The Wisdom of the Stoics: Selections from Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius

Edited and with an introduction by Frances and Henry Hazlitt

Wisdom Of The Stoics

The Wisdom Of The Stoics: Selections from Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius by Frances Hazlitt

The Stoics philosophy was founded by Zeno, a Phoenician (c, 320-c. 250 B.C.), but nothing by him has come down to us except a few fragmentary quotations. He was followed by Cleanthes, then by Chrysippus, and still later by Panaetius and Posidonus. But though Chrysippus, for example, is said to have written 705 books, practically nothing is extant by any of these philosophers except in second-hand accounts. Only three of the ancient Stoics, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, survive in complete books.

None of the three has ever had a large audience. The history of their reputations is curious. In the seventeenth century Seneca was certainly the best known. Then, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, he was almost completely forgotten, and popularity alternated between Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Under the influence of Matthew Arnold, the latter became a sort of cultural “must” for mid-Victorians. As an example of what was being written in the early years of this century, I quote from one of the self-improvement books written by the novelist Arnold Bennett:

I suppose there are some thousands of authors who have written with more or less sincerity on the management of the human machine. But the two which, for me, stand out easily above all the rest are Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and Epictetus…. Aurelius is assuredly regarded as the greatest of writers in the human machine school, and not to read him daily is considered by many to be a bad habit. As a confession his work stands alone. But as a practical ‘Bradshaw’ of existence, I would put the discourses of Epictetus before M. Aurelius….He is brimming over with actuality for readers of the year 1908. Nevertheless [Aurelius] is of course to be read, and re-read continually. When you have gone through Epictetus –a single page or paragraph per day, well masticated and digested, suffices — you can go through M. Aurelius, and then you can return to Epictetus, and so on, morning by morning, or night bynight, till your life’s end.

Two things are worth remarking about this passage. First, it presents both writers simply as guides to living; it nowhere mentions their Stoic philosophy or its implications. And second, it nowhere mentions Seneca. In this it was typical not only of Arnold Bennett’s own frequent references to the two later Stoics but to the references of his contemporaries and those of other writers down to the present day. Yet Seneca was the first of the three great Stoic philosophers whose writings are still extant. He lived half a century before Epictetus and more than a century before Marcus.

His output was far greater than that of either of his successors, and he surpassed them in purely literary gifts. In his writings on philosophy one memorable aphorism follows another. There are almost none of the obscurities that one so often encounters in Epictetus and Marcus. His long neglect seems all but unaccountable.

It is the purpose of this volume to make available generous selections from all three of the great Stoic philosophers. So far as the editors know, this has not been done elsewhere. There are only one or two books that even bring reasonably adequate excerpts of Epictetus and Marcus together; most often readers have had to find them in separate volumes. And adequate selections from Seneca’s writings on Stoicism do not seem to exist in any book at present in print.

Moreover, most readers today, we are convinced, will much prefer to read selections from each of the great Stoics rather than have to confront their output in its entirety. Because of the very way in which their work was composed or reported, it is full of repetitions.

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