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’?
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’.