Interview: Chuck Chakrapani on Marcus Aurelius

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

Chuck ChakrapaniI am a psychologist by education and a data scientist by profession. I have also been a long-term, inconsistent Stoic practitioner of no particular distinction or significance.

I’m reluctant to call myself a Stoic for two reasons: One, I feel it’s presumptuous on my part to claim such a lofty title. Two, I feel labels discourage crossing boundaries and hamper free thinking. It is really interesting to note that the beloved Stoic Marcus Aurelius does not refer to himself as a Stoic. As the Stoic scholar Brad Inman (2018) points out, Marcus refers to Stoics as “they” rather than “us”.

My work in Stoicism centers around making Stoicism accessible to those who could benefit from it. For the past 18 months, I have been writing plain English versions of the works of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Musonius Rufus. Substantial parts of my work are available for free as blogs and as book extracts from my Stoic website, thestoicgym.com.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

When I was still in my teens, I happened to pick up a book called To Himself (now more commonly known as Meditations) by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. I had no idea who he was but when I read the first paragraph of the second chapter, where he talks about preparing himself for the day and says that no one can force him to choose ugliness by their unpleasant behavior, I was hooked. I kept returning to this book for several years. Then I discovered Enchiridion. I was captivated by the very first paragraph where Epictetus talks about what is in our control and what is not and why it makes no sense to worry about things not under our control. It was probably the single most powerful idea of Stoic philosophy. However, many years passed before I realized that they were talking about a philosophy known as Stoicism.

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

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is a curious document. Its tone is melancholic, yet the message is upbeat. Different people can easily take different things from reading Marcus Aurelius. The recurring theme of Meditations, as I see it, is this:

Don’t get hung up on reputation, fame and fortune. They are so fleeting and so insignificant when you contemplate the infinity of time before and after you. You are less than a speck in the vast universe. Don’t wonder whether the world is controlled by the gods or by randomness. So,
a. Do what needs doing.
b. Be just in your dealings.
c. Be kind – even to those who are unkind to you.

And relax, everything is, has always been, and will be, as it should be.

By putting our lives in such a perspective, Marcus Aurelius shows how comical our sense of self-importance is.

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

No, I don’t have a favourite quote from Meditations. I have many. So here is one of my many favourite quotes:

The cucumber is bitter? Then cast it aside. There are brambles in the path? Step out of the way. That will suffice, and you need not ask in addition “Why did such things ever come into this world?”

How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?

My website (thestoicgym.com) describes me as “an embarrassingly inconsistent practitioner of Stoicism.” I don’t think I am a good example. I am not big on practicing Stoicism when things go well and I don’t practice premeditatio malorum. I figure, for instance, if I starve myself for a day to practice being hungry, it may never come to pass and I would have unnecessarily passed up an opportunity to eat well. But If I didn’t practice being hungry and if I am forced to starve, then I can always use that as my practice session. Or I can go back to Epictetus – some things are not in our power, so there’s no point in worrying about the discomfort. In my work I remind myself that things are not under my control when they go wrong. This keeps me from getting upset. I presume this is not how most people practice Stoicism. I wouldn’t recommend anyone to follow my model.

What do you think is the most important psychological technique or piece of practical advice that we can derive from Marcus’ Stoicism?

See the stretch of time behind you and ahead of you. Realize that in a blink your life will be over. Contemplate the hugeness of the universe. Realize that you are not even a speck. When you see that clearly you will not get upset by anything that life presents you with. You will not complain or be in conflict with anyone and you won’t be unjust.

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

I am not sure if I am in a position to advise anybody. But if someone asked me, perhaps I would suggest to them to start slowly. Don’t try to learn about Stoicism. Pick up a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Epictetus’ Handbook. If you have choice, pick up a translation or rendition that is easy to follow. Read it slowly and see if any of it applies to your own life. If it does, read more of it. Once you find these principles make sense to you, try to understand more about Stoicism by reading a simply written book such as Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inman. If you are interested in Marcus Aurelius, you may want to read How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson. (As I write this, this book is not out yet. But I am presuming that this book will be similar to his other well-written books.)

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

Unshakable FreedomNow that you ask, here are my books in the Stoicism in Plain English series:

  • The Complete Works of Epictetus, a set of five books covering Discourses, Fragments and Enchiridion. (Stoic Foundations, Stoic Choices, Stoic Training, Stoic Freedom and Stoic Inspirations)
  • The Complete Works of Musonius Rufus in a single volume (Stoic Lessons)
  • The Complete Works of Marcus Aurelius (Stoic Meditations, The Unknown Marcus Aurelius)

In addition, I have also written a primer on the application of Stoic philosophy to modern life, Unshakable Freedom.

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