Matthew Sharpe is Associate Professor of philosophy at Deakin University, Australia. He has taught philosophy for over two decades, and is the author of multiple books, including most recently Stoicism, Bullying, and Beyond (in press, 2022), The Other Enlightenment (in press, 2022), and (with Michael Ure), Philosophy as a Way of Life: History, Dimensions, Directions (Bloomsbury, 2021). He is also the cotranslator of Pierre Hadot, Selected Writings: Philosophy as Practice (Bloomsbury, 2021), and someone whose work continues to centre upon ancient philosophy as a way or ways of life, and the ways it can still speak to people transformatively today.
How did you become interested in this area?
Like many young people, I became interested in philosophy out of existential concerns. I then studied philosophy academically for many years, up to my PhD (on Slavoj Zizek). I was especially interested, as I still am, in psychoanalytic theory. Because it brings theoretical reflection to bear on understanding people, and also in affecting changes in their lives. Much of academic philosophy doesn’t do this. It was only after my PhD, when I discovered the work of Pierre Hadot, that I returned to ancient philosophy as a way (or ways) of life. Since that time, I’ve been interested most of all in working on Stoic philosophy. It was a real pleasure and surprise to me around 2014 or so, when I discovered that many other people around the world were covering similar paths, and that the Modern Stoicism movement was beginning to grow.
What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?
I think the most important idea I teach students (not all of them agree) would be the core Socratic-Stoic idea that virtue is the only true good. All of the other things our societies teach us to value as essential to have or avoid can either harm a person or help them: think of money or public office, for examples. It is what a person does with what fortune delivers him, the opportunities and hazards, that makes that person, and enables them to live well or badly. This idea strikes me as really profound. Think of how many people argue that religious belief or observance is the only truly necessary thing, and then contrast that with the history of religions, which is full of so much bloodshed, hatred and prejudice, as well as the wonderful things different world religions have delivered people.
Virtue alone never harms the person who has it—that is, following Plato, wisdom, moderation, courage, and justice. The attributes are not easy to achieve, and people can still rationalise bad behavior as virtuous. But the fundamental idea, of one thing in the universe that always benefits us, is a really important one to introduce students to. I wish I had learned of it many years earlier in my own life than in fact I did.
What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?
I have just completed Stoicism, Bullying, and Beyond (2022, Balboa-Hay Press), so perhaps I will answer this one by talking about this book I am just finalising. The most important idea in that book is related to the idea of virtue as the only true good. Here, it is the idea from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (VI, 6) that the best revenge is not to become like the person who would harm you. That quote is a epigraph for the book, alongside the opening verse of Rudyard Kipling’s “If”, which seems to have been written as if Kipling had himself experienced what experts today call “mobbing”—basically being ganged up on in a workplace by bullies who lead with false accusations and rumors to try to blacken a colleague’s reputation. But:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
then, following these broadly Stoic and Socratic guides, you can survive and even thrive, despite this negative experience.
The book is about explaining basic Stoic ethical and therapeutic ideas to mobbing or bulling targets. Then, drawing on these principles, I set out a program of spiritual exercises they can draw on, firstly to take care of their psychological wellbeing in a situation in which their workplace has become unsafe, and secondly, centre themselves so they make the best decisions, and premeditate the different challenges involved in either taking legal action, or leaving their present job. This is the first book of practical philosophy I’ve written, which adapts Stoic (and thus Socratic) ideas to a real-life situation too many people face, and which many are completely unprepared for. But Stoicism, as a Socratic philosophy, is about how to best get through adversity, as well as prosperity. So, I’m very proud of the book, and I hope that it reaches people and can assist them.
Do you have a favorite quote that you use?
From Marcus Aurelius, as well as that the best revenge is not to be like the person who harms you, I love the maxim (in XI, 18, perhaps) that “benevolence is invincible”. Someone once said that great adversity either makes a person very bitter, or very generous or, as the ancients might have said, great-souled. At some level, though, if you can accept even being hated or disappointed, without becoming cynical, and without becoming hateful, that seems to me to be a fine thing. Easy to say, hard to do, but always worth striving for. If I am thinking of quotes that I will almost always use, though, it would have to be Socrates’ justification in Plato, when someone suggests that he can be released from prison on condition that he cease doing philosophy. Socrates replies:
Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting any one whom I meet and saying to him after my manner: You, my friend,—a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens,—are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honour and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? … For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, I am a mischievous person.Socrates
For me, all of Stoicism is already here, in Plato or in Socrates. And the entire philosophical tradition after Socrates is arguably oriented by this extraordinary self-defence, and defence of philosophy as teaching people to take care of the soul.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?
If the question is asking about someone who wants to know about philosophy more widely, then they could do worse than opening Plato’s Apology, or his Gorgias or even perhaps the Republic. But people are drawn into philosophy for different reasons, and in different ways. The novels of Dostoevsky, for example, or of many other more recent novelists prompt readers to ask many philosophical questions. For myself, reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations at an especially difficult time in my personal life was life-changing, and I think that it still a book that can speak to people everywhere who are facing life challenges.
For my own work, I don’t tend to think of this question too much, thinking myself as a tiny drop or at most a rivulet in a concourse of rivers, at the least. I have written popular articles on Stoicism in The Conversation, however. I also maintain a blog, called “Castalian Stream”, where I write a lot on Stoicism, Plato, Bacon, and other subjects which appeal to me. For anyone who may be, or may have, faced workplace or schoolyard bullying, of course, Stoicism, Bullying, and Beyond is directed at people who may be coming to philosophy for the first time, and have next to no prior ideas about it.
Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens.
It would be a tremendous honor, of course. It is a wonderful initiative to try to bring life to the archaeological site, which I have visited several times in the 2010s, as I travelled frequently to Greece before covid in connection with my teaching, family connections on the island of Naxos, and then for Stoicon 2019, just before the pandemic came. There was something remarkable about this site, the origin of almost all higher education in the Western world, being left for so many centuries almost unremarked, with stones not much higher than your knees, so the visitor had to struggle in their minds to try to get some picture of what the place must have been like when Plato first taught there, or even when Cicero visited in the first century CE. I am sure Plato himself, or indeed Cicero his admirer, would wish that the site be commemorated as it ought to be, and that is by becoming once again a place for philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge.