4.1 Providence and moral responsibility
There are two related lines of thought in Stoic ethics whose coincidence and points of departure from Christian moral thought are particularly instructive for considering the moral arguments of select Christian theologians. The first relates to divine providence and human moral agency. As noted above, the Stoics at times make claims about the workings of fate that are decidedly at odds with the Christian understanding of God as graciously and lovingly ordering the world towards its good. But Chrysippus and the Roman Stoics do at times speak of providence in ways that are more compatible with Christian faith and that have interested and possibly informed the thinking of major Christian theologians. Though Marcus Aurelius at times employs the term ‘necessity’, he more often presents an account of providence that characterizes the divine nature (‘the gods’, or at times nature itself) as rational and benevolent. He expresses uncertainty about whether the gods are concerned for the particular circumstances of individual human beings. But regardless of this point, he is clear that the gods seek out the overall ‘interests of the Universe’ (Meditations VI.44; in Haines 1915: 155). And are thus concerned to promote ‘good for every part of Nature’ (Meditations II.3; in Haines 1915: 29). Epictetus likewise describes God’s providential oversight of the world in a manner that conceives God as rational and good, and more clearly sees God as intimately concerned with the details of the world. He affirms that God is the ‘maker, and father, and guardian’ of human beings (Epictetus Discourses I.9; Epictetus 1998: 65 [vol.1]). He draws on the language of sympatheia to describe the intimacy of God’s oversight of the world. The material world is ‘closely’ and ‘intimately’ connected to the spiritual world, and human souls are so closely related to God as to be ‘parts and portions of His being’, so that God can feel their ‘every motion’ as something happening within himself (Discourses I.14; Epictetus 1998: 99–101 [vol.1]). The sympathy between God and the created world ensures that God is ‘able to oversee all things’ (Discourses I.11; Epictetus 1998: 101 [vol.1]).
The Stoic accounts of providence and fate are in many ways at odds with Christian views of providence. In developing his highly personalized understanding of the workings of divine providence, John Calvin explicitly rejects Stoic necessity, which he sees as operating impersonally through a series of natural causes and effects (Institutes 1.16.8; Calvin 2009: 119). The pantheistic undertones of Epictetus’s account of sympatheia are also clearly at odds with the emphasis traditional Christian theology places on divine transcendence as necessary for promoting God’s intimate involvement in human affairs (Tanner 2013: 146–147). At the same time, Calvin does make clear that a Stoic account of divine providence is superior to an Epicurean view of God as detached from and disinterested in the concerns of the material world. He indicates approval of Stoic understandings of God as sovereign and human beings as rational (Partree 1977: 120–125; Kirby 2003).
Even as the Stoic and Christian views of providence diverge at several points, their broad points of common ground indicate that the Stoics can be helpful conversation partners for Christian ethicists thinking through how to articulate a vision of personal agency and moral responsibility that is compatible with a belief that God actively and providentially oversees the world, directing it towards its good. Epictetus recognizes that affirming human beings’ moral freedoms is essential to a conception of God as intrinsically good and loving (Epictetus, Discourses I.17; Epictetus 1998: 117–119 [vol.1]). As Cicero explains, the Stoics affirm that human beings have the ‘power’ to seek to live virtuously, which means choosing to live ‘according to nature and in harmony with nature’ (Cicero Tusculan Disputations XXVIII; qtd. in Becker 1998: 155). Even as the Stoics recognize that many things in life are not under our control, their ethic is not one of passive resignation to fate but of active responsibility for the pursuit of virtue (Annas 1993: 427–428). The Stoics provide intellectual tools for grappling with questions about responsibility and moral agency that can be helpful, even if adaptation is necessary, for Christian theologians wrestling with complex questions about the interplay between divine grace and human agency.
4.2 Virtue as a unified, singular, and transformative good
The second Stoic commitment important for Christian moral thought is an understanding of virtue as a unified, singular, and transformative good. The Stoics are committed to a strong account of the unity of the virtues in two different senses: the virtues are unified such that having one virtue entails having all virtues, and also, more strongly, in the sense that the core meaning of individual virtues can be predicated on one another. As Plutarch explains, Zeno identifies several distinct virtues – prudence, courage, moderation, and justice. But he affirms both that these virtues cannot be separated and that these virtues are also all defined in terms of the singular quality of prudence: courage, moderation, and justice are prudence exhibited in particular circumstances (Plutarch, On Stoic Self-Contradictions 1034C–3, in Long and Sedley 1987: 378 [vol.1]). Seneca likewise defends the idea of the unity of the virtues by comparing a virtuous character to a single human who holds multiple social roles: ‘For just as someone is both a poet and an orator but still one person, so the virtues are living beings but not a plurality of these’, insofar as they apply to a singular disposition of the mind (Seneca, Letters 113.24, in Long and Sedley 1987: 379 [vol.1]).
The Stoics also affirm that virtue is the only thing that is truly ‘good’. The goodness of virtue is qualitatively different from the apparent value of other things humans might desire, such as health and wealth. The term ‘good’ applies to virtue alone, and other qualities such as health, strength, and reputation are not good, but merely ‘indifferent’. As the only true good, virtue alone is necessary for eudaimonia, happiness or flourishing (Nussbaum 2009: 361–363). This conviction is one well known point of departure between the Stoics and Aristotle. Both the Stoics and Aristotle see virtue as necessary to happiness, but the Stoics also affirm that virtue is sufficient for happiness: no other quality is necessary for it. For the Stoics, the happiness one can obtain through virtue does not depend on any other circumstances, whereas Aristotelian positions understand happiness to depend on other external goods in addition to virtue (Annas 1993: 430–432). The Stoics’ commitment to the idea that virtue is the only good is also aligned with their understanding of virtue as radically egalitarian. God has given all human beings the faculty of reason, which is sufficient for the cultivation of virtue. Because virtue has a singular goodness, growth in virtue does not require outside supports or resources or depend on the presence of other goods. The accessibility of virtue to all, regardless of life circumstances, is underscored in the range of social locations from which the Roman Stoics develop their ideas: Marcus Aurelius is an emperor, and Epictetus is a slave.
The Stoics’ commitment to a strong account of the unity of the virtues and their sense that virtue has a unique value leads them towards understanding the virtues as acquired through a transformative experience akin to a conversion. While the Stoics allow that some measure of moral progress can be made prior to this transformation, they are also careful to limit this progress by suggesting that the natural cultivation of self-love cannot lead to virtue, which is a different source for human behavior (Annas 1993: 432). The Stoics draw a sharp distinction between the person who has not yet attained virtue and the person who is virtuous (Long 1986: 181). Until a moral agent becomes virtuous, their actions fall short of being moral and are thus, ‘strictly speaking, immoral’ (Rist 1977: 83). As Colish puts it, the ancient Stoics see virtue and vice as ‘all-or-nothing propositions’, so that rather than gradually being formed in virtue as through Aristotelian habituation, human beings acquire virtue instantaneously (Colish 1985: 44–45 [vol.1]).
The Stoic account of virtue does not coincide perfectly with the Christian account, but there are particular historical strands of Christian moral thought, particularly as Christian moral thought developed in modernity and within Reformed Protestant traditions, that may be more easily illuminated in conversation with Stoic views of virtue than with Aristotelian perspectives on the virtues. Faith possesses a unique value in the Christian life that is similar to the unique value the Stoics attribute to virtue. Like Stoic virtue, faith has a moral value that distinguishes it from all other goods and makes it sufficient for salvation. In The Freedom of a Christian, Luther presents faith as a uniquely good quality on which all other goods depend: ‘whoever has faith will have everything, and whoever does not have faith will have nothing’ (Luther, The Freedom of a Christian: 349 [vol.31]). For Jonathan Edwards, faith is ‘the only condition for salvation’ and in a sense is thus the only moral attribute that ‘can stand alone’ in the Christian life (as explained by McDermott 2007: 102–103). While Luther and Edwards do not designate faith as a virtue (Luther, The Freedom of a Christian: 343 [vol.31]; Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone: 149, 154 [vol.19]), faith, at least as lived out after justification, does bear attributes of a virtue: faith is a disposition that shapes our character and is sustained through time, and it is essential to human wellbeing insofar as it is an appropriate response to the love and goodness shown by our Creator. Stoic virtue thus offers a philosophical framework that can assist Christians in articulating an ethic that differentiates virtue from all other goods and that contends that other goods are not necessary for the ultimate flourishing found in salvation.
In addition to offering an ethic in which virtue is seen as a unique good, the Roman Stoic account of virtue as fundamentally a dispositional stance of assent to divine providence has important points of congruence with Christian understandings of virtue that closely align faith with love. Oliver Crisp identifies two dimensions of faith typically upheld in mainstream Reformed and evangelical Christian theology, a cognitive dimension that is ‘doxatic’ or ‘propositional’, and a dispositional dimension that he calls ‘fiducial’ or trust-centred (Crisp 2014: 22). Both of these dimensions of faith have some similarity with virtuous assent: faith and assent are rooted in an intellectual belief in God’s goodness, and faith and assent are more adequately understood not simply in terms of propositional belief, but as a moral disposition of trust in God. At the same time, it is important to note that the trust in God implied in assent, the assent to providence, involves aligning one’s perspective and character with the good of the whole universe. For Christians, a similar alignment takes place as faith generates love for both God and our neighbors, a universal concern for other human beings. For Edwards, for example, love and faith depend on each other and are interconnected. Virtuous love, he explains, is predicated on faith, ‘for a being cannot truly be loved, and especially loved above all other things, which is not looked upon as a real being’. But love also promotes growth in faith, ‘because those whom we love we are more apt to believe and give credit to, and disposed to trust in’ (Charity and Its Fruits: 329 [vol.8]). While Edwards’ description of love here focuses on love specifically for God, his discussion of virtue elsewhere makes clear that love for God and love for neighbour – understood as all human beings – are necessarily aligned. Edwards’ definition of true virtue as ‘benevolence toward Being in general’ indicates that God and the world as a whole, and human beings in particular, are true virtue’s proper object (Two Dissertations: 540 [vol.8]). Faith and love are aligned in this account of Christian virtue in a manner that bears striking points of similarity with the Roman Stoic view of virtuous assent.