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Table of contents
- The Discourses of Epictetus
- Music and the Soul in Stoicism
- What The Stoics Thought About Love
- Related Articles
- The Best Books on Stoicism | Five Books Expert Recommendations
Just in passing, that strategy of turning insults into humour could result in a broken nose in certain contexts. Funny you should say so. This is probably the most famous book written by a Stoic. It has been in print ever since there have been printing presses. You could study philosophy to a high level without studying Epictetus. You could do two or three degrees in philosophy and never hear his name mentioned—in fact I think I did. Up until the 19th century, Epictetus was one of the most prominent philosophers studied.
Yes, it is a better title, I agree. It later became known as the Meditations , but it really was his personal philosophical diary. Marcus Aurelius had studied philosophy when he was young and in particular Stoicism.
The Discourses of Epictetus
The Meditations consists of twelve short books. He comes back over and over to the same themes, and he repeats the same sorts of concept again and again. It is not so great to read through from beginning to end for this reason. Marcus wrote this over the course of a few years when he was on the German frontier fighting the Marcomanni revolt against Rome. Marcus Aurelius was the most powerful man in the world at the time, and yet he was dealing not only with major events like revolts throughout the Roman Empire, but also with his wife who was cheating on him, and with some of his advisers who were treacherous.
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Yet the first book of the Meditations opens with a long list of people whom he thanks. For instance, he says—this is one of my favourite quotations from the Meditations , from book two, chapter one: Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial.
There, I think, a good comparison can be made between Stoicism and Christianity. There was even a medieval forgery of an alleged correspondence between Seneca and Paul. You can find reactions to Stoicism in all the major Christian Church fathers beginning with Augustine, too, and then all the way to Thomas Aquinas. I simply cannot be perfect, and that of course is part of the Christian doctrine of repentance for your sins. The sage represents an ideal to aspire to, but is an achievable role model.
The sage is a human being. Many of the Stoics referred to Socrates as a sage. There were other examples too: Cato the Younger, for example, who was a famous political opponent of Julius Caesar during the Roman Republic; Seneca refers to him as a sage and as a role model.
The Stoics also had fictional role models, ancient heroes and demigods like Hercules.
This is the Stoic idea of a sage, which has some affinities with Buddhism. Buddha allegedly achieved enlightenment in his lifetime. In Stoicism you have an ideal model, and, yes, most of us will fall short of that, but it is an achievable model. This is described as Letters to Lucilius.
Were they literally letters? They literally were letters. The reason I picked this book is because a great deal of writing by Seneca has survived, more than that of other Stoics. Seneca was a playwright: he wrote tragedies, and even influenced Shakespeare. He also wrote long essays and epistles—a lot of epistles. There is a particular collection of epistles, normally referred to as either The Moral Epistles or the Letters to Lucilius. This book consists of more than a hundred letters. Many of them are short, just a few pages long.
Unlike the Meditations , these were not meant just as personal correspondence. They were personal correspondence, but when scholars look at the way the text is structured, they are convinced they were meant for publication. A lot of people, not just Seneca, wrote letters that were meant both as personal letters to friends or acquaintances, but also for broader circulation.
It was during those years that Nero became unhinged: he killed his mother, several of his wives, and his stepbrother. On top of that he was immensely wealthy. He was a senator, and owned land all over the Roman Empire. But, one can make an argument, as Seneca himself does, that too much wealth becomes obscene because you become focused on the externalities at the expense of virtue. These are some of the reasons why Seneca is criticised even by modern Stoics.
There are two recent biographies of Seneca that take that kind of attitude towards the man. Throughout the Renaissance, for example, Seneca was thought of as close to being a secular saint because he tried to do the best that he could do in the impossible situation of having to deal with Nero, and because in the end he did the right thing, by committing suicide, partly to save some of his properties for his family. It was a practical decision, but on behalf of others. One of the things that I have done while here was to visit the Domus Aurea.
Over the last few years archaeologists here in Rome have opened it up. You can visit now, but you have to make an appointment, and there is a nice guide from the Ministry of Cultural Goods, who walks you through for an hour or so. So I did this, and the woman that was leading the excursion of course talked a lot about Nero, and she also talked a lot about Seneca. I was surprised that her take on Seneca, which she says reflects the angle taken by many Italian historians and archaeologists, was much more positive than anything I had read in the English-speaking literature.
The reason for this is interesting. When Seneca saw that Nero was going too far and was definitely going off the rails, Seneca tried several times to retire. Nero refused it.
Nero refused and tried to keep Seneca in his entourage. Seneca eventually managed to achieve a sort of semi-retirement anyway.
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And these are very practical pieces—they contain practical advice about dealing with situations where your emotions might lead you astray. I know, right. When he said we die every day, did he mean we die because we sleep? Or we die because we have fear of death, or something different? Seneca meant that every day that passes brings us one step closer to the end of our lives.
Music and the Soul in Stoicism
Exactly, and in fact that is the title of one of the two recent biographies I mentioned of Seneca: Dying Every Day. There are so many topics that Seneca covers. He uses that starting point as a way to counsel his friend Lucilius, and therefore his audience at large, about moderation. If in fact one of these days, as a result of externalities or adversity, you really do find yourself starving, you will be psychologically prepared.
What The Stoics Thought About Love
You know that you can handle it, within physiological limits. But carrying on with that style of thinking, you could end up getting someone to water-board you for a little bit, so you realise how lucky you are to be able to breathe. That would be pushing it. I think the Romans would definitely not go that far. In fact one of the four Stoic virtues is temperance—self-control, so that you do everything in moderation, including, of course, these Stoic exercises of self-deprivation. This shocks your system. The Romans did this on a regular basis.
They went to the thermal baths, starting with a hot sauna; then they went into hot water, what they called a calidarium; and then they jumped into what they called the frigidarium, which was this pool of really, really cold water. This cold shock has a number of effects. First of all, interestingly, there is modern research that shows that this really does have physical benefits: it helps to boost your immune system, and things like that. Beyond that, it reminds you that you can deal with these kind of things. A hot shower is a luxury.
This is an interesting aspect of Stoicism because some people think that many elements of the British public school system, the private school system, were modelled on Stoicism: that a certain amount of deprivation, quite a few cold showers, cold baths, early morning runs and so on, built character. For some people, though, these sorts of enforced deprivation have been quite psychologically damaging.
Think about it this way. One of the things that I learned very early on, both from reading the ancient Stoics and also from modern Stoics, is that Stoicism is not supposed to be something that you impose on other people. It comes from within. The ancients simply opened schools, and competed with other schools.
This was a time in ancient Rome where philosophy was all over the place: Stoicism had to compete with Epicureanism, with Cynicism, with the Platonic Academy, with the Peripatetics, followers of Aristotle, and so on. There was an open market of philosophical ideas, and to some extent, people just gravitated to one school or another depending on either the fame of the teacher or the appeal of the teaching.
The Best Books on Stoicism | Five Books Expert Recommendations
Back in Athens, Cleanthes the second head of the Stoa was apparently a good philosopher, but not a particularly engaging teacher and by the end of his career the number of students dropped off significantly. Then Chrysippus, a charismatic figure, took over, and students returned. Did the Stoics believe it was just one route to a good life, or was it the only way to achieve that? I think the ancient Stoics believed it was the only way. You can see that from the fact that they spent a certain amount of time—not a lot, but a certain amount of time—arguing against other schools.
Cicero was not a Stoic; rather he was a Platonic and academic sceptic. But he was very sympathetic to Stoicism. He presents Stoicism in good light.