I have just finished writing a book on Marcus Aurelius. This has been a longstanding commitment so I am pleased to have finally got it finished. It is due to be published by Routledge, in their series Philosophy in the Roman World.
The aim of the book is to defend Marcus Aurelius as a philosopher, and in particular a Stoic philosopher. It is all too common to hear it said that Marcus wasn’t really a philosopher at all - he was merely an amateur, he just wrote moral exhortation, he was a confused eclectic, he resorted to colourful images and rhetoric rather than argument, and so on.
I try to defend Marcus from these sorts of charges on a number of fronts. The first is biographical, where I look at Marcus’s early commitment to philosophy and his education. It is striking that the vast majority of his teachers in philosophy were Stoics. The correspondence with Fronto is especially interesting here, as it makes clear that Marcus was reading Chrysippus and Seneca, not just Epictetus.
The second front is literary. The Meditations is an anomalous text. In order to take it seriously as a work of philosophy we need to understand what type of text it is and what it was supposed to achieve. That requires thinking about the idea of written exercises conceived as a form of philosophical training, which was in turn part of philosophy understood as an art of living.
The third, and most important, front is philosophical. This involves looking at the philosophical themes in the Meditations and unpacking the Stoic doctrines presupposed by Marcus’s personal notes to himself. Against a common view that the Meditations is a work of practical ethics, I look at themes in logic, physics, and ethics. As I have presented it in the book, it’s in fact physical themes that predominate, although on so many topics one can see logical, physical, and ethical material intermingled. Marcus certainly engages with a wide range of philosophical material.
In the process of writing the book I have found a number of things:
It’s often been claimed that Marcus was not a proper philosopher because he resorted to colourful rhetorical imagery rather than giving real arguments. In fact there are quite a few arguments in the Meditations, and they are specifically Stoic arguments. For instance, in 5.16 he uses the first Stoic indemonstrable syllogism; in 7.75 he uses the fifth indemonstrable; in 10.6 he uses the second indemonstrable; and there are many other examples.
The division of the books of the Meditations into sections that everyone uses today only dates back to Thomas Gataker’s edition of 1652. Earlier editions (Sally 1626, Casaubon 1643) divide things up differently, while the first printed edition (Xylander 1559) just prints each book as continuous text without divisions. When reading the Meditations, then, it would be a mistake to approach it as a series of isolated aphorisms. Often a passage that can seem cryptic makes a lot more sense when read as part of a chain of thought spanning a series of interconnected sections. The text is a thought process, not a set of carefully crafted literary nuggets.
While I have learned a lot from reading Pierre Hadot’s various writings on Marcus, I have become less convinced by his claim that Epictetus’s three areas of study (topoi) are the key to understanding the Meditations. While there are certainly lots of echoes of Epictetus there, there are also lots of echoes of Seneca, but just as important are core Stoic ideas originating in the early Stoa. Marcus certainly read his Chrysippus, as were so many of his contemporaries, such as Galen, Plutarch, and Aulus Gellius.
The table of contents for the book looks like this:
Part I: Marcus and his Meditations
1. Marcus the Stoic Philosopher
2. The Meditations, a Philosophical Text
Part II: Logic
3. Impressions and Judgements
Part III: Physics
4. Nature and Change
5. Fate and Providence
6. Soul and Emotion
7. Time and Death
Part IV: Ethics
8. Virtue and Justice
9. The Cosmic City
Here's a quick round-up of some upcoming talks:
Looking further ahead, in March 2020 I’ll be visiting the University of East Anglia to talk about Modern Stoicism and in April 2020 I’ll be speaking at a conference in Lyon on Epictetus.
This year Stoic Week will happen again 7th-13th October 2019. The weekend before sees our big annual event, Stoicon, taking place in Athens (details here). The following weekend there'll be a smaller event in London that I'm organizing, on Saturday 12th October. Details are being finalized now, but tickets are available here.
A quick round-up of activities over the coming summer months.
At the end of June I’ll be speaking about metaphilosophy in the Renaissance at a conference I’ve been co-organizing with Joachim Aufderheide and John Callanan on Philosophy as a Way of Life in the History of Philosophy, at King’s College London. Further details here.
My main task for July and August is to finish a book I’m writing on Marcus Aurelius. I have well over half done and the hope is to have it finished by September. It is due to appear in the Routledge series Philosophy in the Roman World.
In September I’ll be speaking about Marcus at the German Society for Ancient Philosophy’s annual conference, in Frankfurt. My title is 'The Unthinking Sage: Marcus Aurelius on Spontaneous Ethical Action'. Further details here.
September also sees the publication of my book Lessons in Stoicism, followed by Stoicon in Athens (with another talk on Marcus Aurelius) and Stoic Week, at the beginning of October.
My next book, Lessons in Stoicism, is a short popular guide to Stoicism aimed at a wide audience. It goes through a number of key themes in Stoicism, focusing on the Roman Stoics and introducing the Roman Stoics as individuals along the way.
It will be published by Penguin in September 2019. North American rights and translations rights for a couple of languages have already been sold. Right now copyediting and the cover are being finalized.
There's some further information here.
Here’s a round-up of some things I’ll be doing this coming year (despite having made a concerted effort to keep my schedule as clear as possible in order to finish my current book project):
It’s been a busy autumn, focused more on public-facing activities than research. At the end of September we held Stoicon at Senate House in London. You can see a short film about the event here, and all of the main talks were recorded too, available here.
Around the same time I wrote a short piece on Stoic Week for an online platform called The Conversation, and the piece was republished on multiple other sites, including the Independent and Newsweek. Within a month it had received over 100,000 views. That must make it the most widely read thing I’ve written thus far.
I also wrote a short piece on Philosophy as a Way of Life for The Philosophers’ Magazine, talking mainly about Hellenistic philosophers.
Over the summer I wrote the first draft of a short book on Stoicism for Penguin, and over the autumn did some fine-tuning and editing before final submission. The book will be called Lessons in Stoicism and is due to appear around September 2019.
It’s now time to turn the focus back to research. The next main task is to complete a monograph on Marcus Aurelius, which is due to be published by Routledge in their series Philosophy in the Roman World.
I have just completed and now submitted three chapters for different edited books. The first of these, ‘Renaissance Consolations: Philosophical Remedies for Fate and Fortune’, is for a volume devoted to fate and fortune in Renaissance philosophy. The second, ‘Self or Cosmos: Foucault versus Hadot’, is for a volume devoted to the late work of Michel Foucault. The third, ‘Indifference versus Affirmation: Michel Foucault on the Stoic Idea of Life as a Test’, is for a volume on the French reception of Stoicism, based on a conference from a couple of years ago. I have also written a very short introduction to a special issue of a journal devoted to the Stoic tradition, arising from a conference I attended in Budapest last year.