I recently purchased Stoicism by John Sellars online, and Amazon let me read the first few pages electronically while I wait for the physical book to come. I can’t comment yet about the book itself, but I did appreciate reading this in the introduction:
The task of unpacking Stoicism as a philosophy is complex for a number of reasons. Most of the early texts have been lost. . . . The Stoic texts that we do have are late, and it is sometimes difficult to determine how accurately they reflect earlier Stoic orthodoxy and how much they embody later developments. All of this can make the task bewildering for those new to the subject.
I don’t even know if that’s why I’m bewildered, but bewildered I am. In a way, Stoicism is deceptively simple in appearance. When one is advised to pare down desires, concentrate on developing virtue, and forget about things one cannot control, one does get the impression that, while not being easy, this would simplify life. I was fortunate to come across William Irvine’s book, which I’ve mentioned elsewhere. He does a good job of making Stoicism accessible, and desirable, to non-Stoics–indeed, to people who may not have read a philosophy text in years.
After Irvine, however, when I ventured back out on my own (initially I had read some Seneca letters, then Irvine), my options were dizzying. I flitted from blog to blog, from Stoic to Stoic, translation to translation, maxim to maxim. It was exhilarating, sort of like falling in love, where you want to learn all you can about someone’s history and all facets of their personality in a compressed amount of time.
And yet there has to be some method to the madness, as falling in love is widely seen as analogous to madness for good reason. Otherwise, the questions and choices are overwhelming. Whom should I read next? Which books about Stoicism should I read? Or should I focus on original texts? Am I more inclined to be a traditional or a modern Stoic, and what do those labels mean? Do I have to believe in God? In fate? Do I have to believe anything?
For anyone fairly new to this pursuit, as I am (prokopton is the term, which charitably has the element of “making progress” built in), I would propose the following means of not only staying afloat but moving forward:
- Read whomever you enjoy reading. Try not to jump around too much before you get a feel for one writer first. When I started with Seneca, I hadn’t even realized he was a Stoic. He’s constantly quoting Epicurus–who knew? I like that he wasn’t too strict about where he derived inspiration.
- Make notes in your books or highlight e-reader passages when you see something particularly memorable. There will be lots of those passages. If you’re like me, you won’t actually remember them otherwise, despite their being memorable.
- Go back and leaf through your favorite passages occasionally. They will start to become solidified in your mind.
- Meditate. Your brain is about to undergo big changes, and it helps if you can clear out some old debris first. Start by thinking about nothing, if you can. If your mind is overactive, it’s going to rebel against you laying a bunch of ancient philosophy on top of everything else.
- Read a book or two about Stoicism for background, and/or find a few blogs that you like. The sheer number of options can impair progress and take time away from reading the Stoics themselves.
- Find other ways of solidifying your learning that work for you. Join a study group (in my city there is an active Meetup group) or online forum (e.g., Reddit has a Stoicism forum). Start a blog! (Caveat: unless you’re adroit at this kind of thing, going the self-hosted route means you spend hours researching plugins and search engine optimization.)
Any other methods that you have found effective, let me know in the comments!