Stoic Jesus: The Logos Became Flesh

The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, an older contemporary of Jesus and Paul, had already broached a Judiac-Greek synthesis pivoted on the term “Logos.” It was also the opening words of the Gospel according to John, “In the beginning was the Logos,” this was when Christianity’s relationship to Hellenic philosophy was potentially initiated. Plato’s philosophy is the ultimate ‘Good,’ while Aristotle’s idea is of the ‘prime causation,’ or God, the circle had been completed from when Heraclitus had pronounced: “it is wise to agree that all things are one.” (Barnes 50).

Tarnas wrote, “In essence, Aristotle realigned Plato’s archetypal perspective from a transcendent focus to an immanent one, so that it was fully directed to the physical world with its empirically observable patterns and processes”. Aristotle did not reject the Platonist concept of Forms he modified the concept to include the uniting of the transcendental Form with corporeal matter to produce a composite substance. He thought that the Form should take physical form or manifestation. It is fascinating that popular bible verse “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” is of Aristotelian and Platonic origin. In a paradoxical combination of the linear and timeless, Christianity declared that Christ’s presence in the world was the presence of God’s promised future just as God’s future lay in the full realization of the presence of Christ (97).

Christ is the Logos that became flesh.

Jesus The Christ teachings is comparable to the practice of Stoicism. Stoics held with respect to the underlying metaphysical facts about reality, that the world itself is an organic physical totality that’s governed by what they called logos or divine reason. There is an order to the world; and the responsibility of human beings, given that order, is to cultivate a particular kind of virtue. Virtue on the Stoic picture is acting in accord with what reason tells you nature demands.1

You need to learn how to respond appropriately to experience by doing three things:

1. You need to alter your perceptions of the world so that you come to apprehend things in such a way that they don’t influence you harmfully.
Colossians 3:2 “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

2. You need to alter your desires with respect to the world.
Galatians 5:16 “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

3. And you need to structure your life in such a way that you stay on the straight and narrow.
Jeremiah 6:16 “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, Where the good way is, and walk in it; And you will find rest for your souls”.

So it’s not surprising that elements of the Stoic tradition get picked up in subsequent theistic traditions. In some ways, the Stoic view that the world is a well-ordered entity governed by divine reason lies at the heart of many of the religious traditions like Christianity.

Contemporary versions of Epictetus (Stoic) in the form of a self-help program knows that at the heart of the twelve-step tradition lies a version of this Epictetan thought articulated in prayer form, most likely first by Reinhold Niebuhr in The Serenity Prayer.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next.

Barnes, Jonathan, The Early Greek Philosophy, Penguin Books, 2001.

1 Gendler, Tamar Szabó. Lecture 8 “Flourishing and Detachment”. Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature. PHIL 181: Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature. Yale University, 2011.

2 Tarnas, Richard, The Passion of the Western Mind, Ballantine Books, New York, 1991.

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