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Stoicism as a Social Philosophy

Lecturer: Will Johncock

Originally Taught: Summer School 2021

Stoic philosophy has recently experienced a resurgence of public and academic interest. Much of this attention celebrates the benefits that are perceived to arise for individuals if they employ the ancient Stoic mantra of being indifferent to what is not within one’s control. Discussions of personal rewards regularly dominate modern commentaries that focus on the Stoic division of (a) internal, mental, rational functions that are within our control, from (b) external, social, physical, and circumstantial phenomena that are beyond our control. Also habitually stressed is the Stoic concern that when we are influenced by what is not internal to the self, we are living outside our essential, rational nature.

This course, however, presents what is essential to the self in Stoic philosophy by going beyond notions of internal control. We will instead contextualise the Stoic sense of the individual through Stoicism’s primary preoccupations with communal principles and collegial ways of being. Such a study is timely, given the collective responsibilities required of populations in response to COVID. For the Stoics, it is in our rational nature to prioritise social rather than individual ends. In exploring the Stoic impression that our individual nature is a trace of a universal fellowship, we will in this course participate in a heritage of thought that interrogates distinctions of what is internal versus external to the self. Featuring all major ancient Stoics, later ancient accounts of early Stoicism, and modern Stoic scholarship.

1. Our internal and external social lives

What is Stoic philosophy (ancient and modern)?

How does Stoicism separate our internal mind from an external world?

What is our daimon according to Epictetus, Posidonius, and other Stoics?

What might be shared about our individual minds/rationalities?


  • Epictetus. 2004. Enchiridion. Translated by George Long. New York: Dover Publications. (Chapter 1).
  • Epictetus. 2008. Discourses and Selected Writings. Translated by Robert Dobbin. Oxford: Penguin Classics. (Passages from Books 1-3).

Optional further reading

  • Bobzien, Susanne. 1998. Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (pp. 330-45).
  • Diogenes Laërtius. 1853. The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. Translated by Charles Yonge. London: Henry G. Bohn Publishers. (Book 7.52-79).
  • Dyson, Henry. 2009. ‘The God Within: The Normative Self in Epictetus.’ History of Philosophy Quarterly 26(3): pp. 235-53.
  • Stephens, William. 2014. ‘Epictetus on Beastly Vices and Animal Virtues.’ In Dane Gordon and David Suits (eds.) Epictetus: His Continuing Influence and Contemporary Relevance. New York: RIT Press. (pp. 207-39).

2. Caring for the self and others

Why is self-preservation our primary impulse for Zeno, Chrysippus, and other Stoics?

Are our self-preserving tendencies in fact concerned with collective goals?

Why does Hierocles want us to care about strangers the way we care about our closest friends and family?

Is this demand socially achievable? How do modern Stoics respond to Hierocles?


  • Cicero, Marcus Tullius. 1914. De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (On the Ends of Good and Evil). Translated by Harris Rackham. London: William Heinemann. New York: The Macmillan Company. (Passages from Books 3 and 4).
  • Cicero, Marcus Tullius. 1928. De Officiis (On Duties). Translated by Walter Miller. London: William Heinemann Ltd. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. (Passages from Books 1 and 3).
  • Hierocles. 2009. Hierocles The Stoic: Elements of Ethics, Fragments, and Excerpts. Edited by Ilaria Ramelli. Translated by Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature. (Passages from Book 4).

Optional further reading

  • Annas, Julia. 1993. The Morality of Happiness. New York: Oxford University Press. (pp. 262-76).
  • Aristotle. 2004. The Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by J. Thompson. London and New York: Penguin. (Book 1).
  • Becker, Lawrence. 1998. A New Stoicism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (pp. 69-80).
  • Schibili, Hermann. 2002. Hierocles of Alexandria. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

3. Our socially oriented education?

Does the education and training of individuals have only socially intended goals?

What are the social arts in which Seneca wants us to be educated? Might they calm our fears?

How do Sextus Empiricus and Epictetus disagree regarding education and knowledge?

What are Musonius Rufus’ societal ambitions behind his argument for educational equality?


  • Epictetus. 2008. Discourses and Selected Writings. Translated by Robert Dobbin. Oxford: Penguin Classics. (Passages from Books 1-4).
  • Musonius Rufus. 2011. Musonius Rufus: Lectures & Sayings. Edited by William Irvine. Translated by Cynthia King. CreateSpace. (Selected Lectures).
  • Seneca, Lucius Annaeus.1969. Letters from a Stoic. Edited and translated by Robin Campbell. London and New York: Penguin. (Selected Letters)

Optional further reading

  • Grahn-Wilder, Malin. 2018. Gender and Sexuality in Stoic Philosophy. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. (pp. 264-72).
  • Nussbaum, Martha. 2002. ‘The Incomplete Feminism of Musonius Rufus, Platonist, Stoic, and Roman.’ In Martha Nussbaum and Juha Sihvola (eds.) The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. (pp. 283-326).
  • Plato. 2012. Republic. Translated by Christopher Rowe. London and New York: Penguin Books. (Book 6).
  • Sextus Empiricus. 2005. Against the Logicians. Translated by Richard Bett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Books 1-2).

4. A community of bodies

How separated are our bodies?

What does Zeno mean that everything that exists is bodied?

How do ancient Stoics define the universe as interconnected? How do some modern Stoics view this interconnection differently?

How does Marcus Aurelius describe the world as one community?


  • Long, Anthony, and Sedley, David (editors and translators). 1987. The Hellenistic Philosophers: Volume 1: Translations of the Principal Sources, with Philosophical Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Passages from the SVF).
  • Marcus Aurelius. 1964. Meditations. Translated by Maxwell Staniforth. London: Penguin Books. (Passages from Books 1-10).

Optional further reading

  • Baltzly, Dirk. 2003. ‘Stoic Pantheism.’ Sophia 42(2): pp. 3-33.
  • Plato. 1871. ‘Sophist.’ In The Dialogues of Plato: Volume IV. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. London: Oxford University Press. (pp. 281-408).
  • Stephens, William. 1994. ‘Stoic Naturalism, Rationalism, and Ecology.’ Environmental Ethics 16(3): pp. 275-86.
  • Whiting, Kai, and Konstantakos, Leonidas. 2019. ‘Stoic Theology: Revealing or Redundant.’ Religions 10(3).

5. Collective happiness

How do reason and emotion interrelate for Epictetus, Chrysippus, and Posidonius?

Why is Stoic happiness not exactly a state of emotion?

What is the connection between happiness and virtuous action?

Does happiness in Stoicism manifest through communal activity?


  • Long, Anthony, and Sedley, David (editors and translators). 1987. The Hellenistic Philosophers: Volume 1: Translations of the Principal Sources, with Philosophical Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Passages from the SVF and Galen’s “On Hippocrates’ and Plato’s doctrines”).
  • Posidonius of Rhodes. 1999. Posidonius: Volume III: The Translation of the Fragments. Edited by J. Diggle, N. Hopkinson, J. Powell, M. Reeve, D. Sedley and R. Tarrant. Translated by I. G. Kidd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Selected Fragments and Testimonia).

Optional further reading

  • Cooper, John. 1998. ‘Posidonius on Emotions.’ In Juha Sihvola and Troels Engberg-Pedersen (eds.) The Emotions in Hellenistic Philosophy. Edited by. Dordrecht: Springer Science+Business Media. (pp. 71-112).
  • Gill, Christopher. 2007. ‘Galen and the Stoics: Mortal Enemies or Blood Brothers.’ Phronesis 52(1): pp. 88-120.
  • Robertson, Donald. 2014. ‘Stoics Are Not Unemotional!’ In Patrick Ussher (ed.) Stoicism Today: Selected Writings I. Edited by Patrick Ussher. CreateSpace. (pp. 33-6).
  • Tieleman, Teun. 1996. Galen and Chrysippus on the Soul: Argument and Refutation in the De Placitis Books II-III. Leiden, New York, and Koln: Brill.