A Very Short Reading Group discussion

Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction
This topic is about Stoicism
Stoicism > Virtue is the only good

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Stockton (new) - added it

Stockton Libraries | 87 comments A relatively new VSI but some very good reviews so far. Hopefully a highlight form the series.

Nigel Bamber | 31 comments I particularly enjoyed this VSI. It did a competent job of overturning the popular misconception that stoicism is simply putting up with your lot, and explained the much richer and nuanced philosophy of understanding the limits of your influence and dealing with them accordingly. There are lots of lessons of relevance today in this time of the existential crisis of climate change.
That the stoic philosophy is built on rationalism, is also important now, with the politics of populism, “fake news” and the mistrust of experts. There’s a lot to take away here. I went on to read Lawrence Becker’s “New Stoicism” as mentioned in the Further Reading section, and enjoyed that too.
It’s a shame that the Stoics metaphysics was based on an axiom of Theism. If they hadn’t had the hump so much with Epicureans, and listened to their atheist, atomist theories, we might have made a lot more progress over the last two millenia.
I also took the opportunity to re-read Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”. It always amuses me that he goes to such trouble to tolerate annoying and ignorant people, when he could have had them put to death with a wave of his hand.

message 3: by Jeremy (new)

Jeremy | 4 comments One of the best ways to explore a library is not to go to the shelves with the books you already know you might want to read - but to browse all the other shelves instead. On one such exploration in Stockton Central Library a good number of years ago, I discovered "Latin Selections" / "Florilegium Latinum". That excellent compendium has amongst its inclusions a translation of Seneca's "On Providence" - which strongly spoke to my existing world views. Every since I've added Stoicism to my belief-labels - at least as something to be aspired too, if not as a graduate.

Typically people want to apply a Stoic perspective to their problems as ideas which are useful to them. Recently there has been a trend in seeing Stoicism as a form of therapy - a criticism of which is here:


Turning to this Very Short Introduction, the first chapter I thought worth reading - but thereafter found the book increasingly annoying, with repeated thought-shouts of "stop talking about Plato!" It is a book contextualising Stoicism in terms of the modern philosophical outlook – the kind of treatment I’d expect on a university course. That academic focus is off-putting. Plato does appear a small number of times in Seneca's writing - and somewhat more often in those of other Stoics - but Stoicism is firmly not all about Plato. Indeed very little.

There is a role for reading about the ancient Stoics to understand their place in the broader history – but to learn Stoicism rather than about Stoicism, the original authors should be read. They're eminently readable in translation, and freely available. Anyone interested in Stoicism would better spend their time reading those directly than secondary sources.

I'm not a fan of Marcus Aureleus's pithy quotes. For a developed philosophy and depth of argument read Seneca: I doubt a secondary source could compete with the clarity of his exposition. I hesitate to recommend "On Providence" because its dealing with suicide has to be understood in context. Seneca is not advocating it for ordinary situations. His, “On Anger” is a candidate for the best thing ever written on that subject:


"Latin Selections" is sadly no longer in the Stockton library catalogue. Would reading this very short introduction have had the same effect upon me as Seneca's original (if translated) words from almost 2000 years ago? That’s a definite no.

I of course cannot begin to compete with Seneca’s writings either - I end with an abbreviated quote from the link above...

“At the morning performances in the arena we often see a battle between a bull and a bear tied together, and when they have harried each other, an appointed slayer awaits them. Their fate is ours; we harass some one bound closely to us, and yet the end, all too soon, threatens the victor and the vanquished... We have no time to struggle with lesser ills when a more threatening fear appears. Why do we concern ourselves with combat and with snares? Can you wish for the victim of your wrath a greater ill than death? Even though you do not move a finger, he will die... so long as we draw breath, so long as we live among men, let us cherish humanity. Let us not cause fear to any man, nor danger; let us scorn losses, wrongs, abuse, and taunts, and let us endure with heroic mind our short-lived ills. While we are looking back, as they say, and turning around... death will be upon us. “

message 4: by Stockton (new) - added it

Stockton Libraries | 87 comments Many thanks for the comments. It was a very stoical discussion on Tuesday in the library. Overall the book covered interesting ground but maybe focused too much on the author’s specialist interests – it did seem a little heavy on the Plato. Nevertheless it was a very fruitful discussion. The starting point for a stoical approach to life seemed to be knowing what was good or in tune with nature as it was understood at the time. Interrogating this is presumably part of the philosophical cannon but it did leave the question of who decides what is actually good or right unchallenged. It’s fascinating that the two main proponents of stoicism the book uses – Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus – are placed either end of a societal spectrum, being emperor and slave. Can an emperor have the same approach to life as a slave? Apparently so if we use these two figures as an example. Also cropping up in the discussion were the fallibility of reason, free will and the nature of evil. Increasingly familiar topics in the Very Short Reading Group!

back to top