Interview: John Sellars on Marcus Aurelius

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

John SellarsI’m an academic who writes about Stoicism and the later reception of Stoicism. My first book The Art of Living (2003) was about the way in which the Stoics saw philosophy as something expressed in one’s way of life. My second book Stoicism (2006) was a general introduction to Stoicism, aimed at university students rather than general readers. My most recent book Hellenistic Philosophy (2018) is an overview of philosophy in that period; an academic introduction, but hopefully accessible to general readers, that also stresses the practical dimension in much of Hellenistic philosophy.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

It was while I was an undergraduate student of philosophy. I was reading a wide variety of things and references to Stoicism kept cropping up. It soon started to feel like the secret thread connecting all my disparate interests. Independently I was also reading Marcus Aurelius around this time, not necessarily thinking of him as a Stoic. He was certainly the first Stoic author I read.

What’s the most valuable thing we can learn about Stoicism from the life or writings of Marcus Aurelius?

I think there are a couple of things. First is the resolutely practical attitude. He’s not talking about philosophy, or even about how one might put philosophy into practice in his own life; he’s directly confronting difficulties in his own life. His response draws on Stoic philosophy, which is sometimes only implicit, but it’s not a book explicitly outlining philosophical ideas; instead it’s a model of how one might go about shaping one’s life in the light of philosophy. I think this is one of the reasons why Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus complement each other so well: Epictetus gives you the philosophical ideas, while Marcus gives you a practical example of how someone might try to act on them.

The second thing is his intellectual modesty. He doesn’t claim to have all the answers. He suspends judgement on some issues where he is not sure. There’s no dogmatic ‘this is what a proper Stoic would do’ rhetoric. There’s no claim to be a sage. Instead he’s just a flawed human being trying to work out how to become better. It’s also worth noting that he doesn’t seem to be primarily motivated by overcoming his own distress, becoming happier, or any of those things: the focus is primarily on being a good, ethical human being, doing the right thing, behaving decently to those around him, and so on. The project isn’t self-centred self-help; it’s ethical self-improvement.

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

It’s hard to choose, but I think it must be this (2.17): “Of man’s life, his time is a point, his substance flowing, his perception faint, the constitution of his whole body decaying, his soul a spinning wheel, his fortune hard to predict, and his fame doubtful; that is to say, all the things of the body are a river, the things of the soul dream and delusion, life is a war and a journey in a foreign land, and afterwards oblivion.” It’s pretty blunt stuff and when I first read it, many years ago now, it felt like a slap across the face! We are all merely momentary accumulations of matter, soon to be dispersed and forgotten.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?

If you’ve already read Marcus, then I’d say read Epictetus, for the reason I gave earlier. If you want an account of how the two fit together, then Pierre Hadot’s book The Inner Citadel makes the case for Marcus’s debt to Epictetus. I’ve tended to resist biographies of Marcus because inevitably they tend to focus on his career as Emperor. If you are more interested in learning how to put Stoicism into practice then you should try Stoic Week (of course!) and look at some of the many popular books on Stoicism. Of these I’d probably recommend A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by some guy called Donald Robertson!

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Hellenistic Philosophy Book CoverThere are lots of things coming up. At the moment I’m in the final stages of organizing Stoicon 2018, which will take place in London on 29th September.

I’ve just been asked to write a short book on Roman Stoicism for a general audience, which I hope to do this summer, and should be out next year. I also have a long-standing contract to write a book on Marcus Aurelius, which I hope to complete this coming year, the aim of which will be to make explicit all the philosophical ideas that lurk beneath the surface in the Meditations.

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