Interview with STOICON 2020 Speakers – Christopher Gill

Professor Christopher Gill | Classics and Ancient History | University of  Exeter

We finish our series of interviews with the speakers for the upcoming STOICON, which takes place virtually starting just a bit later on today!  Registration is now closed, but here is the link where you can view the schedule of events. Our final interview is with Christopher Gill.

As a side-note, don’t forget that STOIC WEEK starts this coming Monday. You can enroll in the 2020 Stoic Week course here.

Stoic Week is a free online course based on ideas and practices drawn from the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Modern Stoicism has been running Stoic Week since 2012.  Thousands of people have reported increases in understanding of Stoicism and well-being after participation. This year the theme is “Stoicism during a Pandemic”. No previous experience is required, but we do recommend you devote about 30 minutes each day to Stoic practice during Stoic Week.

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I’ve been a university teacher and researcher on ancient philosophy, including Stoicism, for many years. I’m now retired but still very actively involved in writing on Stoicism and presenting Stoic principles as a basis for life-guidance. Along with several others in the Modern Stoicism movement, I was closely involved in starting Stoic Week, the blog ‘Stoicism Today’, and the annual ‘Stoicon’ conference in 2012-13. I’ve been especially concerned with helping to write the Stoic Week handbook and with setting up Modern Stoicism as an organization. I’m really pleased that these and other Stoic activities have become so well-established and that so many people across the world find them a valuable part of their lives.

How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

I’m currently writing a book on the central ideas of Stoic ethics and their significance for modern moral philosophy. Although Stoicism has a big following today as a basis for life-guidance, it doesn’t have the same importance among those working on modern moral theory, and I’m trying to bring Stoic ethics more fully into that debate. Previously, I’ve written more about specific Stoic thinkers, especially Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, and their interpretations of Stoicism. For instance, I wrote the introduction and notes for the Oxford World’s Classics translations of Epictetus and Marcus.

When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

Although I’ve known about Stoic philosophy since I was a student, I only gradually realized its significance for modern thought and life, mainly through teaching Stoicism alongside other ancient philosophies in a third-year university course on Greek and Roman ethics that I taught for several years. I found that Stoic ideas struck a chord with me and the students in a way that was not so much the case with Aristotle, and the Epicureans, for instance. This paved the way for my involvement in the applied Stoicism movement towards the end of my career in university teaching.

What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?

Three Stoic ideas strike as especially important. One is that happiness depends not on health, property, or even the welfare of our loved ones, though these things have real value and importance, but on developing the virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, and self-control) and making these central to our lives. Another is the belief that all human beings are fundamentally motivated to take care of themselves and others of their kind, and that the best way to do this is to develop towards virtue and virtue-based happiness. Also, all human beings are fundamentally capable of doing this, whatever their social and educational background or their individual differences of character and failings. Thirdly, there is the idea that human beings form an integral part of nature as a whole and that we should work to build into our own character and life the order and wholeness that is part of nature. (I think this idea can be very helpful to us in trying to live in a more environmentally sustainable way.) All three ideas are very profound and have many implications at the philosophical and practical level. 

In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

I think Stoicism matters today because it is a deep and complex philosophical framework, which was worked out by different thinkers over five centuries in the ancient world and thought about for another two thousand years since then. But there are some specific ways it can speak to us now. The appeal to fundamental ideas about human nature and values can serve as a powerful alternative to some strong currents today, including a focus on narrow commercial or economic value and the fascination with what is ‘now now’ and big in social media. I think the Stoic idea that all human beings are, essentially brothers or sisters and fellow-citizens is a powerful antidote to some modern forms of xenophobia and exclusionism. And as mentioned earlier (in 4), I believe that the Stoic view that human beings form an integral part of nature as a whole can give a broader philosophical basis for trying to live a more environmentally sustainable life.

How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

Stoicism has helped me to try to connect more closely theories and ideals and the way I live each day. It has helped me respond with more resilience to serious difficulties, such as the death of my wife ten years ago (she was twelve years younger than me and we had four sons together). I asked myself: ‘what is the use of studying all these philosophical ideas if you cannot draw on them at tough times?

What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

Well, how about this one from Marcus Aurelius, relevant to the point I’ve just made:

‘Be like the headland, on which the waves break constantly, which stands firm, while the foaming waters are put to rest about it. “It is my bad luck that this has happened to me”. On the contrary,  say, “It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without getting upset, neither crushed by the present nor afraid of the future … Surely what has happened cannot prevent you from being just, high-minded, self-controlled, thoughtful, self-respecting, free, and the other qualities whose presence enables human nature to maintain its character”’. (Meditations 4.49)

And here’s another from Marcus:

‘Whenever you want to cheer yourself up, think of the good qualities of those who live with you: such as the energy of one, the decency of another, the generosity of another … There is nothing so cheering as the images of the virtues displayed in the characters of those who live with you, and grouped together as far as possible. So you should keep them ready at hand’. (Meditations 6.48)

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

First of all, follow ‘Stoic week’ (Oct 19-25 this year), and the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training Course, when this is run next (keep an eye on the website: http://modernstoicism.com). Then, read one of a number of really helpful books on living a Stoic life, such as John Sellars, Lessons in Stoicism, Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, or Massimo Pigliucci’s How to be a Stoic. Then read Epictetus’s Discourses and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (you may find the Oxford World’s Classics translations helpful). Cicero’s On Duties (sometimes called On Obligations) is also a useful guide to Stoic ethics.

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

I think I would stress that Stoic ethics aren’t just a pathway to personal tranquillity and self-therapy (though they can be that). They also provide a framework for living an active and engaged social life; in the ancient world this was the side of Stoic ethics that was most often stressed. Care for yourself and care for others were seen as the two core human motives, and ones that are not in competition with each other.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today, president of ReasonIO, adjunct professor at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design | Sadler's Lectures podcast - https://soundcloud.com/gregorybsadler | YouTube channel with 1700+ philosophy videos - https://www.youtube.com/c/GregoryBSadler

2 thoughts on “Interview with STOICON 2020 Speakers – Christopher Gill”

  1. The second quote of Marcus that Christopher Gill mentions, about how to cheer yourself up is similar to modeling. Think about the good traits in others, and how wonderful it is to have peoeple with these characteristics in your world. To take it a step further, remind yourself of their good traits and try to emulate them. Many times, the most difficult part is _remembering_ to do that.

    Sometimes, when my inner lizard brain or my inner middle school boy comes out, my wife will remind me, “Try acting more like Bob next door.” Bob, who passed away two years ago, was a retired high school language teacher who had terrific qualities such as empathy, helpfulness, a sense of humor and arguably a good dose of Stoic virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, and self-control).

  2. I really enjoyed reading this, thank you. The Marcus quotes, the personal trials and tribulations you shared, really struck a cord with me, as well as the salient points of Stoicism.

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