Dr. Erlend D. MacGillivray gained his PhD from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. During his time at Aberdeen, he was an academic tutor in New Testament Studies, early Church history, and Greco-Roman history, and also helped to coordinate the Divinity school’s distance learning program. In 2015 he was a visiting Professor of New Testament Exegesis at Asian Theological Seminary in Manila. He is published in academic journals such as Journal of Greco-Roman Judaism and Christianity, Novum Testamentum, Journal of Ancient History, The Ancient World, and Apeiron.
His critically acclaimed book Epictetus and Laypeople: A Stoic Stance toward Non-Stoics explores the understanding that ancient philosophers had towards the vast majority of people at the time, those who had no philosophical knowledge or adherence—laypeople. After exploring how philosophical identity was established in antiquity, this book examines the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who reflected upon laypeople with remarkable frequency.
How did you become interested in this area?
I came to study ancient philosophy as a historian. Initially, I wrote academic articles on various aspects of Roman society, especially the patron-client relationship. I was planning to complete a doctorate related to the topic but I had an epiphany of sorts. Scholars usually try to write on an area, or a perspective that has not been fully explored. Ancient philosophy was, I realized, one such area. Although the teachings of the philosophical schools have understandably been studied at length, ancient philosophy was more than just a series of intellectual commitments and doctrines. It was also a social movement. Ancient philosophers exhibited the attributes of a community. This aspect of ancient philosophy though has not received much attention.
I became particularly interested in what we could know about the demographics of ancient philosophy. Who was attracted to it? What segments of society were exposed to various levels of philosophical teaching? How did philosophical allegiance change over time and why? These are, I believe, fascinating questions, but they are rarely explored by historians in great depth.
To cut a long story short I started studying the Epicurean school. That resulted in my writing two peer-reviewed journal articles on the philosophy: one on how popular Epicureanism was in Late-Republican Rome, and another on how Epicureanism, rather distinctively, tried to spread its philosophy across ancient society and to reach relatively unlettered people. After that, I had to make a decision. Either keep exploring this topic and write a book on the Epicurean school or take the same sets of questions and look at a different school. I chose the latter and I decided to explore the philosophy of the Stoa. That was, I am pleased to say, a successful research project and it led to my writing the book Epictetus and Laypeople.
What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?
For the past few years, I have taught students ancient philosophy as part of a wider ancient history course. We read through parts of Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomedian Ethics, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. There are a couple of important ideas I want to impress upon them. Firstly, the value that ancient philosophy has. Often, they have the preconception that ancient philosophy is a needlessly obscure, pointless, arcane subject. Were these texts not assigned as part of a curriculum I doubt they would have ever have picked them up. Our broader culture does little to let people know that ancient philosophy explores issues that they are interested in, e.g., who should have power in a state, how do I establish what is true, what should my guiding principles in life be, is there a creator, how can I control my temper? I’ve never met a student who isn’t interested in exploring at least one of these questions.
The main concepts I teach them is that whatever issue they want to consider, search and see. They might very well tap into a rich stream of philosophical insight about the topic. Secondly, for more academic circles I think my work’s emphasis on viewing ancient philosophy as a social movement is an important one. The schools have fascinating histories that are still to be fully uncovered and detailed.
What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we
can derive from your work?
Most ancient philosophers were very aware that people might approach philosophy just to look or sound smart. Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher from the first-second century C.E., continually scolds his listeners if he thinks they are just there for intellectual reasons. For example, to one such onlooker, he said: “Why do you dress in a philosopher’s garment that is not yours, and walk around in it, as thieves and robbers who have stolen titles and properties that do not belong to them?” Diss. II.19.28. The point I would make, which other scholars/writers on ancient philosophy have made better than I have (and organizations such as Plato’s Academy do) would be to make sure that your reasons for studying ancient philosophy are not just purely intellectual ones.
Do you have a favorite quote that you use?
A quote that I often tell myself is from a well-regarded first-century philosopher in Rome named Musonius Rufus. To paraphrase he said that “what is difficult to achieve will endure and the discomfort will pass, what you do with pleasure and dishonour, the pleasure will pass but the dishonour will remain.” His advice holds not just for hard work involving our careers but anything that requires effort or nurture to flourish. Be that our occupations, our family life, hobbies etc.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about
what you do?
At the moment probably the best place to find my work is from my academia.edu page. It has many of my articles that are free to read. My book on Epictetus is also thankfully now out in paperback, so it is more readily available to the general public. I’m also co-writing a workbook on logical fallacies which is aimed at high schoolers.
My next big project though is a popular-level book on Epictetus and his world. My aim is to use my knowledge as someone with an interest in Roman history to provide greater context to his lectures and to help readers feel they know him and his world better. For example, the place where he taught, Nicopolis, is one of the largest archaeological sites in Greece. We can actually visit some of the buildings that he references. Some types of coins he mentions in passing that are fairly obscure we have examples of etc. So, for anyone interested in what I am doing I would say wait for that to come out.
Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location
of Plato’s Academy, in Athens.
I would be honoured! When I was a PhD student, I was fortunate to spend some time in the British School in Athens. It is fairly close to the Lyceum where various philosophers used to gather, the most famous being Aristotle. It was enthralling to be there. I really felt though that the sites of the schools, e.g. the Lyceum, the Academy, the Stoa, should be more utilized and highlighted. They seemed rather forgotten about, almost ignored and over- grown. I think what Plato’s Academy is doing is wonderful!