, say people who work at large corporations, who feel that they’re “bound to” this mountain of work—just as Aurelius was bound to his imperial parchments. They just “have to” do it for the kids or the family, hence Stoicism helps them to carry their cross—especially if they’re not sentimental enough or superstitious enough to be a Christian.
The techniques are quite practical and rational, sort of mental disciplines to make you indifferent to pain, and so are appropriate for situations you cannot escape. True aristocrats, who have actual freedom to do what they want, are rare—even quite wealthy people today are effectively tied to their jobs and couldn’t just retreat to a country estate if they wanted. For them, Stoicism makes sense—because they also live in a late empire, where it seems you just have to “endure” the unacceptable (and also, thanks to rationalism and atheism, Christianity doesn’t seem such a credible answer to your travails).
Now, I have to say, Stoicism works—the techniques work; and they’re great techniques if you’re a conscript, a prisoner, a PoW, or in a shipwreck (or are about to die). They’re great for any situation—like being a slave—where you cannot escape and just have to put up with it. There’s a great book by the American vice admiral James Stockdale about how he applied the principles of Epictetus to his time in North Vietnamese captivity after his navy jet was shot down—optimistic men, who thought they’d be out by Christmas, often died deaths of despair by the time the second Christmas hit; but Stockdale, having followed Epictetus’s advice to live one day at a time (like the old con said), endured throughout the ordeal.
So Stoicism works—and it’s superior to Christianity because, rather than just being a set of beliefs you have to hope work, it offers practical exercises (as tried and tested on actual slaves) that will see you through situations that are beyond your control. On the other hand, Stoicism is bad because it does teach you “everything is beyond your control” as a means to still your mind and not to be perturbed by your limited ability to change reality—that might be true if you’re a literal slave, a PoW, or a Roman emperor with a heap of paperwork; but it’s not true for many people—and to think in a Stoical way is to think like a slave, to accept your fate in a passive way. It’s literal slave morality.
Nevertheless, it is democratic, it is for everyone—McDonald’s server and CEO alike—and so it does fit in with our contemporary ideas. Epicurean ideas, by contrast, seem snotty and elitist—and for many people, even those caught with a mortgage and a mid-rank corporate job, the Epicurean ideal is unreachable, whereas the Stoical acceptance and the ability to “chew glass” and be unperturbed by it seem useful. Hence we have modern Stoicism, a democratic and pessimistic belief system that is cosmopolitan (works anywhere) and helps you to accept your station in life.
What this demonstrates is that Christianity didn’t “cause” the decline of the Roman Empire—that was luxury and deviation from reality. The Romans had already put together an ethos, Stoicism, that was similar to Christianity in many respects—it even had a “one God”, just as the Mithras cult (essentially the rival centralised “Church” to Christianity) venerated Mithras “the good shepherd”. Christianity was just that bit less classy—it was more emotional and irrational than Stoicism, but the basic idea was the same. Because we live in a cosmopolitan democratic world empire with a huge bureaucracy and “slave class”, Stoicism continues to appeal to the masses to this day—whereas Epicureanism is aristocratic-elitist and Odinism is blood-elitist. *