statue in thought

Should Stoics Read Other Philosophy?

I’ve occasionally come across the view that if you consider yourself a Stoic, you should only study Stoic texts, without learning from other philosophies.

While this could be useful if you are studying Stoicism from an academic perspective, I feel that if you want to apply it to your daily life, you should be open to learning from different philosophies.

The extant writings of Stoicism did not address many issues that we encounter in our modern lives, either because these issues simply never existed, or in cases where they possibly did – the texts and oral tradition did not survive the turbulence of history. 

The ancient Stoics themselves, like us, were rooted in a particular socio-cultural context and would have come across and known other philosophies, too.

I imagine the esteemed Stoics of their day would first judge the content of ideas based on their merit and not on whether they were from a fellow Stoic or their same culture. While to many Stoics of today there may be less value outside of Stoicism than there is within, this is not true for all Stoics to the same degree and possibly wasn’t the case of the ancient Stoics either.

I don’t think it’s the best for us to view learning about other philosophies as competing with our learning of Stoicism, but  rather to view learning about philosophy in general as having the potential to enrich our lives. 

This is especially true when we earnestly seek ways to implement what we learn to make us better versions of ourselves in our daily lives.

You could just rely on Stoicism, but that is difficult. As William B. Irvine points out – there is no “pure” form of Stoicism, as I noted above certain complexities of modern life did not exist then. 

Some Stoics will be perfectly content with absorbing as much of the primary texts and sources and live their lives as close to it as they can with their best efforts. And while there is nothing wrong with this approach, there are others of us who for various reasons want to learn about other philosophies.

Philosophy outside of Stoicism can be very interesting – even if we won’t use it to guide our moral conundrums and behaviour in general.

Of course, you could interpret Stoic teachings and texts as part of a process to guide your actions and help mentally untangle some of modern life’s problems, but it’s equally valid – I would postulate – to draw from the rich history of Eastern and Western thought, developed and refined over hundred to thousands of years. To draw inspiration from and to augment what we already know. And I feel doing so need not not make us any more or less of a Stoic.

This does admittedly bring up the problem of creating more confusion and muddying the waters with possible contrary views ,and not even being aware of incompatibilities when we initially learn about different views and theories. But that just means we need to study the primary texts and teachings even closer. 

There is also the time constraint. Our time is limited and each of us needs to decide if we are better off placing all our time we have available in learning about Stoicism in isolation or alongside learning about other philosophies. For some, we may find that certain concepts are valuable to us and we can’t or haven’t yet found their Stoic counterpart, others we find valuable in our lives and so run our study of them in parallel to our study of Stoicism. 

If we are aware of these pitfalls and use our best judgement as we go along on our genuine search for the truth with Stoicism, it can help us decide how much of other philosophies we are comfortable with incorporating into our lives. 

For my part, I am much more concerned about the type of person I am and addressing my shortcomings, than whether this or that philosophy will negatively affect my Stoicism.

I would also say that if we wish to impart the gift of Stoicism to others and to communicate our views effectively, there may be situations where we will be better able to explain to others if we can use views that they are already familiar with. 

Sometimes it is easier to talk to someone within their current context of understanding than to expect them to understand our framework we are using.

Lastly, there are many similarities among different philosophies on many themes – which may at first seem unrelated but which nonetheless arrive at the same point. This is especially true of certain Eastern philosophies.

Recommended reading: How To Be A Stoic When You Don’t Know How by Chuck Chakrapani

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