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Edward H. Spence: Performing Philosophy

Dr. Edward H. Spence is the founder and director of the Philosophy Plays project, now in its 25th year, whose aim is the communication of public philosophy through dramatic performance and audience participation and discussion. He’s also an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sydney and Adjunct Senior Lecturer at Charles Sturt University, Australia as well as the Senior Research Fellow at the 4TU.Centre for Ethics and Technology in the Netherlands.

Dr. Spence has co-authored numerous academic titles such as Digital Era and Media Corruption in the Age of Information and is the author of Stoic Philosophy and the Control Problem of AI Technology: Caught in the Web.

How did you become interested in Philosophy?

My first interest in philosophy arose as a student at the American Academy in
Larnaca, Cyprus, where my father was serving as an officer in the British army (Cyprus was was under British jurisdiction at the time). Opposite the School was the statue of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoic Philosophy born in Larnaca – which in ancient times was a Hellenic City known as Citium.

Zeno established the first School of Stoic philosophy in Athens after he got shipwrecked there when delivering merchandise for the family business, and decided to stay and study philosophy. He later set up his own school of philosophy that became known as Stoic derived from the word stoa, which in Greek means “porch” from where he conducted his teaching.

Inspired by Zeno, I used to spend my summer holidays in the Municipal Library of Larnaca (I was 14 years of age at the time) where I spent my time reading philosophy and taking notes. Apart from Zeno, the other philosopher that inspired me (and still does to this day) was Plato and his Socratic dialogues. German poet Goethe had an impact on me, more specifically his long poem Dr Faustus.

It was much later, after spending many years working as a chartered accountant in London, that I came to Australia in 1981 with my wife Kaye. That’s when I made the wise decision to devote my life to the formal study of philosophy. In 1985, I began my philosophical education in the Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy at the University of Sydney in 1985. I chose U of S by a propitious coincidence. As the Irish might say, “God was talking to me anonymously” when my Greek-Cypriot friend Zeno, who I met in London, advised me that I could study philosophy under Professor David Armstrong at Sydney U. He was internationally famous at the time for his pioneering work in the philosophy of mind published in his book, A Materialist Theory of the Mind. The rest as you might say was not history but philosophy, and specifically Epistemology (Honours, First Class) and Moral philosophy (PhD).

Currently, my research interests are in Stoic philosophy and the ethics of emerging technologies, such as AI, as reflected in my new book, Stoic Philosophy and the Control Problem of AI Technology: Caught in the Web.

Stoic Philosophy and the Control Problem of AI Technology

As AI technologies have become “a way of life” for us (by choice or involuntarily) it is therefore of crucial importance to examine and evaluate those technologies more critically and philosophically through the lens of Stoic and Socratic philosophy.

Dr. Edward H. Spence

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

Inspired from the beginning by Zeno’s Stoic philosophy and Plato’s Socratic philosophy, the most important idea I teach is that philosophy must be perceived as a way of life, lived virtuously through courage, moderation, justice and practical wisdom-known as the cardinal virtues-for the attainment of eudaimonia (self-fulfillment, happiness or wellbeing). Symposium: The Dialogues of Plato (which inspired the Philosophy Plays project), on the topic of love, expresses in practice this idea.

“Plato’s Symposium” (Anselm Feuerbach)

I founded Philosophy Plays in 1997 as a form of philosophy portrayed through dramatic performance in taverns, theatres, arts festivals, and vineyards for the general public. This year, stage plays Smart Machine and Wise Guys, that I wrote for the Greek Festival of Sydney 2022, express some of the ideas in my new book, Stoic Philosophy and the Control Problem of AI Technology.

My book …Caught in the Web speaks to the important and crucial technological era in which we now live, given the influence and impact of AI technologies on most aspects of our lives. As AI technologies have become “a way of life” for us (by choice or involuntarily) it is therefore of crucial importance to examine and evaluate those technologies more critically and philosophically through the lens of Stoic and Socratic philosophy.

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

Be curious about ideas and seek and critically examine their truth (epistemically). Also, be kind to others and yourself, do good to others as much as you can and where you can (ethically). Think and act as a cosmopolitan (like Diogenes) and, as the Stoic, recommend for the common good, considering others as if they were your own kin and friends (eudaimonically). Most importantly, though, seek wisdom as the most important concept and apply it to your life – making it a daily practice.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

That’s a difficult question to answer but if I had to choose, other than “I know one thing, that I know nothing” (Socrates), it is from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 on love. I have used more often than I can recall, on wedding cards especially. It’s quite amazing how one can express so much in just 14 lines:


Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

William Shakespeare

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about
what you do?

I can be contacted through LinkedIn, at my University of Sydney profile and CV as well as on Research Gate and Academia. I am currently working on revising and upgrading my website that will become available later this year.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens.

I would be delighted and honoured to stand in the place that I have always considered to be the “secular sacred”. I’d imagine the divine Diotima from Mantinea teaching me as she taught and Socrates in Plato’s Symposium talking about what true love is; love of the beautiful and the good. Perhaps even if the opportunity arose, I would love to have a philosophy play performed on the topic of Plato’s notion of love.

Mick Mulroy: A Stoic Stand and the Fight for Ukraine

Vitaly Skakun Volodymyrovych

He who does not prevent a crime, when he can, encourages it.

Seneca

The British historian and politician Thomas Macaulay wrote a collection of poems in 1842 called Lays of Ancient Rome. These recount heroic episodes that go beyond the emperors, generals, and senators, to highlight the actions of ordinary footsoldiers, who otherwise would be lost to history.

One of the poems, called Horatius, is about Publius Horatius and two fellow soldiers who were assigned to hold the Sublician Bridge over the Tiber river from the Etruscan Army. These three elected to go forward and fight the enemy, allowing their fellow soldiers the opportunity to dismantle the bridge behind them, sacrificing their lives in the process.

From their President on down, Ukrainians have proven that courage and tenacity, though intangible factors, can have an exponential impact on the battlefield.

Mick Mulroy

This is such a moving poem that many, including Winston Churchhill, memorized every verse. But this type of heroism is not confined to ancient times. It is happening right now in Ukraine. From their President on down, Ukrainians have proven that courage and tenacity, though intangible factors, can have an exponential impact on the battlefield.

Going into battle takes courage. Many of my closest friends and I have done so on many occasions. We always went, though, with overwhelming force on our side. The courage to go into battle wholly outnumbered is of another kind. I believe it exemplifies the type of fortitude that the ancient Stoics held as one of their fundamental principles and cardinal virtues. It is courage in the face of oppression, in defense of liberty, even if death is the most likely outcome.

On February 25, 2022, the Ukrainian government issued a statement that Vitaly Volodymyrovych Skakun, a Ukrainian Marine combat engineer, had voluntarily undertaken a mission to mine the Genichesky Bridge near Kyiv before Russian forces could cross it. Vitaly did not have time to flee the blast zone before detonating the explosives. He informed his battalion, by text message, that he would be blowing it up regardless. He was posthumously awarded the Order of the Gold Star by Ukrainian President President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He became, through his actions, a modern-day Horatius.

To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Then facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.

Haul down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three.
Now, who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?

This type of heroism needs to leave behind more than a poem; it should inspire action. Ukraine is a young democratic country fighting to hold on to its freedom. Vitaly’s courage, his Stoic stand, is what the free world must remember to ensure that we do not return to the past.

About the author

Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy is a retired U.S. Marine, a retired paramilitary operations officer in the CIA’s Special Activities Center, and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. He is now a national security and defense analyst for ABC News, a senior fellow for national security and defense policy with the Middle East Institute, a co-founder of the Lobo Institute, and on the board of advisors for Plato’s Academy Centre.

Justin Stead: Higher Motives

Justin Stead is the Founder of the Aurelius Foundation, a community interest company. His work with the Foundation is dedicated to helping and inspiring young people by using principles derived from classical Greek philosophy and Stoicism.  Justin is an experienced international CEO/business leader and private investor across multiple brands and interests globally. He is based in London.

How did you become interested in philosophy?

Grateful to be born with a curious mind. Second, I was first introduced to Stoicism through a wonderful Canadian Mystic Christian who was an incredible “man for all seasons” – academic, athlete, poet.  He shared with me some considerations on being “resilient” when I was 14 growing up in west Queensland, Australia during his annual global tour to inspire youth.  We become very good friends, and he kept the fire burning by inspiring me with Stoic knowledge and awareness.

We cannot rely on the external world or governments to necessarily solve all the problems of society.  In this light, people must work at being happy versus seeking pleasure to realign their lives.

Justin Stead

What’s the most important idea that you promote through the Aurelius Foundation?

Positive change in the world and that it takes individuals within society coming forward with the right intentions, through higher motives, to promote the greater good. These higher motives must come from within an individual – they must be developed.  We cannot rely on the external world or governments to necessarily solve all the problems of society.  In this light, people must work at being happy versus seeking pleasure to realign their lives. This in turn will increase greater good contribution by their actions within the wider world they interact with over time.   

As individuals, we often want to improve all aspects of our lives and we do many things to improve them.  For example, if we want to be fit, we go to the gym and start training with a fitness expert.  But, the most important element, in my opinion, to improve life is the development of character; and this is most adequately achieved by daily working on yourself within your own inner citadel gym through the philosophy of Stoicism.

The Aurelius Foundation’s primary objective is to stimulate all people who are so inclined to find us, to consider the development of their own character. This, over time, will not only benefit themselves considerably, but they’ll also see their life increase the contribution to the greater good through their improved Stoic awareness.

Wimbledon Champion Pat Cash speaking at an Aurelius Foundation seminar

What do you think is the best piece of practical advice you could give someone seeking to improve their life?

Become more capital ‘S‘ Stoic sooner in Life. Developing calmness, patience, wisdom earlier in life will save you a lot of wasted time, frustration, emotional pain and unnecessary disappointment throughout the years.

Do you have a favourite philosophy quote?

Yes, and very easy for me. The all-encompassing and most beautiful quote from Marcus Aurelius from the Meditations.  To me, this one quote is a great summation of how to live a GOOD life with Stoicism in its essence. It is a quote that I reflect on most days and try to tie my actions to consistently.

Hour by hour, resolve firmly like a Roman and a man, to do what comes to hand with both correct and natural dignity; allowing yourself the freedom from all other thoughts. This you can do if you approach each action as if it was your last; dismissing the wayward thought, the emotional recoil from the commands of reason, the desire to make an impression, the admiration of self and the discontent with your lot. See how little a man needs to master for his days to flow on in quietness and piety. If you can follow these few principles, the Gods will ask nothing more. 

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 2 – Section 5

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about the Aurelius Foundation?

Follow us.  Interact with us. Get involved with the Aurelius Foundation and all we have going on – we quite innovative! We are incredibly welcoming and engaging for people everywhere – Stoic or not.

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

Delighted to participate and support over the short, medium, and long term. Aurelius Foundation is very committed to this project.   Plato’s Academy is an incredibly important and worthwhile project that will serve humanity everywhere for the improvement of the individual and the greater good globally.

Antonia Macaro: Facilitator of Self-Discovery

Antonia Macaro is an existential psychotherapist, author of More than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical AgeReason, Virtue and Psychotherapy and co-author of The Shrink and the Sage. She has many years’ clinical experience in the field of addictive behaviours. Antonia also has a degree in Oriental Studies, an MA in Philosophy, and was part of the UK’s philosophical counselling movement from its early days.

Her latest book, Life: a User’s Manual, co-authored with Julian Baggini, is now available.

How did you become interested in philosophy?

I have always been interested in how human beings tick, and over the years I have worked to develop a blend of psychotherapy and philosophy that I see as a primarily ethical enterprise, a context for people to reflect on their values and the good life.

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

I don’t really see myself as a teacher, more as a facilitator of reflection and self-discovery. Aristotle’s idea of “the mean” is an important guiding principle for me but of course what that means in practice, in any given area, has to be worked out in relation to each individual. It’s not just a piece of information to be imparted but something that requires reflection and exploration.

There are no ready-made answers, even from the ancients. Living a good life is an exploratory journey of a lifetime.

Antonia Macaro

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

That there are no ready-made answers, even from the ancients. Living a good life is an exploratory journey of a lifetime. If we are serious about it we will keep learning and questioning, with curiosity. Philosophy may provide us with some fertile ideas but we still have to work out how to apply them to our own life.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

For example, fear, confidence, appetite, anger, pity, and in general pleasure and pain can be experienced too much or too little, and in both ways not well. But to have them at the right time, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way, is the mean and best; and this is the business of virtue. Similarly, there is an excess, a deficiency and a mean in actions.

Aristotle, (Nicomachean Ethics)

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

I try to explain how I work in my website. My book More than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age reflects my fundamental approach.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens.

It would depend on the event but I would certainly be awed by a deep sense of history and continuity.

Barbara Asimakopoulou: Emancipation

Barbara Asimakopoulou is an award-winning Executive and Team Coach, an ICF accredited coach educator, and the author of Inner Emancipation: Coaching, Leadership, and Philosophy. In 2020, she was awarded Boussias’ Bronze HR Award for “Most innovative leadership skills development program”. More recently, in 2021, she was deemed # 1 Executive Coach in Athens by Influence Digest.  She credits ancient Greek philosophy as the foundation of her education and coaching practice.

How did you become interested in philosophy?

I’ve faced many challenges in life. Most of those challenges I’ve been able to overcome, turning adversity into opportunity. I have a strong belief that our existence is up to God, but the way we choose to live is up to us.

The years of economic crisis (in Greece) have significantly impacted my life, my outlook and actions. I was looking for a way to continue working with passion and also take care of my family and maintain peace in the home despite financial stress.

Philosophy played a big role in shaping my journey during this time. I happened upon books by modern scholars such as Lou Marinoff and the existential psychologist Irvin Yalom. Both continuously referenced ancient Greek philosophy in their work. And so, I began to study philosophy greats like Plato and Aristotle. Socrates was another philosopher that fascinated me, and his teachings became the center of my coaching practice.

I’ve found a correlation between modern coaching science and Socrates’ wisdom and have since written about it. One of my published articles for the ICF (International Coaching Association) states that Socrates was the first coach ever. That statement was met with great reception.

My greatest wish, that year of struggle, was that I would be able to make a positive impact on my future, and to then be able to do the same for others through the teachings of Greek philosophers. This wish became a mission and still my mission to this day. Not only do I use Greek philosophy in my coaching practice, but I have built my coaching curriculum around it.

I help people develop a healthier framework to their outlook with the help of ancient Greek texts. I believe this is part of the journey on the way to the authentic self, what successful leaders are made of.

Barbara Asimakopoulou

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

I believe both ancient and modern philosophers ultimately ask and explore how and why: how we adopt certain values and beliefs and why we choose them.

My ultimate goal has always been to transform lives. It’s rewarding to have a hand in helping people reach their full potential, achieving things they never thought possible. I teach my clients to embrace adversity, to derive strength from it, in order to become more resilient both professionally and spiritually. Moreover, I help people develop a healthier framework to their outlook with the help of ancient Greek texts. I believe this is part of the journey on the way to the authentic self, what successful leaders are made of.

The process of my inner awakening has been long and challenging, a back-and-forth between joy and sadness. My coaching and experience as an educator, however, has become the catalyst for my own self-discovery and finding purpose.

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

Inner leadership, mastering ourselves, is a prerequisite for our own happiness and to develop the ability to lead others. Only by understanding and mastering the self, inner emancipation, can we truly be empathetic to the personal journey and inner work of others.

My desire is to pass down the tools provided by ancient philosophy to others to help them find meaning, reach eudemonia, and realise their full potential. I’ve created three online courses to help:

  • Coaching & Philosophy in Practice shows how to apply coaching and philosophy to everyday life. It’s also what I base my 1:1 and team coaching, my educational programs, and my professional identity on.
  • The innovative Philosophership is based on self-knowledge, continuous redefinition, accountability, and the practice of virtues for individual and collective well-being and recently,
  • Coaching Skills & Tools in Practice introduced the science of coaching with a theoretical, practical, philosophical, and mindfulness approach

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

To lead after you first learn to be led, because if you learn this, you will know how to lead.

(quote attributed to Solon)

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

They can visit my site that features my services, courses, books, and blog.

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

I’d be honored to host workshops on finding meaning, inner leadership, women in leadership and more!

Ranjini George: Practicing Presence

Dr. Ranjini George holds a PhD in English Literature from Northern Illinois University, USA, an MA in English Literature from St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, Canada. More recently, she won the first place in Canada’s inaugural Coffee Shop Author Contest for her travel memoir, a work-in-progress, Miracle of Flowers: In the Footsteps of an Emperor, a Goddess, a Story and a Tiffin-Stall

She was an Associate Professor of English at Zayed University, Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. She currently teaches Stoicism, Mindfulness and Creative Writing at SCS, University of Toronto, classes such as Stoicism and the Good Life, Dear Diary: Marcus Aurelius, Anne Frank and Thich Nhat Hanh, Mindfulness, Stoicism and Writing for Discipline and Productivity, and Meditation and Writing. In 2019, she received the SCS, University of Toronto Excellence in Teaching award. Her book, Through My Mother’s Window: Emirati Women Tell their Stories and Recipes, was published in Dubai in December 2016.

How did you become interested in this philosophy?

My interest in philosophy began with my study of literature at Lady Shri Ram College and at Stephen’s College in New Delhi. I took an MPhil class entitled “Existential and Phenomenological Approaches to Literature,” offered by Professor R.W. Desai. We read Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus, Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Buber. In an earlier class, also offered by Professor Desai, we read the Transcendentalists and Henry David Thoreau. In my study of Greek literature, I studied Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. My interest in philosophy through the lens of literature continued at graduate school in the US, where I explored the philosophical vision of writers such William Golding and John Steinbeck. Philosophy and literature interested me theoretically, and as a way of understanding the world.  Somewhere along the way, I acquired more than one edition of Marcus’ Meditations.

In the 1990s, when I was living in Middle East, I received a museum-size bust as a gift. The story of “How I got the Bust” is long, one that I tell in my memoir-in-progress, Miracle of Flowers.

The bust perched on a column in my living room in Dubai, remained unidentified for close to nine years. On a visit to the Ancient Agora in Athens, I discovered that he was the Emperor Antoninus Pius, the adoptive father of Marcus Aurelius. With a name, I had a story.

In early 2019, an immigrant to Canada and now living in Toronto, I stumbled upon (and pre-ordered) Donald Robertson’s book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. As a Buddhist practitioner and teacher, I was especially struck by the similarities between Buddhism and Stoicism. Reading Donald’s book was pivotal in my understanding of Stoicism—of philosophy as a way of life. I reread the Meditations, engaging more deeply with Marcus’ ideas, and Stoicism as a whole.

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

Impermanence and the preciousness of human life.

Earlier today, at 00.00, 22 January 2022, my teacher Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh passed away at his root temple in Hue, Vietnam. Memorial services are underway, live streamed from Vietnam and the Plum Village retreat center in France.

Socrates calls death, the “bogeyman.” Marcus talks of death repeatedly. The Buddha tells us to remind ourselves of our death not just every day but every moment. Some find this morbid. I find it invigorating, a reminder to make good use of my “precious human life.”

Seneca says, “Each day is a life.” There is nothing more important than living with the awareness that we will die.

“This is it.” Thich Nhat Hanh said. The present moment is all we have. 

The Dalai Lama says that it is not important whether we are religious or not. What is important is to cultivate warm-heartedness, kindness, wisdom and compassion. We learn how to cultivate peace and happiness (eudaimonia). Daily, we raise “bodhchitta,” which is the aspiration to benefit others because, as Marcus reminds us in the Meditations, we are interconnected, one body; or, to use Thich Nhat Hanh’s phrase, we “inter-are.” 

Yet, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, there is “No birth. No death. Only Continuation.” We are the continuation of those who inspire us to live well. Now, my teacher is not in the form that I knew him. He is the cloud that has become rain. He is in my mindfulness practice—in my in-breath and out-breath. Marcus died 1900 years before. Yet, we meet him on the page. He is a voice that echoes through space and time, a friend and mentor, inspiring us to live well.

In Book One of The Meditations, Marcus acknowledges his gratitude to his parents, his tutors, adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, and so on. He was aware that those he thanked had flaws. Our role models are not perfect, but we can be grateful for their example and learn from them. Having this sense of sangha or community is helpful. We will not feel alone on this path—we travel with those who have come before, those who live now, and our friends in the future.  

Practice daily that which is in alignment with your core values. Remind yourself of what kind of human being you aspire to be and what work you would like to accomplish in this world.

Dr. Ranjini George

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

Practice. Practice. Practice.

As Seneca reminds us, “Each day is a life.” Practice daily that which is in alignment with your core values. Remind yourself of what kind of human being you aspire to be and what work you would like to accomplish in this world.

Whatever we practice, we become better at. Practice giving in to anger, and you will be become an angry person. Practice kindness, and you will grow kinder. Practice strengthens our muscle of self-discipline as we direct it towards values that we cherish. We may not feel like it. But we do it anyway.

In my Memoir as Spiritual Practice and Meditation and Writing classes, I teach that writing is a practice. Meditation is a practice.

For over two decades, I have kept a journal. This is my way of living an examined life. Every morning I write three or four pages (sometimes more) in longhand—as Julia Cameron recommends. Drawing from the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, I ask myself each day: What did I do (accomplish)? What did I omit? What could I have done better (more skilfully)?

We bring prosoche (attention) to our days, our time. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, Time=Life. As we bring our attention to time, we begin to master time. We make time our ally, our friend. We use what time we’ve been given, and we use it well.

Change happens slowly and can be difficult. Enduring change requires intention, contemplation, review, and self-discipline. We ground our efforts in our “view.” Why are we doing this? For example, if I’m trying to lose weight and I stop myself from reaching for a second cookie, instead of feeling deprived, I could reframe that moment as one of practicing the Stoic virtue of temperance. A feeling of deprivation is then reframed as joyful effort. The same goes with writing. Even if the Muse feels distant, I’m here at my desk, exercising the virtue of discipline and creativity, and doing my work as a human being. 

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

So what can serve as our escort and our guide? One thing and one thing alone, philosophy; and that consists in keeping the guardian-spirit within us inviolate and free from harm.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.17

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

Much of what I write and teach has come through my own struggle to live my life well. For example, I struggled with feeling overworked and overwhelmed. I struggled with fixating on outcome instead of enjoying the present moment of creativity. So, I researched topics such as discipline and tried to understand where my stumbling blocks of perfectionism and procrastination stemmed from. I studied with teachers from different wisdom traditions who warned about the suffering of egoic fixation. So much of our suffering comes from our feeling of separation from others and our incessant craving for more.

A long-time practitioner of meditation, I brought this research and training to my writing practice. My classes at the School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto, classes such as Mindfulness, Stoicism and Writing for Discipline and Productivity, come from personal experience and my concentrated research and study in these areas.  My classes are open to everyone and many of them are offered online and include guest visits from internationally renowned philosophers and writers such as Donald Robertson, Eric Weiner, Charlie Gilkey, Kij Johnson, Mark Matousek, Rob Colter and so on. These classes can be taken toward a Creative Writing, Arts and Humanities or Mindfulness certificate, or as a one-off class.

If you are interested in my writing, a few of my stories are accessible online. “Taj Mahal and Petha”, deals with female infanticide, and was published in Agni, Boston University literary magazine. Recently I had an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Blue Flowers, published in Stoicism Today. I also have a number of free podcasts, meditations and interviews on the subjects of Stoicism, meditation and writing on my website. My book Through my Mother’s Window: Emirati Women Tell their Stories and Recipes brings Dubai, its food, stories and landscape to life. The book can be ordered online.

I am happy to say that I am offering the first Stoicism course in the Arts and Humanities stream at SCS, University of Toronto, Stoicism and the Good Life

I’ve added on other courses that have been a delight to teach, such as Dear Diary: Marcus Aurelius, Anne Frank and Thich Nhat Hanh.

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

It would be a delight and honor to give a talk or workshop at the place where so much of what I love and treasure began. As we gather and discuss philosophy, we become the continuation of some of the greatest minds who walked this planet: Plato, Socrates, Zeno, and so many others. It was here that Western philosophy began.

In October 2019, on a visit to Greece for the Modern Stoicon conference, I first visited the ruins of Plato’s Academy. I did not imagine that one day philosophers would gather here again, as they once had centuries ago.

On one of the Plato Academy videos, Donald mentions the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker who in 1970 saw that the site of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre was marked by a tarnished plaque on a brewery. Wanamaker took it upon himself to initiate the restoration of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre and today plays are performed there.

One day, fate permitting, this will be true of Plato’s Academy. The impossible can be made possible through intention and effort. I thank all those involved in this visionary and historic undertaking.

To find out more about Dr. Ranjini George

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Ward Farnsworth on the Socratic Method

Ward Farnsworth is the dean of the University of Texas School of Law and holds the John Jeffers Research Chair in Law. He is the author of books on law, rhetoric, and philosophy, including The Practising Stoic.

“…the Socratic style of thought is what our culture needs right now. It’s an antidote to social media and to the toxic state of our politics.”

Ward Farnsworth

You’ve written a book called The Socratic Method. Why?

Two reasons. First, the Socratic style of thought is what our culture needs right now. It’s an antidote to social media and to the toxic state of our politics. Despite the fame of Socrates, though, most people nowadays don’t have a very clear idea of what his method was. It deserves better. It’s one of the great legacies of the classical world, and it’s useful for everyone. The book explains how it works.

What are the aspects of the Socratic Method that you think the culture needs so much?

For one thing, humility. The Socratic Method is a process of asking hard questions but also of welcoming disagreement. Socrates wasn’t said to be the wisest person in Athens because he had answers to the big questions. He was the wisest because he knew he didn’t have them.

Socrates also gives us helpful rules for good dialogue—things like saying what you really think, trying not to give offense but also not taking offense, and showing charity when you interpret what others say. I’ve proposed twelve Socratic rules of engagement, which you can download and read.

Ward Farnsworth, The Socratic Method
Ward Farnsworth, The Socratic Method

You said there were two reasons for writing The Socratic Method. What’s the other?

A few years ago, I wrote a book called The Practicing Stoic. It’s about the practical teachings that Stoicism has to offer and what the different ancient philosophers said about them. This book is a prequel to that one. It tells the origin story of Stoicism.

The approach that Socrates took to reasoning, and the conclusions he reached, are the start of Stoic philosophy. So, if you like Stoicism, learning about Socrates will help you understand it better. It takes you back to the roots.

Socratic dialogue is mostly an effort to test your consistency—to see if your surface reactions to things can be squared with what else you know and think.

Ward Farnsworth

What are some examples of how Socrates influenced the Stoics?

Socrates was a hero and model to the Stoics. They viewed his attitude toward his death and other attacks as examples of one of their key ideas—that things are made good or bad by how we think about them and handle them.

The idea that virtue is the only really good thing is another that they got from Socrates. And Socratic dialogue is mostly an effort to test your consistency—to see if your surface reactions to things can be squared with what else you know and think. That was the approach Epictetus used in his classroom, too. Epictetus was a great teacher, and he regarded Socrates as his teacher.

Do you see the Socratic Method as useful apart from teaching?

Yes, its real use for most of us isn’t for teaching or putting questions to other people. It’s a way to think. That’s the spirit in which Plato offered it. Socrates says in the dialogues that thinking—at least good thinking—is like an internal conversation. You have a skeptical dialogue with yourself.

That’s the best way to look at the Socratic method. It’s a discipline for the mind and a path toward wisdom, even if it also helps us see that we’ll never get all the way there.

Mick Mulroy: The Stoic’s Mirror

A Case for Self Assessment

The four main principles of Stoicism — wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance — are best used to conduct self-assessments, not to “preach” to others. Stoics should therefore not insist that Stoicism is superior to other philosophies. Instead, these principles should be employed as personal markers to improve continually. 

With the hope of being helpful to others, the remainder of this writing details some things I have done and the standards that I try and hold to that help me do that. No matter where you are on your personal development, everyone is better off if we are all trying to better ourselves. Being a self-assessing Stoic will also help prevent you from becoming what may be the worst — a hypocrite

Wisdom

grayscale photo of human hand
Photo by Amine M’Siouri on Pexels.com

Wisdom is not just knowing lots of information. Artificial intelligence and Google are making that ability less and less important. Instead, true wisdom is all about the ability to be creative and innovative. To be creative and innovative, you have to be able to admit when you are wrong and adjust as you receive new information. 

Being adaptable is becoming a rare skill in today’s world, where people have developed immutable beliefs based on information pushed for political or self-serving reasons. If you cannot admit you are wrong, you will essentially never be innovative, especially when circumstances change. When was the last time you admitted you were wrong to someone?

Courage

Courage is knowingly deciding to act for the good of others regardless of the consequences to yourself — even if those consequences could be dire. I have seen courage in traditional settings (e.g., in the military and on the battlefield). But courageousness is found in many other capacities every day. 

Do you walk past the person being bullied or attacked on the street? Do you look the other way when someone is wrongfully discriminated against or do you stand up for them — even if it means those discriminating turn on you? Do you pull someone out of a burning car on the highway or do you standby watching it burn? Every day is a test, whether you like it or not. 

The true pursuit of justice should be for others regardless of whether they are like you or not. 

Mick Mulroy

Justice

Look at justice and your pursuit of it. What are you doing for others? Yes, you should fight for your rights and the rights of those like you. But, that is basically righteous self-interest. The true pursuit of justice should be for others regardless of whether they are like you or not. 

Human rights after all should be, by definition, universal. We should strive to promote human rights for others regardless of whether we personally benefit. This is what it means to be a true proponent of justice, to be a humanitarian. When is the last time you took a stand for something that did not benefit you for someone that wasn’t like you?

Temperance

As an Irish-American myself, I have a theory on the Irish. During the famine and the troubles in Ireland, many families had to send some of their children to the “New World” to try and make enough to survive for the whole family. 

Yet, the United States was not very receptive to the Irish. In fact, they it was in many ways hostile. Most Irish chosen to be sent across the ocean were selected based on their tenacity and boldness (there are other names I could use but I am trying to be polite). They weren’t necessarily sent abroad for their temperance.     

Whether this theory is true, I have always viewed temperance as the most challenging. Aristotle may have said moderation in all things, but that is easier said than done for many people, Irish or not. 

I have found that the best way to improve in this category is to well, cheat. If you eat and drink too much at night, go to bed early. If you turn hostile every time you talk politics with your parents or a certain friend, even after you tried to have a civil discussion, talk about something else. But a person’s temper may not be in their total control. 

Deciding to go into situations that trigger your temper is in your control. To be blunt, if it is your choice to avoid, then the consequences of not avoiding it are your fault. When was the last time you were the one that walked away from an unproductive argument?

Integrity

These principles are the building blocks that make up a more complicated whole — your integrity. Your integrity is the only thing that can’t be taken from you and is, therefore, the only thing you truly own. Self-assessment, if done honestly, is an investment in your integrity. 

Like climbing a mountain, there will be hardships, there will be peaks and valleys, and there may even be some false summits, but it is worth the effort for you and everyone you know. 

Whether you agree with or use what I utilize for self-assessment is not what’s important.  What is important is looking carefully at yourself in the Stoic’s mirror. Many people are their own greatest fans. Be your own harshest critic.  

Mick Mulroy, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, retired CIA officer, and U.S. Marine, on the board of advisors for the Plato’s Academy Centre.

Sir John Templeton on Stoicism

Sir John Templeton (1912 – 2008), an American by birth who later became naturalised as a UK citizen, was an extremely successful investor and fund manager.  He was also one of the 20th century’s most notable philanthropists, reputedly giving away over a billion dollars to charity.  In 1987, he founded The Templeton Foundation, describing its goal as follows:

We are trying to persuade people that no human has yet grasped 1% of what can be known about spiritual realities. So we are encouraging people to start using the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities.

John Templeton

Templeton was a lifelong member of the Presbyterian Church.  He had a very diverse interest, though, in spiritual and philosophical classics from other traditions.  His writings are full of quotes from famous Stoics such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.  He also quotes frequently from Cicero, an orator and Academic philosopher who was himself heavily influenced by Stoicism.  Templeton also liked to refer to Socrates, the most famous Greek philosopher of all, who preceded and greatly influenced the Stoic school. 

I counted about 22 references to Stoicism in Worldwide Laws of Life, his most popular book on Amazon.  To save me repeating “Templeton quotes xyz as saying”, incidentally, bear in mind that every one of the quotations below is used by Templeton in this book.   

John Templeton, Worldwide Laws of Life
John Templeton, Worldwide Laws of Life

Templeton derived two major themes from his reading of the Stoics, which run throughout his writings:

  1. Our own thoughts shape our character and emotions
  2. Our happiness depends upon having self-discipline, and living consistently in accord with our true values

We’ll explore each of these in turn before discussing a third Stoic theme, death reflection, which Templeton only touches upon indirectly.

1. “Your life becomes what you think.”

Templeton uses this quote from Marcus Aurelius as the title of one of his Worldwide Laws of Life. He also includes another quote, which better explains its meaning: “Such as are thy habitual thoughts,” says Marcus, “such also will be the character of thy soul—for the soul is dyed by thy thoughts.” Marcus is also quoted as saying:

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thought: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus was steeped in the teachings of Epictetus, an earlier Stoic philosopher, whose most famous saying was:

Men are disturbed not by things that happen but by their opinion of the things that happen.  

Epictetus

Templeton quoted Epictetus because he understood that our emotional life depends much more on our opinions than we normally tend to realise.  Our spiritual progress requires taking responsibility for our own thinking, and bringing our actions more into alignment with the goal of living wisely and virtuously. 

Recalling that we can always view events differently helps us to cope with setbacks in a wiser, more constructive manner.  Epictetus is quoted as saying, “On the occasion of every accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use.”  One who has mastered this ability has overcome fortune.  

Happy is the man who can endure the highest and the lowest fortune. He who has endured such vicissitudes with equanimity has deprived misfortune of its power.

Seneca

Templeton also quoted with approval Epictetus’ remark:

Appearances to the mind are of four kinds. Things are either what they appear to be; or they neither are, nor appear to be; or they are, and do not appear to be; or they are not, and yet appear to be. Rightly to aim in all these cases is the wise man’s task.

Epictetus

We are unlikely to be deceived when things are as they appear to be. However, often the contrary is true. Something might be healthy, on the one hand, without appearing to be so. On the other, something may appear to be healthy, without, in fact, being so.  Appearances, in short, are distinct from reality, and can therefore be quite misleading. This might seem obvious but we’re naturally inclined to forget the distinction between appearance and reality. Philosophers like Epictetus want us to be more mindful of this distinction throughout our daily lives, as a safeguard against being deceived by superficial impressions.

We have to make a commitment to the truth as it requires intelligence and effort to see clearly, without letting our feelings get in the way. 

The great teacher Seneca said, “Eyes will not see when the heart wishes them to be blind.”

John Templeton

He also quotes Seneca saying “Live among men as if God beheld you; speak to God as if men were listening.”

The Pythia, or Delphic Oracle
The Pythia, or Delphic Oracle

Socrates, the godfather of Stoicism, as it were, was the first to really emphasize that we need to question our own thinking very deeply, every day, if we want to achieve wisdom and learn to see life clearly.  Templeton relates the famous story of the Delphic Oracle, or priestess of Apollo, also known as the Pythia. She once, controversially, announced that Socrates was the wisest of all men.  This prompted Socrates to respond by insisting that he was only wise because he realized that he knew nothing, at least nothing certain about things of great importance.  “Surely,” writes Templeton, “these are the words of a teachable man.” 

Socrates reputedly said at his trial “The unexamined life is not worth living”, words which Templeton also notes approvingly.  After the Delphic Oracle’s remarkable proclamation of Socrates’ wisdom, the Athenian philosopher dedicated his life to following the most famous prescription engraved outside her shrine. It consisted of two simple words: Know thyself.  For Templeton this was emblematic of Socrates’ mission to urged Athenians “to live noble lives, to think critically and logically, and to have probing minds”, although as we’ll see it also has another meaning.

2. “No man is free who is not master of himself.”

Templeton used this quote from Epictetus as another of his Worldwide Laws of Life. Philosophy, philosophia in Greek, literally means “love of wisdom”, including the wisdom that comes from studying our own nature.  Striving to truly know ourselves, following the maxim of the Delphic Oracle, is the essence of Socratic philosophy, and of Stoicism.  It means realizing that our minds shape our emotions and that our happiness therefore depends, fundamentally, upon our thinking, our beliefs, and our overall philosophy of life.  Knowing yourself is the key to your freedom, in other words.  Templeton quotes Seneca on this: “A good mind is lord of a kingdom.”  That’s because self-knowledge leads to self-control, which we need in order to free ourselves from our own unhealthy desires and emotions.  “No man is free”, according to Epictetus, “who is not master of himself.”

Ancient philosophy, particularly Stoicism, was not an abstract bookish or “academic” diversion but a whole way of life, similar in some ways to a religion such as Buddhism.  Templeton knew this and used the words of another Stoic to illustrate the point.

Wisdom does not show itself so much in precept as in life—in firmness of mind and mastery of appetite. It teaches us to do as well as to talk; and to make our words and action all of a color.

Seneca

Of course this requires an unusual degree of dedication to the goal of living wisely.  “No man”, says Epictetus, “is able to make progress when he is wavering between opposite things.”  We all too easily risk wasting our time otherwise.  “Part of our time is snatched from us,” as Seneca puts it, “part is gently subtracted, and part slides insensibly away.” Yet when we focus ourselves on our fundamental goal in life, the goal of attaining wisdom and virtue, we can achieve a great deal.  “Better to do a little well,” says Socrates, “than a great deal badly.”  Templeton also liked to quote Cicero, who was influenced by the Stoics, in this regard:

Diligence is to be particularly cultivated by us, it is to be constantly exerted; it is capable of effecting almost everything.

Cicero

The secret to achieving this level of diligence and focus lies in self-knowledge, though, and the realization that we already have an overriding goal in life: the goal of wisdom.  For Socrates and the Stoics, wisdom and virtue are the same.  The supreme goal in life is to become wise and good, or to improve and ultimately perfect ourselves.  Nature gave us the capacity for reason and self-awareness, and left us to finish her work by using these faculties well throughout life.  “A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature”, as Seneca put it.  We’re constantly tempted to stray from the path, though, by endless diversions in life.  “No longer talk at all about the kind of man a good man ought to be,” says Marcus Aurelius therefore, “but be such.”  We know we’re on the right track when we can look back on our life and feel that we’ve actually spent our precious time well.  “The life given us by nature is short,” said Cicero, “but the memory of a well-spent life is eternal.” 

The goal of life is to act consistently in accord with our fundamental goal, of seeking wisdom and virtue.  The Stoics doubted whether any mortal had ever achieved perfection but they still thought it was a goal worth aspiring toward, although we should be grateful for making even small steps in the right direction.  Templeton quotes a stunning passage from Seneca on this:

The greatest man is he who chooses right with the most invincible resolution; who resists the sorest temptation from within and without; who bears the heaviest burdens cheerfully; who is calmest in storms, and most fearless under menaces and frowns; whose reliance on truth, on virtue, and on god is most unfaltering.

Seneca

This is the famous “Sage” or Sophos of the Stoic philosophical tradition: their knowingly idealistic definition of the potential for greatness implicit in human nature.  

Templeton and the Stoics on Death

As we’ve seen, the words “Know thyself” were engraved at the entrance of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, near Athens. Inside was seated the Pythia, who not only spoke on behalf of her patron god, but channelled his very presence, so it was believed, through a form of possession. Those standing outside the temple were reminded, therefore, to show humility because they were about enter the presence of an immortal being, the god Apollo himself. In other words, the inscription “Know yourself” originally meant “Know your place” or “Remember that you are a mortal.”

Here’s a quote from the ancient Stoics, which you don’t find inTempleton’s books:

Those whom you love and those whom you despise will both be made equal in the same ashes. This is the meaning of that command, “Know thyself”, which is written on the shrine of the Pythian oracle. — Seneca, Moral Letters, 11

“What is man?”, asks Seneca. Nothing more than a potter’s vase, which can be shattered into pieces by the slightest knock.

You were born a mortal, and you have given birth to mortals: yourself a weak and fragile body, liable to all diseases, can you have hoped to produce anything strong and lasting from such unstable material? — Moral Letters, 11

Contemplation of our own mortality is a major theme in Stoicism.  It was known in Greek as melete thanatou, or training for death, following a saying of Socrates.  It’s better-known today, perhaps, by the Latin phrase memento mori meaning “remember thou must die”.  This phrase, as Epictetus noted, was one of several traditionally whispered in the ears of victorious Roman generals and emperors, by attendant slaves, in order to protect them against delusions of immortality and godhood.  The Stoics believed that by contemplating our own mortality on a daily basis, in the right way, we could overcome our fear of death, and this would liberate us from many other unhealthy desires and emotions in life.  

We can choose to flow gracefully or to resist and become immobilized in fear.

John Templeton

John Templeton does, in fact, describe a similar practice.  “Many people have a fear of change”, he says.  He therefore advises his readers that, in the form of a spiritual practice, they may come to accept change and loss, without upset, by learning to view such things as part of nature.  We should remember that “nature’s great scheme involves change”, as Templeton puts it.  This sounds just like Stoicism as does Templeton’s remark: “We can choose to flow gracefully or to resist and become immobilized in fear.”  In part, this comes from accepting change as natural and inevitable, as the Stoics say.  Our suffering can also be helped, according to Templeton, by viewing every ending as also a beginning.  

We generally like beginnings—we celebrate the new. On the other hand, many people resist endings and attempt to delay them. Much of our resistance to endings stems from our unawareness, or inability, to realize that we are one with nature. Often we don’t feel the joy of an ending, perhaps because we forget that in each ending are the seeds of beginning. Although endings can be painful, they are less so if, instead of resisting them, we look at time as a natural process of nature: as leaves budding in the spring, coming to full leaf in the summer, turning red and gold in autumn, and dropping from the trees in winter. It can be comforting to comprehend that we are an integral part of the great scheme of nature.

John Templeton

This leads to Templeton’s sage advice with regard to losses we experience in the course of life: “The more we allow ourselves to trust that every ending is a new beginning, the less likely we are to resist letting go of old ideas and attitudes.”  His own Christian faith, however, meant that he also viewed death as a new beginning, because he had faith, personally, in an afterlife.  He compares human life to the existence of a lowly caterpillar, and death to our soul’s emergence from a spiritual cocoon, into a more resplendent life in Heaven.

Yet, if you are willing to trust, as caterpillars seem able to do, the end of your life as an earthbound worm may be the beginning of your life as a beautiful winged creature of the sky.

John Templeton

Death is not something to be feared, therefore, because we may be reborn as beings of pure spirit, living on in a better place. 

We can see each ending as a tragedy and lament and resist it, or we can see each ending as a new beginning and a new birth into greater opportunities. What the caterpillar sees as the tragedy of death, the butterfly sees as the miracle of birth.

John Templeton

That belief is not as widely held today, though, at least in those countries where agnosticism and atheism are common.    

In the ancient world, perhaps surprisingly, a somewhat more agnostic attitude toward death was also quite common.  Socrates, in Plato’s Apology, expresses belief in the gods and hope that he will enjoy a happy existence in the afterlife.  However, he admits his uncertainty about such things, and adopts a philosophical attitude, preparing himself for the possibility that death may, instead, resemble an endless sleep, a state of total nonexistence or oblivion.   

Many people share Templeton’s interest in using “the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities”. They don’t all share his Christian faith in spiritual life after death, though. Some of these individuals would struggle to interpret their own death as the “seeds of beginning” an afterlife in Heaven. I think this is an area where the Stoic position could arguably serve Templeton’s overall aim of a rational and “scientific” investigation of spirituality better.

As we saw earlier, Templeton used perhaps the most widely quoted of all passages from the Stoics… Epictetus says that it is our own opinions, ultimately, that disturb us. In the next sentence, though, Epictetus applied this insight to the fear of death, using the example of Socrates, because he considered this the most important fear of all to overcome.

Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things: for example, death is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have seemed so to Socrates; for the opinion about death, that it is terrible, is the terrible thing.

Epictetus, Handbook 5

It’s easier for some non-Christians, especially the atheists and agnostics, to accept uncertainty about life after death. The guidance they’re usually seeking from ancient spiritual traditions today is more about maintaining their values while coming to terms with that very uncertainty, and adopting a philosophical attitude toward their own mortality, such as the one exemplified by Socrates and the Stoics.