The Virtuous Life

Virtuous behavior is intrinsic to what is morally good, and in antiquity, the dichotomy between the virtuous life for Christian and stoic cultures differ fundamentally. For stoicism, virtuous behavior provided an existential reward through the lens of oneself or others. Christianity contributed to pragmatic piety and veneration of One true God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in addition to an assurance of a glorified afterlife for not only those living out a life of virtue, but also for suffering in its wake. Christianity and Stoicism, although similar in practical philosophy, nevertheless greatly differ in how virtue is framed, as well as its source and the significance it has on those who apply it to their lives.

In Christianity, virtue and righteousness are sourced in God, yet, Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius drew them from one’s inner self. He called on others to be indifferent to the good and evil in the world and considering philosophy “seemed designed for a life of leisure and inaction, whereas a virtuous Roman was actively involved in practical civic matters”[1] (Perry, 81), philosophy for Aurelius “gave theoretical expression to the world mindedness of the age”[2] (Perry, 28). For Aurelius, freeing oneself from “all other thoughts”[3] with “simple dignity”[4] allows the Roman to lay “aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason.”[5]  However, “the gods will require nothing more”[6] from man if he were “live a life which flows in quiet.”[7] Even though Aurelius’ stoicism makes man able to overcome evil, for Christians, the Word of God (cf. John 1:1-16), a breastplate of righteousness protects them from evil (Eph. 6:13-14).  Like Jesus (cf. Matt. 5:45), Aurelius reiterates that “death certainly, life, honour and dishonor, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen to good men and bad.”[8] For the Emperor, virtuosity is the “faculty that promises freedom from hasty judgement, and friendship towards men, and obedience to the gods.”[9] The Roman man “lives only in the present time”[10] and distinct from the Christian who looks forward to their crown of life (Jas. 1:12; cf. 2 Tim. 4:8; 1 Pet. 5:4; Rev. 2:10), “the rest of his life or is either past or it is uncertain.”[11] The future is bleak and eternal life is a vague afterthought.

In Matthew 5, Jesus teaches that the “poor in spirit” will inherit the kingdom and those mourning “shall be comforted,” while the famished “shall be satisfied.” Those who serve others’ (John 13:16; Phil 2:5-7; cf. Matthew 25:33-47), are “merciful” and “pure in heart,” yet persecuted for it, they are “the salt of the earth” and “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Living virtuously is what gives the “salt” its taste, and “if salt has lost its taste,” Jesus concludes, “it is no longer good for anything.”  Faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:17) and just as believers are the salt of the earth, others will see their “good works and give glory” to God. Jesus ensures His listeners who righteousness is founded on, and He came to “fulfill” it to the letter (vs. 17-18). Jesus’ righteousness is the Law (cf. Rom. 3:21-22; 5:8; 10:4; John 14:15; Phil. 3:9) and seeking first the kingdom life (cf. Matt. 6:33), “will be called great in heaven.” For Jesus, anger is equated with murder, lust to adultery, while marriage is sacred and selfless giving and suffering are calls to perfection because God “is perfect.”  Jesus promised His followers would be persecuted because of their example (Matt. 5:10; 24:9; cf. Luke 6:22; John 15:18-20; cf. 2 Tim. 3:12; 1 Pet. 3:16) and rigorously recasts the Law, raising the standards necessitating humility and subservience to Jesus. The church “was his own” (Acts 4:32; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19-20) who “belonged” to the Lord Jesus Christ and “there was not even anyone needy among them,” (vs. 32-36).  The wealthy sold off their “land or houses” and “bringing the proceeds of the things that were sold and placing them at the feet of the apostles.” They were of “one heart and soul,” and because of the apostle’s testimony, arrest and persecution for the sake of Jesus (5:17-41), “great grace was on them all.” 

Justin Martyr defended Christians, dispelling the “evil rumors”[12] that they were breaking the law.  He addresses the “pious and philosophers”[13] who held “true reason”[14] in high regard, and if the “lovers of learning”[15] are unable to “convict us of anything,”[16] saving them from erroneously condemning “blameless men.”[17] Justin Martyr admonishes his audience for their intellect, imploring them to use justly. In Pliny the Younger’s correspondence with Emperor Trajan about “The Christian Problem,”[18] he validates that Christians were bound “by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit, fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.”[19] Nevertheless, he chided these practices, banning them as “political associations,”[20] and referring to them as “nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.”[21]

In the Epistle of Diognetes, the Christian life is differentiated by their behavior. They are required to “share”[22] and “endure”[23] all things as if they were foreigners in their own land (cf. Acts 2:44-45). “They marry”[24] and have children “as do all others,”[25] but they “have a common table, but not a common bed.”[26] Christians follow the laws of the land while exceeding the necessary requirements it adjures. However, the writer is clear that “the course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men,”[27] and neither do Christians “proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines.”[28] In other words, their principles for life came from God, and exercising them is crucial (Acts 5:29).

In Tertullian’s Apology, he calls the church “a body knit together”[29] with a “bond of common hope”[30] (cf. Acts 23:6). Focusing prayer on God “as with united force,”[31] praying “for all in authority”[32] and the “welfare of the world,”[33] in addition to the “delay of the final consummation”[34] (cf. 2 Pet. 3:9). Tertullian says the Christian’s life is based on the “fidelity to the cause of God’s church”[35] with a “love so noble,”[36] only to invite persecution because of it. For Tertullian, one only has to be a witness to “how they love one another”[37] as true disciples of Jesus Christ (John 13:35; cf. Matt. 22:36-40).

The virtuous life is sourced in absolute morality which can only be identified with God.  For Stoicism, virtuosity is drawn from one’s inner self, through an attempt to disconnect from existential excesses. However, the rewards for a sanctimonious life diverge teleologically.  The Stoic is left with uncertainty while the Christian is promised eternal life. The importance of living a virtuous life is paramount for Christians because like God, they are called to be holy as He is (1 Pet. 1:15-16), and the need to rely on mankind is frivolous, with no purpose as Marcus Aurelius infers.  But with God believers can be assured that they will be vindicated in the resurrection of the dead, seeing Christ as He is, rising like Him. (1 John 3:2; cf. Rom. 6:5; 1 Cor. 15:22, 51-54.). 


Aurelius, Marcus: Meditations (Ce 167).” In Daily Life through History, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Accessed July 25, 2018.

Holy Bible, ESV.

Perry, Marvin, Chase, Myrna, Jacob, James, Jacob, Margaret, Daly, Jonathan W., Von Laue, Theodore H., Western Civilization 11th Edition, (Independence: Cengage Learning, 2015).

WHAT WERE EARLY CHRISTIANS LIKE?”, published April 28, 2010, accessed July 30, 2018,


[1] Marvin Perry, Myrna Chase, James Jacob, Margaret Jacob, Jonathan W Daly, Theodore H. Von Laue, Western Civilization 11th Edition, (Independence: Cengage Learning, 2015), 81.

[2] Ibid., 28.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “WHAT WERE EARLY CHRISTIANS LIKE?”, para. From the First Apology of Justin, published April 28, 2010, accessed July 30, 2018,

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “WHAT WERE EARLY CHRISTIANS LIKE?”, para. Governor Pliny writes Emperor Trajan for advice in dealing with “The Christian Problem,” AD 112, published April 28, 2010, accessed July 30, 2018,

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “WHAT WERE EARLY CHRISTIANS LIKE?”, para. How Did the Early Christians Describe Themselves? The Epistle to Diognetes, c. AD 130, published April 28, 2010, accessed July 30, 2018,

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] “WHAT WERE EARLY CHRISTIANS LIKE?”, para. From the Apology of Tertullian, AD 197, published April 28, 2010, accessed July 30, 2018,

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.