Finding a professor of Stoic philosophy is rare. Finding a professor who has actually published a paper tracing the connection between the Stoics and the Jedi? There is only one on the planet. His name is William O. Stephens and he one of the best known and most respected scholars of Stoicism. He is the author of Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed and Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom as well as numerous papers including “Stoicism and the Philosophies of the Jedi and the Sith,” which of course we had to ask him about in our interview.
Professor Stephens received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania in 1990. In autumn of that year he joined the Arts & Sciences faculty at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, where he is Professor of Philosophy and of Classical & Near Eastern Studies. We were very excited to interview him as we got to ask him about his course “Philosophical Ideas: Wisdom,” how he explains Stoicism to his students, what impresses him most about Marcus Aurelius, his daily stoic routine and much more. And if you want to hear Professor Stephens speak in person, you can see him this fall at Stoicon in Toronto.
We read that an early mentor of yours asked you to read Epictetus and that sparked your interest in Stoicism. Can you tell us the story of your introduction to Stoicism? Why do you think Epictetus was the one he chose to start you with?
I attended graduate school in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. I came to Penn with an interest in ancient Greek philosophy. I wanted to study with Professor Charles Kahn. I was particularly taken with the Socrates in Plato’s early dialogues because Plato’s Socrates believed that virtue was the most important ingredient of a happy life. But Plato’s dialogues have been written about for centuries and centuries, so I wanted to find something fresh to write my dissertation on. Kahn suggested I read Epictetus because Socrates is Epictetus’ biggest hero in the Discourses, written by Epictetus’ student Arrian. I was immediately enchanted with Epictetus’ direct, forceful style of philosophical teaching. I was hooked on the Stoic slave.
Now that you are in a position to introduce Stoicism to students, we are curious where you start and if you have a good, short, working definition you use to pique their interest. If you’re connecting with a freshman and going to explain Stoicism to them, what do you say?
I say that the logic of Stoicism