Augustine’s Critique of Stoicism Then and Now


Jesus and Seneca were likely born the same year. The Gospel of John begins by highlighting the Stoic idea of the Logos. And Paul quotes from a Stoic poet when engaging Greek philosophers on the Areopagus in Acts 17. Clearly New Testament Christians lived in a society tuned in to Stoic philosophy.[1] If there is any doubt that early Christians learned from and contended with ancient Stoicism, we need only consider that 350 years after Paul, Augustine was still quoting and critiquing Stoicism in his colossal work The City of God. Yet, soon after Augustine’s day Stoicism as a popular philosophy of life largely disappeared.

Today, though, Seneca is back. Epictetus is dropping truth bombs on Twitter. And Marcus Aurelius—although always appreciated in the military—is having a breakout moment with workout bros. In other words, ancient Stoicism is enjoying a modern renaissance. Contemporary popularizers like Tim Ferris and Ryan Holiday promise that whatever obstacles you face in life, Stoic virtues will lead to the happy life. Modern Stoics are selling millions of copies of their books. Podcasters like Joe Rogan are promoting Stoic practices and receiving billions of views. In this cultural moment of anxiety and uncertainty, Stoicism has something to offer.

What philosophy of life, then, does Stoicism offer? To quote one contemporary proponent, Stoicism ancient and modern believes “that the only thing that is good in itself is virtue… that sages are happy just because they are virtuous, and can be happy even on the [torture] rack; that they must be able to say of everything other than their virtue (friends, loves, emotions, reputation, wealth, pleasant mental states, suffering, disease, death, and so on) that when they are lost, it is nothing to them.”[2] The Stoic sage achieves happiness, then, by accepting loss or pain or suffering as not only a part of life but as the very tools for advancing in virtue. This philosophical outlook offers an individual both motivation and control.

In Book 19 of The City of God, Augustine’s whole approach to undermining Stoic philosophy is not to attack it from the outside but to enter into the Stoic’s philosophical paradigm and expose from within the inconsistencies and contradictions of Stoic thought.[3] He does this by demonstrating the gap between the Stoic theory of virtue ethics and their lived reality, specifically the choice some Stoics make to commit suicide.

What is the Stoic’s fundamental problem, exactly? We can introduce it as a question: how can a Stoic claim that true happiness is only found in this life and yet also recommend you leave this life by suicide? Augustine describes the problem this way:

Happy life, indeed, which seeks the aid of death to end it! If such a life is happy, then I say, live it. If it is happy, let the wise man remain in it; but if these ills drive him out of it, in what sense is it happy? Or how can [the Stoics] say that these are not evils which conquer the virtue of fortitude, and force it not only to yield, but so to rave that it in one breath calls life happy and recommends it to be given up? For who is so blind as not to see that if [life] were happy it would not be fled from? And if they say we should flee from it on account of the infirmities that beset it, why then do [the Stoics] not lower their pride and acknowledge that it is miserable?[4]

If Stoicism can really deliver on its promise that by practicing of virtue true happiness is possible; if they really believe that inner peace through stability of soul is where happiness can be found, then suicide should never be an option. But since Stoics do allow for suicide—in fact even their most praised exemplars like Cato the Younger and Seneca commit suicide—then, as Augustine is arguing, there is a fundamental problem at the core of their program for happiness.

For Augustine, this internal contradiction within Stoicism reveals that their philosophy does not have a clear eschatology that can serve as grounds for hope in suffering. You can grit your teeth through suffering because you think it will make you stronger. But if the suffering gets so hard, the Stoic says you should give up. Without a clear hope beyond death, Stoics in Augustine’s day and today cannot offer hope for the deepest suffering in life.

Christians in contrast, Augustine argues, can “by the hope of heaven, be made both happy and secure” both in this life and the life to come. Augustine concludes by quoting Paul from Romans 8:24-25 about the happiness in hope that all Christians have in the gospel. Our final, complete happiness will come in eternal life. But even in this life there is a happiness in hope we have through the promised salvation secured by Christ.

Zach Howard, M.Div. ’16
Dean of College Programs


Prayer Requests:

  1. Pray that we each would find our happiness in Christ.
  2. Pray for the prospective students coming to Spring Preview Day April 26, that God will guide their steps.
  3. Pray for the students preparing to go on mission trips beginning in May.
  4. Pray for the students and faculty as they begin the final projects and papers leading to finals.
  5. Pray that the remaining Serious Joy Scholarships needed to support this year’s students would be subscribed by June 30.










[1] C. Kavin Rowe, One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions (New Haven London: Yale University Press, 2016).
[2] Lawrence C. Becker, A New Stoicism: Revised Edition (Princeton University Press, 2017), 8.
[3] Cf. Gerald P. Boersma, “Augustine’s Immanent Critique of Stoicism,” Scottish Journal of Theology 70, no. 2 (May 2017): 184.
[4] Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, ed. R. W. Dyson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 922.