By Glenn Chesnut, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History, Indiana University.
In terms of the ancient background of the Serenity Prayer, the distinction between “the things we do not have the power to change” and “the things we do have the power to change” is a fundamental and central part of ancient Greco-Roman Stoic philosophy. In ancient Greek (in the Stoic literature), it is called the distinction between ta ouk eph’ hemin and ta eph’ hemin, that is, read literally, “things not up to us” vs. “things up to us.”
And the goal of the good life in Stoic philosophy is always described as the attainment of “serenity,” which in ancient Greek was apatheia, which meant freedom from overwhelming emotional storms (what were called the pathe in Greek, that is, the fierce passions like the furious and insane rage which drove Medea to kill her own children and Clytemnestra to murder her husband, King Agamemnon, by chopping him up with an ax as he lay soaking in his bathtub).
To see what they meant by the pathe, the overwhelming “passions” which led us to our destruction, see the Roman tragedies written by Seneca. His plays usually focus on the destructive power of ira (out of control anger) and furor (which is out of control anger carried to truly insane lengths). But the Stoics knew that there were a lot of other passions which could destroy you when they got out of control, such as desire, grief, fear, and even joy (modern drug addicts can assure you that this is so). And the ancients knew about sexual lust of course! They had felt its power too.
At any rate, any ancient Greek philosopher who looked at the Serenity Prayer would note these two items – – the distinction between the things we cannot change and the things we can, and the idea of serenity as the goal of the good life – – and nod his head and say, “Yes, this must be by a Stoic.” These were technical terms which these ancient philosophers argued over, and everybody knew that this was the Stoic position on those issues.
St. Augustine, who knew his ancient philosophy thoroughly, later on attacked the idea of serenity as the goal of the good life in his City of God, which he wrote at the beginning of the fifth century A.D., specifically identifying this as a Stoic idea.
The Discourses of Epictetus is the best Stoic work to look at to see how the ancient Stoics understood these terms. Epictetus had once been a slave in the mad emperor Nero’s palace, and knew whereof he spoke when he talked about being in situations where we had no control over people, places, or things. (This observation was a standard part of ancient Stoic belief also. The only thing we ultimately have real control over, they taught, is what is going on inside us, inside our own heads.)
How did these ideas get down to the twentieth century? By the end of the Greco-Roman period, most philosophers were teaching mixtures of Stoic and Platonic (and sometimes Aristotelian) philosophy. They were called Late Stoics or Middle Platonists or Neo-Pythagorians or other technical terms like that, but all of them had mixed a lot of Stoic ideas into their thought. Even the writings of an Academic Sceptic like Cicero were filled with references to Stoic ideas.
And by the second century, Christian theologians were using a mixture of Stoic and Middle Platonic philosophy to explain their own Christian ideas. In the eastern end of the Mediterranean most early Christian theologians taught that serenity in the Stoic sense was the goal of the Christian life, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity still teaches that to this day.
And the revival of the Greek and Roman classics in the Renaissance, beginning in the 1300’s A.D., meant that you can find Stoic ideas coming out in all sorts of Renaissance and Early Modern literature from western Europe for a number of centuries afterward.
Reinhold Niebuhr was probably the greatest American-born theologian of the twentieth century, and had a deep and profound knowledge of ancient philosophy as well as the history of Christian theology.
There is a little bit of the Stoic approach in the early medieval philosopher Boethius (who is sometimes cited as the source), but he really doesn’t use the Stoic technical terminology, and he was also not very apt to have been on Reinhold Niebuhr’s reading list. Boethius just did not show up on the standard reading lists at either Protestant or Roman Catholic seminaries in the early twentieth century. They might mention his name in a general history course, but would not go into any detail about his ideas, or require the students to actually read anything Boethius wrote.
But Reinhold Niebuhr could have picked up these ideas from so many different Late Ancient and Medieval sources, that I think tracking down the particular one that suggested the prayer to him is impossible. There were just too many places he could have found the basic ideas.
Originally though, if we take the ideas in the Serenity Prayer back to their beginnings, it was a very distinctive and easily identifiable Stoic philosophical position. It wasn’t just vague talk about men and women sometimes being at the mercy of forces they cannot control, which was something which thoughtful human beings in all cultures at all periods of history have talked about (Egyptians, Persians, Buddhists, Hindus, the classical Greek tragedians, and so on).