Interview with a Stoic: William O. Stephens

William O. Stephens is Professor of Philosophy and of Classical & Near Eastern Studies at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He plays tennis and chess, is a vegetarian, and tries to be Stoic about being a big Chicago Cubs fan.

Avi Solomon

What drew you to studying the Stoic philosophers?


William O. Stephens

William O. Stephens

In graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, my professor, Charles Kahn, thought I would enjoy reading the lectures, 'discourses,' of the Stoic teacher Epictetus. When I did, I was hooked on Stoicism and chose to write my dissertation on Epictetus. I've been fascinated by Stoicism ever since.

Avi

Could you summarize the essence of Stoicism in one paragraph?

William

Stoics believe that the goal in life is to live in agreement with nature, which for human beings means living in agreement with reason. The perfection of reason is virtue. So Stoics believe it is reasonable to responding to every event virtuously, to do the very best you can under the circumstances, and accept the rest. A Stoic focuses on what is up to her and doesn't worry about anything that is not up to her. The Serenity Prayer expresses the essence of Stoicism: 'God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage the change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.' Stoics believe that the only real good, the only thing that guarantees happiness, is virtue, while the only really bad thing is wickedness. Health, sickness, wealth, poverty, fame, ignominy, life, death, and all such things are neither good nor bad in themselves, because each can be used well and virtuously or badly and wickedly. How we deal with these things which are indifferent to happiness determines our happiness or misery. Our happiness, therefore, is up to us, it is not up to luck, according to the Stoics.

Avi

Stoicism is sometimes labelled a "prison philosophy". Why is this so?

William

Because people fail to understand what Stoicism really is. Stoicism equips you to deal with every circumstance in life, applying for a job, relationships with others, parenting, competing in sports, illness, everything. Stoics believe that people imprison themselves when they choose to make their happiness depend on things beyond their control, whether those things are controlled by other people, the weather, the stock market, or whatever.

Avi

Why are spiritual exercises important in Stoicism?

William

Seneca, a famous ancient Stoic, wrote that a Stoic must, at the end of each day, reflect on every decision and action he performed that day. He must scrutinize his deeds, one by one, and evaluate whether they were done well or poorly. Thus, Stoics are very serious about training themselves to apply their (Stoic) judgments about what is good (virtue), what is bad (wickedness), and what is neither (everything else) to their daily living. This intensive spiritual exercise, or introspective meditation, is vital for making progress in the art of living the good life as a Stoic. Studying the ideas, theories, and arguments in Stoicism is easy enough. Applying Stoic judgments to every single decision, action, and reaction to events around us is very difficult. It requires great discipline and years of rigorous practice to apply Stoicism to all our beliefs, value judgments, decisions, intentions, and actions.

Avi

What Stoic exercises do you find most useful in dealing with the pressures of daily life?

William

Teaching Stoicism to my students on a regular basis helps. Reminding myself about what is up to me and what is not up to me helps. It helps to remind myself that I alone am responsible for how I choose to think about what others do and what happens, and that no one has the power to make me angry, afraid, or sad. My anger results from the judgments that (1) someone tried to harm me, and that (2) I ought to retaliate. I can I freely choose to refrain from making these twin judgments. My fear results from my judging that something beyond my control is an imminent danger to me. My sadness results from the attitude I choose to have. Also, reading Epictetus, Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius is always a good Stoic exercise.

Avi

Why do you think Stoicism is undergoing a renewal in our time?

William

Stoicism has undergone renewals at different times in history for centuries. Whenever people judge that they are living in particularly hard times, whenever the going gets tough, the tough turn to the wisdom of Stoicism.

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