AA Long on Marcus Aurelius and the Self

Here are some highlights of Professor Anthony Long’s talk yesterday at the Institute of Classics in London, on ‘Marcus Aurelius and the Self’. A.A. Long is probably the greatest living expert on Stoicism, and one of four people responsible for its remarkable revival in modern life – the other three are the French academic Pierre Hadot, the American academic Martha Nussbaum, and the New York psychotherapist Albert Ellis, who took Stoicism and revived it in cognitive therapy.

These four people are all heroes of mine, whose work has changed my life. They all have very different personalities and approaches to Stoicism. What Long brings to Hellenistic philosophy is a careful exploration of what the ancients meant, and a willingness to grapple with difficult questions, and to tease out the paradoxes and problems within these ancient philosophies (indeed, one of his books is called Problems in Stoicism).

That’s a vital role, because, as you’ll see in his talk, there are a lot of problems and paradoxes in Stoicism. In his talk, for example, he explores Marcus Aurelius’ idea of the self. He shows how the Stoics played a key role in the invention of the self, through their idea of humans possessing a ‘hegemonikon‘ or ‘ruling faculty’ within our psyche, through which we can become ‘master of our soul’. And yet, with typical tenacity, he leads us delve into the paradoxes of this idea of our ‘divine ruling faculty’.

Is my hegemonikon, my conscious ethical self, really ‘me’, while the other bits of me (my body, my passions etc) are not really ‘me’? That’s a possible interpretation of Stoic thinking. But the Stoics, including Aurelius, also thought that the hegemonikon was a fragment of the divine Logos – of the great cosmic network of consciousness that connects all beings. In which case, is the hegemonikon really ‘me’ or rather a part of the great Logos, and therefore not ‘me’?

Is my hegemonikon really just God dreaming that I exist, or am I dreaming that God exists? Who is really real – me or God? If all our minds are connected through the Logos, then do ‘I’ exist or am I one little synapse in the Great Brain?

Long explores how Marcus Aurelius tries to delineate the self, reduce it to its bare essentials. Yet he delineates it so much, until it is just a small point of consciousness in a world of flux, that one really has to wonder what is left. And what is the pay-off for this delineation of the self? Why do it?

I suggested that it could be a mystic process – when one has separated oneself from everything (the past, the future, the body, opinions, passions) and become a point of pure separate consciousness, then one can suddenly expand into ‘cosmic consciousness’. The isolated consciousness becomes joined to the great ocean of consciousness. Perhaps…But Long wondered if there was much evidence of the attainment of such cosmic consciousness in Aurelius. What he seems to see there is more a sense of pessimism and even desperation.

I tagged on to the dinner afterwards, and had the pleasure of chatting a bit with Anthony and his wife. What great people. Anthony is fascinated by the movement to take Stoicism beyond academia, and fascinated by how people are using Stoic ideas in their lives. He remarked how the great philosopher Bernard Williams was rather scornful of Stoic therapy, and Long said: ‘I think the thing was, Williams had never really suffered’.

Long really believes in the value of Stoic ideas in modern culture, and really believes they can help ordinary people’s lives. At the same time, he clearly sees the worth in preserving the intellectual rigour of our approach to Stoicism, and really trying to discover what the ancient Stoics meant. That means not only exploring the ‘techniques’ or ‘exercises’ of ancient philosophy as Hadot did (and God bless Hadot for his work) but also being prepared to roll up one’s sleeves and grapple a bit with some thorny questions. What we see in Long’s talk is a great mind who is willing to roll up his sleeves and grapple with ideas.
I’ve divided the talk into two parts, both are below:

Comments:

  • Michel Daw says:

    Thank you very much, Jules. We need to keep listening to folks like these. It is so easy to slip into some new-age feel-good pseudo-philosophy when trying to deal with Stoicism today. We NEED to maintain the rigour of academic research before attempting to adapt and adopt some of the ancient Stoic ideas or we risk creating merely another 'flavour of the day' philosophy. Again, thanks for this.

  • Pamela Daw says:

    Thank you for posting this Jules. For us long distance folks it is wonderful to be able to partake in this lecture. :)

    As Michel has mentioned above we need our Stoicism today to be firmly grounded in academic research or we run the risk of creating a pseudoStoic philosophy that becomes nothing but a feel good New Agey flavour of the week. A flavour that will be quickly replaced by the next greatest fad to come along that tickles the senses. It needs to be updated to modern life but true and really grounded in its ancient philosophical roots.

  • Jules Evans says:

    My pleasure guys!

    all the best

    Jules

  • muanmard says:

    Hi Jules,
    I'm a new member. Thanks for posting professor Long's presentation. I'm so happy to see it. I've been a big fan since reading his translation of Enchiridion and his book on Stoicism. Also, just a quick comment about your reference to Nussbaum. Is't she quite critical of Stoic idea in "Therapy of Desire"? But then it has been a while since I read the book and I could be wrong. I just thought she's an Aristotelian who thinks emotion is a good guide to human happiness. Anyway, just want to say hi and to thank you for creating a community for Stoics.

    Muanmard Mookpradit.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Hi Muanmard

    Thanks for reading. As you probably know, people have been creating the Stoic community for at least a decade, and I too am relatively new to it. Do you know NewStoa.com? they've been working for at least a decade.

    Re Martha Nussbaum, she's not a Stoic herself, but shes written about them a lot, and she expresses what she calls a Neo-Stoic position in her book Upheavals of Thought, where she embraces the Stoics' analysis of how emotions work and how we can change them – without accepting their goal of completely transcending all passions.

    All the best

    Jules

  • muanmard says:

    Thanks for information about the New Stoa. I had just joined their online society. Also, thank you for pointing out Nussbaum's neo-stoicism. I have the Upheavals of thoughts, but haven't read the whole book. I wonder, though, if she refuses the Stoic idea of transcending emotion, how would neo-Stoicism be different from a simple Cognitive theory of emotion? After all, we could acknowledge that emotions consisted at least partly of beliefs, without being a Stoic at all, couldn't we? Jules, are you researching on Emotion? I'm trying to do research on the roles of emotion in moral reasoning. Fascinating field, I think. Please forgive me if my English is a little awkward. I'm writing from Thailand. Best wishes.

    Muanmard.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Yes, I think shes really interested in the cognitive theory of emotions, and thinks the Stoics explored and expressed that theory best. But she uses it, as you say, in the service of an Aristotelian ethics.

    Yes, I work at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. Do you work in a Thai academic centre on the emotions? We should build links!

  • muanmard says:

    I'm teaching philosophy at Thammasat university in Bangkok, Thailand. And I'm computer illiterate. As far as I know, there is no academic center in Thailand that's devoted to studying emotion. But the trend is growing in academic circles, especially among feminists, who are critical of traditional binary assumption of reason on the other hand, and emotion on the other. Outside of pockets of academics, Thai society at large don't feel a great need to tackle the problems of emotion. This is because traditional Teravada Buddhist philosophy is already one of the most thorough cognitive theories of emotion you could find. So the idea is not new to the Thais.

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