Stoicism holds that the State is an organization of human community life, which originates by reason of a social instinct implanted in men by nature; or else, under Epicureanism, is brought about by an irresistible impulse to end the “war of all against all,” to coerce the savage, who opposes organized effort, to a peaceable community life in place of the anti-social struggle in which all budding advancement are destroyed.

These two apparently irreconcilable concepts were fused by the intermediation of medieval philosophy.  This, founded on theologic reasoning and belief in the Bible, developed the opinion that man, originally and by nature a social creature, is, through original sin (the fratricide of Cain and the transgression at the tower of Babel) divided into innumerable tribes, which fight to the hilt, until they unite peaceably as a State.

The truth is that man is by nature a social creature that comes together to create Society through cooperation.  As a result of prosperity, man then becomes proud and develops a jealous love of mammon.  Man becomes anti-social.  Man in competition with Society creates the State, or be it, the tower of Babel.  The State does not bring peace, but is the institutionalized fratricide of Cain.  In a King, it is a war of one against all and in a democracy it is the war of all against all.  The organization of human community life is found in the market, in the family and in voluntary, private institutions absent force and violence.   Society precedes the State.  The State does not create Society.  The State is not Society.  Man is inherently good, but when he becomes prosperous, he is tempted to become proud.  What began as a Society of individuals cooperating in a market for the general welfare soon turns into the anti-social State of specific welfare where some individuals prey on all other individuals of Society or where all individuals of Society prey upon each other in legal competition.  The State promotes individualism because it does not like competing loyalties individuals have to marriage, family, church, guild or business.

The Law of Previous Accumulation

Aristotle had taught that the State had developed, by gradual growth, from the family group or tribe.  The Stoics and Epicureans held that individuals formed the State—with this difference, that the former viewed the individual as being socially inclined by nature and the latter that the individual must be coerced to be social.  To the Stoics, therefore, the “State of Nature” was a peaceful union; to the Epicureans it was a war of each against the other, with the State as a compelling means for the decent modus vivendi.  With the one the anatomy of the state was conditioned “physei,” by nature; with the other it was “nomo,” by decree.  In spite of this fundamental difference between these schools, both assumed the premise that, at the beginning, individuals were free, equal politically and economically, and that it was from such an original social order there had developed, through gradual differentiation, the fully developed State with its caste hierarchy.  For the Stoics, the State was Society.  For the Epicureans, the State created Society.

We would err to believe that these hypotheses were originally intended as historical accounts as most legal theorists presume.  Rationalism is essentially unhistoric, even anti-historic.  On the contrary, the thesis was originally put forward as a “fiction,” a theory, a conscious unhistorical assumption.   It was under this form it acquired the name of natural law.  It was under this name that it came into modern thought, tinctured stoically in Grotius and Puffendorf, and epicureanally in Hobbes.  (Locke being of a completely different tradition attempting to reconcile the two.) It became the operative weapon of thought among the rising estates held by capitalists, who in their jealous love for mammon, create the State as a benevolent patriarch, first in feudalism and then in socialism, and to destroy all competing loyalties of individuals with the hope of destroying all self-interest except for the growth of the State and the power and authority of those invested in the State.

Independent Critical Thought

If the Stoics and the Epicureans are correct, that the State is a patriarch and not a predator, then the State is a patriarch who irritates his children, first by beating them when they disobey, then by forcing them to associate with and be preyed upon by delinquent children while confined in the basement for months or years on end and, finally, by denying the children means of temporal survival, either through education or employment, even after repenting.    Were any parent to treat a child this way as a modus operandi for discipline, the State would charge the parent with child abuse.

The State could also be charged with neglect and a deliberate abandonment of familial responsibilities by becoming profligate and bankrupting the family. Obviously, the State is a froward and idolatrous patriarch over society.  As a nurturing wife, the church instructs the children to remain respectful and to patiently suffer these abuses in love and forgiveness, as she should.  The question arises whether the wife should sanctify sin by instructing the children to enforce the patriarch’s will when he commands them to fight against each other (either in a democracy or through the judicial system) or when he commands them to murder, enslave or steal from the neighbor?   When the patriarch starts a fight, instead of protecting the children, should the wife carry out the commands of the patriarch to instruct the children to protect the patriarch? Should the wife instruct the children to either participate in or take the fall for the sins of the patriarch?  Or should the wife protest behind closed doors against the evil designs of the patriarch to corrupt the children? Saints are called to be observers of the law, suffering offense if it is required of them, but in no way are they called to engage in the sins of the State as enforcers of the law. A Saint can justify patient suffering without sanctifying evil.

Self Centeredness

The call of Stoic morality is to live up to my own nature without consideration of others thoughts, beliefs, or feelings.  This nature or role or function has a social side; it relates me to other persons, but the fulfillment of the authenticity of my living my role is seen by Stoic thought as centered in my person.  For the Stoic, the roles of father, friend, sibling, master, producer are listed one by one.

Stoic thinking uses all of the roles in the singular and discerns in one person as many different roles as possible.  Amid the multiplicity of all these roles, it is the freedom and self-determination of the individual that shows through.  It is the man himself, in a given decision, who will determine which definition of his role is to apply. There are so many such roles, and they are combined in such varied ways, that the listing of roles amounts to a relativizing of all ethical bindingness.

The Stoic pattern of reasoning seeks simply to unfold or to get insight into what is.  Its tool is reason and the basis of moral obligation is “the nature of things.”  If a person can see what the nature of things truly is, it is assumed that he or she will act accordingly.  The Stoic discourse is not in the imperative mood.

For the concept of obedience, the Stoics use the term peithesthai.  For the relation of servant and master, the Stoics use oiketai and despotai.  For love, the Stoics use philein.

Stoicism addresses man in his dignity and calls upon him to live up to the highest vision of himself even at the expense of others.  This call is addressed to the dominant individual in society, especially to the prince or freedman or father, to the person who had time and leisure and capacity to meditate on his nature and its fulfillment.  Self-control and a measure of dominion over others is itself a virtuous posture.  The free man should avoid coming into bondage to a woman or to his subordinates.

Not only does Stoicism address itself to the dominant or noble man and the high or noble element within man; its vision of what man truly is and should become is concentrated upon his dignity and detachment; his being free from bondage, covenant, contract, duty, and obligation; immune to accountability.  Subordination may apply in his relationship to God, but not among men.

The only “sanction” or “motivation” undergirding the Stoic ethic is the self-evident appropriateness of giving in to the way things are and living up to what one is (i.e. the natural man).  There is no promise of reward, no moving in the heart, no pleading.  Ethical meditation counts on the readiness of the upright man to do the right, once by insight and reason he knows what that is.  He is presumed to be the kind of healthy person who without discussion or question does what is fitting.

Other Centeredness

The call of Gospel morality is in the relationship itself we are called upon to live up to through contracts and covenants.  The Gospel roles are listed in pairs: both wife and the husband are spoken to; both the slave and the master.  This reciprocity of relationship is a part of the imperative.  The call to “love” or to “respect” always uses a verb which relates this person not to herself or himself, or to one’s image of oneself, or to one’s nature or role, but to the other member of that pair.

The Gospel speaks in plural terms.  The admonitions are addressed to all wives or all servants or all parents in the churches.  There is in the Gospel an ethical admonition for the possibility of community discipline, of common insight and standards, around which it is possible for a whole group of persons, and not simply a meditative elite, to develop a shared moral commitment.

The grammatical form of the Gospel is uniformly imperative.  The Gospel ethic is patterned most closely on the style of the so-called “apodictic law” of the Old Testament.  This is not only the case where in Ephesians 6:2 there is explicit reference to Exodus 19:25; but the imperative style is generally parallel to the construction of the ethical appeals in the Old Testament.   Actual commandments governing behavior in our relationships with others are obligations of a covenant and not left to the whims of conscience.  Divine law is not casuistic law, or be it, the “nature of things.” It is revealed and accepted by covenant. On the contrary, Stoicism remains aloof of any obligation, if it can, and seeks to impose its own will either in violation of a covenant, where one exists, or without one having been voluntarily entered into.

For the concept of obedience, the New Testament uses the term hypakouein.  For the relation of servant and master, the New Testament uses doulos and kyrios.  For love, the New Testament uses agapan.  If the apostles had been borrowing from Stoic usage, one would expect a greater correlation in the actual words used.

Concentration upon the dignity of the addressee is missing in the New Testament.  The admonition is addressed first to the subject: to the slave before the master, to the children before the parents, to the wives before the husbands.  Here begins the revolutionary innovation in the early Christian style of ethical thinking for which there is no explanation in borrowing from other contemporary cultural sources.  The subordinate person in the social order is addressed as a moral agent.  She is called upon to take responsibility for the acceptance of her position in society, even if unfavorable and coerced, as meaningful before God.  It is not assumed that the wife will have the faith of her husband, or that the slave will be part of the religious unity of the master’s household.  Here we have a faith that assigns personal moral responsibility to those who had no legal or moral status in their culture, and makes of them decision makers.  It gives them responsibility for viewing their status in society not as a simple meaningless decree of fate but as their own meaningful witness and ministry, as an issue about which they can make a moral choice.  In Stoicism, the slave would not be thought about as an ethically accountable person.  Thus the first “liberating” dimension of the Gospel is the fact that the addressees, underdogs in the culture, have been convinced by the gospel of their dignity, to the point that it is relevant to urge them to be patient.

The center of the imperative is a call to willing subordination to one’s partner.  The term hypotassesthai is not best rendered by subjection, which carries a connotation of being thrown down and run over, nor by submission, with its connotation of passivity.  Sub-ord-ination means the acceptance of an order, as it exists, but with the new meaning given to it by the fact that one’s acceptance of it is willing and meaningfully motivated and not necessarily because the order is good or that things are as God wills them to be.

The Gospel provides several reasons, not only one, which are given to interpret and to motivate.  All of them are substantial arguments.  They not only say that the right is imperative but also explain why this kind of action is right.  They are all related specifically to the person of Christ and the work of the church (1 Peter 218-23 cf. Ephesians 5:22-25). There is additional reference to the testimony which the Christian seeks to give to the non-Christian.  The wife is motivated in her subordination partly by the concern to win to faith in Christ and to exaltation her unbelieving or sinful husband, just as the husband gives himself readily for his wife as Christ gave himself for his church.  The subordinate, therefore, willingly and is meaningfully motivated to sanctify her husband, her parents, his community by maintaining righteous discipline and bearing testimony in patience and long-suffering.

After having stated the call to subordination as addressed first to those who are subordinate already, the Gospel then goes on to turn the relationship around and repeat the demand, calling the dominant partner in the relationship to a kind of subordination in turn.  Parents are asked not to irritate their children, husbands are called upon to love (agapan) their wives.  Philemon is invited to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”  The call to subordination is reciprocal and is a revolutionary trait not found in Stoicism.


The call to willing subordination is not explainable unless there has been a temptation to insubordination.  Such a temptation to insubordination is not thinkable unless some kind of message affirming the dignity of the subordinate one had already been heard.  The call to subordination must result from some kind of proclamation of the dignity of every man, woman, and child.  The Gospel admonition is addressed first to the persons on the bottom side of the social order, and assumes that they have heard a message which calls into question the subjection, the nature and order of things they have hitherto not been able to challenge.  Willing subordination is a call to patience and ministry.  It is not a call to indulgence, with one’s masters, in violating the Lord’s commands or of one’s holy covenants by “Christianizing” or sanctifying pagan principles or one’s own benevolent rationalizations justifying participation in the sins of society. Hypotassesthai does not mean playing along at every price, not slavish obedience, not bowing before the thrown and the altar.  It is not the attitude of the loyal citizen in the time of national absolutism. If this acceptance of the existing social order and the call to those who are subordinate to remain there were all that was said, then it might be correct to see in the Gospel a reaffirmation of the creation order, which has about it the authority of revelation because God has made society thus.  The same tradition could then be right in concluding that the Christian social ethic must always be basically conservative and conformity to the ways of society requisite because the rootage of the present order is in the divine imperative.  As demonstrated above, such an interpretation is not found in the Gospel, but in Stoicism. Just because the gospel calls a disciple to patient suffering does not mean fallen society is God breathed. To indulge the nature or order of things is to participate in casuistic law and to indulge the Natural Man.  Our only choice in heart and mind is whether we will observe law and principle by willfully subordinating ourselves to God and others through holy covenants.  The Stoic choice is to dominate others through vain ambition and a gratification of our pride which is sin (D&C 121:37).

The Gospel does not consecrate the existing order when it calls for the acceptance of subordination by the subordinate person; far more the Gospel relativizes and undercuts this order by then immediately turning the imperative around.  The father, the parent, the clergy, the employer, the master are all subject to the higher master, Christ Jesus.  Jesus had instructed his disciples specifically to reject governmental domination over others as unworthy of the disciple’s calling of servanthood (Mark 10:42-43 cf. Matt. 20:25 cf. Luke 22:25).  Jesus’ motto of revolutionary subordination enables the person in the subordinate position in society to accept and live within that status without resentment, at the same time that it calls upon the person in the superordinate position to forsake or renounce all domineering use of that status.  This call is not a simple ratification of the stratified society into which the gospel has come.  The subordinate becomes a free ethical agent in the act of voluntarily acceding to subordination with the patience and hope that with long-suffering and testimony the superordinate person will come out of the world to join in the mission of the Church.  The understanding that the Gospel teaching did in fact ratify uncritically the social structures of his time, and that Christians follow this guidance today, is prevalent both among social conservatives and among would-be “revolutionaries” who turn away from the New Testament for just this reason.  The early church had to develop an ethic for living within the structures of society which was not immediately apparent within the discourses of Jesus himself, pervaded as they are by the expectation of the imminent reign of God.  But it is wrong to assume that it must follow from that observation that the ethic the early church then developed was contradictory or unrelated to the ethic of Jesus.  It is far more accurate to say that it is the ethic of Jesus himself that was transmitted and transmuted into the stance of the servant church within society, rather than a Stoic Master over society.  The one thing the Gospel cannot have meant originally is what it has mostly been used for since the second century, namely to reinforce extant authority structures as divinely willed for their own sake. Circular logic and appeals to authority in order to avoid contracts and the obligations that come as a participant with others in them is the way of the Stoic. No amount of borrowing from the Stoics, from an appeal either to creation or to nature, can overthrow the mission of the Church to bind all as servants of each other through covenant. Nor can borrowing from the Stoics change the idolatrous role of the state as a self-imposing and tautologous master.

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L. Richard Nielsen

L. Richard Nielsen

L. Richard Nielsen

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