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In early 2022, I started reading new translations of ancient Stoic philosophy, beginning with a collection of open letters from Seneca. I found the topic immediately engaging and relevant. I have explored several books about Stoicism from sources ancient and modern since then.
I’m not sure if I call myself “a Stoic” yet, but I can share a three-point boil-down of the philosophy as I currently understand it.
Recognize the things you can change as separate from the things you cannot. Respond appropriately. Honestly, this is just the serenity prayer. As far as I can tell, its practice sits at the heart of Stoicism. Once you learn to stop seeing it as cross-stitched pabulum, it becomes a surprisingly engaging lens to view the world through.
One first-order effect of this practice involves acceptance of things that fall into cannot-change category, and resisting the animal desire to rail against them, like an angry dog straining at a leash. That sort of behavior accomplishes nothing except self-injury, the ancients admonish. And this is where Stoicism acquires its reputation for coldness in the face of tragedy, or stillness against rousing calls to action. Well, it’s deserved, to a degree! But the full philosophy is much richer than this one facet.
Find what “virtue” means to you, and make its practice your mission. You know, I think I’m shakiest on this point, and have the least to say about it right now. I call it out anyway, because it seems clearly central to the philosophy. Ancient Stoics saw rationality as a godly attribute, a heavenly gift bestowed to every human, leaving it up to each of us how best to use it. Virtue means applying your rationality to improve yourself (which you can always do) or improve the world around you (as tempered by the previous tenet).
I’m still working this one out for myself. I believe in having personal mission statements, or so I wrote some years ago. some time ago. Perhaps it’s time to revisit my own.
As long as you have capacity to practice virtue, keep yourself alive. Yes, you see me acknowledging and trying to stay buoyant around the Stoic preoccupation around mortality—including the conditions for making a voluntary exit. Seneca especially (and, given his fate, somewhat ironically) liked to write about the circumstances of virtuous suicide. But all his examples were about people in the most extreme situations, whose opportunity to demonstrate goodness had clearly run out. (He sings the highest praises for the anonymous prisoner who excused himself before a surely-fatal gladiator fight to visit the loo and promptly choke himself on a toilet-sponge.)
I have turned to this last point several times, over the past year. I think about the fact that I almost certainly have plenty of future opportunity to wring goodness out of myself, even during those times when the present seems very dark. It makes me feel stronger; it helps me get through it.
The ancient Stoics were also very interested in the idea of one’s body as a possession more than an identity, a point that touches on all three of these tenets. Possessions are useful so long as they help with one’s practice of virtue, they wrote. But starting to think of one’s possessions as embodying that practice is a trap—even if it’s literally your body!
I held this in mind when mentally preparing for my first colonoscopy, earlier this year. Around that time, I read a parable by Seneca that seemed immediately relevant: a green recruit fears the camp doctor’s knife more than the enemy’s sword, but a veteran sees the virtue in turning over their body to the doctor’s care when it’s time. I resolved to act like Seneca’s veteran, placidly submitting my carcass to the hospital with all the drama of dropping off a coat at the dry cleaner. And this helped me get through that.
So, here’s my list of what I’ve read so far, in the order I read it.
Addressing the elephant: These books are all by dudes. In the case of the ancient sources, one can mitigate this by choosing recent editions by more diverse translators applying a modern social framing. In my philosophical reading to come, I will continue to aim for a wider spectrum.
Fifty Letters of a Roman Stoic, by Seneca. Translated by Margaret Graver and A. A. Long. I love this book, which feels so alive and current. Seneca spends much of his retirement nominally writing to his friend Lucilius but (according to the book’s modern introduction) absolutely intended these as open letters, for the world to read, and for posterity too. I felt personally addressed, time and again. This collection alone led me to all my subsequent reading on the topic.
How to be a Stoic, by Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor in New York. I guess I wanted to touch base with the present before diving back into the past, and this one was on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, so I read it. A very light-hearted and breezy introduction to the historical origins of Stoicism and its applications to modern life. Pigliucci sees Epictetus as a personal friend, walking beside him and advising him as he goes about his days. I’m not sure that will ever be my approach to any of this. Still, I found the book a fine entry-level backgrounder.
The Stoic Path: The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, translated by Hastings Crossley. Purchased this attractive, pocket-sized 2022 edition because it was the only Epictetus that the B&N had in stock that day. Sadly, the content comes from a 1903 translation, and smells so musty and distant. An interesting counterexample that only strengthened my insistence on new translations. Didn’t get far.
Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Gregory Hays. Only partially read, as both print and audiobook. I get the impression that this is the single most well-known ancient Stoic work that has survived to our day. But it’s literally just the dude’s personal notes, which he almost certainly never intended for publication. (Meditations was a title assigned to it centuries later; Pigliucci quips that Memoranda would have suited it better.) An interesting artifact, arguably worth studying as an example of a Stoic straining every day to habitualize and re-center his practice of virtue—and how it never stopped challenging him, despite his being one of the most powerful individuals of the western world at the time. I don’t find it a very engaging read, for all that.
On the Shortness of Life, by Seneca, translated by C.D.N. Costa. Back to what I knew I liked, after the previous two misses. This 1997 translation isn’t quite as lively as Graver and Long’s 2021 work, but I still found it quite enjoyable and meaningful. The parable of the veteran came from here.
Discourses and Selected Writings, by Epictetus, translated by Robert Dobbin. Okay, this is the stuff. Still working my way through the Discourses, a series of lectures by Epictetus, originally captured in writing by his student Arrian. The text feels so alive that I can imagine the ancient teacher pacing around and gesturing, and the places in the text where he changes his voice to take on different characters while acting out dialogues, or pausing for laughter after a little bon mot. It’s good.
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