Friday, April 28, 2017


C. Kavin Rowe, One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. Pp. 330. ISBN 9780300180121. $35.00.

Reviewed by Runar M. Thorsteinsson, University of Iceland (

Version at BMCR home site


This monograph is an extension of an earlier volume of the author titled World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age (Oxford University Press, 2009) (pp. ix–x). The present work is divided into three main parts, each including three chapters. The first main part treats Roman Stoicism, the second part Early Christianity, and the final part includes a comparison of the two and discussion of comparative enterprises in general. The Stoics discussed in the first part include Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, whereas the Early Christians in the second part include Paul, Luke, and Justin Martyr, that is to say, exact contemporaries of the Stoics in question. The author writes a text that is philosophically sophisticated, but nevertheless "light" with dialogical style reminiscent of the ancient diatribe applied by Paul, Seneca and Epictetus.

Each chapter in the first two parts follows a thematic structure. In the first chapter, on Seneca, Rowe discusses the topics death, Fortune, God and Nature, the passions, and philosophy. However, he fails to consult other writings of Seneca other than his letters, which is regrettable, considering the stated aim in the work to focus on the primary sources in the first two parts of the study. It means that Rowe misses much of Seneca's teaching. It is like ignoring three of Paul's authentic letters. One may wonder, for instance, if Rowe would have come to a different conclusion regarding the question whether Seneca's God is personal or not if he had consulted Seneca's other writings (cf., e.g., Prov. 1.1; 2.7; 4.7; 5.1–2; Ben. 4.5.1; 4.6.5–6; Vit. beat. 15.4, 7). In the second chapter, on Epictetus, the topics God, right judgments, philosophy, human being, and society are discussed. And in the third chapter, on Marcus Aurelius, Rowe treats the topics of death, God and Nature, human beings and right judgments, human beings and the possibility of right judgments, philosophy, and society. The choices of precisely these topics are not explained. The same goes for the Christian sources. In chapter four, Rowe discusses the following topics relating to the apostle Paul: God, Jesus Christ, humanity: creation and sin, humanity: death and resurrection, and the way of repair: faith and community. In chapter five, on Luke, Rowe divides the discussion into these topics: Israel, Jesus, God, human beings, and church and society. In the chapter on Justin Martyr, chapter six, the topics treated include God, Jesus Christ, philosophy, human being, politics and death: Rome and the Christians, and Judaism. Exactly how these topics fit to the Stoic topics is not altogether clear, for instance, the topics of Israel/Judaism. Also, one may wonder if it would have been a good move, given the discussion of Jesus Christ in the Christian sources, to include a discussion of the Stoic wise man.

While parts one and two focus primarily on the ancient sources, in part three Rowe also engages in dialogue with earlier and current scholarship, starting with chapter seven. He wishes to "reset" the scholarly discussion of the relationship between Stoicism and Early Christianity (p. 175), and to that end he consults the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and his three versions of inquiry that, according to MacIntyre, have most profoundly affected people's understanding of knowledge in modern times, namely, "encyclopedia, genealogy, and tradition" (p. 176). Explaining these categories of MacIntyre's, Rowe joins the former in rejecting the first version of inquiry, i.e. the encyclopedic way of knowing, and argues that it is a "tradition of inquiry" that is most appropriate for his purpose in the study, a tradition that is "a morally grained, historically situated rationality". According to Rowe, "tradition in this sense is the word that best describes the forms of life that were ancient Christianity and Stoicism" (p. 184, italics original). Rowe then discusses the works of Abraham Malherbe and Troels Engberg-Pedersen in this regard, and argues that theirs was the "encyclopedic" version of inquiry. These scholars were guilty of "mistaking traditions for entries in an encyclopedia", that is to say, "studying traditions as if they were something else—treating them more like data in a wider, more comprehensive scheme called scholarly knowledge" (p. 191). According to Rowe, the approach of these scholars is nothing but a "fossil-like thinking" (p. 243). If comparison of Stoicism and Early Christianity is to take place, it is necessary, says Rowe, to see them as traditions of inquiry, and "the most constructive way to conceive their relation is to think them in direct narrative juxtaposition, face to face" (p. 199). By "narrative" Rowe means something inseparable from being Christian or Stoic—"to know the story is to know the thing itself" (ibid.). According to Rowe, the importance of narrative has been making its way into New Testament scholarship, but, once again, this has mostly been done in a wrong way, "in good encyclopedic fashion" (p. 200). But what is the "narrative juxtaposition" Rowe intends to apply in his study? "It is an attempt to reason Christianly about Roman Stoicism as my second first language while acknowledging that because I can do this only as an outsider, the way may in fact be closed" (p. 204). In other words, Rowe reads his Stoic sources as a Christian. His construction of the narrative accounts of these traditions is "an account by a Christian who reads as a Christian" (p. 205). In fact, Rowe acknowledges, "in practice I am unable to understand certain Stoic things—perhaps even central patterns of reasoning" (ibid.). Presumably, then, a Stoic would have difficulties with understanding the Christian narrative, and a person who is neither a Christian nor a Stoic will be quite helpless.

Before he starts comparing the two "rival traditions" in chapter eight, Rowe includes a general discussion of the "stories" of the Stoics and Christians, i.e. selected parts of their theory (excluding ethics). He informs his readers that such a comparison can only lead to one conclusion, namely, that the two traditions are in fact incompatible: the assumption that the Stoics and Christians can be put into mutually intelligible conversation is "false". Their stories are "diverge and conflict in every significant way." Conversation between them is "impossible" (pp. 22324). In other words, in the ancient world, a Stoic and a Christian would not be able to converse with one another. This point of departure colors the entire discussion that follows. According to Rowe, subjects and terms like God, the world, human being, Jesus of Nazareth, death, politics/society/community cannot refer to the same things for the Christian and the Stoic: the two traditions "face each other with different and competing stories about all that is. And no amount of scholarly labor can erase this most basic juxtaposition. They are, permanently and irreducibly, traditions in conflict" (p. 235).

The reader who anticipates in these final chapters a close reading of the ancient sources themselves, with examples and quotations from them, will be disappointed. The discussion continues in chapter nine on the general, surface level, without much explicit support from the ancient sources themselves. After all, Rowe has already stated that a conversation between the two traditions is impossible. In this chapter Rowe forms an inclusio by discussing MacIntyre and his account of an "epistemological crisis" that can help us better to understand the "untranslatability" of traditions like Stoicism and Early Christianity (pp. 25057). Rowe concludes by explaining the crux of his book: "Stoicism and Christianity are claims to the truth of life, and knowing the things they teach requires a life that is true" (p. 257)—hence the main title of the work.

Rowe's argument rests much on the claim that the Stoic and Christian traditions are mutually "untranslatable". But the analogy from language does not apply well to the subject under discussion. Most of the Stoic and Christian authors used the same language to speak about similar and different subjects, and had full potential of understanding each other. I can hardly imagine that many scholars would claim that Paul, Luke and Justin did not have the possibility to understand the Greco-Roman "stories" around them. The claim that "you could not have lived the claims of both traditions at once" (p. 246) is certainly surprising for the reader who knows of Stoic and Early Christian moral teaching. It is not that Rowe is wrong that words can have different meanings in different contexts. Certainly they can. But Rowe forces the case too far by claiming the impossibility of any kind of "translation" between the Stoic and Christian traditions, any kind of conversation between them. The Stoic and Christian frame of reference is more complex and more flexible than Rowe allows, overlapping to a considerable degree, in part because of common human experience, often differing in the way that experience is interpreted, but the common factor is there. For this same reason, Rowe is able to understand and discuss Stoic teaching, even though he is a Christian. Furthermore, in this regard, Rowe does not always do justice to the ancient sources themselves. For instance, he argues that the Stoic God is untranslatable into Christian terms because, for the Stoics, God was the world. This would certainly apply to the cosmology of Marcus Aurelius. But both Seneca and Epictetus appear to have understood the term differently, with more flexibility, sometimes referring to God as a personal being, roughly compatible to the Christian God.1 To claim that everything in these traditions is "untranslatable" is surely to overstate the case.

Moreover, not only is the absence of the primary sources in the final, comparative chapters problematic. So is the absence of ethics. It is precisely in the field of ethics or moral teaching that we see clear similarities between the Stoic and Early Christian traditions, as scholars have pointed out.2 Rowe simply dismisses this field of inquiry where the correspondence between the two traditions is most profound. Simply to explain morality away as non-existent (pp. 19293) is not to deal with the matter. Contrary to what Rowe claims, the ancient did have words for morality and commonly divided philosophy into physics, logic and ethics. Mainly for this reason, if the aim of Rowe's book is to engage scholarship on the relationship between Stoicism and Early Christianity, it misses the mark.


1.   E.g. Seneca, Ep. 10.5; 12.10; 41.2; 83.1; 95.48; 107.9; Ben. 4.5.1; 4.6.56; Prov. 1.1, 56; 2.67; 4.78, 1112; 5.12; Vit. beat. 15.4, 7; Epicetus, Diss. 1.3.1; 1.14.1, 910; 2.7.11; 2.8.1; 2.18.29; 3.21.12; 3.24.3, 15, 19, 113; 3.26.28, 37.
2.   See esp. the number of works by Troels Engberg-Pedersen, e.g. his Paul and the Stoics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000). See also Runar M. Thorsteinsson, Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

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