Following is the full text of philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci’s talk titled “Stoicism as a Philosophy for an Ordinary Life” at TEDxAthens conference.
Imagine, if you will, that you’re walking down the streets of Athens 24 centuries ago, give or take.
You might meet this guy: Zeno of Citium. He was a merchant, a Phoenician merchant. He was doing very well until a shipwreck destroyed everything and he lost everything he had.
So he made it to Athens, and what did he do? One of the first things he did was to walk into a bookshop and started reading books. He read Xenophon’s “Memorabilia,” which is a book about Socrates.
And he was so intrigued that he turned to the bookseller and says, “Where can I find me one of these people, one of these philosopher folks?”
And the bookseller turned around. He said, “Well, there’s one right over there, walking by.” Because that was Athens at the time: philosophers were just walking by.
The guy walking by was Crates, a Cynic philosopher. And Zeno became his student, eventually went on to study with a number of other of the major philosophers in Athens.
And then he established his own school, which became known as “Stoicism” because they studied meaning in the stoa, in the open market, unlike the other schools where you had to go to a specific place — Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum — the Stoics wanted to be in the middle of people, to talk to people about their life and how to make it better.
Stoicism became one of the major philosophies of antiquity. It spread through the Hellenistic world first and then to the Roman Republic and then Roman Empire. It produced some of the major thinkers of the time. Seneca, who was a senator, a playwright — he influenced Shakespeare — and the unfortunate advisor to the Emperor Nero. That didn’t end up well for Seneca.