How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?
I am the K.D. Irani professor of philosophy at the City College of New York. My background is in evolutionary biology and philosophy of science, and my professional interests include the logical structure of evolutionary theory and the nature of pseudoscience.
How did you become interested in Stoicism?
Funny thing. I was going through a bit of a midlife crisis a few years ago, as well as doing my PhD in philosophy. Had figured out that virtue ethics was in the right ballpark of what I needed, but neither Aristotle nor Epicurus clicked with me. Then one day I saw this on my Twitter feed: “Help us celebrate Stoic Week!” And I thought, who on earth wants to celebrate Stoic week, and why? But I signed up, and the rest is history, as they say…
What’s the most valuable thing we can learn about Stoicism from the life or writings of Marcus Aurelius?
That even the most powerful man in the world can benefit from philosophical reflection, although of course just doing so does not make him a sage. Reading the Meditations one gets the palpable impression that Marcus was a man honestly trying to do his best with the incredibly onerous task he had assumed. And it’s clear he got comfort from his philosophy, from reflecting on Heraclitus and Epictetus, among others. But, understandably, he was also a man incapable of escaping the constraints of his own culture (e.g., he couldn’t conceive of questioning the institution of slavery), as well as a fallible man (e.g., though there are, as you know, attenuating circumstances, the choice of Commodus as his successor wasn’t exactly the most brilliant move of his life). That’s why we common folks, almost two millennia later, can relate to him. He is thoughtful, and human. As we all aspire to be.
Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?
Yes: “Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (II.1) It has so much wrapped in it! (Especially if you look up the full quote.) It is a realistic assessment of life and people. And yet a compassionate one. It is humble, and eminently reasonable. It kind of embeds, for me, the very best of Stoic philosophy.
How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?
I use Stoicism at work and in life in general. I find basic Stoics precepts, and pithy phrases to remind me of them, incredibly useful to navigate the small and sometimes big problems of life. I get less angry at people by telling myself “it seems so to him”; I keep in mind that my plans might need to be changed because of contingencies by saying “fate permitting”; and I try to steer away from damaging thoughts by repeating (usually internally) “you are just an impression, and not at all the thing you portray to be.” Reading the Stoics and studying their philosophy has also changed my priorities in life and at work, making me focus on what is really important, as well as prompting me to question whether something is, in fact, important. I spend more time with my best friends, because friendship is crucial to cultivate one’s virtue and become better people. It is no exaggeration to say that Stoicism has changed my life since I started studying and practicing it.
What do you think is the most important psychological technique or piece of practical advice that we can derive from Marcus’ Stoicism?
Write your own philosophical diary, which is, in an important sense, what the entire Meditations is. While one can extract several other exercises from the text (see here), I found that writing an evening journal of reflection is helping me immensely in being more attentive to what I do and why, and in trying to do better the next time around. And after all, since sages are as rare as the mythical Phoenix, doing better is really all we can strive for.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?
You mean other than downloading your book, which has been waiting on my queue for a few weeks? On Marcus specifically, I really like William Stephens’ Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury). It has a nice structure, which includes a look at Marcus’ life and time, an in-depth discussion of its main influences (the above mentioned Heraclitus and Epictetus), but also an informative analysis of the main philosophical themes of the Meditations. Turns out, Marcus was a pretty decent philosopher in his own right, and Stephens manages to actually reconstruct some of the formal arguments scattered throughout the Meditations, and which may not be apparent to the casual reader.
In terms of Stoicism more broadly, I’d say to get hold of a good translation of the three major authors. I suggest Robin Hard’s version of Epictetus’ Discourses, Enchiridion, and Fragments (Oxford Classics), Hard’s version of the Meditations (also Oxford Classics), and the recent complete series of Seneca put out by University of Chicago Press (seven books, including the tragedies and the Natural Questions, though someone interested in Stoicism as an ethical philosophy might do without these latter).For modern texts, I’d say your Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (the first book I read on modern Stoicism!), for the advanced students Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism, and – if I may – my own How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.
I would also suggest to join or get started a local group of practitioners, perhaps using the meetup.com platform, and making sure to use the resources of the Stoic Fellowship. Finally, your Stoicism Facebook Group is a great, and very large, virtual community. But as you know, it’s not for the faint of heart: while one can find excellent advice and support, there is more than the occasional troll or snarky commenter. Then again, I guess that’s one way to practice Stoic patience and endurance…
Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?
Well, I have already plugged my book above. My informal writings on Stoicism can be found at howtobeastoic.org, but I’m especially happy with my recently launched mini-podcast, Stoic Meditations (13 platforms so far). At last count it had 500,000 downloads, which I’m frankly astounded by. Each episode lasts about two minutes, and is basically a short meditation, based on a quote from Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus, or Marcus, which I then explain and elaborate upon.