Interview: Tim LeBon

Interview with Tim LeBon for Stoic Week.

Tim LeBonQ: How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I’m a psychotherapist, life coach and educator who specialises in CBT and has a long-standing interest in the practical applications of philosophy. I’ve written two books. Wise Therapy is for counsellors interested in how philosophy can inform their work. Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology is for anyone who would like to discover what the new science of well-being has to offer. I’ve been part of the Stoicism Today project since its early days. My main job has been to design and implement research to determine whether Stoicism helps or not. We have got very positive results, and the more I learn about Stoicism and its positive impact, the more I have been drawn to Stoicism.

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

My background in both philosophy and psychology is pretty broad – philosophically I find elements of Aristotle, Epicurus, the Utilitarians and Existentialists insightful as well as the Stoics. As for psychology, I have trained as an existential psychotherapist and Cognitive Behavioural Therapist (CBT) as well as being informed by Positive Psychology and Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT) and third wave mindfulness-based CBT approaches. When I’m working with a client I draw on the approach that has the most evidence base for their problem. Where the evidence doesn’t point towards one specific approach I try to find the best blend of approaches given my understanding of their issues.

So where does Stoicism fit into the mix? Many readers will be aware that Stoicism heavily influenced the founders of CBT, Beck and Ellis, so in a sense I am making use of Stoicism every time I practice CBT.  But there’s a lot more to Stoicism than the nuggets appropriated by CBT. For example, the Serenity Prayer wisdom of distinguishing between what you can control and what you can’t and then focusing on what aspects of your life you can control can be a revolutionary paradigm shift for people people have had an adverse life event – illness, bereavement, redundancy or being dumped.

When clients present with depression and anxiety, best practice is to use the most evidence-based approach for their problem, which is often CBT. Even in these cases though, Stoicism can sometimes turn out helpful in quite unexpected ways. One case I remember well was a man who presented with severe and chronic generalised anxiety disorder i.e. he worried a lot. We worked for a few sessions using traditional CBT, and we made some progress. Next session he walked in with a smile on his face announcing he felt completely differently about life. “What’s happened?” I wondered out loud. “Well, I googled you and saw that you were into Stoicism. So then I googled “Stoic videos” on YouTube and, wow, did they make a difference!” With the help of Marcus Aurelius and negative visualisations, this chronic worrier had come to realise that that the things he worried about – money and status – didn’t actually really matter in the grand scheme of things. Stoicism had reached the parts that other therapies could not reach!

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

I first read the Roman Stoics when I was an undergraduate, but to be honest I was put off by some of the metaphysics and seemingly uncompassionate language. Reading Richard Sorabji’s Emotion & Peace of Mind was a real game-changer for me as it clarified how a distinctly Stoic understanding of the emotions could be both plausible and helpful. I wrote a bit about this in Wise Therapy back in 1999. But it was only much later in 2012 when I joined the Stoicism Today team that I got a deeper and more sympathetic understanding of Stoicism, through reading and discussing Stoic ideas and taking part in Stoic Week myself. Trying out the version of Stoicism put forward in the Stoic Week Handbook is a really good way of understanding the ideas better and learning which of the many tools are helpful for you personally.

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

The things that really stand out for me are Stoicism’s focus on wisdom and virtue and its practical exercises. Other Greek philosophies such as Aristotle and Plato were great on theory but much less helpful when it comes to practice. Over hundreds of years the Stoics developed a gamut of tools to help develop wisdom and virtue. The more you go into it, the more you realise the wealth of highly readable books and helpful meditations and other practices that are available.

I now see Stoicism as working at 3 levels. At level 1, there are all the exercises you can use without necessarily going into Stoicism at a deeper level – such as the Serenity Prayer, morning and evening meditations, negative visualisation, View from Above and concentric circles of Hierocles.

At level 2 you begin to see Stoicism as a complete system, with its own views on what matters in life (ethics), the nature of the universe (metaphysics) and how we should use reason (logic). Level 2 has its benefits and drawbacks. On the plus side, Stoicism is a lot more powerful once you buy into all of its ideas. For example, at level 1 the Serenity Prayer tells you to focus on what you can control. The level 2 Stoic takes this much further as she believes that that the only thing you can really control is your own thinking and action. How exactly should you control your thinking and what should you do? According to level 2 Stoicism, you should live according to the virtues – so you should be wise, courageous, just, self-controlled and have a love of all humanity. This is within your control and, the Stoics add, if you do this, you will also be an excellent and flourishing human being. The Stoics then claim that being an excellent human being is all that really matters – virtue trumps feeling good every time.

So if you are upset by something – for example, to take the topic of my 2016 Stoicon workshop, the idea that Donald Trump might be the next US President, you first tell yourself to focus only on those aspects of the situation you can control. You next think about how you can respond virtuously to the situation – which in this case might be doing all within your powers to help those adversely affected by any policies that worry you.  It was this kind of paradigm shift that my chronically worried client experienced. Overnight he had become a level 2 Stoic, and that had shifted his perspective so much that he really didn’t care so much about what the Stoics call “preferred indifferents” which had been driven his generalised anxiety disorder.

The downside of level 2 Stoicism is that there may well be parts of the Stoic system that you don’t find very plausible or helpful. For myself, I struggle with the idea that virtue completely trumps not feeling bad and that feeling good matters so little. I find it more plausible to see there being a balance between being good, feeling good and doing good. That’s where level 3 Stoicism comes in. Here you integrate the acceptable parts of Stoicism into your own worldview. In effect, that’s what historically Stoics like Seneca did, and it’s what some modern Stoics do too. There is of course the question of how much you have to buy into level 2 Stoicism to be called a Stoic rather than someone who isn’t a Stoic but finds some Stoic ideas useful. Historically Seneca came into the first category and Cicero the second. Personally I find this debate less useful than trying to work out the details of a helpful and plausible Stoic-informed philosophy of life and its attendant practical applications. That’s what I want to focus on, and that’s the direction of my current personal research.

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

I firmly believe we need an alternative to religion to help foster living well. Relativism and pure hedonism are not very good alternatives. Psychology and science can help us learn what techniques work, but philosophy is needed to help us think about what matters in life and the nature of flourishing. Philosophy is needed in the search for wisdom. Stoicism has a large treasure chest of wise ideas and practices. My hope is that if blended with the best of twenty-first century science, psychology and psychotherapy practices it can help us build an effective philosophy for living for the twenty-first century.

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

For many years I was a part-time level 1 Stoic, using things like the Serenity Prayer when I needed them. These days I would say I am an advanced level 1 Stoic, working towards being a level 3 Stoic. For example, recently I’ve developed a little computer application which sends me several emails each day from a database of my favourite Stoic quotes, grouped by theme such as morning meditation, evening meditation, love of humanity, Stoic mindfulness and Stoic wisdom. I think these help me to be a better person, but I consider myself very much a prokopton – a work in progress.

Q: What are some of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

Here are some of my favourites:

Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception [the way we define things], intention [the voluntary impulse to act], desire [to get something], aversion [the desire to avoid something], and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, position [or office] in society, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing. – Epictetus, Handbook 1

What a great opening to The Handbook! No preamble, straight into perhaps the single most useful nugget of Stoic wisdom.

Reason should be our guide. All our actions, from the smallest to the greatest, must follow her lead. As she directs, so we should do.  – Seneca Moral Essays, III 87

Great advice, especially when we think of reason as meaning our ability to stand back and think about what matters most in a situation, all things considered. This might well require training and practice.

If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable. – Seneca, Letters LXXI

Yes! I like to include this in my morning meditation to help me think about where I want to head that particular day as well as overall in life.

Virtue depends partly on training and partly on practice. You must learn first, and then strengthen what you’ve learned by practice. – Seneca, Letters Vol III

Right again! We won’t become more Stoic or more virtuous unless we commit to it, just as if we were learning a new language or a musical instrument. And how much more important is learning to be an excellent human being than learning these other things?

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

That’s an easy one. My advice is to do Stoic Week if you haven’t done it before. If you have done it before, do it again because, as Seneca says, excellence requires training and practice.  Practising Stoicism is by far the best way of finding out about it. You’ll find plenty of suggestions for further reading in the Stoic Week Handbook.

Positive PsychologyQ: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

I would very much encourage people to come into Stoicism with an open mind. There will be bits you probably find puzzling or hard to agree with. That’s fine. Stoicism is a set of philosophical ideas, not a religion. So decide for yourself which parts you agree with, and use them. I hope you find them helpful.


Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve your Potential with Positive Psychology.

Interview: Christopher Gill

Interview with Christopher Gill for Stoic Week.

Christopher GillQ: How would you introduce yourself to our readers?

I’m a scholar of Greek and Roman philosophy. I’ve retired from University teaching (at the University of Exeter, UK) but I’m very actively involved in research, writing, and giving talks.

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

Although I]ve worked on many aspects of ancient philosophy in my career, in recent years I’ve focused on Stoic philosophy and writings, such as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I’m currently writing a book (Learning to be Good: Stoic Ethics and its Modern Challenge) about the features of Stoic ethics that I think are most important, and which can contribute most to modern philosophical thinking. I’ve also been closely involved since 2012 in a movement, ‘Stoicism Today’, which aims to present core ideas of Stoic ethics as guidance for a wide audience.

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

Over the last few years, I’ve come to think that, of all the ancient philosophies on which I’ve worked, Stoicism is the one that provides the best framework for living a good life. My involvement with the public presentation of Stoic principles is more recent, and was sparked by a small workshop I held at Exeter in 2012. This led to some fascinating collaborative work on the online course (‘Live like a Stoic for a Week’), run from 2012 to the present year, and large-scale public events on Stoicism in London (2013-15) and this year in New York (‘Stoicon’, Oct 15). It has been exciting working with psychotherapists like Donald Robertson and Tim LeBon, and Jules Evans a philosophical writer; Patrick Ussher, a PhD student of mine has contributed greatly to this movement too. I think this project could go on being helpful to people for many years to come.

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

There are quite a few, but here are three for a start.

  1. The idea that the basis for happiness lies within our power, because it does not depend on acquiring wealth or position or even on the health and well-being of our loved ones, but on leading a good life, or developing the virtues. So happiness consists in leading the best possible human life (‘the life according to nature’ as Stoics put it), and other things, while they do matter, do not form the basis for happiness in the same way.
  2. The idea that all human beings have the innate capacity to develop towards virtue and happiness, regardless of our specific inborn character, social background or educational level. Also, the idea that human beings form a kind of cosmic brotherhood (or sisterhood), and are ‘citizens of the universe’ because we all share this capacity. And also the idea that developing virtue and relating properly to other people are intimately interconnected.
  3. The idea that life is an ongoing project or journey towards the goal of becoming virtuous (and so happy) and relating better to other people and to the world or universe of which we form an integral part. Achieving virtue is not easy – even making progress towards it is not easy – but nothing else matters so much.

I think these are a really powerful set of ideas. I feel they form a key part of my framework for living and that they can do so for many other people.

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

I think Stoicism matters today because it offers a strong and coherent ethical framework, which can help us as it has helped people over the centuries since it was evolved in the 3rd century BC. I also think there are several pressing major problems facing us today that Stoicism can help us to reflect on. For instance:

  • Global warming and the environmental crisis. Stoicism teaches us to think about ourselves (human beings) as integral parts of the larger world and not just isolated individuals. It also teaches us to connect trying to develop the virtues and shaping our lives as parts of a larger whole. Global warming requires us to change our modern life-style fundamentally and Stoicism can help us to put this into practice.
  • Socio-economic inequality. Stoicism teaches us that happiness does not depend on becoming rich as individuals (or as corporations or nations) but on trying to lead a good human life and to develop the virtues. This can help to provide an ethical basis for tackling the huge gap between very rich and everyone else (greater even than in ancient Rome) that we are experiencing today.
  • The refugee crisis. We are living through the largest movement of people across the globe since the end of the Second World War. Stoicism reminds us that all human beings form part of a single brotherhood or sisterhood (or co-citizenship) and that our moral concern and sympathy should extend across local and national boundaries.

Q: Has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

I think it has influenced the way I have lived my life for a number of years. For instance, when my wife died (aged 52) of cancer in 2010, I found it helpful (though not easy) to hold in mind the Stoic principle that our happiness depends on ourselves and not on our situation. I also found it helpful to reflect on my wife’s positive and inspirational approach to life and her caring attitude to other people and to try to build that into my life as far as I could. Being forced to confront the inevitable reality of death has given me a new realization of the value of life and the need to try to make something worthwhile of life while we can. These are all insights that Stoicism had too and that we can use Stoic writings to reinforce.

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

I think Marcus Aurelius puts some deep Stoic ideas in a powerful way, perhaps I could give two:

Do not act as if you were going to live for a thousand years. The inescapable is hanging over your head; while you are still alive, while it is still possible, become a good person. – Meditations, 4.17

 

Whenever you want to cheer yourself up, think of the good qualities of those who live with you: such the energy of one, the decency of another, the generosity of another … There is nothing so cheering as the images of the virtues displayed in the characters of those who live with you, and grouped together as far as possible. So you should keep them ready at hand. – Meditations, 6.48

The first passage sums up much I have said already – life as a project in self-development, the urgency of trying to live well while we can, the idea that happiness depends on ourselves and not on circumstances. The second passage brings out the importance of responding to what is valuable in other peoples’ lives and characters and trying to build their qualities into the way we live our own lives. It reminds us that, although Stoicism urges us to be take charge of our own lives this does not mean becoming isolated individuals or failing to value and care for those around us.

Meditations of Marcus AureliusQ: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

Try and find some Stoic writings that you find helpful and illuminating and read them carefully and thoughtfully. These might be Epictetus’ Discourses, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Seneca’s Letters or his essays. Or you might want to tackle a more theoretical (but still readable) version of Stoic ethics, such as Cicero’s On Duties or On Ends 3. And, as E. M. Forster put it, ‘only connect’ these ideas and writings with your own daily life.


Christopher Gill is the author of several books, including The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought.  He also authored commentaries on the modern translations, by Robin Hard, of Epictetus’ Discourses and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

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.

Beginners Guide to Stoicism

Explains what you may want to read first and how to start learning more about Stoicism.

One of the most frequently asked questions on my Facebook group for Stoicism, and elsewhere, is “Where is the best place to begin if I want to learn about Stoicism?”  People often want recommendations for reading, in particular.  So I’ve written this post to summarise the advice I normally give.  The answer is actually quite simple.

General Information

At the risk of stating the obvious, you can do a lot worse than start by looking at the excellent Wikipedia article on Stoicism.  The Stoicism Subreddit (see below) also has a superb FAQ page on Stoicism.  Read my blog article A Simpified Modern Approach to Stoicism, if you want an outline of a simple daily practice.

Reading

At a rough estimate, less than 1% of the many ancient writings on Stoicism actually survive today.  We have no complete texts by the Greek founders of Stoicism, only fragments.  Most of our knowledge of it comes from three Roman Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.  They lived in the first and second centuries AD, three hundreds years after Zeno of Citium had founded the Stoic school.  By their time, the Athenian school of Stoicism no longer existed, and the Stoic school had no formal head (“scholarch”) to guide it.  Nevertheless, we learn a great deal about Stoicism from their writings.  We also learn a great deal about Stoicism from many comments made by non-Stoics, most notably the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero, who was a Platonist himself but nevertheless very sympathetic toward Stoic ideas.  We do also have about a book’s worth of fragmentary sayings and passages attributed to the early Greek Stoics, although these tend to be of slightly more interest to academics than to newcomers.

Hayes MeditationsThe Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The first text on Stoicism that most people read is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  It’s very small book, written in a beautiful aphoristic style.  There are many translations available, and it’s easy to obtain older (out of copyright) editions free online.  The only real limitation of this book is that it’s not a systematic account of Stoic philosophy.  Having read it, people often still lack a basic understanding of the basic doctrines of Stoicism, at least in an explicit form.  Nevertheless, it’s where I recommend beginning.  The translation I recommend for modern readers is by Gregory Hayes.

The Handbook of Epictetus

The second book that I would recommend reading is the famous Handbook or Encheiridion of Stoic Philosophy, written by Arrian, a student of Epictetus, based on his teacher’s lectures.  Marcus was greatly influenced by Epictetus, and probably thought of himself as a follower of this particular sect of Stoicism.  The Handbook is very short and also written aphoristically, although in more confrontational style than The Meditations.

The Discourses of Epictetus

If you like Epictetus then it would be natural to follow reading his Handbook by reading the Discourses on which they’re based, also noted down by his student Arrian.    (There are also a few fragmentary sayings of Epictetus worth reading.)  If not, skip to the writings of Seneca below.

There were originally eight volumes of the Discourses but only four have survived to the present day.  Marcus Aurelius appears to say that he was given a copy by his Stoic friend and mentor Junius Rusticus so it’s possible he had read all eight volumes.  (It may even be that some passages from The Meditations are actually quotes or paraphrases from the lost Discourses of Epictetus as Marcus cites the known volumes several times.)

The Lectures and Sayings of Musonius Rufus

If you enjoyed the Handbook and Discourses then you should read the less well-known Lectures and Sayings of Epictetus’ own teacher, Gaius Musonius Rufus.  Musonius’ surviving writings are relatively few and short.  They’re written in a strikingly similar style to Epictetus’ Discourses.

The Letters of Seneca to Lucilius

This is where many people begin, so if you’re not drawn to Marcus or Epictetus, you might choose to start with Seneca.  Seneca wrote in Latin whereas Marcus and Epictetus, though Roman, wrote in Greek.  Marcus and Epictetus never mention Seneca, although he lived before them.  His style of Stoicism is slightly different, and perhaps owes more to the “Middle Stoa” of Posidonius.  His Letters to Lucilius go by different names but you’ll usually find them referred to as the main collection of moral letters (or epistles) by Seneca.  These constitute a series of very well-written letters or essays addressed to a novice Stoic and they’re often read from start to finish, although they cover different themes.

The Essays and Dialogues of Seneca

If you liked Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius then we have many more surviving writings by him concerning Stoicism, which you should read.  Either get a copy of his complete writings or look for abridged collections of his various essays (often other, longer letters) and dialogues.

The Writings of Cicero

Cicero was a Platonist, not a Stoic.  However, his writings provide one of our major surviving sources for information on Stoicism.  He also wrote in Latin.  He lived before the Stoics mentioned above and was very well-read in Stoic philosophy, which he travelled to  Athens to study.  Cicero’s form of Platonism was quite eclectic and he was happy to engage with Stoic ideas and integrate them.  He has many writings which provide important accounts of Stoicism.  Most notably, though, his De Finibus (“On Moral Ends”) consists of a series of dialogues in which philosophers representing Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Platonism take turns criticising each other’s philosophy and describing their own.  The account of Stoicism in this book was put into the mouth of Seneca’s friend and rival the great Roman Stoic hero Cato of Utica, who had recently died opposing Julius Caesar.  It draws upon early Greek Stoic thought and provides an much more systematic account of Stoic Ethics than you find in Marcus Aurelius or Seneca.

Other Stoic Writings

There are many other lesser known Stoic writings and other non-Stoic ancient sources that are of importance to the study of Stoicism.  I can’t provide a full list here but I would particularly recommend the Philosophical Regimen of the Earl of Shaftesbury, if you liked Marcus Aurelius.  Shaftesbury was an English philosopher and scholar of ancient Greek and wrote his own Stoic journal in the style of The Meditations.  It can also be read as an insightful commentary on Marcus and Epictetus by a man who was trying to adopt a similar Stoic way of life, albeit in the early modern era.  Likewise, special mention should go to US Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale’s Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot.  Stockdale was taken prisoner in the Vietnam War and used his knowledge of Epictetus’ Stoicism to cope with the ordeal.

Modern Commentaries

There are many superb modern books on Stoicism.  I can’t cite them all here, but I’ll mention in particular William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life, which is perhaps the bestselling popular book on Stoicism.  Irvine’s book is seen by some readers (myself included) as occasionally portraying Stoicism in a way that more resembles its rival school, Epicureanism.  Nevertheless, it’s undoubtedly one of the best introductions to the subject.

I should mention my own book Teach Yourself Stoicism, which was written as a self-help guide based on Stoicism.  I’m also the author of The Philosophy of CBT, a book about the history of science and philosophy that tries to provide a detailed analysis of the relationship between Stoic psychological practices and modern cognitive therapy.  (My book, Build your Resilience, is also a self-help text, which combines elements of Stoicism with third-wave cognitive-behavioural therapy.)

Goodreads List

If you want even more, take a look at this list of suggestions maintained by different members of Goodreads: Popular Books on Stoicism.

Discussion

There are many excellent online discussion forums for Stoicism.  Here are just a few suggestions:

Stoic Week

Every Autumn since 2012, the Stoicism Today team has organised a free, international, online event called Stoic Week.  Stoicism Today is a multi-disciplinary (non-profit) team of classicists, philosophers, psychologists, and therapists, with a special interest in Stoicism.  Several of the team are authors of books on Stoicism and related subjects.

You can find more out about Stoicism Today on our blog, currently hosted by Exeter University.  You can find out more about Stoic Week on the official website.  Stoic Week challenges you to “live like a Stoic” for seven days, by following a structured daily routine consisting of readings, recordings, and psychological exercises.  In 2015, we had over 3,000 participants from all over the world.  It’s a great way to begin learning about applying Stoicism to modern living.

A Simplified Modern Approach to Stoicism

This article provides a brief description of a simplified modern approach to Stoic practice, designed for anyone to follow, even if they are completely new to this subject.

A Simplified Modern Approach to Stoicism

Zeno of Citium
Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2013-2016.  All rights reserved.  Revised edition of original article.

Please post your comments and questions below or reblog this article on WordPress…  For more information on Stoicism follow @Stoicweek on Twitter or check out our Facebook discussion group for Stoicism.  See my book Teach Yourself Stoicism for a more complete account of Stoic practices.


This article is designed to provide a very concise introduction to Stoicism as a way of life, through a simplified set of Stoic psychological practices.  The first few passages of Epictetus’ Handbook (Encheiridion) actually provide an account of some fundamental practices that can form the basis of a simplified approach to Stoicism and this account is closely based on those.  We’d recommend you treat it as an introduction to the wider Stoic literature.  However, starting with a set of basic practices can help people studying Stoic philosophy to get to grips with things before proceeding to assimilate some of the more diverse or complex aspects found in the ancient texts.  Both Seneca and Epictetus refer to the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, which happens to provide a good framework for developing a daily routine, bookended by morning and evening contemplative practices.

Zeno of Citium, who founded Stoicism in 301 BC, expressed his doctrines in notoriously terse arguments and concise maxims.  However, Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school, wrote over 700 books fleshing these ideas out and adding complex arguments to support them.  Let’s focus here on the concise version but bearing in mind there’s a more complex philosophy lurking in the background.  For example, Epictetus, the only Stoic teacher whose works survive in any significant quantity, described the central precept of Stoicism to his students as follows:

And to become educated [in Stoic philosophy] means just this, to learn what things are our own, and what are not. (Discourses, 4.5.7)

The practical consequence of this distinction is essentially quite simple:

What, then, is to be done?  To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens. (Discourses, 1.1.17)

The routine below is designed to provide an introduction to Stoic practice for the 21st Century, which can lead naturally into a wider appreciation of Stoic philosophy as a way of life.  The instructions are designed to be as straightforward and concise as possible, while still remaining reasonably faithful to classical Stoicism.  The most popular book for people to read who are new to Stoicism is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, so we recommend that you also consider reading a modern translation of that text during the first few weeks of your Stoic practice.

The Basic Philosophical Regime

Stage 1: Morning Preparation

Plan your day ahead with the Stoic “reserve clause” in mind.  Decide what goals you want to achieve in advance and make a decision to try to achieve them but with the caveat: “Fate permitting.”  In other words, aim for success and pursue it wholeheartedly while also being prepared to accept setbacks or failure with equanimity, insofar as they lie outside of your direct control.  Try to choose your goals wisely, picking things that are rational and healthy for you to pursue.  Your primary goal throughout these three stages should be to protect and improve your fundamental wellbeing, particularly in terms of your character and ability to think clearly about your life.   You’re going to try to do this by cultivating greater self-awareness and practical wisdom, which requires setting goals for yourself that are healthy, while pursuing them in a sort of “detached” way, without being particularly attached to the outcome.

Stage 2: Stoic Mindfulness (Prosochê) Throughout the Day

Throughout the day, continually pay attention to the way you make value-judgements and respond to your thoughts.  Be mindful, in particular of the way you respond to strong emotions or desires.  When you experience a distressing or problematic thought, pause, and tell yourself: “This is just a thought and not at all the thing it claims to represent.”  Remind yourself that it is not things that upset you but your judgements about things.  Where appropriate, rather than being carried away by your initial impressions, try to postpone responding to them for at least an hour, waiting until your feelings have settled down and you are able to view things more calmly and objectively before deciding what action to take.

Once you have achieved greater self-awareness of your stream of consciousness and the ability to take a step back from your thoughts in this way, begin to also apply a simple standard of evaluation to your thoughts and impressions as follows.  Having paused to view your thoughts from a distance, ask yourself whether they are about things that are directly under your control or things that are not.  This has been called the general precept or strategy of ancient Stoic practice.  If you notice that your feelings are about something that’s outside of your direct control then respond by trying to accept the fact that it’s out of your hands, saying to yourself: “This is nothing to me.”  Focus your attention instead on doing what is within your sphere of control with wisdom and to the best of your ability, regardless of the actual outcome.  In other words, remind yourself to apply the reserve clause described above to each situation.  Look for ways to remind yourself of this.  For example, the Serenity Prayer is a well-known version of this idea, which you might want to memorise or write down somewhere and contemplate each day.

Give me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The Courage to change the things I can,

And the Wisdom to know the difference.

You may find that knowing you are going to review these events and evaluate them in more detail before you sleep (see below) actually helps you to become more mindful of how you respond to your thoughts and feelings throughout the day.

Stage 3: Night-time Review

Review your whole day, three times, if possible, before going to sleep.  Focus on the key events and the order in which they happened, e.g., the order in which you undertook different tasks or interacted with different people during the day.

  1. What did you do that was good for your fundamental wellbeing?  (What went well?)
  2. What did you do that harmed your fundamental wellbeing?  (What went badly?)
  3. What opportunities did you miss to do something good for your fundamental wellbeing?  (What was omitted?)

Counsel yourself as if you were advising a close friend or loved one.  What can you learn from the day and, where appropriate, how can you do better in the future?  Praise yourself for what went well and allow yourself to reflect on it with satisfaction.  You may also find it helps to give yourself a simple subjective rating (from 0-10) to measure how consistently you followed the instructions here or how good you were at pursuing rational and healthy goals while remaining detached from things outside of your direct control.  However, also try to be concise in your evaluation of things and to arrive at conclusions without ruminating over things for too long.

If you’re interested, you can complete The Stoic Attitudes Scale and rate how strong your belief is in different aspects of Stoic theory.

Appendix: Some Additional Stoic Practices

There’s a lot more to Stoicism, in terms of both the theory and practice.  You might want to begin with a simple approach but you should probably broaden your perspective eventually to include the other parts of Stoicism.  Reading The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and other books can provide you with a better idea of the theoretical breadth of Stoic philosophy.  Here are three examples of other Stoic practices, followed by a link to a longer and more detailed article on this site…

  1. Contemplation of the Sage: Imagine the ideal Sage or exemplary historical figures (Socrates, Diogenes, Cato) and ask yourself: “What would he do?”, or imagine being observed by them and how they would comment on your actions.
  2. Contemplating the Whole Cosmos: Imagine the whole universe as if it were one thing and yourself as part of the whole, or the View from Above: Picture events unfolding below as if observed from Mount Olympus or a high  watchtower.
  3. Premeditation of Adversity: Mentally rehearse potential losses or misfortunes and view them as “indifferent” (decatastrophising), also view them as natural and inevitable to remove any sense of shock or surprise.

Follow this link for a much more detailed account of Stoic practices with a wider range of techniques.