2016: Annus Studiorum Stoicorum

Stoicism invented hereAs readers of this blog might know, I began practicing Stoicism, as an experiment in personal philosophy on 4 October 2014. I reported on the ongoing changes to my life about a year later, concluding that it was definitely worth a second year of commitment.

However, when I began I was certainly not expecting 2016 to shape the way it looks like it is shaping now. It truly is going to be an annus studiorum Stoicorum (a year of Stoic studies) for me. I will, of course, report on my progress from time to time on this blog, which is essentially conceived as my public diary of philosophical discovery, but let me give you the outline of what is about to happen. Comments and suggestions are certainly welcome.

To put things into perspective, this year I am taking a sabbatical from my regular teaching at the City College of New York. Technically, I have the Spring semester off, back to teaching in the Fall. Practically, however, the sabbatical has started as soon as this last semester ended, a week ago, and will continue until the beginning of Fall 2016, at the end of August. Moreover, as I’ll explain below, even the Fall is in important ways simply going to be a continuation of the annus.

The first project of the year has already started (and, indeed, I’m actually a bit late in delivering it…). It is an entirely revised entry on Stoicism for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a peer reviewed free source that rivals the more established Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in rigor and usefulness. The article is going to be about 15,000 words long, and it will cover the history of Stoicism (including the brief Neo-Stoic stint during the Renaissance), a basic explanation of the main aspects of Stoic philosophy (the three topoi: logic, physics and ethics; the four virtues, the three disciplines; the treatment of emotions), a discussion of the interactions  between Stoics and the other Hellenistic schools; a short section on Christianity’s absorption of major Stoic tenets; and finally — and I think this is a first for the IEP — a section on Modern Stoicism. Hopefully I will finish the draft within a few weeks and it will go live in the early months of the year.

Next, and this project has also already started, is the main focus of my sabbatical: writing a book for a general audience tentatively entitled “How To Be A Stoic” (yes, like this blog, not at all a coincidence). The manuscript is scheduled to be delivered to Basic Books, my American publisher, by the end of August, so it will hopefully see the light in print by the Fall of ’17. (I have worked with Basic before, on Answers for Aristotle, and I’m very happy to be associated with them again.)

To my surprise, my agent has already been able to sell the rights for German, Dutch, Italian and Spanish translations, with more likely coming up once the book is completed. I am not saying this to brag (that would be most un-Stoic!) but rather to underline two related points: i) perhaps not surprisingly, given the success of other books like this one, there is a lot of interest in practical philosophy; and ii) less predictably, the publishers and editors seem to be betting on the growth of Stoicism.

The original version of the book proposal, which stemmed from an earlier article that I wrote for the New York Times, resembled a bit too much a number of other excellent books already on the market, such as those listed here under “Modern Stoicism.” You know what I mean: here is the theory, let’s talk about the topoi, the virtues, etc., the whole thing peppered with real life examples to make it appealing and distinct from, say, a more scholarly piece like the one mentioned above for the IEP.

But then I thought better of it, and radically restructured the outline. To begin with, it is going to be organized around practical issues, with the theory in the background, rather then the other way around. Also, taking advantage of a new, delightful translation of Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius, I am going to use Seneca as an imaginary friend, guiding me through the theory and practice of Stoicism.

I picked Seneca, rather than Epictetus or Marcus, because he seems to me to be the most approachable of the Stoics. He was clearly flawed, as he himself admitted repeatedly, and yet was dealt a really difficult hand to play when he was given the tutorship of the young Nero. A very good argument can be mounted that Seneca did no live up to his own expectations as a Stoic, but he also paid for it with his life.

More importantly for my purposes, he is what I think of as a moderate Stoic. Epictetus, delightful and insightful as he was, was also very close to the Cynic end of the Stoic spectrum, going so far as telling his students that if they couldn’t master being Cynics then at the least they could be Stoic. Marcus, as much as the Meditations offer a candid and tantalizing peek into the mind of a Roman emperor and Stoic practitioner, is often aloof, clearly bothered by much of what makes a normal human life (just think of his “mechanical” descriptions of the sexual act), and a bit of a brooding character.

Seneca, by contrast, was an eclectic intellect interested in everything — not just ethics, but also the other topoi, poetry, drama, politics, customs, history. He wrote about the very things that affect most people still today: from how to deal with the noise of a large metropolis to learning how to control one’s anger, from how to choose one’s friends to how to enjoy one’s declining years.

So I will use Seneca as my imaginary companion in writing the book, and to make him feel more real to me I will be based for several months in Rome (where he spent most of his life), and do side trips to Cordoba, in Southern Spain, where he was born, and in Corsica, where he was sent in exile by the emperor Claudius, before being recalled and eventually becoming a prominent influence in the early years of Nero’s reign.

(All of the above notwithstanding, Epictetus was my original choice, and I may go back to him, depending on how my readings will proceed, so stay tuned…)

Coming back to New York in the summer I will then prepare for the final two projects of the annus (perhaps three, if my friend Greg Lopez and I decide to do a second edition of Stoic Camp). The first one is a brand new course on ancient and modern Stoicism, which I will offer experimentally at City College during the Fall of ’16. I have not formulated the syllabus yet (stay tuned, I usually make my course material publicly available for anyone’s use). The general idea is to acquaint students with some of the ancient Stoics, perhaps reading the Enchiridion, parts of the Meditations, and selected Letters from Seneca, but also to then expose them to modern authors like Becker, Irvine and Robinson, among others. I am thinking of asking them to keep their own philosophical diary as part of the course assignment.

Finally (mark the date!), on October 15th Greg Lopez and I will host the annual STOICON event! For the past few years this has been organized in London, but Jules Evans (the past host) and his organizing committee (which includes Gabriele Galluzzo, Chris Grill, Bill Irvine, Tim LeBon, Don Robertson, John Sellars, and Patrick Ussher) asked me to take over temporarily. The idea is to bring the event — and the associated Stoic Week, coordinate by Robertson — to a new audience, at the same time giving a break to the people who have been running the event so far.

As you can see, there is a lot on my plate this year, and my resolution is to see it all done, largely on time, and to the best of my abilities. Of course, the effort is under my control, the outcome is not, so we shall see what happens, fate permitting.

Update: it actually increasingly looks like the protagonist of my book will be Epictetus, not Seneca. I’ve been reading the excellent Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, by A.A. Long, which has definitely rekindled my interest for and admiration of the slave turned teacher.

13 thoughts on “2016: Annus Studiorum Stoicorum

  1. Massimo, I have very much enjoyed your work on Stoicism, your blog and your contributions on the Facebook group. However I think you are mistaken in picking Seneca as your guide for this new book. Seneca was a geat stylist and died in a Stoic manner but the uncomfortable fact is that he was more than “deeply flawed” as a human being and as a Stoic. He was highly wealthy despite his championing of making do with little i.e a hypocrite, acted as a close advisor to a monster of an Emperor even after Nero’s murder of his mother, lent money to the Britons at high interest rates which some claim had some role in the Boudicca uprising and resulting slaughter. Any modern stoics who read what Tom Holland has to say about Seneca’s role in his book “Dynasty” will be shocked. I assume you know all this already but think it does not matter to his philosophy? That would be mistaken; the behaviour of an artist may be discounted when assessing his art but not that of a philosopher whose philosophy is a way of life. That needs someone of impeccable virtue such as Epictetus. Seneca by contrast is a an embarressment to Stoicism and in any event had nothing original to say. Epictetus is the towering figure of Roman Stoicism and along with Marcus Aurelius, the closest to achieving the idea of the Stoic Sage.


  2. I wish you every success in all your 2016 projects, Mwalimu ya Stoa! I look forward to reading your new book and the course materials from your new Fall 2016 course at CUNY. Safari Njema, travel well and safely, this summer!


  3. peter,

    I appreciate your comments, and I’m aware of Seneca’s biography, such as it can be reconstructed. He has always been a controversial figure, oscillating between secular saint and pariah.

    I’ve read the recent biographies and other material, and my own assessment is that the situation is complex. For instance, there is evidence that he did exert a positive influence on Nero in the early years, but that things then quickly got out of control, leading eventually to his own death.

    At any rate, my book isn’t going to be an apologia for Seneca, indeed, I intend to remark on precisely the things you bring up in order to make the point of how difficult it actually is to coherently implement a philosophy of life.

    You are right that Epictetus is a much better role model, but his brand of Stoicism is so close to Cynicism that I don’t think it is suitable to modern audiences. (And Marcus, as fascinating as he is, comes across as too aloof and uninterested in what makes life interesting for many people.)

    Still, again, I appreciate the feedback and I’ll keep it in mind while developing the manuscript!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Massimo, I’ve just finished an italian book about Seneca ‘s philosophy (if you’re interested: “Più saggi con Lucio Anneo Seneca” by Ilaria Rodella) and while I think her examination is too much flawed, the basic ideas are good and despite Seneca’s controversial life I do appreciate his writing myself, so a new book would be welcome in my bookshelves.
    I’ll keep following your blog and projects for the coming year
    with trepidation



  5. You’re a great guy, Massimo, and I wish you the best of luck in everything you do. I’m very grateful to you and to the others you’ve mentioned — Evans, Gill, Robertson, Sellars, Irvine, et al — for your combined efforts to make Stoicism relevant and accessible for a modern general audience. In my humble opinion, this stuff truly does have the power to change people’s lives for the better in a modern context that often seems to lack sense and meaning. I only wonder if it might, at some point, be worth taking a broader survey of the philosophical schools of Greco-Roman antiquity and synthesizing their paths to wisdom into a brand new guide on how best to live. The Stoics may be the best of the ancient world. But others also seemed to show signs of having brains and knowing how to use them. However, that’s a question for people who actually know what they’re talking about. I don’t. All the best in 2016.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks Montaigne, much appreciated! I agree that a broader look at Greco-Roman philosophy would be well worth doing. Of course some people have done something along those lines, for instance Martha Nussbaum in her The Therapy of Desire. And the Stoics themselves did elaborate and synthesize other schools’ ideas (particularly the Cynics, but also the Peripatetics and, in Seneca’s case, even some contributions from the Epicureans). I’ll keep working on all this, the current project won’t be the last book I write, fate permitting…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s a great idea to use Seneca as an interlocutor. I don’t get the criticism about Seneca being wealthy. It seems to me that’s a good thing. In the sense that it embodies the notion that what matters is what’s inside you. It’s easy to say wealth doesn’t matter if you are poor. It’s kind of a conflict of interest. But if you are wealthy and not only say that wealth doesn’t matter, but also you practice living as if you are not, occasionally. that’s more compelling to me. And choosing him while for some reason lots of people think he’s controversial is also a good move, it’s somewhat unexpected. It makes you pause and think.

    Anyway, what I like most about this post is the sense of excitement. That’s the best thing in life, especially intellectual life

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Massimo, these are great news. I love reading Seneca and I find your idea wonderful. He is my favourite ancient Stoic, mainly because i find him more interesting in his ‘humanness’, which is what makes him more controversial maybe. I’m also really glad that the book will be translated in Italian, so my parents too will be able to read it (they could be interested in modern stoicism but, as far as I know, there are no translations in Italian of books by Robertson, Irvine etc.). Best wishes for 2016.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m new to your bloggs Massimo but already a devotee. I really like your unpretentious economical and accesable style. I’m quite in awe of you output and work ethic, which is helping me to develop a thesis of my own apropos eudamonia and how it is acheived/thwarted.
    You’re a great mentor. Thanks for your generosity of spirit.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. After some new year (and recent birthday) reflections here is my take on what are Stoic weak points.

    I will focus on one shared with buddhism and although it is great insight for individual it is not so great for humankind. I am thinking about ‘don’t bother with outside world’ attitude, if you can not change it. There are two problems with this: first is, even if it is evidently clear, that this is good policy for me, and that I alone cannot make a difference, a lot of people (think about critical mass) would make a difference. The second is more subtle because one has to see through ideological veil (or maya in buddhist terminology). Let me illustrate this with some examples. Slavery in US was formaly abolished in 1865 but it takes almost another 100 years for South to relinquish racial segregation and even nowadays socio-economic situation for Afro-american is not enviable, to say the least. Looking around the world, there is open secret, that especially south Asia still have massive problem with debt bondage (if you’ll google it, in India are estimated 15 millions children in debt bondage and working is lavery-like conditions). Then there is rise in human trafficking with common endpoints sweatshops or brothels.

    So this one was easy: slavery is still rampant in the world today, even in US. Next one is totally different (and not so easy): affluent western societies could afford general 4 working days weekend! This was famosuly predicted by John Maynard Keynes (15 hours by 2030) but does not seem we go in that direction. But if you look at some numbers and read some authors (Krugman, Piketty, Shaxson) there seems to be trend that all the profits of increased productivity go to wealthy and not to middle class and the poor. There are two key moments by this trend: tax havens and ‘government capture’ by plethora of special groups: financial institutions (responsible for crisis in 2008 and afterwords), defense industrial complex (identified by Eisenhower; always looking for new ‘business opportunities’), agro-business (that’s why we eat so unhealthy, at least if we are on auto-pilot), Big Pharma (one of the reasons medical expenses in US are the highest in the world).

    Similar idea to shortened working week is guaranteed basic income (I believe a pilot project is now going on in Utrecht).

    When this trends will truth become, people will have more free time and questions about the purpose of life will become even more pertinent. Here I find Stoicism a bit lacking with its emphasis on virtue and flourishing. Maybe would be prudent to be a little more concret like ‘Life is meaninful when a person has a purpose’ (or maybe passion), be it subject, like significant other, be it object, like rewarding research position (and working towards Nobel) or helping the poor (or one short term example: volunteering for Bernie Sanders campaign🙂
    What else could we see through veil? Besides climate change which is sort of obvious, there are:
    – AI (artificial intelligence) will make in mid-term great strides
    – genetic therapy, cloning, stem cells (Nobel prize in 2012)
    – possible breakthrogh in aging (Nobel prize in 2009 for ‘telomeres and enzyme telomerase’, or google ‘negligible senescence’)


  11. Darko,

    “I will focus on one shared with buddhism and although it is great insight for individual it is not so great for humankind. I am thinking about ‘don’t bother with outside world’ attitude, if you can not change it”

    My understanding is that Buddhism is far less passive than the stereotype most people have of it. And certainly so is Stoicism. The discipline of action, with its associated virtue of justice, is precisely about concern with the rest of the world, and of course we have examples of Stoics who were very much involved in society, as teachers, politicians, and heads of state.

    That said, sometimes I feel people are asking too much of Stoicism. It is a personal philosophy of life, not a general solution to every problem. It is certainly centered on the individual, as any other virtue ethical approach, and therefore does not provide a general theory of how society should work. That, however, is one of its strengths, in my view, because it is compatible with a range of political ideologies, as long as the people holding onto those ideologies make a sincere effort to act wisely, with courage, temperance and justice.


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