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From Vol. 4, Issue 8, August 2022

Losing faith as a Stoic


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“As a Stoic, that spark comes in the everyday opportunities for virtue: kindness, apologizing, and courage”

Faith is a virtue often used in religions like Christianity and Islam. It’s uncommon for a Stoic to discuss the concept of faith – Stoicism considers the cardinal virtues to be those which govern a virtuous and flourishing life. However, this isn’t to say that the concept of faith is completely void in Stoic philosophy. What, then, does faith look like as a Stoic, and is it possible for a Stoic to “lose faith”?

Faith as a Stoic

Christians use faith to describe their belief and trust in God. It is not mere gullibility or naivety, as some believe, but rather a habitual practice of belief in what is good. When faced with a trying situation, many would advise that you should “have a little faith”. What this really means is that you must trust that things will work out for you.

Phrasing it this way, the similarities with the Stoic idea of providence are evident. Providence is, after all, belief in a beautifully ordered cosmos and that “everything happens for a reason”. Certainly, this is a worldview that requires an act of faith.

However, we could also consider perhaps the most religious claim of Stoicism: that virtue is the only good. Many philosophers agree that virtue is good, but only the Stoics claim absolutism. What this means, in practice, is that being a virtuous person is the only way to flourish.

If we wish to flourish, then, as Stoics, we best make the development of our character the only priority. That is certainly an act of faith – it cannot be logically proven that the development of one’s character will allow one to flourish, nor that it even offers the best chances of flourishing. We must be willing to believe and trust that the development of our character will lead us to a state of flourishing.

Losing Faith

Now that we’ve established what constitutes faith as a Stoic, we can consider what losing faith looks like. If faith is believing that virtue is the only good, then losing faith means that you are unsure about this belief, or that you are unconfident that you can become virtuous.

Consider someone new to Stoicism. Perhaps they’ve been leaning towards sensualism for most of their life but have found short-term pleasure to be incompatible with a happy life. Turning to Stoicism, they take a leap of faith and choose to solely develop their character. However, they have ingrained vicious habits to the degree that virtuous acts, such as refraining from overconsumption, make them feel terrible.

Aristotle believed that the virtuous person not only acts virtuously but feels good about it. This is the ideal that most of us fail to measure up against. Previous habits, experience, and deeply held bitterness condition us, at times, to feel bad after acting virtuously. As a simple example, have you ever refrained from cursing at a fellow driver on the road only to seethe for an hour, wishing that you had?

Losing faith in this sense could look like losing the belief that virtue can, in fact, lead you to a state of flourishing. Though, there is an even darker and more nihilistic way in which Stoics can waver in their faith: they may no longer believe, due to their inevitable failure of virtue, that they are even capable of becoming virtuous or even becoming more virtuous over time.

Believing that virtue is the only way to flourish is an act of faith, but what if you don’t believe that you have the capacity to be virtuous? What if, despite your efforts to do the right thing, you inevitably fall short? This is exactly what losing faith as a Stoic look like: “I keep falling short of virtue; can I even be virtuous and hence flourish?”

Rediscovering Faith

It’s helpful to understand that perfection doesn’t exist. The Stoic ideal is just that – an ideal. This means that you will inevitably miss the mark. You will never be entirely virtuous. However, that is no excuse to give up on virtue altogether. When in these particularly dark moments, you don’t need a divine light shining down on you. All you need is a spark to light the way just enough to find the path back to faith. You may never be a Sage, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try.

Brandon is most well-known for his podcast, The Strong Stoic Podcast, where he discusses philosophical ideas both solo and with guests. He also coaches individuals to help them be their best selves, writes articles, plays music, manages projects, and several other things.