How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?
I’m a British writer, author of Philosophy for Life (2012) and The Art of Losing Control (2017), and one of the original organizers of Modern Stoicism.
I’ve done Stoic-themed workshops with lots of audiences, including Saracens rugby club, who I’ve worked with for the last four seasons.
I blog at www.philosophyforlife.org
How did you become interested in Stoicism?
I got into Stoicism via Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which helped me when I suffered from PTSD and social anxiety in my early 20s. CBT reminded me of Marcus Aurelius, who I had read as a teenager. I went to interview the founders of CBT, Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, and heard how they had been directly inspired by Stoicism. Then I started to interview contemporary Stoics, writing up the interviews for an online magazine called the Stoic Registry. Through that, I helped organize the first gathering of Stoics – in San Diego, in 2010.
I also met Donald during that time – we must have met in, like, 2010 or something. We were researching along similar lines, both very inspired by Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life. Anyway, I wrote up my stories of modern Stoics in the book Philosophy for Life in 2012, and then in 2013 the Modern Stoicism project started and Stoicism really started to revive. I don’t consider myself a card-carrying Stoic, but I still think it’s an incredibly helpful and wise philosophy with some excellent methods for transforming the self.
What’s the most valuable thing we can learn about Stoicism from the life or writings of Marcus Aurelius?
I guess two things. First, how our emotions come from our opinions or perspective. And second, to remind oneself of the limit of one’s control over the universe, and focus on our own moral agency. It’s fascinating how Marcus constantly reminds himself that he’s not a God, he can’t control the universe – unlike his predecessor, Caligula, who declared war on the sea and made his soldiers attack it!
Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?
Our mind becomes dyed with the colour of our habitual thoughts.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?
Well, read the Meditations or Epictetus’ Discourses. They’re very accessible. Find a modern translation. And then, try a modern intro to Stoicism like those by Donald or me!
Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?
I’d like to speak up for an eclectic approach to Greek wisdom – that’s my approach. I don’t think Stoicism has to be an ‘all or nothing’ philosophy. I find some of its insights into the mind and reality deeply wise, but other philosophical approaches are also very helpful for me, particularly Buddhism at the moment. I think Stoicism can sometimes lead to an overly self-reliant and overly-rationalist approach to life. We’re flawed humans with messy emotions and that’s OK – it’s better to admit that rather than pretending to be some super-rational sage.
I find Buddhist loving-kindness meditation is a good supplement to Stoicism, so one practices being kind and gentle to oneself and others. How kind was Marcus? I feel he related to other beings with a sense of fastidious duty, but I don’t get a sense he was a tremendously warm person, do you? Maybe that’s what his son Commodus felt!
4 replies on “Interview: Jules Evans on Marcus Aurelius”
Fair play for your work in organising modern Stoics, Jules.
I think your comments about the potential deficits of Stoicism are apt. It’s unfortunate for many reasons that we have lost so much of the original texts, but one is that I have a strong intuition (perhaps a scholar could refute it with textual evidence) that some of those issues must have been dealt with in greater length in some text (or discussion for that matter) which we can’t read. So we get a very skewed view of Stoicism.
Perhaps not though. Regardless, without such texts it is up to us moderns to fill in the gaps and refine the philosophy. I agree with the comments about loving-kindness and Buddhism generally, but think that many ideas/practices can be quite seamlessly integrated into the Stoic framework. For instance, I think loving-kindness meditation is remarkably similar to the expanding circles of concern of Hierocles.
Whatever the solution, they are certainly issues worth seriously addressing.
There are actually quite a lot of references to love, natural affection, ethical cosmopolitanism, friendship and the social virtues of justice, kindness, and fairness, in the surviving Stoic texts. Marcus Aurelius, in particular, places quite a lot of emphasis on this aspect of Stoicism, throughout The Meditations.
Interesting interview Jules and Donald. I’ve been a reader of Jules’ blog for a while now, but was not aware he had written a book as well. Will have to check it out!
I also came to the realization that Stoicism offers a good framework, but that the surviving writings lack techniques to work on the inner self. Buddhism offers this abudantly, that’s why I’ve been combining my Stoic practice and Buddhist pratice for about a year now, and it works wonderfully. There is also so much overlap in the philosophies that it’s no effort at all.
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