The Stoics

Philosophy Upper Intermediate, Term 3: The Stoics

Course Tutor: Dan Taylor


Mondays, 1300-1500, 10 meetings

Full Fee £73 Conc. £32

Course Outline

Socrates once described philosophy as a “training for dying”. Only through truly examining our emotional attachments and desires can we come to recognise what truly matters, and free our minds from fear. But that is easier said than done. Stoicism differs from other schools of philosophy in its emphasis on thinking as part of a way of life. Its greatest writers, like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, emphasise an outlook that is inherently practical, considerate of others, and living in accordance with nature. Stoicism today is often associated with psychology – mindfulness, meditation, not being troubled by negative emotions (what the Stoics called apatheia). But early Stoics were as interested in physics, logic, and what it meant to be cosmopolites – citizens of the world.


In this course, we will explore in detail who the Stoics were, what they influenced, and why they matter. Our first few classes will give a firm foundation in ancient Greek and Roman Stoicism, where we will read and discuss key works by Marcus, Epictetus, Seneca, and others. We will ask why the works of female Stoic philosophers did not survive. From there, we consider Stoicism as a broader philosophical outlook that resonates in many other non-European traditions. We will read the Buddhist Dhammapada, the Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam, and Maimonides. We will read Montaigne and his early modern Stoicism alongside the soliloquys of Shakespeare, and explore the theme of memento mori in Metaphysical poetry and Renaissance paintings. Finally, we turn to how Stoicism has inspired modern psychology and psychotherapy, from Viktor Frankl and his first-hand experiences of the Holocaust to its influence on CBT, to determine how the Stoics can enrich our lives today.


  1. Who is this course for?

This course would be a great choice for someone who has studied a little philosophy before – particularly if they have already completed some of the Intermediate Philosophy courses at Mary Ward Centre. If you are completely new to philosophy, then the Philosophy for Beginners course we offer would be wiser choice. However, anyone with an interest in Stoic philosophy and an enthusiasm to discuss its meanings is most welcome. It is not expected that you will have great prior proficiency in Stoic writings, as this is what the course will provide.


  1. What this course could lead to.

Other Intermediate or Advanced level Philosophy courses at the Mary Ward Centre or other similar institutions. The course also corresponds well with another running the previous term, “Existentialism: Nothing Really Matters”, taught by the same tutor and at the same level, and taking place on the same day and time the previous term.


  1. What does this course cover

This course will provide a comprehensive introduction to the thought of the Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome in its first half, before considering commonalities of approach and influence in other cultural traditions. It begins in the Stoa Poikile (or painted porch) of the marketplace in ancient Athens, where Zeno of Citium and his followers would meet to discuss how one might live a good life. In a space both public and marginal (Zeno could not afford a proper site, unlike Plato or Aristotle), these early Stoics pursued a form of eudaimonia that consisted in living in accordance with nature. We will follow how Stoicism travelled from Greece to Rome, its influence spread first through the freed slave and philosopher Epictetus, up to influencing the summit of Roman power and society, in Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. How did such a practical, ethically-minded outlook speak to so many? We will explore and debate the ideas of Marcus and Seneca in depth.


We will ask, as the ancient Stoics did: what aspects of human life are truly under our control? What is the balance between living frugally and with nature against living a rich, enjoyable human life? How does an awareness of death and dying heighten a desire to live? How can a philosophy aimed at neutralising painful emotions avoid desensitising oneself from the ability to feel altogether?


Our first four weeks tour through Zeno, Epictetus, Marcus and Seneca. Stoicism was a gender-egalitarian philosophy. While writings by female Stoic philosophers do not survive, we will reconstruct the core ideas of figures like Porcia Catonis and Fannia. From there, we expand our focus to consider Stoicism as a kind of broader philosophical outlook, associated with self-knowledge, compassion and living respectfully with nature. We will explore its commonalities with Buddhism, using the Dhammapada, as well as in the poetic reflections of 11th century Persian mathematician, Omar Khayyam. We explore Stoic themes in the Jewish philosopher Maimonides. We then turn to a Neo-Stoic revival in Renaissance Europe, reflected in the soul-searching essays of Michel de Montaigne, the melancholia of Hamlet and King Lear by Shakespeare, as well as themes of death, vanitas and memento mori in Renaissance art and poets like John Donne. Our final sessions turn to how Stoicism has influenced modern psychotherapy. We explore Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, and explore how classic Stoic ideas influenced Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis in the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. We will conclude by asking what Stoicism means today. Claimed by thinkers as diverse as Jordan Peterson and Martha Nussbaum, what does it mean to live with nature, and as a citizen of the world, today?


At the end of this course, you will be able to:

-          Explain how the Stoics inform topics in philosophy, psychology and ethics

-          Discuss a range of Stoic thinkers and what their approaches have in common

-          Recognise how Stoic themes are also present in other religious, cultural and literary traditions

-          Reflect with greater confidence on the core Stoic proposal: how should I live?


  1. What will it be like?

The course will combine an initial lecture, class discussion, close readings and small group work. Videos and clips will be used to supplement class-based activities. At times we will discuss explore the topic through artwork, everyday life, current affairs, film, music and literature. There are opportunities for further discussion and reading outside of the class via the course Moodle webpage. These classes are particularly organised around open-spirited, warm and generous discussion.


  1. How we assess your progress on the course

We assess your expectations of the course in the first session. Thereafter, you will be able to monitor your progress on the course through participation in class discussion, questions and answers and in-class exercises. At the end of the course, you will be able to measure your progress against the stated outcomes for the course, and through your enhanced ability to think about and discuss the key ideas of the Stoics.


  1. What else do you need to buy or do

There are many good introductory guides to Stoicism out there, both online (e.g. Daily Stoic) and in any large bookshop. John Sellars and Massimo Pigliucci have written good introductory guides recently. But no single book will cover the whole range of this course. Reading materials will be provided online via the Mary Ward Centre’s Moodle website and as photocopies. Each class will have a small amount of set reading expected outside class, no more than 30 mins per week.