Over the last few months I have been finishing off three commissioned pieces all dealing with Marcus Aurelius, each coming from a quite different angle. The first examines Marcus’s references to Socrates and the extent to which Socrates was an influence on both the form and content of the Meditations. The second discusses the theme of ‘mindfulness’ in Marcus and Epictetus, making some connections with Michel Foucault’s work on ‘cultivation of the self’. The third is concerned with the reception of the Meditations in the work of the seventeenth century Cambridge Platonist Henry More.
Here are the titles and abstracts for all three (preprints to follow shortly):
‘Socratic Themes in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius’
Although Marcus Aurelius refers to Socrates only a handful of times in the Meditations, and often only to name him as an example of an illustrious figure now long dead, this chapter argues that there is a distinctive Socratic character to the philosophical project that we see at work in Marcus’s notebook writings. In those few places where Marcus does invoke Socrates it is usually in connection with one of the central preoccupations of the Meditations, in particular the notion of taking care of oneself, the primacy of virtue, and the need for self-control. This chapter i) examines Marcus’s knowledge of Socrates and the sources he used, and ii) explores the Socratic themes in the Meditations noted above. Although Marcus does not explicitly say very much about Socrates, I suggest that he probably considered the Meditations to embody a deeply Socratic project.
‘Roman Stoic Mindfulness: An Ancient Technology of the Self’
This chapter examines Michel Foucault’s notion of cultivation of the self by focusing on an example of an ancient practice contributing to that goal, namely the attitude of attention or mindfulness proposed by the Roman Stoics Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. It contrasts this Stoic attitude with modern versions of mindfulness, showing that both the object of attention and the goal of the process are different. It argues that the primary object of attention for Roman Stoic mindfulness was one’s philosophical principles. The goal of this practice was virtuous action based upon those principles. It was a technique aimed at ethical self-transformation, unlike its modern counterpart, which is primarily aimed at overcoming distress.
‘Henry More as Reader of Marcus Aurelius’
I examine Henry More’s engagement with Stoicism in general, and Marcus Aurelius in particular, in his Enchiridion Ethicum. More quotes from Marcus’s Meditations throughout the Enchiridion, leading one commentator to note that More ‘mined the Meditations’ when writing his book. Yet More’s general attitude towards Stoicism is more often than not critical, especially when it comes to the passions. I shall argue that while More was clearly an avid reader of the Meditations he read Marcus not as a Stoic but as a ‘non-denominational’ ancient moralist who confirms a range of doctrines that More finds elsewhere in ancient philosophy. In this sense More continues the Neoplatonic practice of downplaying doctrinal differences between ancient philosophers in order to construct a single ancient philosophical tradition. This is quite different from the approach of his contemporary and fellow Cambridge Platonist, Ralph Cudworth, who was keen to highlight doctrinal differences between ancient philosophers.
Talks this term:
In the Summer term I shall be speaking in Paris and (tbc) Italy.
I recently did an online interview about my book collecting, which is the third one I've done this year. Here are links to all three:
In December I shall be going to Australia to speak at the ASCP conference in Melbourne. My talk will be entitled: 'What is Philosophy as a Way of Life?'. Here's a brief outline:
What is philosophy as a way of life? Is it a distinctive approach to philosophy? Is it closely aligned with continental philosophy? Does it offer a third way, distinct from both analytic and continental philosophy? Is all philosophy potentially life-changing? Do we lose something important if we conceive philosophy as a practical therapeutic exercise? I shall attempt to address all these questions, drawing on Lucretius for my final response.
Then, in March 2017, I shall be going to speak at a conference in Budapest on The Stoic Tradition. There is a call for papers here.
Stoic Week is happening once again. I'm not so involved this time around but I did do a short interview to coincide with the event which you can find at: 'Interview: John Sellars'.
There was also a public event in New York this weekend, following on from the three previous events in London. I was unable to attend but did write a preliminary draft of what would have been my talk: 'Hard Truths and Happiness'.
My main ambition for 2015-16 was to complete and submit my book manuscript on Hellenistic philosophy (see previous update). I’m pleased to report that I more or less finished a complete draft in July. I have now read through this and identified a list of final revisions. I hope to complete these in September and submit the draft to the publisher (update: now submitted).
For the coming year 2016-17 I have another book project I hope to complete, on which more in due course.
I have recently checked proofs for two book chapters due out shortly.
The first likely to appear is a chapter in German on Stoic spiritual exercises to be published in Philosophie als Lebenskunst: Antike Vorbilder, moderne Perspektiven by Suhrkamp probably in December 2016. The volume is based on a very enjoyable conference that took place in Erlangen two years ago.
The second is a short piece on Stoic attitudes towards evils, to be published in The History of Evil in Antiquity by Routledge. This was scheduled for publication in 2016 but I think will now appear in early 2017.
The annotated bibliography I prepared for Oxford Bibliographies Online is now available here (requires subscription).