Translating The Stoics: An Interview With “The Daily Stoic” Co-Author Stephen Hanselman

Stephen Hanselman has worked for more than three decades in publishing as a bookseller, publisher, and literary agent. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, where he received a master’s degree while also studying extensively in Harvard’s philosophy department. Stephen is also the co-author of The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living, along with Ryan Holiday. In the book Stephen translated 366 Stoic passages from the big three stoics Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus and some of the lesser known like Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus. Stephen is the founder of LevelFiveMedia, a literary agency with clients including Tim Ferriss, Jack Canfield, Ryan Holiday, and many others.

What was your first exposure to stoicism? How have your studies evolved since then?

When I was a double major in Philosophy and History as an undergraduate at Fresno Pacific University. One of the faculty there who shaped an amazing core curriculum program was Delbert Wiens, who did his dissertation at the University of Chicago on the Roman educator and Stoic philosopher, Gaius Musonius Rufus, who was known as “the Roman Socrates,” a contemporary of both Seneca and Epictetus and a key influence on Epictetus. During those years I read a lot about the Stoics, but it was only later that I started reading the late Stoics directly.

During graduate school at Harvard Divinity School, while taking classes in the Harvard’s philosophy department, I happened upon Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was a great abolitionist and brave colonel who led the first all-black regiment in the Civil War—himself a Harvard Divinity graduate—and author of a fine translation of Epictetus that I read, which led me in turn to Oldfather’s Loeb volumes on Epictetus, and I was hooked.

I’ve kept up my reading through the years, but most intensively over the past two years while working on this project with Ryan. I’ve always been particularly fascinated with how Stoic views of human nature, education, and their practices of character formation shaped the Roman world and had a huge impact on the Christian Church Fathers and Christian ascetical practice.

You translated 366 stoic passages for “The Daily Stoic.” What insights did that give you into the various Stoics that someone not as familiar with their original works may not know?

As you immerse yourself in the texts, you begin to see more clearly both the character and individuality of each of the three great figures of late Stoicism.

In Seneca, you find the measured, urbane and polished style of a wealthy and influential political insider. With Epictetus, you see the wily, spirited, and often funny challenges of a former slave turned influential teacher. In Marcus, who is actually writing to himself and for himself, you get very beautiful and often elliptical language. The major themes vary: for Seneca, handling everyday and often challenging situations; for Epictetus, focusing on our freedom and power of choice and its inviolability; for Marcus, the importance of good character and concern for the common good, not as abstractions, but things to be realized in our duties in each and every moment.

For all their individual uniqueness, you also see a great deal of unity in what they teach. Part of the reason for this is the Stoic practice of having teachers and mentors, and you can trace a straight line from Musonius to Epictetus and from Epictetus through Rusticus to Marcus Aurelius. But the Stoics also encourage us to blaze our own path, as Seneca wrote:

“Won’t you be walking in your predecessors’ footsteps? I surely will use the older path, but if I find a shorter and smoother way, I’ll blaze a trail there. The ones who pioneered these paths aren’t our masters, but our guides. Truth stands open to everyone, it hasn’t been monopolized.” — Seneca, Moral Letters, 33.11

Philosophy is often treated as a club for insiders who split hairs or rehearse past arguments for someone’s approval, but the Stoics saw it differently—as a practice that requires our creative participation in putting it to the test in life.

How much personal interpretation goes into translating ancient texts? What was your goal in preparing this work?

All translation is re-creation or re-imagination. A big part of the job is understanding the tradition of thought and what’s consistent and inconsistent with it. Where does each figure put the emphasis and why? Do they use terms in the same way, or if differently, what’s behind that? You can follow the Greek terms from Musonius through Epictetus and Marcus and see quite a bit of consistency, but also individual differences. I wanted to bring that out in an accessible and consistent way. The glossary at the back of the book and now available here on the site chronicles a lot of that process. There are many excellent translations available that we list here, and we hope this work will lead many back to the sources that have been so influential for us and for so many through the centuries.

How does stoicism play a role in your everyday life?

I always laugh when asked that, because as an agent you are often complainer-in-chief. That’s a big no-no for the Stoics, who say that if you are really making progress you won’t complain or blame anyone. Either fix what is in your power to fix, they say, or blame yourself and do better next time. That prescription gets put to a special test in raising twin boys!

I always use Stoic practices to help increase focus by clarifying my thinking, by considering what’s of real value and proper purpose is in each situation, and by trying to reduce fears (or false hopes; the Stoics saw them as the flip side of the same problem) whenever possible. Fears and hopes from past experiences or concerning future events are not in our control and paralyze us in the present moment, keeping us from engaging the choices and actions that are ours alone to make.

You represent a lot of popular authors ranging from Tim Ferriss to Jack Canfield. What stoic traits do you see in the work of your clients? How do you think this impacts their creative output and yours?

I was Jack Canfield‘s editor and publisher of THE SUCCESS PRINCIPLES when I worked at HarperCollins for 13 years. Jack is the one who sent Tim Ferriss my way when I first became an agent 11 years ago. Jack’s philosophy at the bedrock is about taking 100% responsibility for our lives, and he has what struck me from the first reading a very Stoic formula that states Events + Response = Outcome…we don’t control events, but we do control our response, and that is ALL the leverage on our outcomes in life. So, Jack is very solid on his Epictetus, I’d say. Tim is a huge Seneca fan, and he’s mined his best practices for fear-setting, appreciating the value of time and the leverage of saying no to things, and the power of negative visualization in his books. Ryan Holiday, of course, favors the last of three great late Stoics, Marcus Aurelius. I like how Ryan brings out BOTH the pragmatic teaching on resilience and Marcus’ heavy emphasis on the virtues and the common good.

My journey from bookselling to publishing to agenting has been all about connecting authors with readers, and focusing as much as possible on things that I find interesting and truly helpful for improving people’s lives. Books change lives! Ryan is on that very same path. It’s nice to have great traveling companions. And it’s been particularly wonderful to bring together Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus in this one volume.

What is your favorite stoic quote or passage?

People are surprised when they learn it because of all the narrow stereotypes, but the Stoics were quite big on gratitude, which I think is one of the key elements of a happy, well-flowing life. They didn’t mean it in the kind of pollyannish way you hear it today, but in a cleared-eyed way. Epictetus put it well:

“It is easy to praise providence for anything that may happen if you have two qualities: a complete view of what has actually happened in each instance and a sense of gratitude. Without gratitude what is the point of seeing, and without seeing what is the object of gratitude?” — Epictetus, Discourses, 1.6.1–2