It has often been observed that the way that contemporary Stoics study and quote from our ancient texts is somewhat similar to the way that members of Judeo-Christian faiths relate to their scriptures.
Now, some people are very uncomfortable with this analogy! We live in an enlightened, free-thinking age, after all. We moderns pride ourselves on our non-dogmatic, independent investigation, and we expect any philosophical conversation to flow freely under only the sacred auspices of free speech! The very idea of a “canon” or of “orthodox texts” is itself heterodox to many of us.
However much value we find in the ancient Stoic authors, then, we hasten to qualify our love of philosophical texts: they are not scriptures! we read them for their rational arguments, not their authority! there are many things I disagree with! I’m not even sure I can call myself “a Stoic!” I retain the right to pick and choose!
All this said, some 21st-century Stoics are quite pleased to embrace the comparison to a holy canon—myself included. “In Stoicism,” writes Lindsay Varnum in Stoicism Today, “I had found a methodical way to work on character development and to live my values again.” She continues:
When I was a member of a strict religious faith, I had been used to studying the scriptures every day and tracking my personal spiritual growth. Studying Stoicism, self-monitoring and practicing meditation came easily to me after a lifetime of religious practice and helped somewhat fill the void left when I stopped practicing religion.
It’s no coincidence that Ryan Holiday’s new daily devotional is getting such widespread attention: there are a number of reasons that we high-tech, modern people have come to enjoy spending a lot of time with our canon of 2,000-year-old classics.
- We value having something to study and discuss in depth as part of our personal practice of spiritual growth and “philosophy as a way of life.” This is part of why studying texts has been important to Stoic practice since at least the 1st century B.C. (see Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy (2002), p. 149–150).
- Our special books help extend our attention span : “Varied reading gives pleasure,” says Seneca, but “selective reading does real good. If a person wants to reach his destination, he should follow one road, not wander around over many. What you are doing is traipsing around, not journeying” (Letters to Lucilius, 45.1).
- The texts help define a community—a common language that we can use to share ideas and support one another.
- The well-developed moral culture of ancient Greco-Roman eudaemonism is a refreshing and powerful world view, the likes of which many of us find lacking in the modern world. We find value, then, in not just reading about, but immersing ourselves in a virtue ethics culture.
- The Stoic system “is a marvelously consistent whole,” as Cicero puts it (De Finibus, 5.83), and the original literature that built upon it has a certain order and subtleness to it that is hard to find elsewhere.
- They are beautiful books, a pleasure to read!
Okay, but all that is really just a disclaimer so you don’t accuse me of pre-modern dogmatism. I really just want to share the following nerdy insight with you:
The Stoic Canon is the Same Size as the Bible
Differentiate with me for a moment between “The Bible” and “a bible.” What is a bible?
Well, a bible is many things, but at it’s core, it’s a medium-large collection of books (biblia in Greek) that are of some deep cultural significance, and which are printed on really, really thin paper so that you can fit them all in one handy volume.
As you may be aware from the famous Bibliotheca project (or from similar luxury “reader’s Bibles”), the Christian Bible actually takes up anywhere from 4 to 6 volumes if you print it like a normal book.
Learning this led me to ask: could we use bible-thin paper to collect Stoic books into one easy travel volume? Let’s do the math (links are to the translations I used for calculation):
Number of words in the King James Bible: 821,133.
Now I’m going to define my Stoic canon. I include Cicero as an honorary Stoic, and Aristotle—because I think Aristotle is essential to understanding the full picture of Greco-Roman (and Stoic) virtue ethics:
- Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics: 85,117 words.
- Cicero, De Finibus: 73,615 words.
- Cicero, Tusculan Disputations: 76,712 words.
- Cicero, De Oficiis: 59,222 words.
- Seneca, On Benefits: 81,458 words.
- Seneca’s other essays: 147,996 words.
- Seneca, Letters to Lucilius: 213,580 words.
- Musonius Rufus, Lectures and Fragments: 22,292 words.
- Epictetus, Enchiridion, Discourses, and Fragments: 123,146 words.
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations: 44,763 words.
And the grand total is… drum roll please… 927,901 words! So, only just slightly bigger than the King James—and half of you will want me to exclude Aristotle anyway, so that’s probably an over-estimate.
Of course, scholars will note that I’ve left out all of the fragments of the early Stoics, as found in the SVF, and some may differ with my arbitrary omission of several other of Cicero’s works and of Seneca’s Natural Questions (and his plays—do Seneca’s plays count as Stoic literature? Nobody seems sure). So this isn’t the last word on what a true “canon” could look like.
Why does this matter?
Well, it doesn’t matter at all. Yes, I’d love to carry all the texts with me in one volume, instead of as a stack of books big enough to fill a shelf.
But I’m not actually serious about creating a Stoic Bible, because
- Bible-thin printing is actually very expensive, since it takes special equipment and you need a huge number of orders to do it at scale. So, AFAIK, self-publishing a bible-like volume is impossible.
- The connotations of a “Bible” would make it look like we were setting up Stoicism as a revealed tradition, or otherwise as a dogmatic orthodoxy, both of which are contrary to how basically all modern Stoics feel about the tradition’s spirit.
- Nobody would buy it. Seriously—the purpose of printed Bibles was to make a big set of literature readily available to a large number of people. We already have that today in the form of ebooks!
But there is one valuable thing that I take away from this exercise: when Christians study their texts, they often create one-year reading plans and discipline themselves to work through the canon on a regular schedule. By analogy, then, it seems reasonable to read the entire collection of Stoic literature through in a year, if you’re dedicated. Though you might want to consider spreading it over two, especially if you have a job and/or family!