For fans of Stoicism, here is a rare chance to watch the master, Professor Anthony Long of Berkeley College, giving a talk on Marcus Aurelius. Long is perhaps most to be credited with reviving the academic study of Stoicism, which was almost completely ignored by classicists and philosophers for most of the 20th century. It was only when Long held a series of eight seminars on Stoicism at Oxford in 1970 that the picture started to change – and that philosophers like Myles Burnyeat, Jonathan Barnes, Richard Sorabji and Martha Nussbaum started to focus not solely on Plato and Aristotle, but also on the Hellenistic philosophers (and chiefly the Stoics) and their practical therapies of emotion.
Long is also an enthusiast for not just treating Stoicism as an academic subject, but trying to apply its ideas and practices in life today. He’s fascinated that people are trying to be Stoics today, and he told me in an interview back in 2008 that he’s also started trying to follow Stoicism in his own life – and even to give talks on it in San Quentin prison! He mentioned after this week’s talk that Bernard Williams, the famous Oxford philosopher, had been very scornful of the idea of Stoic / Socratic therapy. ‘But then’, Long said, ‘I’m not sure Williams ever really suffered.’ What I like about Long is he wants to bring the ideas of Stoicism to ordinary people, beyond academia. But, at the same time, he doesn’t want to turn Stoicism into a bland watered down self-help, but to explore some of the challenges and paradoxes in the Stoic tradition.
In this talk, he discusses Marcus Aurelius’ idea of the self, and some of the paradoxes and problems involved in it. Are we to identify our ‘self’ with our reason only, or what the Stoics call our ‘ruling faculty’? What does it mean to ‘separate’ our reason or consciousness from our physical desires and passions – and is this really possible? Is our rational consciousness ‘us’, or is it a fragment of God, and so not really ‘us’ at all? Is our consciousness separate, alone, cut off from everything, or are we a tiny part of some great network of consciousness (in which case how much control over ourselves do we really have?) Not easy questions, but it is characteristic of Long not to shy away from asking them.