My journey to Stoic philosophy and beyond can be attributed to being constitutionally inclined to learn in a way that echos Seneca’s advice to contain your philosophy studies to only a few great thinkers. Luckily for me, early in my formal philosophy study I was introduced to Martha Nussbaum’s books and academic articles. Along with Isaiah Berlin and Charles Taylor she was one of the first thinkers I studied in depth as part of my philosophical training. These thinkers complemented my older engagements with Jean Paul Sartre and Gregory Bateson.
Beginning Stoic philosophy
I came to stoicism rather late. The initial impetus was Martha Nussbaum’s Fragility of Goodness: luck and ethics in Greek tragedy and philosophy. Her chapters on how important relationships are for a good human life, and the risk to living a good life if something happens to them, shaped my first thoughts on an art of living. Thinking deeply about the fragility of goodness when relationships are central, led to reading her philosophical treatise on the emotions – Upheavals of Thought: the intelligence of emotions.
That book starts with a Neo-Stoic view of emotions, and makes it very clear why the aim of the Stoic’s approach to emotions isn’t really an option for most Westerners this far down the road after the romantic revolution. Upheavals of Thought while supposedly written for the general reader, is a massive treatise. After the initial sections on a Stoic understanding of the structure of emotions, the book also has a 250 page treatise on compassion. The last 250 pages of the book provide one of the best philosophical treatments of Love. The view Nussbaum argues for in Upheavals was profoundly stimulating, and I soon sought out a copy her earlier book Therapy of Desire: theory and practice in Hellenistic ethics.
The chapters on Stoicism in Therapy of Desire re-shaped the last two years of my PhD study in applied philosophy. After reading it, my research turned to philosophical therapy and how philosophy can help us negotiate the deforming problems of our upbringing and society to choose a good life that is actually good.
Nussbaum’s philosophy books for beginners
Along the way I also acquired a copy of Nussbaum’s Love’s Knowledge: essays on philosophy and literature. This book, and her Cultivating Humanity: a classical defense of reform in liberal education are my top two recommendations for someone starting to lean into a philosophical journey. Cultivating Humanity carefully and thoroughly demonstrates how important studying academic research is to developing a mind, capable of recognizing how our upbringing and society shaped, and maybe deformed our desires, emotions and how we think about gender, race and the place of Western Civilization in history. If I’m ever bogged down in the arguments and ideas of Sartre, Wittgenstein or Seneca, this is the book I re-read to reignite my passion for philosophy as a life enriching discipline.
Cultivating Humanity can challenge our understanding of the ‘naturalness’ of our ‘personal’ understanding of the world. Love’s Knowledge is an altogether more intellectually challenging collection of essays. The books second chapter ‘The Discernment of Perception: an Aristotelian conception of private and public rationality’ offers the best comprehensive introduction to the core issues in philosophy as an art of reasoning. The first chapter ‘Form and Content’ also introduces the issues that are at stake in any philosophical endeavor motivated by a desire to better understand an art of living that is actually good, and how they can be approached in a very helpful way.
Beginning philosophy – reading & writing
I currently have twelve of Nussbaum’s books. Her philosophical writing is not an easy read like Holiday or Alain de Button. However, her writing is accessible enough to follow Seneca’s idea of philosophical study. Intellectual rigor is far and away the most important practice in any effort that aims to be philosophical. Studying Nussbaum’s books demonstrates and demands intellectual rigor. It also stimulates writing about what you read. Therefore her work fulfills Seneca’s other maxim that becoming oneself through philosophy, demands study and writing about what you study.
If you have begun leaning into philosophy, Martha’s Cultivating Humanity is a good place to start. If it is Stoic philosophy that has attracted you to the discipline, then The Therapy of Desire is a good place to begin. Love’s Knowledge is a good book for beginners who have an interest in literature. The essays can be demanding but are equally rewarding in their rigor. The rigor is important because philosophy is a living discipline, the books need to be tended. Re-reading is the essence of learning what the masters thought.
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