Interview: Stephen Hanselman

Interview with Stephen Hanselman for Stoic Week.

Stephen HanselmanQ: How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I’m presently a literary agent representing a small but diverse client list of thought leaders and academics who seek to reach a broad readership – from historians and journalists to business and self-help experts, and beyond. I’ve spent my entire adult life in the publishing business, first for 12 years as a bookseller, followed by 13 years as a publisher at HarperCollins, and for the last 11 years as an agent working closely with writers to manage their careers.

Q: How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?

I’ve found the Stoic focus on education, practical disciplines, and character formation a constant source of inspiration and personal strength – for myself and for readers. Through the years of my work in publishing I’ve always been drawn to authors whose message takes a deep dive into these themes. For example: in business, Peter Drucker’s emphasis on effectiveness having to do with focusing on the right things; in Christian spirituality, Dallas Willard’s development of the disciplines of spiritual formation; and in more popular self-help, the use of these same disciplines by clients ranging from Jack Canfield and Tim Ferriss to Ryan Holiday.

Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

I was a double major in Philosophy and History as an undergraduate at Fresno Pacific University. One of the faculty who shaped an amazing core curriculum program there was Delbert Wiens, who did his dissertation at the University of Chicago on the Roman educator and Stoic philosopher, Gaius Musonius Rufus, a contemporary of both Seneca and Epictetus and a key influence on Epictetus. During those years I read primarily in secondary sources about the broader context of Hellenistic education (Werner Jaeger, et al), but it was only later that I got into the primary sources. During graduate school at Harvard Divinity School, while taking classes in the philosophy department, I happened upon Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s (another Harvard Divinity graduate) translation of Epictetus, which then led me to Oldfather’s Loeb volumes and I was hooked.

Q: What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?

Stoicism gets a bad rap in popular conceptions – it’s not about denying emotions and disengagement, but exactly the opposite! Stoicism is about engagement with the right focus, and emotions themselves are value-judgments that contain an assent of our reason. We have to begin by understanding what’s in our control and what isn’t. We must understand the thin line between impulse and action and seek to more clearly understand our perceptions, desires and aversions, beliefs and how we make judgments based on the true worth of things. There is tremendous leverage in Stoic disciplines for living more productively and with less suffering. Much of our suffering is self-dealt, and this is the biggest lesson Stoicism teaches.

Q: In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

Our modern world is obsessed with Romantic notions of “following your passion” combined with a pervasive, consumerist materialism. Often there is little critical self-reflection brought to bear amidst all this excess and zero-sum seeking of gain. This combination is deadly to our souls, not to mention to our life in the common square. We’d all do better with some Stoic soul-care and the revival of their virtue ethics with its focus on the common good.

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

Some days I wonder… the Stoics say that the sign of progress is the eradication of complaining and blaming. As a father of twin 11-year-old boys, doing that can be quite the challenge! And, as an agent, your job can often be complainer-in-chief. But, I do find it helpful to stay mindful of the actual worth of things and to keep the goals of self-control, fortitude, justice and wisdom in view.

Q: What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

There are so many, but for me, the one that gets it all in a nutshell best is Marcus Aurelius’ quoting of Epictetus:

“Epictetus says we must discover the missing art of assent and pay special attention to the sphere of our impulses — that they are subject to reservation, to the common good, and that they are in proportion to actual worth.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.37

Q: What advice would you give someone wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

I love what’s happening on your Facebook group, and really everything that you and Massimo Pigliucci are doing. Ryan Holiday and I have also created a resource at www.dailystoic.com, and later this month our daily meditations book will appear from Penguin/Portfolio. We’re hoping to cast a very wide net with this book, which we’ve spent the past two years putting together.

The Daily StoicQ: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

I wish to express my gratitude for your many years of work, and consistently great insights, in bringing Stoic resources to the world!


Stephen’s new book, co-authored with Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic, will be available from October 2016.

Interview: John Sellars

Interview with John Sellars for Stoic Week.

John SellarsQ: How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I’m an academic. I went to university in the autumn of 1991 to study philosophy and a quarter of a century later I’m still there. I spend the bulk of my time reading, thinking, and writing about philosophy.

Q: How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

Much of my academic work has focused on Stoicism and its later influence. I’ve written two books just on Stoicism, edited two books dealing with the later influence of Stoicism, and I have just finished writing a new book covering all of Hellenistic philosophy which inevitably contains a hefty dose of Stoicism alongside Epicureanism and the other things going on in the period.

Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

I think a number of different things pointed me towards Stoicism when I was first studying philosophy. Two philosophers who caught my imagination early on were Nietzsche and Spinoza. Nietzsche himself acknowledged the connection while also being very conscious of their differences. I quickly found studies of both connecting them with Stoicism. So I was curious about what the philosophical common ground might be. At the same time I was studying Greek philosophy. I admired Socrates immensely in Plato’s early dialogues but had no time for Plato’s metaphysics or his politics. I was drawn to Diogenes the Cynic as an alternative follower of Socrates. Ancient Cynicism is entertaining but there is not much to it; what I read about them said that they had influenced the Stoics, who were serious philosophers. I also remember reading somewhere that there was one philosopher from antiquity who embodied the spirit of Socrates without being a Platonist who also deeply admired Diogenes, and his name was Epictetus. So I first read Epictetus as an heir to Socrates, not even fully conscious that he was a Stoic. I also read Marcus Aurelius around this time, again not fully conscious that he was a Stoic, but it didn’t take too long to start joining all the dots.

Q: What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?  

One of the things I admire about Stoicism is what we might call its ‘reality principle’, to borrow a phrase. Both Epictetus and Marcus continually insist that we face up to the reality of both particular situations we find ourselves in and the human condition in general. We cannot control every aspect of our lives, sometimes bad things happen and we just have to accept it, we cannot control other people and how they behave towards us, we cannot avoid the fact that we shall die and so will all our loved ones. These are just facts. I particularly like the idea that it is by studying Nature and understanding better how the natural world works that we can come to accept these as simply parts of the natural order of things rather than great tragedies or sources for melancholy. I think that connection between ‘physics’ and ‘ethics’ is important; you find the same connection in Epicureanism, which I also admire.

Q: In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

The later Roman Stoics whose works survive (Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus, Marcus) deal with the sorts of issues I have just mentioned. These are perennial issues connected to the human condition. As such they remain as relevant now as they have been since they were first written. These are issues that any reflective person will think about from time to time and so everyone can benefit from reading their works. That doesn’t mean that I think everyone ought to ‘become a Stoic’ (whatever that might mean), but reading their works creates an opportunity to reflect on the sorts of issues they address. It is also a way of reconnecting with a classical tradition of thought that has been a vital part of Western culture for centuries but more recently has fallen off typical educational curricula. Many people encountering Stoicism for the first time are struck by how familiar some of the ideas seem, perhaps unaware of the influence Stoicism has had on so many different parts of our shared culture.

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

That’s a difficult question to answer. Has reading about Stoicism changed me or did I simply find something that resonated with my natural predispositions? I certainly don’t ‘practise Stoicism’ in the way that I know some people do. But I have had a number of sustained periods just reading Stoic authors day after day, week after week, over the past twenty years and I have no doubt that a fair bit has been internalized along the way. I think that Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life has probably helped me fight procrastination on more than one occasion!

Q: What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

It is difficult to choose from so much material but I’ll go with two. The first is from Epictetus, Discourses 1.15. I’ve quoted this a number of times in my academic work because it is the one place where Epictetus refers to philosophy as an ‘art of living’. But in the present context I like it because it is about someone asking for help with his angry brother, to which Epictetus responds by saying ‘bring him to me, and I will tell him; but to you I have nothing to say about his anger’. In short, we would do better sorting ourselves out before pointing a finger at other people’s problems. The second is from Marcus Aurelius (2.17):

Of man’s life, his time is a point, his substance flowing, his perception faint, the constitution of his whole body decaying, his soul a spinning wheel, his fortune hard to predict, and his fame doubtful; that is to say, all the things of the body are a river, the things of the soul dream and delusion, life is a war and a journey in a foreign land, and afterwards oblivion.

In occasional moments of stress this firmly puts everything into perspective. Nothing that will happen today is of any consequence at all in the larger scheme of things. While I have heard some people say they find this depressing, I have always found it liberating: ‘don’t sweat the small stuff… and it’s all small stuff’.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

To be honest I would say just read the Roman Stoics, especially Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca’s shorter essays and letters. They are all readily available in cheap paperbacks. To learn more about the wider philosophical system on which they are drawing (and the earlier Athenian Stoics whose works are lost) there are a number of introductions, including one by me. I particularly like Johnny Christensen’s little known An Essay on the Unity of Stoic Philosophy, first published in the 1960s and recently re-issued by Museum Tusculanum Press of Copenhagen. It is only short but quite advanced and so only suitable for people already familiar with philosophy. It gives a good sense of the philosophical system that stands behind the practical advice of the Roman Stoics. And then, of course, there is Stoic Week, which is a good way to jump in and learn more about what following Stoic advice might actually involve.

The Art of LivingQ: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Don’t let any preconceptions you might have about Stoicism put you off; they are probably false! Even if they turn out to be true, the encounter will itself be a valuable opportunity to think about some important topics. Don’t assume that Stoicism is an all or nothing affair; it is a philosophy, not a religion. The ancient Stoics often disagreed with one another about a whole range of topics, so there is no reason why you cannot learn from the bits you find plausible and ignore the bits you don’t. Too many people seem to fall into the trap of thinking they must be either true believers or dismissive cynics.


John Sellars is the author/editor of several books on Stoicism.  He wrote The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy and Stoicism (Ancient Philosophies).  He is also editor of The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition.

Interview: Massimo Pigliucci

Interview with Massimo Pigliucci about his interest in Stoicism.

Massimo Pigliucci
Q: How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I am a professor of philosophy at the City College of New York, my specialty being philosophy of science. I had a previous career as an evolutionary biologist. I have been a practicing Stoic for a bit over two years.

Q: How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

I actually spend a significant time of my working hours on Stoicism, nowadays. This semester, for instance, I am teaching a course on Stoicism as Practical Philosophy at City College, to which the students are responding enthusiastically. I have also incorporated into my routine the writing of 2-3 posts a week for howtobeastoic.org, summarizing my reflections on reading and practicing Stoicism.

Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

When I saw a link to Stoic Week popping up on my Twitter feed a few years ago! I thought, “Stoicism? What a weird thing!” I re-tweeted and didn’t think about it for a while. Then it happened again the following year, and I said, well, let’s take a closer look… and now I find myself co-organizing STOICON and talking to you, the author of the very first book on modern Stoicism I have read!

Q: What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?

Its harmonious connection between theory and practice. I was leaning toward virtue ethics before I took a serious look at Stoicism anyway, because I am convinced that philosophy ought to be practiced, it cannot just be an exercise in logic chopping. And Stoicism offers a beautifully constructed, yet sufficiently flexible, system of thought that can guide one’s life day by day.

Q: In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

In the same way it mattered for the ancient Greeks and Romans: it helps us navigate a world in which large events happen pretty much outside of our control, a world in which we still seek meaning and tranquility, and which – sadly– is still plagued by inequality, war, and injustice. We may use iPhones rather than parchment to take our notes on, but it seems like human nature hasn’t changed that much, for better or for worse. That’s why Stoicism (and its Eastern equivalent, as I’ve come to think of it, Buddhism) is still very much relevant today.

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

It has changed it significantly, I would say. I now begin the day with a meditation spurred by a Stoic quote, as well as with a contemplation of the challenges ahead. I try to be mindful in the Stoic way throughout the day, paying attention to the here and now, and to the ethical dimension of everything I do. And I end the day retiring in a quiet corner of my apartment to write my personal philosophical diary, to identify things I did well or not, as well as things I might have done better, during the day. And the results are pretty obvious to my friends and my family: I am much more calm, and I tackle my problems with more equanimity than before.

Q: What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

Oh, there are so many! I keep a running collection of my favorites at my blog, and it now counts hundreds of entries! But perhaps one of the best is this one:

I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later. (Epictetus, Discourses I, 1.32).

It’s one of the first ones I encountered by Epictetus, and it struck me because of its combination of wisdom, perspective, and sense of humor. Really, hard to do better than that!

Q: What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

There are so many resources! they could probably start with your blog, with the Modern Stoicism one, maybe also with my own. Use them to get a sense of what Stoicism is about, and to get recommendations for good books to read. One must read the ancients, not just modern authors, so at some point it’s definitely worth going through Marcus, Epictetus, and Seneca, at the least. Also, join our Facebook community, more than 15,000 members strong. I find it a rather unusual place on the internet, with far less trolling and nasty behavior than elsewhere (though I’m sure your moderation helps…). People seem to genuinely want to learn and to help others do the same.

How to be a StoicQ: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Careful, my friend, open ended questions aimed at philosophers may turn into a long stream of answers… But I’d say to keep in mind that Stoicism is just one of a number of possible philosophies of life. Maybe it is right for you, maybe it isn’t. The important thing is not to treat it as religious dogma. If you disagree with one Stoic precept or another, remember, so did Seneca and Posidonius, and they wasn’t shy about it! Keep an open mind, keep reading, keep practicing, above all keep trying to be a better human being.


Massimo’s book on Stoicism, How to be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, will be available from Basic Books in April 2017.