In the introduction to James Romm’s fascinating biography of Seneca, he tells a story of an immigrant janitor at Columbia University who said it was Seneca’s letters that inspired him to get his degree at the school. He’s certainly not the only person who turned to the Stoics for inspiration or support in a difficult situation. We’re told that Toussaint Louverture read Epictetus while he languished in one of Napoleon’s prisons. At Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace in Manhattan, you can even see the works of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius that Teddy read as he lay dying in a Brazilian jungle. George Washington watched a play about Cato in the depths of the American Revolution. The journalist Elif Batuman has written about how reading the Stoics helped her while she was living alone overseas, struggling in a long distance relationship and depressed by a deteriorating political environment.
Even some of the best writings on Stoicism—by Cicero and Montaigne and by Seneca—were done while these men were forced into exile or hiding while the world tore itself apart.
The point is: For thousands of years people have been turning to Stoicism when they had problems, big and small. Obviously you know that on some level or you wouldn’t be reading this email. But do you really practice this? Or, are you treating philosophy like some sort of side gig, as Seneca put it, or treating it, as Marcus termed it, like a stepmother?
Whatever you’re going through, the Stoics have written about it.
- Really angry about something? Seneca has a great essay about that (and we have a course).
- Really sad about losing someone you love? Seneca has beautiful essays on grief.
- Wondering about God? Cicero has a great dialog about this.
- Lost everything in a bankruptcy? Zeno’s life story is about exactly this!
- Afraid of dying? Seneca wrote about this. Marcus wrote about this.
- Wrestling with ego? There are so many great meditations from Marcus and Epictetus about this.
- Wasting time? Unproductive? Seneca is your man.
- Injured or facing a disability? Epictetus knows all about it.
- In jail? Or feel like you’re in jail? Read Stockdale.
- Feeling stuck, experiencing a lack of motivation, fed up with the people around you? Marcus has a passage on overcoming those exact things.
- Boss is a deranged tyrant? Seneca’s was, too.
- Dream of living on a farm but haven’t the first clue of where to begin? Cato The Elder wrote the book on it.
Remember: Stoicism isn’t this thing you do once. It’s an active, ongoing pursuit. It’s more like the Torah than the Ten Commandments. You read and re-read. Study and debate. Lean on when you’re going through hard times. It’s ritual, it’s routine. It’s something to rely on.
So whatever it is, whatever you’re going through, the Stoics are there for you. If you return to them. If you let them be.