An 11-week overview of Stoic thinking and its resonances, taught virtually during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Like Society, Language, Difference, I taught this course during 2020 using private YouTube recordings and then lively Zoom discussions where the material came to life. This leaves something behind then, more than my usual in-person work. Below you’ll find links to the videos for each week arranged by topic, along with the relevant slides. The Course Overview summarises the course’s direction, list of topics and indicates what the key reading was for each week.
I loved teaching this class. It allowed me to go much further across cultural and intellectual traditions. It also allowed me to begin teaching my own philosophical understanding of ethics and the good life which became clearer as the course developed, anchored around seven processes of Stoic thinking.
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 compare parallels in other traditions by exploring the Book of Ecclesiastes, the Buddhist Dhammapada, and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. We will read Montaigne and his early modern Stoicism alongside the soliloquys of Shakespeare, and explore the theme of mementomori in Metaphysical poetry and Renaissance paintings, as well as in the philosophy of Spinoza. 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.