A Brief History of the College of Stoic Philosophers

16 December 2023

In April 2008, long-time self-identified Stoic Erik Wiegardt recognized that the time had come for the establishment of a school dedicated to the study and practice of Stoicism [1]. Having founded the Stoic Registry in 1996, Erik had discovered a world of people who wanted to learn about Stoicism or were already on the path of the prokopton. He wanted to share what he had learned from decades of study and practice with the emerging global Stoic community.

Deeply influenced by the work of Pierre Hadot [2], Erik sought to replicate, as closely as possible, the classical curriculum and vibrant community of the original Stoic School of Athens, founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE, but using 21st century technology. Over a period of three days, he sketched out the framework of a self-governing community of practice, which officially launched as the College of Stoic Philosophers on July 5, 2008.

While developing a pilot curriculum, Wiegardt consulted with established academic philosophers, including Prof. Keith Campbell, Prof. Lawrence C. Becker, Prof. William O. Stephens, Prof. R. Kevin Hill [3]. The curriculum evolved over the following years. Initially, Erik was the entire faculty, the school charged no fees, and there were no pre-requisites for admission. His vision was a radically egalitarian school open to any sincere person willing to put in the effort. Very quickly, the school was in high demand; at one point, Erik was working individually with as many as eighteen students. Six months in, Erik found himself de facto president of a school while simultaneously having “no idea what I was doing.” Perhaps so, but Erik did know where he was going. And, he knew that to get there he needed to find additional mentors.

By mid-2009 – relying primarily on connections he had made through the Stoic Registry, Erik had identified the first four faculty members: Jules Evans [4], Elen Buzaré [5], Frank Wagle, and Paul Lanagan [6]. Paul is still serving on the faculty in 2024.

The College started with a 16-week foundational course, now called Stoic Essential Studies (SES). As students moved through this course, Erik realized the need for an advanced curriculum, one that would focus more intensively, and equally, on the original three topoi – Logic, Physics, and Ethics. The classical Stoics used many metaphors to demonstrate that the theoretical coherence of the philosophy required the inclusion of all three topoi; just as a stool could not stand with just two legs, neither could Stoicism stand with the exclusion of physics or logic.

The advanced curriculum became what is now the 12-month Marcus Aurelius Program (MAP), divided equally across the topoi, plus one term focused on Prosochē (the practice of attention). Completion of the SES is made a prerequisite for MAP. The first graduate of this program was Chris Fisher [7] in 2013, who succeeded Erik in 2021 and became second Scholarch (academic leader) of the College. By this time, necessity dictated that the College had to invest in data management systems, so a low tuition fee (US $100 per course) was established for the first time. Also, starting around this time, a 1,000 word Know Thyself! essay, detailing the applicant’s philosophical journey, was required for application to the SES.

Principled inclusion of the three topoi across the entire curriculum necessarily meant adopting the original Stoic doctrine that Nature/God/Logos is both conscious and providential. In late 2015, Chris Fisher first referred publicly to this interpretation as traditional Stoicism, as distinguished from the self-described modern variety which, to varying degrees, re-casts the philosophy or jettisons one or more topoi. During this time through to about 2020, Chris, along with Mark Karet (MAP ‘14), Kevin Patrick Jr. (MAP ‘15), and Dirk Mahling (MAP ‘17), invested considerable time to clarify this distinction through public discussion and debate on social media. Inevitably, the College more consciously identified with traditional Stoicism. By this time, the curriculum had been carefully cast within the framework of the classical Stoa, Providence and all.

In order to be a self-sustaining community of learning and practice, emphasizing a one-on-one mentorship experience, Erik increasingly focused on preparing graduates of the Marcus Aurelius Program to mentor students of their own. Thus began the Practicum program, as a stepping stone to joining the faculty.

Faculty Course Mentoring

As the College expanded, a United States nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation – now known as The Foundation for Stoic Philosophy – was created to manage the day-to-day operations of the College. The Board of the Foundation is drawn from College faculty.

In 2012, the college launched The Stoic Philosopher, an eJournal largely dedicated to articles written by students and faculty. By its tenth anniversary in 2018, the College had awarded Certificates of Completion to 135 SES graduates. That same year, the first MAP student graduated and was awarded the College’s new advanced credential, Fellow of the College of Stoic Philosophers (FCSP).

Fundamental to the curriculum was one-on-one mentorship. What distinguishes the College is that it “grows its own,” meaning that every faculty member has completed both the SES and MAP, as well as mentor training Practicum. Faculty continue mentoring because Stoicism emphasizes continued study, mentorship and hypomnemata (a method of journaling). The regimen of the College becomes an integral part of the mentor’s personal Stoic practice.

Until 2020, assignments were distributed to students via email, students’ work was returned as email attachments, and mentor-student video conferences took place, first, on Skype and later on Zoom. As the College grew, and as more mentors were interacting with students, versions of curriculum being used began to drift. Revisions of the curriculum were not rolling out evenly across the student population. There were other time-related inefficiencies resulting from an over-dependence on email communication. In order to create greater uniformity of curriculum and process, and increase instructional capacity, Erik approved moving the College to the Moodle Learning Management System (LMS) in 2020. This course conversion process began with SES in late 2020, and was finally completed for the MAP in late 2022. Now, modifications to course curricula could occur simultaneously across all current instances of a course, and mentors would simultaneously be informed of these changes.

In 2020, Erik informed the Board that he planned to retire in 2021, and convened a planning committee, including then board members Adam Valenstein (MAP ‘18) [8], Dirk Mahling and Mitch Leventhal (MAP ‘19), to develop a long-term sustainability plan for the College. This report was delivered in early 2022. Erik officially retired and became Scholarch Emeritus in Spring 2022.

The Board immediately set to work to identify a new Scholarch to lead the faculty and guide the evolution of the curriculum. Chris Fisher, who had been the first graduate of the MAP in 2013, and who had developed a range of traditional Stoic resources and learning materials, including the Stoicism on Fire podcast, was the unanimous choice of faculty. Chris agreed to head the school and joined as Scholarch in late 2021. With Erik’s retirement, these events marked a generational change for the school, as the College’s own graduates now manning the helm.

Organizational strengthening, technical improvement and course diversification has characterized the first two years of this new period. With the technical guidance of Ralph Kurz (MAP ’18), the College invested in the development of a new backend registration system to maintain student and course records. It has moved to Google Workspaces and now provides College email addresses to all faculty. Faculty meetings now take place monthly, along with regular faculty-led Curriculum Committee meetings. As for the expansion of course offerings, a Stoic Preparatory Course had been added for teens in 2019, and new courses in Stoic Nursing and On Heraclitus, developed by Kathryn Bucher (MAP ‘21) and Mark Stary (MAP ‘21) respectively, were launched in 2023. It is notable that graduates are starting to make their own impact independent of the College. For example, James Kostecka (MAP ‘16) co-founded the Stoic Fellowship in 2017, while Leah Guenther (MAP ‘18) integrated Stoicism into her Chicago public middle school classroom, and wrote about her experiments in the Harvard Educational Review in 2018 [9].  Following Erik’s retirement, Kathryn Bucher, Todd Obenauer (MAP ‘21), and Derrick Koon (SES ‘21) have taken over stewardship of The Stoic Registry, Erik Wiegardt’s original foray into 21st century Stoicism.

The College has never invested money or effort into promoting itself or recruiting new students and has only a minimal social media presence, yet it has grown organically and steadily. From student application essays, we know that students who apply to the College generally do so after considerable deliberation, and experience shows that they arrive well prepared. By December 2023, an all-time total of 310 students had completed the SES course, 43 completed the 12-month MAP program, and the faculty stood at 24 active mentors. Students came from 37 countries. Although the College is growing, its rate of growth currently corresponds to the capacity of the faculty to support student activities.

When the College was founded in 2008, there were virtually no organized courses or schools where one could study and learn to practice Stoicism. Now, there are a plethora of courses, workshops, and events on multiple platforms. What continues to distinguish the College of Stoic Philosophers is that it is a complete School as well as a community of practice – with its own traditions, a deeply rooted philosophy of pedagogy, an evolving curriculum situated firmly within classical Stoic tradition, and a faculty committed to the mission of the College and its approach to Stoic philosophical exercises. Many courses in Stoicism exist, but there is only one institution dedicated to the study and practice of Stoic philosophy – the College of Stoic Philosophers. And the College plans to be here for generations to come.

We are The Stoa.

By definition, a “Brief History” omits many details. But one important detail that should at least be addressed in the aggregate are the many contributions by the many students and faculty of the College. In addition to being mentors, many in this community have stepped into roles as diverse as board member, registrar, dean, editor, treasurer, secretary, committee member, etc. Although most are not mentioned here by name, all have contributed to our collective social oikeoisis (shared rationality of the entire human species). With gratitude.

To see the history of the college’s growth in charts and graphs visit here.

People Notes

  1. Works by Erik Wiegardt include Path of the Sage: An Introduction to Stoic Philosophy (2009), The Stoic Handbook (2010), and Thirty-Two Principal Doctrines of the Classical Stoa (2020), among others. These can be found online in the Scholarch’s Permanent Collection of the College of Stoic Philosophers.
  2. Key works by Pierre Hadot include Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (1995), The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (1998) and What is Ancient Philosophy? (2002).
  3. Notable writings by these scholars include: Keith Campbell, A Stoic Philosophy of Life (1986); Lawrence C. Becker, A New Stoicism (1998); William O. Stephens, Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed (2012), Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom (2007) and The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus.
  4. Jules Evans, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems (2012).
  5. Elen Buzaré, Stoic Spiritual Exercises (2011).
  6. Paul Lanagan is the longest serving faculty member; still serving as of 2024.
  7. Chris Fisher, Stoicism on Fire podcast (2018-present).
  8. Adam Valenstein, Editor, Little Stoics Children’s Books (2017).
  9. Leah Guenther, “I Must Be Emerald and Keep My Color”: Ancient Roman Stoicism in the Middle School Classroom,” Harvard Educational Review (2018).