The Role Of Positive Emotions In Stoicism: An Interview With Professor Christopher Gill

Professor Christopher Gill is one of the most prominent members in the Stoicism community. His most recent books are Marcus Aurelius Meditations Books 1-6, translated with an introduction and commentary as well as Naturalistic Psychology in Galen and Stoicism but this is just a small glimpse into his impressive and prolific work over the years. His main current project is another book on stoicism and we wanted to take some time to ask him a few questions about it.

Professor Gill is not just a student of stoicism in theory, he’s also found himself putting it in practice most recently as he recovered from a serious health issue. In this interview we also touch on the role of positive emotions in Stoicism, the challenges of translating Marcus Aurelius, how Stoicism can positively contribute to the debate about moral philosophy, the exciting upcoming projects in the modern Stoic community. There’s a lot to learn from his thinking whether you’re just encountering Stoicism for the first time or are already an advanced student. Enjoy!

 

I wanted to ask you about Stoicism and positive emotions as we chatted a bit about this intersection recently. Can you explore the subject for the Daily Stoic readers as well?

There is a tendency when talking about Stoicism to focus on counteracting misguided and destructive emotions – the ‘passions’ as they are often called. But people often ignore the role in Stoic ethics of well-judged and positive emotions (the eupatheiai or good emotions). Although there are only three generic good emotions (just as there are only four generic ‘passions’), namely wish, caution, and joy, there are many subdivisions, including different forms of well-wishing and cheerfulness or gladness. So there are two sides to the Stoic ‘therapy of the emotions’, that is, curing destructive ones and developing positive ones, processes that go hand in hand.

Stoics also think that the ‘therapy of the emotions’ is not a separate branch of activity but is closely interlocked with gaining a better understanding of values – what really matters in life – and learning how to express an attitude of care towards other people. If we get better in the latter respects, this carries with it a gradual change in our emotional register, so that we feel ‘good emotions’ rather than ‘passions’. But if you just focus on emotional self-management on its own it will not work. I think this is a dimension of Stoic thinking about emotions and therapy that is often missed.

 

Can you tell us about the challenges of translating Marcus Aurelius? I came to appreciate how difficult the art of translation is working with  Steve Hanselman on our own efforts in that regard when we were writing The Daily Stoic.

I find translating quite demanding, in a way more demanding than interpretative or philosophical writing. With Marcus Aurelius there is the special challenge of finding a modern English style that matches his rather intense, oracular and revelatory Greek. However, it is satisfying at the end if you feel you have gone at least half-way towards communicating the power and eloquence of the ideas – though I think there is no such thing as a perfect or ‘definitive’ translation.

 

Your current project is a book on Stoicism and its potential contribution to modern thought. Can you tell us a bit more about this?

My current book aims to present the core distinctive features of Stoic ethics and to show how these can contribute positively to contemporary debate in moral philosophy. I want to bring out the richness and complexity of Stoic ethics and not just focus on a few ‘headline’ features. I will discuss especially its innovative theory of value (including the distinction between good and ‘indifferents’), its sophisticated version of naturalism, and the focus on life-long ethical learning or development.

In modern moral philosophy, Aristotle has had a big influence in reviving virtue-ethics, but Stoicism has been relatively ignored. I think Stoicism has important things to say on the main standard topics of modern theory, including our treatment of other people. But Stoicism can also help us tackle new areas of challenge for moral debate, notably the place of humanity in the natural environment and the responsibility this places on us.

 

Aside from that book, what projects—whether it’s research, writing, or around events—are you most excited about working on this year?

My book will keep me quite busy. But I am also writing essays on Stoic magnanimity (in a collective volume on magnanimity in Western thought) and on Book 5 of Cicero’s Tusculans – a very interesting ancient discussion of ethics and emotions. Also I am actively involved in the ‘Stoicism Today/Modern Stoicism’ movement. We are already busy planning for Stoicon 2017 (in Toronto) after the very successful meeting in New York City, and we will be redrafting the handbook for the next ‘Stoic Week’; the blog continues to be an important forum for Stoic ideas. The need for calm, reflective, humane voices in public debate is more urgent than ever, and Stoic ideas can provide balance and perspective in troubled times.

 

How do you explain Stoicism to people in your life who are not familiar with the philosophy and are looking for a straightforward explanation? And what do you find are the common misunderstandings around the philosophy and how do you address those in conversation?

One valuable Stoic insight that I stress is that the basis of our happiness in life – our well-being and flourishing – depends primarily on ourselves and not on external circumstances. It depends on our developing qualities of character and understanding – the virtues, as Stoics put it – that are fundamental to leading a full human life. It does not depend on money, social position and worldly success, even on health, or the health and wellbeing of those we love. These latter things have real value – especially the last two –but they do not provide happiness on their own; and you can achieve happiness without them.

I also stress that Stoicism is not just about managing your own inner life – though it is that – but also about expressing through actions an attitude of care towards other people (whoever they are, including strangers and dispossessed people). So social action and inner self-management need to be kept in balance, and both of them need to be guided by the aspiration to fulfil our highest ideals in our daily actions and attitudes.

The usual stereotypes are that Stoics are only concerned with managing – or stifling – their emotions or that they are self-obsessed and not really concerned with other people. I challenge this by pointing out that both the emotional self-management and the social dimension of Stoicism – which is very important – depend on trying to put the core ethical principles into action, to live according to the virtues, as they put it.

 

What are some Stoic quotes or ideas that you find yourself going back to the most on a day-to-day basis? Or do you have any Stoic rituals as part of your daily routine?

Rather than talk about quotes or daily rituals I’ll end by picking out three ways that Stoicism has helped me recently in dealing with quite a serious health problem and working to recover from this.

Stoicism repeatedly reminds us to expect the unexpected – and unwelcome – including the possible death of ourselves or those we love.

Stoicism urges us to take things as they come – day by day and step by step – and not to try to plan what cannot be achieved by our own unaided efforts – but to recognise what is and is not ‘up to us’ (as Epictetus puts it).

Even so, Stoicism urges us to aspire to live up to our highest ideals in every situation – to respond thoughtfully and humanely and with vision – and to live each day as if it might be your last – as, of course, it may.

I have found it helpful to keep these Stoic themes in my mind – all of them familiar themes in Marcus Aurelius and other Stoic writers.