As 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.