Assembling A “Bible” of Stoicism: What To Read After The Romans

Stoicism has never had a “Bible”—that is, a book collecting all the most essential teachings of the philosophy in one place. I’ve tried to assemble a book in something like that style, at least with respect to the ethics of the philosophy—The Practicing Stoic. It takes each of the most important and practical Stoic ideas and shows what Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius said about them. But the book also shows how Stoic ideas have been discussed by other writers who aren’t Stoics themselves. Those writers are great additions to the bookshelf of anyone interested in Stoicism. Here are three recommendations:

Plutarch

Plutarch certainly wasn’t a Stoic; he criticizes the Greek Stoics severely on many high-level points. But his views of death, desire and its management, and other practical topics dear to the Stoics overlap heavily with what Seneca and Marcus Aurelius wrote. This comes through in Plutarch’s Lives and even more in some of his moral essays. A couple of examples:

This then we should practice and work on first of all—like the man who threw a stone at his dog but missed and hit his stepmother. “Not so bad!” he said. For it is possible to change what we get out of things that do not go as we wish. Diogenes was driven into exile: “Not so bad!”—for it was after his banishment that he took up philosophy.

— Plutarch, On Tranquility 6 (467c)

Anyone who is quick to anger should abstain from rare and curiously wrought things, like drinking-cups and seal-rings and precious stones; for their loss drives their owner out of his senses more than do objects which are common and easily procured. This is the reason why, when Nero had an octagonal tent built, an enormous thing and a sight to be seen for its beauty and costliness, Seneca remarked, “You have proved yourself a poor man, for if you ever lose this you will not have the means to procure another like it.” And indeed it did so happen that the ship which conveyed it was sunk and the tent lost. But Nero remembered Seneca’s saying and bore his loss with greater moderation.

—Plutarch, On Controlling Anger 13 (461f-462a)

Nero was a prolific executioner—of his rivals, of his first wife, of his mother, and of various others (finally including Seneca); so one may wonder if Plutarch wrote that passage with some irony. But what the “greater moderation” of Nero looked like in this case is not recorded.

Montaigne

Montaigne was a French contemporary of Shakespeare’s, and at one point in his life was described as the “French Seneca.” His essays sometimes present views more skeptical than a Stoic, but many readers like the mix—especially if their own Stoicism is impure, which describes most of us with an interest in the philosophy. If you enjoy the Stoics but haven’t spent time with Montaigne, you have a treat in store. Some brief samples of his Stoically-influenced thinking:

Why is it that we are not stirred up when we meet someone whose body is disfigured or disabled, yet cannot tolerate a deformed mind without being enraged? Such vicious severity reflects more on the critic than on the defect.

—Montaigne, Of the Art of Conference

It is not against death that we prepare; that is too momentary a thing. A quarter of an hour’s suffering, without aftereffects and without damage, does not require special instruction. In truth, we prepare ourselves against the preparations for death.

—Montaigne, Of Physiognomy

Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer was a great and famously pessimistic German philosopher from the 19th century. He wrote a number of interesting essays late in life that, while departing from Stoicism in many ways, nevertheless have much to offer the student of the Stoics. For example:

The world in which a man lives shapes itself chiefly by the way in which he looks at it, and so it proves different to different men; to one it is barren, dull, and superficial; to another rich, interesting, and full of meaning. On hearing of the interesting events which have happened in the course of a man’s experience, many people will wish that similar things had happened in their lives too, completely forgetting that they should be envious rather of the mental aptitude which lent those events the significance they possess when he describes them. . . . All the pride and pleasure of the world, mirrored in the dull consciousness of a fool, are poor indeed compared with the imagination of Cervantes writing his Don Quixote in a miserable prison.

—Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life (1851)

There is some use in occasionally looking upon terrible misfortunes—such as might happen to us—as though they had actually happened, for then the trivial reverses which subsequently come in reality, are much easier to bear. It is a source of consolation to look back upon those great misfortunes which never happened.

—Schopenhauer, Our Relation to Ourselves (1851)

Further examples—and references to these and many other writers—can be found in The Practicing Stoic. Some readers might find it a little odd to be referred to these non-Stoics as part of their study of Stoicism. But I suggest viewing Stoicism less in terms of certain people who count and don’t count as Stoics and more as a set of ideas. Once the Stoics get you interested in an idea, you can learn a lot from seeing how the same idea has been expressed and developed by other writers who came later—or earlier.

***

This is a guest post by Ward Farnsworth. Ward is the dean of the University of Texas School of Law, as well as the author of a new book, The Practicing Stoic.