Stoicism and Passion Week

About a third of adults in the Greater Los Angeles Area consider themselves Catholic Christians—the largest of any single religious denomination in Los Angeles (according to Pew). I suspect that this is correlated to the high number of Angelinos of Mexican, Central, or South American heritage. Because there are so many Christians in Los Angeles (and the United States), I often think about how Christianity relates to Stoicism and how we can use Christian holidays as opportunities to practice Stoicism. I’m particularly fond of Catholic Christianity because of their tradition of philosophy going all the way back to the “Apostolic Church Fathers” (Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp) who had to argue philosophically for Christian doctrine at the same time that Epicureanism and Stoicism was popular in the Roman Empire. I myself am not Catholic or even Christian (though I was raised in a Presbyterian church and was the son of the pastor there), but I have always admired those early theologians who pulled out all the stops to argue for their religious beliefs—trying to apply the standards of reason to explore the limits of human understanding.

The week prior to and including Easter Sunday—the last week of Lent—is known as “Holy Week” or “Passion Week.” It starts on Palm Sunday which commemorates when Jesus returned to Jerusalem with applause and palm fronds. It includes Maundy Thursday which commemorates when Jesus had his ‘last supper’ with his disciples, washed their feet, and gave them a new commandment (mandatum) to love one another. The second act of the story—so to speak—culminates in Good Friday (‘good’ as in ‘holy’) when Jesus is tortured, humiliated, and crucified. He is still dead throughout Holy Saturday but uses it as an opportunity to bring the good news to folks in ‘hell’ (hadês/infernus) and make sure everyone gets a chance at redemption. Finally, he comes back to Earth on Sunday and hangs out with everyone for over a month and recruits folks (like Paul) to continue the movement. Those parts of the New Testament that relate the story of Jesus during this week are known as “passion narratives” because they speak to the “passion” of Jesus throughout this week: his delight on Palm Sunday, his anger at the money-changers in the Jewish temple, his fear when facing arrest, and his distress while enduring flagellation and crucifixion.

If I was a Christian, I would be concerned that Jesus is experiencing those “passions” or unhealthy emotions that are products of errors in reasoning: distress (lupê), fear (phobos), and anger (orgê) in particular. The Greek-speaking Stoics called these pathê (sing. pathos) and the Latin-speaking Stoics called them passiones (sing. passio)—the same words that Greek and Latin-speaking Christians used for the affects that Jesus experiences. Uh Oh… If he actually experiences such “passions,” then Stoics would assess Jesus as flawed and certainly not someone to admire—he is irrational and prone to sin. The early Church Fathers were a bit concerned about this too. As Margaret Graver explains towards the end of Ch. 4 of her book Stoicism and Emotion (2007), the early Christian apologists agreed with the Stoics that “ordinary human emotions, grief and fear as well as anger, always imply some moral error, so that no emotion can be attributed to the deity or to any virtuous human” (102?). How did they explain what was going on during ‘passion week’?

It seems like Origen of Alexandria (late 2nd, early 3rd century) presented the core argument by drawing from a very important Stoic concept: the pre-emotion (propatheia/propassio). They key is to view the affects of Jesus not as not full blown emotions, but pre-emotions. The former is the result of one’s voluntary assent to a particular evaluation of one’s circumstances. The latter are involuntary reactions prompted by one’s bodily nature. This works perfectly in the case of Jesus considering that the Catholic-Orthodox conception of Christ is of two natures (phuseis) in one entity or person (hypostasis). Having a divine nature implies that Jesus is fully rational, yet having an embodied human nature implies that Jesus is prone to the pre-emotions that all humans are prone to. Seneca is never short of examples of these: experiencing a recoil or contracting at something gruesome; having one’s hair rise or getting vertigo at something awesome; blushing, growing pale, or trembling at the sight of danger; grimacing at the poor fortune of others; tearing up at the sadness of others (On Anger 2.2.1–2.3.3 as cited by Graver, pp. 95-6)

Let’s take an example from the passion narrative and look at some of the words used in the Nestle-Aland (NA) Greek New Testament. After the last supper, Jesus spends time in the Garden of Gethsemane to pray and wait for the Roman authorities to come and arrest him. At the start of the scene, the Gospel According to Matthew describes Jesus as “sorrowful” (lupeisthai) and “very heavy/burdened” (adêmonein). Jesus even reports that he is “exceedingly/all-around sorrowful” (perilupos). Here’s the King James Version along with the NA version:

Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder. And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy. Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me

Τότε ἔρχεται μετ’ αὐτῶν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς χωρίον λεγόμενον Γεθσημανὶ καὶ λέγει τοῖς μαθηταῖς Καθίσατε αὐτοῦ ἕως οὗ ἀπελθὼν ἐκεῖ προσεύξωμαι. Καὶ παραλαβὼν τὸν Πέτρον καὶ τοὺς δύο υἱοὺς Ζεβεδαίου ἤρξατο λυπεῖσθαι καὶ ἀδημονεῖν. τότε λέγει αὐτοῖς περίλυπός ἐστιν ἡ ψυχή μου ἕως θανάτου μείνατε ὧδε καὶ γρηγορεῖτε μετ’ ἐμοῦ.

Matthew 26:36-38

Origen says we should be careful. He points out that there is big difference between “was sorrowful” (lupeisthai) and “began to be sorrowful” (archato lupeisthai) which is the actual phrase found in the NA—beginning to be sorrowful does not imply that sorrow is going to manifest. It’s possible that Jesus began to be sorrowful but then did not assent to the impression that there was anything worth being sorrowful about.

Likewise, you can interpret the term “was very heavy” (adêmonein) in a couple different ways. This and the last verb are both in the infinitive, which indicates that the verb “began” can modify them both: Jesus could have “began to be very heavy.” Second, you can gloss it as a physical sensation of heaviness akin to the sensations that Seneca cites to describe pre-emotion

When Jesus actually reports to his disciples that he is “exceedingly sorrowful” (perilupos), it is not unreasonable to assume he is speaking of a pre-emotion rather than to an emotion like lupê. Perhaps he is saying that he is experiencing a sensation “near to” (peri-) “sorrow” (lupê) rather than an emotion of “all-around” (peri-) “sorrow” (lupê)—the Greek is ambiguous.

Origen supports the interpretation that Jesus is only experiencing a pre-emotion by pointing to the phrase “even unto death” (heos thanatou). To Origen, this is proof that Jesus expects the experience will only last until his body dies despite his rational soul continuing on after death. When he separates from his body during Holy Saturday, he no longer experiences the pre-emotions that come along with his human body.

An important implication of this interpretation is that it preserves Jesus’s divinity while giving evidence for Jesus’s humanity. You can apply this strategy to all sorts of holy (not just sage-like) figures in the Tanakh and Christian Bible like Abraham, Moses, and Jesus when they seem to express unhealthy emotions (though you might need a different tack when analyzing the apparent emotions of God)… the strategy insists that they only seem to express emotions. For example, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (1st Century CE) presented a similar argument as the one Origen presented, but in defense of Abraham and Sarah.

This is not my specialty, but I find it fascinating how versatile Stoic philosophy and psychology seem to be. A reason why Stoicism is so versatile is that it’s tracking reality accurately. Thus, anything that is also consistent with reality will be consistent with Stoicism.

To wrap up this blog entry, I must say that I still have a lot of questions regarding the psychology of Jesus Christ. For example, here’s one: “Since he and his body ascended to heaven, does that mean Jesus resumed having pre-emotions while sitting at the right hand of the Father?”… Here’s another: “Did Jesus meet Socrates down in the righteous pagan section of hell/limbo and redeem him?… some things must remain mysteries.

Don’t forget to check out the Los Angeles Stoics meetings on the ‘Meetings‘ page (the next one is Saturday, April 10th at 9am). We will be culminating our reading of Seneca’s Letters.


—Justin K.


4 responses to “Stoicism and Passion Week”

  1. Excellent article which addresses some of the issues pertaining to Jesus Christ that I have often wondered about. One episode in Jesus’ life I never understood had to do with Lazarus’s death. Jesus hears the news and weeps, then he just stays put rather than going to Lazarus’s grave. Was Jesus really emotionally distraught, or was he doing what Epictetus suggests when confronted with people’s lamentations, that is, to weep outwardly to show support but not to let the weeping seep inwardly. Your article addresses pre-emotions. I’m wondering if Jesus’ weeping falls under that category.

    1. losangelesstoics Avatar


      Yes, you’re referring to John 11:35—famous for being the shortest verse of the Bible when translated into English: “Jesus wept.” The Revised English Standard Version (which I tend to prefer) translates it as “Jesus began to weep” … This just speaks to how tricky it is to translate infinitives (in this case, the Greek is edakrusen)… But we don’t have to play with the etymology here. Weeping does not necessarily indicate the kind of affective event that the Stoics (and Christians) find problematic. We can appeal to Ench. 16 (as you mentioned) or Seneca’s Letter 63 maybe to find examples of Stoics condoning outward shows of grief as long as they don’t undermine our rational faculties.

  2. C. Dyas Avatar
    C. Dyas

    Fascinating. I have two degrees in biblical studies, and spent 10 years as a pastor before making a career change. Stoicism helped me manage my thinking & emotions as I endured a couple hard final years as a pastor.

    When I transitioned to a new career field, I was able to hold on to the life & teachings of Jesus while also practicing Stoicism. But not without questions and adjustments to my faith.

    If questions arise regarding Stoicism and belief in God, can I reach out to you?

    1. losangelesstoics Avatar

      As I said in my post, I don’t identify as Christian or even religious. The Christian God is not a “live hypothesis” for me (as William James put it)… That being said, Ancient and Modern Stoics have believed in something that they called “God” (theos, Zeus, deus). They definitely equated it with logos, but they also described it in more figurative ways that they seemed to find helpful and/or important. I’m glad to talk more about it in order to see how the idea of God can be helpful or important for Stoics today. Feel free to reach out to me.

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