Who were the “Epicureans” and the “Stoicks?”


by Shawn Brasseaux

They appear only once, Acts chapter 17: “[16] Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. [17] Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. [18] Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection. [19] And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is? [20] For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean. [21] (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)”

In short, the Epicureans and the Stoicks were adherents to competing schools of pagan philosophy. For a more detailed analysis, consult the following information.


The word “Epicureans” means “defenders, helpers.” Dr. Scofield wrote the following marginal note: “Disciples of Epicurus, B.C. 342-271, who abandoned as hopeless the search by reason for pure truth (cf. John 18.38), seeking instead true pleasure through experience.”

Smith’s Bible Dictionary says: “Derived their name from Epicurus (342–271 B.C.), a philosopher of Attic descent, whose ‘Garden’ at Athens rivalled in popularity the ‘Porch’ and the ‘Academy.’ The doctrines of Epicurus found wide acceptance in Asia Minor and Alexandria. (95–50 B.C.) The object of Epicurus was to find in philosophy a practical guide to happiness. True pleasure and not absolute truth was the end at which he aimed; experience and not reason the test on which he relied. It is obvious that a system thus framed would degenerate by a natural descent into mere materialism; and in this form Epicurism was the popular philosophy at the beginning of the Christian era. When St. Paul addressed ‘Epicureans and Stoics,’ Acts 17:18, at Athens, the philosophy of life was practically reduced to the teaching of these two antagonistic schools.”


The word “Stoics” means “of the portico,” referring to a porch in Athens (more on this later). Regarding them, Dr. Scofield said: “Disciples of Zeno, B.C. 280, and Chrysippus, B.C. 240. This philosophy was founded on human self-sufficiency, inculcated stern self-repression, the solidarity of the race, and the unity of Deity. Epicureans and Stoics divided the apostolic world.”

Smith’s Bible Dictionary thus defines them: “The Stoics and Epicureans, who are mentioned together in Acts 17:28, represent the two opposite schools of practical philosophy which survived the fall of higher speculation in Greece. The Stoic school was founded by Zeno of Citium (cir. B.C. 280), and derived its name from the painted portico at Athens in which he taught. Zeno was followed by Cleanthes (cir. B.C. 260); Cleanthes by Chrysippus (cir. B.C. 240), who was regarded as the intellectual founder of the Stoic system. ‘They regarded God and the world as power and its manifestation, matter being a passive ground in which dwells the divine energy. Their ethics were a protest against moral indifference, and to live in harmony with nature, conformably with reason and the demands of universal good, and in the utmost indifference to pleasure, pain and all external good or evil, was their fundamental maxim.’—American Cyclopaedia. The ethical system of the Stoics has been commonly supposed to have a close connection with Christian morality; but the morality of Stoicism is essentially based on pride, that of Christianity on humility; the one upholds individual independence, the other absolute faith in another; the one looks for consolation in the issue of fate, the other in Providence; the one is limited by periods of cosmic ruin, the other is consummated in personal resurrection. Acts 17:18. But in spite of the fundamental error of Stoicism, which lies in a supreme egotism, the teaching of this school gave a wide currency to the noble doctrines of the fatherhood of God, the common bonds of mankind, the sovereignty of the soul. Among their most prominent representatives were Zeno and Antipater of Tarsus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.”

If you read Paul’s sermon (Acts 17:22-31), you will see the Holy Spirit through the Apostle reasoning with these pagans to come to faith in Jesus Christ and thus abandon their vain philosophical nonsense. Although a few believed, the majority refused. They favored their religious error!

Also see:
» Why did Paul not give the Gospel of Grace in Acts 17?
» How long should I keep witnessing to the same person?
» Would God want me to share the Gospel?