The Stoic Scholar: Interview With Professor Anthony Long

In 1964, a young PhD student in London was told that Stoicism was the most neglected field in ancient philosophy. Five decades later, that student is one of the most respected and leading philosophers at one of the most important universities in the world, still studying that very topic. His name is Professor Anthony Long and since his introduction to Stoicism, he has been a prolific scholar who has written multiple books including Problems in Stoicism, A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, Seneca: Letters on Ethics. Now Chancellor’s Professor of Classics Emeritus and Professor of the Graduate School at University of California Berkeley, he knows a thing or two about the philosophy we try to discuss about on this site. In this interview we ask Professor Long about how he was first introduced to the Stoics, how his interest in philosophy first arose, favorite quotes, his thoughts on the recent resurgence of Stoicism and much more.

***

Can you tell us about your first encounter with the Stoics? Do you remember how you were introduced to them? A book, a quote, a class?
As a Classics undergraduate at University College London, I studied as one of my two “special subjects” Greek philosophy, covering Presocratics, Plato and Aristotle, with D.J. Furley, who was an outstanding teacher and scholar. The other special subject I could have chosen was “Stoicism and Epicureanism in Roman life and thought”, but I opted instead to study the literary topic Roman satire. So at that early stage the Stoics did not especially interest me, though I had already acquired a general knowledge of Hellenistic philosophy through reading Lucretius and Seneca. I wrote my PhD dissertation on Sophocles.

When it was done, in 1964, I sought Furley’s advice on my next research project, and he said “Stoicism is the most neglected field in ancient philosophy, why don’t you look into that, starting with Plutarch’s anti-Stoic essays”? That’s what I did. So I came to the Stoics as a purely academic adventure, realizing, as I soon did, that the formative period of Stoic philosophy (300-100 BC) offered great challenges for philosophical interpretation and deserved to be widely publicized.

 

What was your first impression? And maybe tell us a bit about your relationship to philosophy in general? How did you end up specializing in Stoicism? Tell us how you ended up at Berkeley in bed with the Stoics.

I became very interested in philosophy as a teenager, through studying Plato at high school, and through reading a number of popular books including Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. What chiefly interested me were metaphysics, epistemology and philosophical theology. Having embarked on Stoicism, as I explained in my response to your first question, I began giving and publishing lots of papers, and organizing conferences. That resulted in my 1971 collection, Problems in Stoicism, which awakened great academic interest in Britain, European countries, and the USA. That favorable reception gave me the confidence and enthusiasm to write my introductory textbook, Hellenistic Philosophy. Stoics, Epicurean, Sceptics (1974), which is still in print and has been translated into eight languages. With my brilliant graduate student David Sedley, I produced the standard collection of evidence for early Stoicism in the two-volume source-book, The Hellenistic Philosophers (1987). During these years I was teaching Greek philosophy in London and Liverpool, and visiting the USA from time to time, to give talks and participate in seminars.

In 1978-9 I spent a formative year at Princeton, teaching a graduate seminar on Hellenistic epistemology with Michael Frede. That experience gave me the incentive to take a job here if a good position arose, to give me the opportunity, which I lacked in England, to teach graduate seminars. By good fortune, John Dillon decided to leave his Berkley job as a specialist in ancient philosophy and return to Ireland. The faculty here invited me to take his place in 1982 as a visitor with the offer of a permanent job, which I readily accepted. I gave my first graduate seminar that year on Stoic ethics, and last semester I taught Hellenistic, and chiefly Stoic ethics, for our philosophy graduate students. Somehow or other, though I have worked on the whole field of Greek philosophy, I have become typecast as a particular expert on Stoicism. Maybe that tells us something about modern philosophical taste.

 

When you introduce Stoicism to students, how do you describe it? We are always looking for really great definitions of Stoicism and we’re wondering if you have one. Or is there anything you say to distinguish it from other types or schools of philosophy? 

I generally introduce Stoicism within its historical context, as a Hellenistic school, permeated initially with the imprint of Socrates and the Cynics, and then building on and revising Platonic metaphysics and ethics, and defending epistemological certainty against challenges from the Skeptics.

Stoicism is distinctive – I emphasize this and find it a great attraction – in its holistic ambition of offering a comprehensive account of the world in which logic, physics, and ethics all cohere; and also by providing its followers with a way of life that can ideally equip us to be consistently comfortable with ourselves and our circumstances, no matter what we experience in conventionally good or bad terms.

 

Is there a Stoic whose work you’ve found yourself more drawn to than the others over the years?

Good question. When I began my research, the most urgent need was to study the fragmentary material of the early Stoics, especially Chrysippus. So for much of my career I focused on these figures and on general Stoic doctrine rather than the Roman Stoics who were and still are much more familiar to the general public. But also, as I have explained in the interview I did for the Stoic Registry, the Roman Stoics did not seem to offer much to the analytic philosophy professional philosophers were doing. In the preface to Problems in Stoicism, I even quoted the phrase “monumental moralizing dullness” as a put-down for the Roman Stoics! You have to realize that therapy was not in vogue at that time. The Roman Stoics were regarded as too rhetorical and prescriptive to suit the tastes of philosophers and intellectuals, especially in Britain where I was living then. That has all changed, and I have changed, so much so that I have written a book on EpictetusA Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (2002), collaborated on the first complete English translation of Seneca’s Letters in close to a century — Seneca: Letters on Ethics (2015) — and I have just completed a new translation of Epictetus’s Handbook for Princeton University Press.

Do I have a favorite Stoic? Yes, Epictetus because he combines hard-hitting advice with challenging scenarios and lots of humor, much of it black, of course. I admire Marcus Aurelius, but I find him too pessimistic and sententious to live with day by day. Seneca is a mixed bag. At his best, he makes Stoic teaching highly accessible and powerfully expressed, but he tends to rant and repeat himself.

 

What do you think of the recent resurgence of Stoic philosophy? Secretary of Defense Mattis for instance likes to carry Marcus Aurelius with him (it reminds me of Seneca in the court of Nero!), a number of sports teams are using the philosophy. What is your take?

I don’t want to split hairs, but I’m not sure that there has been a resurgence of Stoic philosophy as philosophy outside academic circles where the renaissance is still proceeding apace especially in the areas of ethics. There is a large and remarkable interest in selected aspects of Stoicism, such as the cognitive theory of emotions, taking responsibility for one’s life and states of mind, accepting adversity as a challenge rather than an unfair misfortune that people can helpfully apply to themselves; and the original Stoic focus on progress and trying one’s best, as distinct from actual achievement, is a great policy for daily life. But Stoic philosophy in its original features also requires acceptance of providential theism and causal determinism as I point out in my book Stoic Studies. So a modern Stoic philosophy as philosophy would have to be substantially modified, as Larry Becker proposed in his 1998 book A New Stoicism.

Ancient Stoicism strictly requires us to restrict authentic goodness and badness to mental dispositions and choices as distinct from outcomes that suit or do not suit other people’s welfare and our own. I don’t think that it is possible or reasonable to live one’s life today with those doctrines. What we do or do not do affects other people for good or ill, in the obvious sense of those words. However, I also think that there are features of Stoic philosophy that offer us great challenges in the lamentable state of political thought today. I have written about this, chiefly with reference to Cicero, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius in a paper entitled “Stoic communitarianism and normative citizenship”, published in D. Keyt/F. Miiler, eds. Freedom, Reason, and the Polis (Cambridge, 2007).

 

Do you have a favorite stoic quote or exercise that you think of regularly?

I particularly like this sentence and its message from Epictetus’s Handbook (50): “Whatever you encounter that is painful or pleasant or popular or unpopular, keep in mind that now is the contest, and here right now are the Olympic games, and that postponement is no longer an option.”

 

What are some lesser know Stoic texts (or academic texts) that you would encourage readers to explore?

Some of the later and longer letters by Seneca hit home very effectively, for instance 91 on a terrible fire, 92 on what we need for happiness, 93 on a premature death, 121 on natural instincts and self-awareness, and 124 on the relation of goodness to reason.

One of the best treatments of the Stoic legacy is Charles Taylor’s big 1989 book, Sources of the Self.

 

What are you currently working on and are excited about?

I am preparing a new collection of my published essays (several of them on Stoicism) that discuss ancient philosophical ideas of reason and the self; but I am largely taking a break from new work on Stoicism, and turning back to Plato. Teaching the Republic last year to a big undergraduate philosophy class fired me up, especially in the work’s application to our current political predicaments. I have also been lecturing on the topic of divinity in Plato’s politics, and preparing a small book on Plotinus’s notion of matter.