Showing posts from January, 2015

Stoicism and Emotion

Text of a presentation at the Stoicism Today 2014 event in London (video of talk here). Now published in Stoicism Today: Selected Writings II (2016).
One of the most common popular ideas about Stoicism is that the Stoics deny the value of emotions. This might be formulated in a number of different ways – the Stoics repress their emotions, or reject them, or overcome them – but the shared idea behind these different ways of putting it is that the Stoics think the emotions are not important for a good life. Indeed, not only are they not important, they are in fact an impediment to living a good life.
That’s a common view. Equally common is the objection that this Stoic attitude towards the emotions is deeply unattractive. This objection might also take a number of forms: a healthy human life must involve a healthy emotional life; the emotions are an essential part of what it means to be a human being; denying or repressing emotions will only generate longer-term negative consequences; t…

Marcus Aurelius, Philosopher

Originally written for, and published in, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (2010).
Marcus Aurelius was not only an emperor; he was also a philosopher. His interest in philosophy began at a young age, as his correspondence with the rhetorician Fronto indicates. One of Marcus’ tutors, Rusticus, introduced him to the philosophy of Stoicism and lent him a copy of the Discourses of Epictetus. This proved to be a decisive influence.
Although this interest in philosophy started very young, our only document for Marcus’ philosophy comes from his old age. The text that we now know as the Meditations was written in his final years, while on military campaign in Germania. The modern title Meditations dates only from the seventeenth century; the manuscript tradition offers the title To Himself (ta eis heauton). The earliest reference to this title dates to the ninth century and the original text may well have been untitled. This should come as no surprise, however, as the Medita…

Tough Luck

Originally published in The Philosophers’ Magazine as part of a themed section on luck (2011), I was asked to write something about Stoic attitudes towards luck.
There is a sense in which all of Stoic philosophy is about luck. Strictly speaking this is not true, of course, as the ancient Stoics developed a philosophical system addressing a wide range of topics (from logic to politics, astronomy, and grammar), but if one were forced to try to summarize the general thrust of Stoicism in just a few words it would be tempting to say that it is most concerned with luck.
Let me try to flesh this out some more. Like the majority of other ancient philosophers the Stoics are eudaimonists and so the goal of their philosophy is happiness or wellbeing. The way in which the Stoics think we can achieve wellbeing is by looking closely at our relationship with the external world and at the way in which we ascribe value to things. In particular they suggest that we ought never to ascribe value to exte…

Stoicism and its Legacy

Text written for a public lecture at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, accompanying a small exhibition of Stoic-related books. The talk was recorded and is available as a podcast.
In what follows I am going to try to do three things. I shall try to introduce the ancient philosophy of Stoicism for those who may not know so much about it; I shall try to say something about its later reception; and I shall try to say something about the particular books that are on display. That’s quite ambitious for a relatively short talk but I’ll do my best.
Let’s start at the beginning. The Stoics were so called because they used to meet to discuss philosophical topics at the Painted Stoa on the northern edge of the Agora in ancient Athens. They started to do so sometime around 300 BC and their founder was Zeno, originally from Cyprus. When Zeno first arrived in Athens he came under the influence of a philosopher called Crates, who was a follower of Diogenes the Cynic. In order to understand the origins …

Which Stoicism?

This text considers the Stoic credentials of the Stoicism Today project and was written for the Stoicism Today blog. It has since been published in the book Stoicism Today: Selected Writings (2014).
The aim of the Stoicism Today project is to highlight ways in which ancient Stoicism might be of use to people as a general guide to life or might contribute to a therapeutic response to specific problems. Some critics might object that the version of Stoicism being offered bears little relation to the Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno and developed by Chrysippus and others (see e.g. Williams on Nussbaum (LRB 16/20 (20 Oct. 1994), 25-6) and Warren on Irvine (Polis 26/1 (2009), 176-9)). As Williams quipped, what use is Chrysippus’ logical theory in learning how to live?
The project, by contrast, has been inspired primarily by a study of Marcus Aurelius and the materials prepared for the project draw on the works of Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and Epictetus – all later Roman Stoics. This is n…

What is Stoicism?

Originally written for the Stoicism Today blog, this is an attempt to summarize Stoicism as succinctly as possible. It has since been published in the book StoicismToday: Selected Writings (2014).
Stoicism was one of the four principal schools of philosophy in ancient Athens, alongside Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Epicurus’s Garden, where it flourished for some 250 years. It proved especially popular among the Romans, attracting admirers as diverse as the statesman Seneca, the ex-slave Epictetus, and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The works of these three authors have come down to us and have won admirers from the Renaissance through to the present day. Although the philosophy of Stoicism as a whole is complex, embracing everything from metaphysics to astronomy to grammar, the works of the three great Roman Stoics focus on practical advice and guidance for those trying to achieve wellbeing or happiness. Here are four central ideas:
Value: the only thing that is truly good is…