The Remarkable Sir Richard Sorabji on Gandhi, The Stoics and Aristotle

We first discovered Sir Richard Sorabji through his fantastic essay on Gandhi, describing how he was a philosopher in the Stoic tradition. We immediately decided to reach out to Richard to learn more about his philosophical journey, in particular about the Stoics—after all, he is one of Britain’s most impressive scholars, having been appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1999 for his services to ancient philosophy, and knighted for services to philosophical scholarship. He is also Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at King’s College London, and has written over 17 volumes of books, over 100 volumes of annotated translation edited, including 31 short introductions composed and 7 longer essays, plus 3 explanatory volumes edited and a 3-volume survey of the period composed with edited translations by many hands, 10 further volumes edited or co-edited and 90 principal articles.

Needless to say, Sir Richard is one of the most impressive individuals we had the honor to interview, and this interview is long but absolutely worth your time. We touch on Gandhi, what drew Richard to the Stoics, Aristotle (and why you should study him and Plato before moving to the Stoics), how to oppose tyrants, and much much more.

Enjoy our interview with the remarkable Sir Richard Sorabji! And to learn more about him and his work, don’t forget to visit his website.


We always like to ask about people’s origin stories with Stoicism. What is yours? Do you recall how you discovered the philosophy and your original reaction?

I was privileged to go in about 1971 to my friend A.A. Long’s wide-ranging seminar on Stoicism at the Institute of Classical Studies, London, which did much to reintroduce attention in England to Stoicism. But in my first sallies into their philosophy, I happened to be on the other side from them on determinism and on animal minds and human responsibilities to animals, though much intrigued by their treatment of physical mixture and theory of eternal repetition of history. I regret that my after-thoughts on the last, and its difference from circular time got separated off into my book on space, and its discussion of finite space, because readers would have looked for it only in the Time book. It was quite a while before I engaged with what appealed to me most of all: the later ethics for ordinary everyday life which grew out of and developed the foundational work from Zeno of Cyprus, starting 300 BCE down to the end of Chrysippus’ headship in Athens in 206 BCE.

I will mention five of the attractions that drew me to this post-206 BCE Stoic practical ethics.

1. Earlier Stoics had talked about the ideal Stoic sage. But Panaetius (about 185-109 BCE) considered the ordinary person with their foibles, strengths and weaknesses. This is reflected in the statement of Cicero who followed Panaetius a century later, “But since life is lived not in company with perfect people who are truly sages, but with those who are doing very well if there are likenesses of virtue in them, I think this too must be understood, that no one should be entirely neglected in whom any hint of virtue appears, and that the person most to be cultivated is the one most adorned with these milder virtues, moderation, temperance, justice.” This statement allowed not only progress in the direction of perfection on the part of ordinary individuals, but degrees of virtue in the course of progress, the last of which had earlier been denied.

2. Cicero reports Stoics discussing questions relevant for the typical ordinary person such as whether the seller of a house should warn the prospective buyer of rot. But they also attended to individuality, when they began to discuss decisions in life unique to the individual. In making decisions in life, one should consider who one is, and not only, like Kant nearly two millennia later, that one is a rational being. That universally shared persona, rationality, is indeed always to be taken into account in decision-making. But on its own, our rationality does not give us enough guidance and is only the first persona out of four. Within the constraints of rationality, one must think also of the other personae: individual physique and personality, one’s social status by birth or other chance, the roles one chose for oneself. To take the last, the chosen persona, in choosing a career, should one follow one’s parents’ profession? If a parent was a successful lawyer, piety might suggest that one should follow the family precedent. But would you attain your parent’s prowess as a lawyer, or would you only let your parents down? You may have to be content with the milder virtues. Aristotle had not given so much individual advice. Personality from birth is part of another persona, and can combine with choice of role to create a unique persona, which may call for a unique decision. When Julius Caesar in the civil war captured the town of Utica, it was right for the Stoic Cato among the defenders to commit suicide, but not for anyone else in the same situation – the last phrase present only in some manuscripts – apparently because he had always stood for such a uniquely uncompromising rectitude. The stress is on exceptions and the exceptional

3. The Stoics invented cognitive therapy to get rid of unwanted emotions. On their view any emotion involves (or, in Chrysippus, is) one of two value judgments, that something very beneficial or something very disadvantageous is at hand in the past, present, or future, and a further value judgment that it is appropriate to react in certain specified ways. Except for one class of good emotions, the majority involve mistaken value judgments, and might be got rid of by identifying the mistake on which they depend: the item is not really beneficial or disadvantageous, or (Cicero and Seneca) the reaction not really appropriate. There are some side-effects which cannot be got rid of merely by taking thought, like growing pale or shedding tears, but these are not the emotion, merely an accompaniment, which Seneca (4/1 BCE-65 CE) downgrades as a ‘first movement’. You need not therefore make the topsy-turvy mistake criticised by William James of being sad because you are crying. It is a very useful aspect of Stoicism that it encourages you to step back and think, ‘Is this really disadvantageous, or merely unexpected, or not a deficit at all, but a new opportunity?’ Or ‘is it really appropriate to retaliate? Didn’t I myself behave in just the way to which I am objecting only the other day?’ Seneca warned against a ‘third movement’ of forgetting to ask yourself whether a reaction would be appropriate, and being carried away by the thought, ‘I must be avenged, come what may’.

The great doctor Galen (about 129-199 CE), though a Platonist, was to accept Stoic cognitive therapy, which consoled him when he lost the only copy of his manuscripts in a fire. But as doctor, he added the physiological requirement: ‘get the right diet from me first’.

4. The Stoic Epictetus (about 55 – 135 CE), the ex-slave and exile, developed a conception of freedom as invulnerability. By making sure that your will (proairesis) is set only on what is within your power, you can be freed from both inner tyrants and outer, so that you are enslaved to nothing, not to house, farm, horses, clothes, furniture, status of family. I was congratulating myself on avoiding these pitfalls, when he added, ‘nor your own body’, and to twist the knife, ‘not books either’. His students are to engage in the mental exercise of imagining a threatening outer tyrant. You can tell him that he cannot put you in chains, only your leg, since you have identified yourself only with your will, and that cannot be constrained. In other words you have created a self, and a self which is inviolable. Such exercises are to be ‘ready to hand’. Philosophers ought to practice, them write them down every day, and train themselves in them.     

A class on Epictetus directly influenced the late American was hero, and one-time contender for the US Vice-Presidency, Admiral Stockdale, whom I invited to London, to explain Epictetus’ value to him. In the US war in Vietnam, he had endured eight years of imprisonment, four of them in solitary confinement and 19 occasions of physical torture, after being shot down over North Vietnam, without accommodating the wishes of his captors, who wanted him to denounce the American war effort. As with Epictetus, his leg was relevant, because the torture exploited his broken leg, damaged when his parachute was fired at, after he parachuted out of his plane. He found that the American captives were too ashamed to face each other, because under torture, they had given away more than their name and military number.  He told them they could not resist under torture. He had done the same, but it did not matter because all information was out of date. But they had overlooked that there was something different that they could do. They could voluntarily disobey their captors by minor disobediences and so get tortured again. The group who agreed regained their self-esteem, and were then inviolable. None of them complied with the proposed denunciation. Their self-esteem for a changed self was more important than their pain. By contrast, hatred of captors, he found, made men vulnerable.

5. At the end of the first century CE, the Stoic Hierocles argued that it would be natural for humans, that is not to say easy, but in accordance with nature, to extend a feeling of kinship to all fellow humans, as fellow rational beings, and that this made justice to all human beings, including slaves and foreigners, natural and right. He spoke of circles of fellow-humans surrounding each person, and recommended drawing outer circles nearer in to oneself at the centre. Like other Stoics, he gave exercises for his recommendations.  We should call cousins ‘brother’, uncles and aunts ‘father’ and ‘mother’. This doctrine would be repeated by Bartolomé de las Casas in the year-long debate called by King Charles V of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1550-1551, on the justice or injustice of the conquest of the American Indians in Latin America. It contrasted with the view of Epicurus’ rival school, that the natural state was one of conflict, soluble only by a social contract based on expediency. This view was elaborated in England by Thomas Hobbes and used by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century. Since each  view tends to encourage the attitude which it regards as natural, I am glad of the Stoic alternative.

Who is your favourite Stoic and why?

Three Stoics left substantial bodies of very important writing: Epictetus, the ex-slave, Seneca, the Emperor Nero’s tutor, exiled for a time and later condemned to suicide by Nero, and Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor from 161 to 180, who had to remind himself not to be angry with those who were against him, since they could not see things differently. Epictetus was the most demanding, writing sometimes for heroes. Not being sure of being a hero, if the call came, and not being in line for imperial rule, I find Seneca addressing my everyday needs most closely. In fact, I went through the same thought processes about what daily exercise would be best for a philosopher. I rejected weight-lifting – too heavy. I rejected running – changing and showering would take too much time. I chose walking. Seneca went this far, but one step further. Being carried in a litter, or palanquin, exercises every muscle in your body. But it also avoids loss of time, by enabling you to dictate your thoughts to your secretary running alongside.

You have written ”Gandhi and the Stoics: Modern Experiments on Ancient Values.” It opens with “Was Gandhi a philosopher? Yes.” Can you tell us about this intellectual journey? Why is Gandhi a philosopher, and how do you compare him with the Stoics?

Gandhi had much in common with the Stoics, although he drew it above all from the sacred epic text, the Bhagavadgita. He believed that (as with Cato) different people had different individual duties (svadharma was his word), and these could depend on such things as temperament. He advises his followers to undertake more peaceful work for freedom, and not his confrontations with the British, if they are not sure they can control their tempers under British retaliation. Temperament would be an example of Stoic persona, the word corresponding to Gandhi’s svabhava, although he uses that second word more rarely. Gandhi himself read about the Stoics in 1922-4, while in prison, in a book about Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, Frederick W. Farrar’s Seekers After Truth of 1881, and expressed pleasure at finding so much in tune with his own views. His learned secretary, Mahadev Desai, recorded in 1933-4 the parallels between the Bhagavadgita and the treatment by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, of persona, or rather of its Greek equivalent, prosôpon. Other similarities noticed by Edwyn Bevan between the Stoics and the Bhagavadgita in a passage of his Oxford lectures, published in 1913, as Stoics and Sceptics, have not been widely taken up.

Different instructions for different people are but one example of Gandhi’s belief in exceptions rather than exceptionless rules. Even though it is an exceptionless rule that violence is wrong, it is not an exceptionless instruction to avoid violence. To take an example from Gandhi’s life, he approved of those who had undertaken the duty of protecting their township shooting 60 stray dogs, because of the likelihood of their carrying rabies, even though such violence was wrong. Why?  Because not carrying out their undertaking to protect would be even worse. Sometimes we are wrong whatever we do.

But why not then give up the idea that violence is always wrong? Because the non-violent ideal helps us to raise our sights to a level of perfection, even though, as imperfect, we cannot always achieve it. I would compare this with the later Stoic progress towards full virtue as allowing for degrees of virtue.

Gandhi believed in a kind of freedom comparable with Epictetus’ reducing of oneself to one’s will, and excluding one’s body. As Gandhi put it, one becomes irresistible, if one reduces oneself – one’s ordinary wants – to zero. Gandhi’s view of non-violence as ‘an ocean of compassion’, including, importantly, for one’s opponents, may remind us of Hierocles drawing all humans into closer circles of attachment to oneself, and of the emperor Marcus Aurelius reminding himself not to be angry, but to recognise that antagonists cannot help their view.

Compassion may fall short of love, but then Epictetus is the only Stoic I have found who goes so far as to admire the true Cynic for loving the people who are beating him.

Gandhi learnt from the Bhagavadgita the emotional detachment from ordinary distractions that was compatible with intense devotion to a cause, and which is also a mark of Stoicism. The Stoics favoured mercy, but disliked pity as being an emotion. Gandhi’s ocean of compassion also lacked the agitation or Stoic ‘first movements’,

associated with emotion.

Why is Gandhi a philosopher, and in my view a model for philosophy? We have already seen a lot of philosophical topics covered and they were very well discussed. But I could say more about an example cited above from 1926, when Gandhi congratulated a municipal council for shooting 60 stray dogs. From all over the country, horrified Indians expostulated, ‘we thought you were a man of nonviolence’.

Gandhi published representative letters in his newspapers, and did not caricature or suppress what they said, a mark of philosophical openness, although he permitted himself the jest that one of the letters was rather violent. He then used the objections to get himself clearer about a new subject: when is killing non-violent?  The resulting seven articles had been taken down by Mahadev Desai and were later published in his book, Day to Day with Gandhi, vol. 8. It was only in the third article, p. 297, that Gandhi reached his new criterion for non-violent killing: killing done for the sake of the killed, as in euthanasia. Had he not then admitted to his many critics that the violence to the dogs was wrong? Once again he had shown himself open to the opponents’ case. But once again he was to take the issue further when later he made the point that we are often in a position, through no fault of our own, in which we will be wrong whatever we do. But we have to choose the lesser of two wrongs. Doing wrong through no fault of your own was something that Christianity had been for several centuries very reluctant to admit, because Christians expected wrongdoing to suffer eternal punishment from a just God, and God would not be just if the wrongdoing had not been the sinner’s fault.  Now Gandhi’s other points come into play, that an exceptionless principle, that violence is always wrong, may not give you an exceptionless guide to conduct: in this case you should choose the lesser of two wrong alternatives. We have seen here openness to criticism, readiness to re-think, acknowledgement of oversight, ability repeatedly to take the argument further, the devising of a new principle about when killing is violent and recognition of the limitations of true exceptionless rules in guiding moral conduct.

An unusual feature of Gandhi as philosopher, was that he loved real life experiments. He called his autobiography of 1927 and 1929, The Story of my Experiments with Truth. The Stoics believed in living by one’s philosophy, but Gandhi was much freer than they in thinking up new ways of living, and putting them into practice.

Having studied Gandhi and the Stoics, how do you define the proper philosophical response to tyranny? What should someone with or without a philosophical bent do when living under those circumstances?

After the Stoic Cato’s suicide, upon Julius Caesar’s violation of the Roman Republic, other Stoics, Cato’s biographer, Thrasea Paetus, and the philosopher Seneca, both made speeches while committing suicide, while opening their veins, Thrasea after receiving the death sentence from the tyrant Nero, and Seneca on the orders of Nero.

They left behind a noble tradition of opposition, but not a way of overcoming injustice.

The earlier assassination of Julius Cassar by a group including leading philosophers of several schools had not saved the Republic. Gandhi by contrast did leave behind a method for overcoming tyranny, which has been studied by Gene Sharp, whose catalogue of Gandhi’s methods has been used as a handbook by resistance movements. Sharp has described campaigns of nonviolent resistance going back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in a later book 23 such movements of the 20th century, spreading on into 2005, including Gandhi’s, and in the USA, Martin Luther King’s,.  More than half of these non-violent struggles he describes as successful, but not all. Gandhi’s advice to Jews to use non-violent struggle against Hitler would not have worked.

On one view, Gandhi’s own success in oppoing British rule was due to the violence elsewhere of the Second Wold War weakening British economic power. But I think his winning over of international opinion by his non-violent methods also played a big role.    

Aristotle has been a main focus for you throughout your life—you have published several books on him, and founded the international Ancient Commentators on Aristotle project. Why has he been so captivating for you? And where should our readers, who are predominantly interested in practical philosophy, start if they want to learn more about him? Would you say Nicomachean Ethics is be the best starting point?

Aristotle was my first focus. I could not now say he has been my main focus, although I have never lost sight of him. My first book in 1970, Aristotle on Memory, was indeed on Aristotle. But while the next three books after that from 1980 to 1988, Necessity, Cause and Blame; Time, Creation and the Continuum and Matter, Space and Motion, also made extensive use of Aristotle, all three of those next books also included something about the Stoics.

What I would say is that it is good to start by knowing one thing well, and I started with Aristotle. But by 1983, when I began work on the commentators on Aristotle, I moved on further, by starting with a conference on Philoponus from the 6th century CE. He was a commentator steeped in Neoplatonism, but extensively opposed to Aristotle about his dynamics, which he ridiculed, and, as a Christian, also about the Aristotelian and Neoplatonist belief in the eternity of the universe. He argued, among other things, that by accepting Aristotle’s rejection of a more than finite number of anything the Neoplatonists excluded a more than finite number of past years.

Aristotelians dominated commentary on Aristotle only for the first 200 years CE or so, culminating in Alexander of Aphrodisias, whose task was to bring Aristotle up to date against rival schools 500 years later, and work out what he would have said about new subjects that had not yet arisen for Aristotle, such as divine Providence or Fate. But for the next 400 years, however, commentary on Aristotle was dominated by Neoplatonists, who sought to create new views, compatible with Aristotle where possible, but more importantly compatible with Plato.

When I received funding in 1987 for the ongoing project of organising the translation and explanation of the commentators on Aristotle, that was not a project for studying Aristotle, so much as a project for studying the commentators in their own right. It was also from one of the commentaries on Aristotle that some of the most important fragments of the Presocratic philosophers were recovered in 1905. We are about to publish a translation of the bit of commentary that preserved them, showing the very different rationale for the original choice of quotations to preserve.

My interest in later Stoic ethics grew in the 1990s, and I think that, while totally disagreeing with some of their ethical views, such as their view that most things are indifferent, so that most emotions are misplaced, and that in kissing one’s wife, one should remember one is kissing a mortal, I nonetheless found their ethics more thought-provoking than any other Greek ethics. They also taught me new things about Aristotle. I had at first reading treated Aristotle’s view that virtue required one to aim at a mid-point between excessive emotions on either side as an uncontroversial commonplace. With the Stoics I had to confront their rejecting his view, and saying that nearly all emotions were to be avoided. Although I did not agree with that, I had to join them in re-considering where the truth lay.

The Stoics were reacting also against their other contemporaries, including the school of Epicurus, one of the four great philosophy schools founded in Athens in the 4th century BCE within 3000 metres of each other, by Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and Zeno, the first Stoic. (The unconventional Cynics in Athens, by one of whom Zeno was taught, deliberately set up no premises). In my 2006 book, Self, I discussed a view of Epicurus that I had long admired, that it is irrational to dread non-existence after death, if one does not mind one’s non-existence before birth. He was more worried that his dispersed atoms might by chance be reassembled in the course of time and re-create him. I concluded that natural selection, not rational thought, has favoured this asymmetrical worry about the future, by wiping out the non-worriers. But Epicurus had more to say, reaffirming on the day of his death from the painful disease of strangury, or blocked bladder, what he had always said, that he was kept happy by the memory of the simple pleasures of conversations with his philosophical friends. New information about his school is arriving every year, thanks to excavation of inscriptions on the town walls of Oenoanda in Turkey, and of papyri from an Epicurean library carbonised in 79 CE by the heat of the lava flow from Mount Vesuvius in Italy.

From the first decade of the 21st century, I learnt new things from the privilege of talking with Marwan Rashed about medieval Arabic philosophy, especially from the 10th to 12th centuries, because it had built on ideas from the commentators on Aristotle, often passing through Syriac on the way. By the 6th century CE, the ideas of the two main schools of Greek commentators, both the Athenian and the Alexandrian, were spreading also to Persia, before reaching Syriac and Arabic. And my colleagues were reconstructing what the lost original Greek must have been, translated in 2016, of the answers of the exiled Athenian philosophers to the philosophical and scientific questions of King Khusru I of Persia in 531. They were also studying how much of the Alexandrian interpretation of Aristotle’s logic written for that same Persian king had got through to later medieval Arabic. Increasingly our translations of work by the commentators on Aristotle were beginning to be made from Syriac or Arabic, when the Greek was lost. My reliance on experts in the philosophy of other cultures had also been growing because of the renewed interest in India in India’s own philosophies, instead of in the colonial syllabus of Western philosophy. So while my Indian colleagues knew the Greek tradition, they were increasingly interested, as was I, in comparisons made by experts in the Indian traditions. A biography I wrote about a 19th – 20th century Indian woman and my book on Gandhi and the Stoics helped me to take part in these discussions. Comparisons are also now starting with Chinese philosophy.

In all this, I never lost my admiration for Aristotle, but he had become more a background to my new occupations. It is good if you have the opportunity to start with Plato’s or Aristotle’s ethics before the Stoic, because the Stoic is reacting to both. But which of those two one will most enjoy can depend on temperament. Plato has the more remarkable imagination, Aristotle loves to get things sewn up. Philosophy needs both qualities.

You have been appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire for your services to ancient philosophy, and knighted in the 2014 Birthday Honours for services to philosophical scholarship. Before all that, how did you first discover ancient philosophy? Do you recall the first texts that you read and your initial impressions?

Of the first two texts I read as a student, I did indeed particularly love Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. He already draws attention to the impossibility of exceptionless rules of moral conduct (Book 9, ch. 2), even though he thinks you should form general policies (proaireseis). You should, for example, honour your father, but should you always give him first place? No: there is no one rule. He solves Plato’s problem about what to do when the law is too general to allow for the particularities of the case, not by Plato’s solution of the authority expert in the science of statecraft who will impose his own decision. Rather, judges must be allowed discretion or ‘equity’ (5.10) to bend the rule, as if it were a carpenter’s ruler made of lead, so that it will measure round corners. There may be conflicts of duty, and a stark one (3.1) arises if a tyrant will put your parents and children to death, unless you will do something disgraceful. Is the disgraceful action then voluntary and hence to be blamed?  Well, you will have originated the action from within– you weren’t physically pushed from without, and you knew exactly what you were doing. Aristotle is interested in reforming the law, and in the case where you don’t know what you are doing, on one interpretation, he distinguishes negligent ignorance (5.8). as not exonerating.

A very useful focus is his stress on attention. This was ignored in some recent philosophy, when it was said that your actions are caused by your desires and beliefs. But Aristotle asks what about temptation distracting attention from your beliefs, and he distinguishes different ways in which it may do so. Temptation may make you like the person mad, asleep, or drunk, who can recite the moral precepts of Empedocles without attending to them. This does not exonerate, but it can explain your beliefs becoming ineffective. Aristotle increases the number of virtues (and vices) far above the four virtues of Plato and the Stoics (Books 2-5), and friendship of the right sort is made a virtue (Books 8-9). He discusses what makes friendship valuable. His answer (building on Plato) seems to include shared attention to shared activities and awareness of your friend’s good qualities as those of another self.

Speaking of ancient philosophy, you have also worked hard to promote its lessons to a wider public. What aspects of what you teach do you find produces the strongest reaction? Which aspects do people relate to strongly and find most beneficial?

Each audience is different. I do think that practical ethics has the widest appeal to the general public. But when I lectured to the public on theories about the physical universe, those who came were equally interested. I spoke for a while to a group of excellent and very engaged nurses, until one day I thought I had been selfish to talk about what happened to interest me at the time, and I chose a subject that I thought was more relevant to them: how to deal with the fear of dying. It was the only time they couldn’t see the interest. I think if you are helping the dying every day, you can’t afford to dwell on theory, but must attend to the practical needs of the minute. These audiences were ready to be interested in many subjects, but it is perfectly legitimate for interest to be confined to one, for example, practical ethics, and that of the Stoics. One new area to take into account is the increase in the number of audiences from other cultures, and I think it a good thing to be able for such audiences to make a few cross-cultural comparisons.

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