By Dan Wilcock
Reading ancient Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius does not require a classroom setting, nor a professor with proper academic credentials. Those elements add value, but the Stoics’ ideas can grab us immediately. I think three Stoic classics in particular are worth reading:
- Seneca’s letters, collected by Penguin Books as Letters from a Stoic and filled with advice on the good life, are marvels of clarity and humor. I’d recommend them to anyone.
- Epictetus’s manual on the art of living is as simple as it is powerful.
- Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations record Stoic advice he gives to himself as emperor of Rome.
Anyone with the slightest amount of responsibility in life would benefit immediately from the elegant but stern challenges and goals Aurelius sets for himself. Just one example:
“Stop letting the guiding principle within you be tugged around like a marionette by the strings of selfish impulses,” (from the Meditations, as translated by Pierre Hadot).
When I read passages like the one above–and the three famous Stoics’ works are full of such gems–I’m struck by how they apply to life here and now. We are marionettes tugged around by marketers, forces indifferent to us as moral beings. Our selfish desires are inflamed by well-paid experts in the arts of persuasion. We have the chance to do what’s good, and in stoicism the moral good consists in helping others, but we squander our opportunities on destructive trifles.
One passage doesn’t do justice to the wealth that can be found in these old classics. They are all worth reading in translations of the original Greek (Epictetus, Aurelius–both Romans who wrote in Greek) and Latin (Seneca). Reading them in the original would no doubt be fascinating, but I have no intention of putting in the requisite years of study. As the Stoics would advise, and Socrates and Plato would likely concur, I’ll take the shortest route to the goal. Marcus Aurelius puts it emphatically and eloquently:
“Don’t live as if you were going to live for ten thousand years. The inevitable is hanging over you. As long as you are still alive, and as long as it is still possible, become a good man,” (from the Meditations, as translated by Pierre Hadot).
Not everything by these three writers can be digested by readers who don’t know much about the ancient world and its philosophical context. So while I think that all three are powerful and comprehensible enough for any reader to start reading them directly, some things require expert untangling. A good framework for understanding the more enigmatic passages of the Meditations is Pierre Hadot’s classic book The Inner Citadel, which cleared up some things I found confusing.
Hadot is adept at identifying the framework of Stoic thinking: their way of viewing life (destiny and accepting what life presents with serenity), its purpose (serving others and the moral good), and the need for each person to exercise a cohesive guiding intelligence (stripping away the noise of life to find the objective signal).
I hope to write more about the Stoics as I read more from them, and compare them to the Greek thinkers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) who formed much of the basis for their worldview (and that of Western civilization). Thus this blog post is just a point of departure.