Stoicism: a Philosophical Introduction
“Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.” Taken from Epictetus’ Handbook, this maxim expresses a signature teaching of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism; it encapsulates Stoicism’s resolution to the problem of life’s turbulences, from sour emotions (the coffee shop is out of my favorite drink) to overweening grief (a loved one unexpectedly died). Rather than be captive to shifting circumstances, the stoic aligns her rational self and individual will to the course of an impersonal cosmos; her wish is for events to happen as they do because they, along with her, form part of a rational whole. But, why should we believe that any event is good, simply by virtue of its having happened? What sorts of ethics and politics follow from a Stoic cosmology? What role in Stoicism is there, if any, for art, science, and pleasure? Is Stoicism even psychologically plausible? Is a Stoic life worth living?
In this course, we will read works from late Stoics of the Roman Imperial times, focusing on the essential themes of nature, divinity, reason, and the self. Our guides, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius—respectively, an advisor to Nero, a former slave, and an emperor—are the most prominent inheritors of the tradition initiated by Zeno of Citium in the stoa (portico) in Athens in the third century BCE. They treat philosophy as a discipline (askesis, whence ‘ascetic’), a consolation, and a way of life. Examining their surviving texts carefully will illuminate an ethics, beneath which an epistemology, metaphysics, and political philosophy can be discerned. In addition to historical and intellectual context, we will consider genre. Thus, we will broach Stoicism in relation to the rival philosophical schools of Epicureanism and Skepticism, and in terms of its longstanding influence on Christian ethics. Questions of genre open up comparative avenues of thought: How do the preserved fragments of Epictetus’ writings relate to Nietzsche’s aphorisms? Do Seneca’s Letters hold the rightful claim of first essays, well before Montaigne’s? How does Marcus Aurelius’ diary (originally entitled “To Himself,” but now known as Meditations) anticipate, and perhaps serve as the inspiration for, the ruminations of Descartes? Finally, we will engage issues of contemporary relevance. What does Stoicism have to teach us about the quest of happiness and self-cultivation today? How does it accord, if at all, with contemporary ideas of justice, equality, and freedom? Is Stoicism a philosophy of political quietism and abstention or a governing philosophy absolving rulers of the consequences for their actions—or both?
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
September 20 — October 11, 2021