A Personal Interest Turned Lifelong Career: An Interview With Professor Brad Inwood

As an undergraduate, Professor Brad Inwood read the Stoics only by chance, thanks to an obscure anthology which had snippets from Epictetus. The philosophy resonated with him but it was only once his original Ph.D dissertation on Aristotle “melted down” that he turned his personal fascination with the Stoics into an endeavour that has made him one of the best known and most respected scholars on Stoicism today. Brad originally received his BA in Classics from Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. After an MA in Classics at the University of Toronto and a year of postgraduate research at Cambridge, he completed his doctorate in Classics at Toronto with a focus on ancient philosophy. He is currently Professor of Classics and Philosophy at Yale University and we reached out to ask him how he explains Stoicism to students at Yale, his favorite Stoics, how did he turn his personal fascination with Stoicism into a professorship at Yale, and much more. Enjoy our interview below with Professor Inwood!

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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?

I first met Stoicism when I read Epictetus as an undergraduate. There were snippets of his Discourses and the Handbook in some anthology we were assigned, and something about them resonated with me. I had been reading a lot of Thoreau at the time, I remember and as far as I can tell it was that connection that made me want to read more Epictetus. So I found a text at a used book store and I wound up reading Epictetus on my own rather than as part of my official ‘education’.

 

When you think back to your reaction—what was it? Did you know instantly that this was something you wanted to specialize in? Or was it a slow evolution? We’re curious how you ended up at Yale in bed with the Stoics.

I think it was Epictetus’ emphasis on autonomy and his insistence on seeing things as they are, on being ready to accept facts and be governed by them. Maybe something in my upbringing made that aspect of philosophy particularly attractive to me, but the appeal was completely non-academic at first. For years it never occurred to me to specialize in Stoicism or to do research on them. It was a purely personal part of my reading and thinking. Once I decided to go on to do graduate work in ancient philosophy (not an obvious choice, since my first degree was in Classics rather than Philosophy), I was completely dedicated to Aristotle. That’s where I thought the real fascination of ancient philosophy was (even more than in Plato, or so I thought at the time). It was only when my first plan for a PhD dissertation on Aristotle melted down that I turned to Stoicism as a fallback – I had to have something to specialize in and I reached back to my personal interest in the Stoics to find something that I could make my research topic. (I’m sure that explains why my earliest work on the Stoics tended to overemphasize the impact of Aristotle on them. I gradually came to see that Plato’s impact was even more important. It seems obvious now, but it took me a while to see it.)

That’s still a long way from my current work at Yale. I did my PhD at the University of Toronto and I taught there for decades, during the entire time that I developed my research interests in Stoicism (though I did take a detour through the Presocratics along the way). I’ve never worked extensively on Epictetus himself, though he’s a large part all of my work on Stoic thought; at first I tried to sort out the doctrines of the early school, but in the 1990’s I zoomed in on Seneca and spend over 15 years writing about him – partly because I began as a Latinist and he’s a magnificent writer and partly because I thought he was not being well understood by the scholarship of the day. I then took a detour back to Aristotle and later Aristotelian philosophy, but since I arrived at Yale in 2015 I’ve been drawn back to the Stoics again, both in teaching and research.

 

If you were to explain Stoicism to a Yale freshman, how would you describe it? We are always looking for really great definitions of Stoicism and we’re wondering if you have one.

Stoicism is a philosophy built on the assumption that the world is a rational place, where cause and effect are all-pervasive and well structured. And we humans are part of it, an intimately connected part of this rational world exactly because we are rational ourselves and able to genuinely understand the world. So, to be truly human means to be working out our relationship with the rational structure of cause and effect in the world, to understand our place in it and then to live accordingly. The ancient Stoics also believed that the rational order in the world is providential, set up so that everything is as good as possible; they tied goodness to rationality and so they thought that somehow the order in the world is designed to benefit us humans. I don’t think we need to accept the characterization of the rational world order as providential in order to get the core ideas of Stoicism; to my mind, it’s enough to embrace the rationality of the way the world works and to see that the world’s rationality is the same as our own. Lawrence Becker, in a wonderful book, A New Stoicism, once captured the core message of Stoicism better than I ever could. “Following the facts” is the key for Becker, and I think that brings to the modern world a clear sense of what “the life according to nature” was originally meant to be.

 

Have you thought about what the Stoics would say or do in today’s complicated political and economic world? Secretary of Defense Mattis for instance likes to carry Marcus Aurelius with him but works in the Trump administration (it reminds me of Seneca in the court of Nero!). Or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are practicing Stoicism but pursuing wealth and business success.

I didn’t know about Mattis and Marcus Aurelius, but I’ve always been fascinated by the interest in Epictetus of Admiral James Stockdale (another military man who pursued politics late in his career). I was in the middle of writing my PhD thesis in 1978 when I read Stockdale’s wonderful essay in the Atlantic Monthly on how Epictetus gave him perspective and strength during his years in a North Vietnamese prison. The essay blew me away at the time; though I’m less gripped by it today, I still admire it.

Of course, Stockdale was a prisoner of war, someone who got captured. Mattis’ boss, President Trump, once said of John McCain “He’s not a war hero —  he’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” Stockdale, a naval pilot in the Vietnam war, was shot down and imprisoned in 1965, McCain two years later. I assume that Trump would say the same sort of thing about Stockdale that he said about McCain – and shame on him for that. Marcus Aurelius became a Stoic through reading Epictetus and was profoundly influenced by him. So, for Mattis to be an admirer of Marcus and carry on working with Trump, a man who never served in the military and has so much contempt for people whose lot in life included military service and all its risks – there’s a real contradiction there. The Stoics knew that politics often involves serious compromise, and in the case of Seneca serving at Nero’s court, serious moral compromise. Seneca eventually found the gumption to get out, to refuse to serve any longer under an unfit ruler. Whether Mattis and the rest of the coterie in Washington will find similar courage is hard to say. I certainly hope so. Seneca’s courage cost him his life; Trump’s enablers wouldn’t have to pay such a high price for doing the right thing. I only hope the parade to the exits starts soon.

And as for Silicon Valley, it’s important to remember that wealth and worldly success aren’t a problem for Stoics – they are natural advantages that we are programmed by nature to pursue. But such things are also not very important in the grand scheme of things and never to be obtained by compromising one’s integrity. Whether that can be done in today’s business world I don’t know; somehow I doubt it, but these are questions that each individual has to sort out for her- or himself in the context of their own life.

 

Is there one Stoic or one Stoic text you’ve tended to find yourself more drawn to than the others?

Epictetus is probably the Stoic I’ve been most drawn to. I’ve worked much, much more on Seneca, of course, because I think he needs more defense and explanation than Epictetus does. Lately I’ve been reading and teaching Marcus Aurelius more often. He’s a tougher author than he is given credit for and wrestling with the difficulties of his philosophical diary is a genuine pleasure.

 

Are there any underrated Stoic texts or thinkers that you would point readers to?

Seneca’s Natural Questions is probably the most underrated text. It’s seldom read, and not often cover to cover. But there’s a wonderful translation by Harry Hine (published by the University of Chicago Press) and I recommend it to anyone who wants to get a well-rounded picture of ancient Stoicism. If you can read it in Latin, so much the better; it’s a beautiful book.

 

We’d love to know what you’re working on next and excited about as well! Anything we can look forward to?

Right now I’m working hard on a little book for Oxford, A Very Short Introduction to Stoicism, and I’ve found it rewarding and challenging to write a short introductory account of Stoicism. I’m not sure when I’ll be done, but soon, I hope. After that I’m onto a bigger project, a sourcebook on later Stoicism, translated texts and commentaries, which I hope will introduce some less familiar authors (such as Cornutus and Hierocles) alongside Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus. That’s further down the road, and it fits in well with my long-standing interest in the way the Stoic school changed over time.