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.


Could you summarize the essence of Stoicism in one paragraph?


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.


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


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.


Why are spiritual exercises important in Stoicism?


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.


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


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.


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


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.

Photo: qwrrty


  1. Great. Now if we could get exact definitions of “wickedness” and “virtue” we’d be all set.

    1. I think that was supplied: Virtue is living according to reason, wickedness would be living irrationally.

  2. “What Stoic exercises do you find most useful”

    As another lifelong Cubs fan, I find that mentally pasting an image of Tommie Agee to the backsplash of every urinal I use is immensely helpful.

  3. I like the serenity prayer but I suspect that many people lack wisdom, or the courage to change what they could.  It is far easier, or safer, to accept what one should not than to risk changing what one could…

    1. The Stoic response would be that the wise choice is to know one’s self well enough to accept whatEVER one cannot summon the courage to change.  Yoda said this in only a few words: “Do, or do not.  There is no try.”

  4. I’ve been practicing stoicism for about a year now and I love how it has guided my life. In fact, it was the review of the book “A Guide to the Good Life” on Boing Boing that piquéd my interest. In that time I’ve found the formula for happiness (for me) = Stoicism + curiosity + altruism. I throw in a bit of apathy if I get overwhelmed. Also, beer.

  5. Terrific, Jenny!  Stoicism is entirely receptive to both curiosity and altruism, as I see it.  Stoics are NOT complacent.  Stoics value their own wisdom and justice above all material possessions and the opinions of others.  So a Stoic moved by altruism to promote the good of others, act altruistically (and locally), and think globally, is acting out her personal commitment to being as just a person as she can be.  Bravo!  (The beer helps too.)

  6. How can you “practice” Stoicism when most of it’s writings and teachings have been destroyed? 

  7. Through my  years in recovery, I’ve found the Serenity prayer,  focuses me on the present.
    IS and WAS is all their IS.
    So if I surrender the past and accept the future does not yet exist. Then their is only now.
    So how will I deal with it?
    If nothing else. It removes the clutter that I get overwhelmed by or take refuge in, to avoid DOING.
    My slice. Becomes clearer and more managable.
    Also, harder to avoid.

  8. William.

    Is Creighton U still the
    Jesuit stronghold it once was?
    I long for the days, when a conscience and social
    action, were inseparable.
    As in the Barrigan brothers.

  9. There’s about 5000 years of historical research suggesting that it’s not human nature to “live in agreement with reason.”  Plus most of the people I’ve met who actually call themselves “stoics” were pretentious prats who didn’t seem nearly as self-aware and self-critical as stoicism would seem to demand.

    Serenity prayer is great but you don’t need to sign on to obscure 3000 year old philosophies to appreciate it.

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