This week we celebrate Prof. Nancy Sherman, her works and her valuable contribution to modern philosophy. We’re truly honored to have her on our board of advisors. PAC also wishes to celebrate the paperback release of Sherman’s Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience (Oxford University Press)—releasing June 1st, now available for preorder!
How do we find calm in times of stress and uncertainty? How do we cope with sudden losses or find meaning in a world that can easily rob us of what we most value? Drawing on the wisdom of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and others, Nancy Sherman’s Stoic Wisdom presents a compelling, modern Stoicism that teaches grit, resilience, and the importance of close relationships in addressing life’s biggest and smallest challenges.
A renowned expert in ancient and modern ethics, Sherman relates how Stoic methods of examining beliefs and perceptions can help us correct distortions in what we believe, see, and feel. Her study reveals a profound insight about the Stoics: They never believed, as Stoic popularizers often hold, that rugged self-reliance or indifference to the world around us is at the heart of living well. We are at home in the world, they insisted, when we are connected to each other in cooperative efforts. We build resilience and goodness through our deepest relationships. Bringing ancient ideas to bear on 21st century concerns―from workers facing stress and burnout to first responders in a pandemic, from soldiers on the battlefield to citizens fighting for racial justice―Sherman shows how Stoicism can help us fulfill the promise of our shared humanity. In nine lessons that combine ancient pithy quotes and daily exercises with contemporary ethics and psychology, Stoic Wisdom is a field manual for the art of living well.
Nancy Sherman goes far beyond the kind of ‘pen-and-ink philosophy’ that the Stoics had so little time for. In this book, she applies Stoicism where it is most needed–for our warriors and working people alike–and helps them become better and more resilient.
—Ryan Holiday, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Daily Stoic and Stillness is the Key
An excerpt from Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience, courtesy of Oxford University Press
For practicing Stoics like Seneca, not yet wise but committed to moral progress, sharing in reason is equally an emotionally laden experience, exemplified in supportive friendships, including epistolary relationships. In the Letters on Ethics, we have a record. We read of Seneca’s excitement in sending off a letter and his eagerness in receiving a response, his consolations in grief, his disclosures of his own suffering, his reports of the trivia of the day, and his earnest aspirations to constancy and wisdom. We get a sense of solidarity and empathy meant to sustain each side in hard times.
Seneca writes these letters in the last few years of his life, in political retirement, with mortality and the enmity of Nero on his mind. Anxiety and the search for calm swirl on the pages. There is a retreat away from externals to the inner life. But it is done with a friend. “When I devote myself to friends, I do not even then withdraw from myself.”
Paragons from history are part of the support system. We needn’t restrict our friends to the living, insists Seneca. Inspiration comes from the giants of the past—Socrates demonstrating his steadfastness to his philosophical principles in his death, Cato’s cleaving to the path of virtue in the face of political ambition, Scipio and Cincinnatus in exemplary military leadership. The demigod Hercules cuts a more complicated figure, as we shall soon see. For although exceptional, his glory-seeking makes for a toxic and unstable mix, however arduous his struggles.
Seneca tells us that the sage rises only as often as the phoenix, every 500 years or so. For critics, a sage so rare is too daunting a model to be emulated. But a sage who shows emotions and who also can be clothed in concrete, historical detail is a way to make what’s godly earthly. And that is a part of the Stoic strategy for resilience—we are to visualize exemplary models, including divine ones, who can teach us how to face adversity.
This is just what Seneca’s contemporary Philo does in his Hellenistic commentary on the Old Testament. Once again, imagine the moment when Sarah nervously laughed to herself in learning that she would give birth to a child. How does surprise, and frankly fear and disbelief, at being able to conceive at such an old age move from trepidation to joy? Sarah, as Stoic matriarch, demonstrates how it’s possible to loosen the grip of emotions that make her “stagger and shake” and come to feel steadier ones that bring inner calm and joy. There are no pointers here about technique. What we get is an example of hope: how anxiety about a most improbable and dangerous birth can gradually shift to trust in a higher authority and equanimity. That is the Stoic Bible lesson.
Connections with real or allegorical figures from the past, and friendships in the present, are social elements in building Stoic grit. Seneca’s letters are addressed to his younger friend, Gaius Lucilius Iunior. The letters are undisguised moral counsel, but they do their work through rapport building. There are no known return letters from Lucilius. This is a literary art form. Still, Lucilius’s presence is on the page in questions and answers, news about him from mutual friends, a relationship built through the imagined to and fro of anticipated and received letters. “Every time a letter comes . . . I am with you.” Seneca has his eye on posterity here—merited praise that he has “been the cause of good” of others. If glory lives on through these letters, it’s in part in the record of how the Stoics teach through a relationship, and continue to do so.
Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience (Oxford University Press) paperback is now available for preorder! Releases June 1st, 2023!
Celebrating Prof. Nancy Sherman
Nancy Sherman, a prominent philosopher, author, and professor, holds a special place in the world of ethics, moral psychology, and Stoicism. Her profound contributions have illuminated the understanding and practicality of ancient Stoic philosophy in our modern lives, with a particular focus on military ethics and the profound moral dimensions of war.
Within the pages of her remarkable book, Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind published in 2005, Nancy Sherman delves into the profound connections between Stoic philosophy and the virtues essential to the military. In her exploration, she reveals how Stoic teachings possess the power to shape character, foster resilience, and guide ethical decision-making within the crucible of war and military service.
Yet, Nancy Sherman’s impact extends far beyond the confines of academia. Her extensive writings on moral injury, which encapsulates the psychological and moral anguish stemming from actions conflicting with one’s deeply held moral principles, have shed light on a critical aspect of human experience. In her poignant work, The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of Our Soldiers, she delves into the profound moral and psychological challenges faced by soldiers in the aftermath of war, offering a glimmer of hope and the possibility of healing.
As a revered professor, Nancy Sherman has imparted her wisdom on philosophy and ethics to countless minds at Georgetown University, where she held the esteemed Distinguished Chair in Ethics. Furthermore, her invaluable service as a faculty member at the United States Naval Academy has allowed her to forge deep connections with military personnel, providing them with indispensable guidance and profound insights into the realms of moral resilience, moral injury, and military ethics.
Nancy Sherman’s remarkable contributions have solidified her as a revered figure within the realm of philosophy, leaving an indelible mark on the field. Her profound exploration of Stoic philosophy, particularly in relation to ethics and military virtues, has enriched our understanding of ancient wisdom and its practical application in modern life.
Through her extensive writings on moral injury and the psychological challenges faced by soldiers, Sherman has illuminated critical aspects of human experience, highlighting the profound moral dimensions of war and the path to healing. Her invaluable teachings and guidance have shaped the minds of countless individuals, fostering a deeper appreciation for philosophy’s role in shaping character, resilience, and ethical decision-making, solidifying her significance in the world of philosophy.
Thank you, Professor Sherman.
Nancy Sherman is a distinguished university professor and professor of philosophy at Georgetown University. She was also the inaugural Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the United States Naval Academy.