In the first article of our new ‘adapting Stoicism today’ series, which discusses how best Stoicism can be adapted, the need for discernment, and potential difficulties, John Sellars, lecturer of philosophy at Birkbeck College London, asks ‘which Stoicism’?
by John Sellars
Around 300 years separated Chrysippus from Epictetus (both pictured above).
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), 176-8)). 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 not just because the works of these later Stoics survive and those of the earlier Stoics active in Athens do not; it also reflects the fact that these later Stoics focus their attention on what we might call ‘Stoic practice’. They offer a wide range of practical guidance designed to contribute towards the cultivation of tranquillity or what Zeno called ‘a smooth flow of life’. It is hard to know to what extent these sorts of practices figured in early Stoicism: we know that early Stoics wrote books on mental training (askêsis) and we also know that this featured prominently in Cynicism, an important influence on the early Stoics. Ultimately the evidence is just too thin for us to know for sure.