Christopher Gill: Modern Stoicism

Christopher Gill is a scholar of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy (Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter, UK). He has researched and published especially on the interface between ethics and psychology in Greek and Roman thought. His books in this area include Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy, and Philosophy: The Self in Dialogue (1996), and The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (2006). He has also written extensively on Plato, especially his use of dialogue and narrative form for philosophical purposes, for instance Plato’s Atlantis Story: Text, Translation and Commentary (2017).

Much of his recent work has been centred on Stoic philosophy, including Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Books 1-6, translated with an introduction and commentary (2013), and the introduction and notes to the Oxford World’s Classics translations (by Robin Hard) of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Also, since 2012, He has been closely involved with Modern Stoicism, a collaborative project and organization designed to make Stoic principles accessible as life-guidance to a broad public audience. In that connection, He has given many talks at Stoicon conferences, including one in Athens in 2019, written many blog-posts for Stoicism Today, and worked with others on the handbook for the annual on-line Stoic Week course.

If I were to give a talk or workshop at the site of Plato’s Academy, I might discuss certain parallels and contrasts between Platonic and Stoic thinking on what counts as a good human life.

Prof. Christopher Gill

How did you become interested in this area?

My interest in ancient philosophy goes back to my undergraduate study of Classics at Cambridge. I have taught and researched ancient philosophy since completing a PhD in this area at Yale; in latter years, I have been focused particularly on Greek and Roman ethics, especially Stoic ethics (the subject of a book in progress).

My more recent interest in applied Stoicism stems from a workshop I organized at Exeter University in 2012, exploring the potential implications for public engagement of my research on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. This workshop brought together ancient philosophy scholars such as John Sellars and people interested in using Stoicism as a basis for psychotherapy, counselling, and life-guidance, including Donald Robertson, Tim LeBon and Jules Evans. During two stimulating and creative days, we formulated and planned the collaborative activities (Stoic Week, the blog, Stoicon) that have remained central for Modern Stoicism. We have worked closely together, along with colleagues from across the world, while the organization and its activities and global audience have grown steadily.

In my work in Modern Stoicism, I am especially interested in bringing out the links between Stoic practice as emotional therapy, directed towards oneself, and Stoic ethics directed at benefiting other people through interpersonal and social relationships, and also activities directed towards repairing the damage that human beings have done to the natural environment.

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

What Stoicism can teach us is the importance of taking care of ourselves, others, and our world, and of integrating these three kinds of care. I think that is probably the most important general message that I would want to convey now. This message is also closely linked with the fundamental Stoic ethical idea that our happiness in life depends on developing the virtues (something we are all capable of doing), rather than on acquiring other things generally seen as valuable and as forming the basis of happiness, including health, property, social status and the welfare of our family and friends. Stoics also regards those things as having positive value; but they still insist that happiness depends not on these things but on whether we have and use the virtues, especially the four, core virtues (wisdom, courage, moderation and justice). Developing the virtues is the way in which each of us can best express care for ourselves, other people and our world.

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

Much of the work of Modern Stoicism is devoted to presenting exercises that can help people to embed these ideas into their lives and practice. For examples and discussion, see, for instance, past versions of Stoic Week, a recent blog post of mine on ‘Marcus on the dichotomy of value and response’, and a two-part dialogue between Tim LeBon and myself on values-clarification.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

Marcus Aurelius expresses powerfully the aspiration to virtuous care of yourself and others: here is one of many examples, framed as a dialogue to himself:

At every hour, give your full concentration, as a Roman and a man, to carrying out the task in hand with scrupulous and unaffected dignity and affectionate concern for others and freedom and justice, and give yourself space from other concerns. You will give yourself this space if you carry out each act as if it were the last of your life, freed from all randomness and passionate deviation from the rule of reason and from pretence and self-love and dissatisfaction with what has been allotted to you. You see how few things you need to be able to live a smoothly flowing and god-fearing life; the gods will ask no more from someonewho maintains these principles.

Meditations 2.5

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy…

If I were to give a talk or workshop at the site of Plato’s Academy, I might discuss certain parallels and contrasts between Platonic and Stoic thinking on what counts as a good human life. For Plato, I might use the image of ‘the self in dialogue’ (based on the Republic): the idea of human beings as participants in three interrelated types of dialogue, that is, dialogue between the parts of the psyche, between different people or social groups, and philosophical dialogue (dialectic) directed at establishing what is objectively valuable in human life.

For the Stoics, I might use the ideas outlined earlier: that human beings at their best are engaged in three types of care, for themselves, other people, and their world (or ‘nature’), and that each of these three types of care are underpinned by the development of the virtues and virtue-based happiness. I think this comparison would bring out important ethical implications of the two ancient theories that would have powerful resonance for modern audiences.

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