The Stoic Art of Living: An Interview With Philosopher and Pioneering Business Thinker Tom Morris

For nearly three decades, Tom Morris, one of the world’s top public philosophers and pioneering business thinkers, has been on a mission to bring philosophy back to the center of daily life. He holds two masters degrees as well as a joint Ph.D. in both Philosophy and Religious Studies from Yale University, as well as other, honorary doctorates in recognition of his public work of bringing practical philosophy back into the cultural mix. Tom served for fifteen years as a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, he’s the author of over 28 books, and is a legendary speaker whose electrifying talks reengage people around their deepest values and reignite their passion for work and life.

In our interview with Tom below, he dives deep into how he discovered Stoicism and why the philosophy became part of his life’s mission, how he describes the Stoic “art of living,” how he helps people implement philosophy into their daily lives, the “waking dream” that sparked many of his Philosophical Fiction books, and much more. Please enjoy our interview with the legendary Tom Morris!

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?

When I was a university student, long ago in the seventies, it seemed that nobody was talking about the Stoic philosophers. It may have been because the academic study of philosophy had taken a severely theoretical and technical turn decades earlier, in emulation of the natural sciences, and much of Stoic philosophy, as you know well, was practical. I had never come across a mention of it in assigned books or class lectures. I think I first encountered the insights of the great Roman Stoics while I was reading on my own and preparing for my comprehensive exams in the history of philosophy. In a sea of books and essays about epistemology, metaphysics, and logic, suddenly there were these serious thinkers pondering the stuff of everyday experience, like happiness, grief, disappointment, anger, true success, and how to handle the ups and downs of life. 

What was your first impression? And maybe tell us a bit about your relationship to philosophy in general. How did you come to pursue a Ph. D. in philosophy at Yale, then ultimately make it part of your life’s mission? 

I was so glad to find the Stoic philosophers! They helped me to be a better philosopher and a better person, right away. I was hooked. As soon as I read about them, I began to seek out and devour everything they had written that I could get my hands on. But you couldn’t find most of their works at that time in the local bookstore. So I bought as many of the Harvard Loeb Library editions of their writings as I could afford, with facing pages of Latin and English, or Greek and English. I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of them before that time. And what a discovery it was! From the freed slave Epictetus, to the prominent lawyer Seneca, to the Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius, representing among them all the social strata of the ancient world, here were these clear thinkers sharing a broad and deep viewpoint on how best to manage the twists and turns of life. I was sold. And I wondered why classes were not being offered everywhere on their insights. Ryan, you’ve probably done more than anyone else in our time to bring public attention to the wealth of wisdom to be found in Stoic teachings, and so now, people don’t have to struggle along without the benefits of their many insights. 

From the first, my ever discovering the Stoics or any ancient philosophy was highly unlikely, apart from the fact that my father, a high school graduate, had collected a few philosophy books and loved the nineteenth century American thinker Emerson, who was very much influenced by the Stoics. I was the first on either side of my family ever to go to college. We had truck drivers, mechanics, and farmers in the extended family, and my dad managed a small radio station, and then a bowling alley, sold cars, and then tiny starter homes out in the country near Durham, NC. My mother told me there was no money for college so I should get a job after high school. But out of the blue, I was nominated by my teachers for a Morehead Scholarship at UNC-Chapel Hill, and after several interviews, I became a fully funded college student, majoring in business at the urging of my parents, who had in mind that I might go to law school and enjoy all the possibilities of a secure job that it might provide in the corporate world. But I got hooked on a philosophy class, fascinated by what serious analysis and relentless examination could uncover about human knowledge and the world around us, and then I became equally entranced with a religion class, and so I decided right then that the Big Questions would be my business. I was very fortunate to graduate with honors and then get a free ride to Yale for graduate school as a University Fellow, which six years and a bunch of degrees later got me a great job at the University of Notre Dame. As a philosopher, I wanted to help other people to think more deeply about their lives, and live more wisely, day to day. I wanted to pioneer new forms of philosophical understanding, and also eventually to be of service to people outside the classroom. 

My mother was perplexed that I wanted to be a philosopher. She would make a face and ask, “Who’s ever going to pay you to know about this?” Neither of us could have imagined that over 1,000 public presentations and 30 books later, the answer might be, “Nearly everyone.” I’d be able to realize her fundamental dream, feeding my family. But I’d also be able to go much farther and bring real benefits to many other families along the way.

Is there one Stoic or one Stoic text you’re more drawn to than others? A quote or passage you find yourself return to most frequently? 

I was knocked out when I first read Seneca’s letters to his younger friend, Lucilius. Here was this top lawyer and advisor to an Emperor who was giving great advice to a younger man who himself hoped to flourish in law as well as in his own life. Seneca was passing on advice about happiness and success, the importance of how we use our time, and the dangers of simply following the crowd. It was all great stuff that I as a young man myself needed to hear and absorb and ponder and live. Then I found his letters to other friends, and his essays. I couldn’t get enough. Seneca says amazing things in pithy, memorable ways, like:

“Our lack of confidence doesn’t come from difficulty; the difficulty comes from our lack of confidence.” Seneca Click To Tweet

Again, consider this:

“A love of ceaseless activity isn’t diligence—it’s just the restlessness of a driven mind.” Seneca Click To Tweet

Or:

“Devote yourself to what should be done today and you won’t have to depend so much on tomorrow.” Seneca Click To Tweet

And he really brought me up short when he said, as if talking to the younger me:

“Your greatest difficulty is in yourself. You are your own biggest obstacle. You don’t know what you want. You’re better at approving the right course than at following it. You see where true happiness lies, but don’t have the courage… Click To Tweet

Wow. He kicked my butt there. Ok, guilty as charged, I had to admit, and then I had to get to work. And in the true Stoic way, I came to realize that all success in life is an inside job. I had to work on my inner beliefs, values, and attitudes. Only when I got those things right would I be able to be engaged in the right activities to produce true success and real happiness as a result.

You’re the author of The Stoic Art of Living: Inner Resilience and Outer Results. How would you explain the Stoic “art of living” to someone who is just discovering the philosophy? 

As I see it, the Stoic art of living is a journey from inside, out. All the great Stoic thinkers advised us to concentrate on the things we can ultimately control, with enough practice and developed skill—our own inner states, like our emotions and attitudes, our virtues, our strengths of mind and heart—and build our lives from there, out. They stressed that wisdom at its best is just good counsel for living well. Most ambitious people set mainly outer goals. They wanted us to have inner goals, first and foremost. And they sought to free us from all the things that keep us down and hold us back. The freed slaved Epictetus believed that we’re all enslaved to something, and that we need liberation from our chains, whatever they might be. Stoic philosophy is about attaining that freedom.

Too many people wrongly think that Stoicism is the ability to take whatever comes without any emotional reaction, or that the Stoic philosophers were all about emotional anesthesia, urging us not to have feelings at all. They harbor this image that a Stoic doesn’t show emotion because a Stoic doesn’t have feelings at all. But the truth is much deeper and more interesting. The best Stoic thinkers understood that our emotions easily get out of control, and not just negative emotions like anger and despair, but even positive ones like enthusiasm and exuberance. They wanted to free us from any disturbance of emotion that would pull us away from wise living. Emotion isn’t wrong. But the tale should not wag the dog. Wise emotion is great. And I think the best of Stoic philosophy believes in a natural joy deep within us that the unwise emotional turbulence and worries of ordinary life makes it impossible for us to feel. They want to help us strip away anything that is keeping us from that natural joy, so that we can live it daily, no matter what might be swirling around us. 

As a philosophy professor at Notre Dame for 15 years, you would have been responsible for introducing a lot of young people to philosophy. What was your approach to helping those young men and women see the value in ancient philosophy and its practical applications

I first had my students read Plato’s account of the trial and death of Socrates, who was accused of false charges and sentenced to execution by a jury his fellow Athenians. Plato recounts that Socrates was given a chance to suggest any reasonable lesser penalty than death and he could have continued to live. It was even hinted that if he promised to stop thinking and talking philosophy in public, that could do it. He said, “As long as I live and breathe, I shall never cease to philosophize.” The students were stunned. They would tell me they had never known any adults who cared so much about anything that they’d be willing to die rather than promise not to do it anymore. I certainly introduced my students well to the theoretical side of philosophy. But I also showed them how it mattered to their lives. I talked about knowledge, and goodness, and God and death, and arguments concerning an afterlife, but I also talked about happiness and success and meaning. We had fun. We laughed a lot. Most people don’t know how funny some of the great philosophers could be, like Socrates and Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus, and later on, Kierkegaard. I like to joke around a lot. I would tell my teaching assistants that philosophy is a serious business, but that doesn’t mean that it’s somber. We fan have fun doing it. My students came to see that ancient philosophers were just people, too, who were trying to understand their lives and make the most of their days, just like us. And they had left us many of their best ideas. My students would often comment on my own passion for philosophy in their course evaluations. They would go from thinking, “Why do I have to take a philosophy course at Notre Dame?” to “WOW! This was absolutely my favorite course EVER!” And that exercise in the love of wisdom became the book Philosophy for Dummies.

For nearly three decades, you’ve been on a mission to bring philosophy back into the cultural mix. You work with world-class business executives, athletic coaches, and administrators. What are the specific skills, ideas and concepts that you help people implement? What does that process look like?

I had no idea that being a university professor of philosophy would lead to my becoming a public philosopher, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, long ago, who wasn’t a professor at any college or university, but rather traveled the country serving civic groups and business organizations with vivid lectures that became well know essays and then books. When I got started in reaching out to people beyond the classroom, back in the mid to late 1980s, I couldn’t find anyone else who was doing that as a philosopher. So I had to make it up as I went along. Mostly, I’d just speak on what people asked for, or what they told me they were going through. Whether it might be a local business or a global company, or any sort of organization, I came to realize quickly that the human condition is the same everywhere, and that we’re all up against much the same challenges, regardless of our industry or walk of life. A group of automobile dealers early on asked me to give a talk about success. Their director called me and said, “We have motivational speakers at our big meeting every year and they mostly say the same things: Set goals, believe in yourself, work hard. Did the great philosophers have any deeper advice about success?” I said, “Let me look into it.” And that talk led to hundreds more on the topic and became the books True Success and The Art of Achievement, where I lay out seven universal conditions for success in any challenge, and the skills or arts they involve. My claim is that for success in any challenge, the great practical philosophers have taught me that we need what I call The 7 Cs of Success: 

(1) A clear CONCEPTION of what we want, a vivid vision, a goal clearly imagined.

(2) A strong CONFIDENCE that we can attain that goal.

(3) A focused CONCENTRATION on what it takes to reach our goal.

(4) A stubborn CONSISTENCY in pursuing our vision.

(5) An emotional COMMITMENT to the importance of what we’re doing.

(6) A good CHARACTER to guide us and keep us on a proper course.

(7) A CAPACITY TO ENJOY the process along the way

You can find all seven of these ideas in the writings of Seneca or Marcus Aurelius. They’re also embedded in the Tao te Ching, the Analects of Confucius, the writings of a medieval Islamic theologian, the speeches and essays of a Spanish Jesuit philosopher, and in the works of Emerson. They’re universal. I’ll give a rousing talk for an hour on these ideas, and sometimes groups will have me also do some work-shopping and training in their implementation. Many groups will have me back to speak again, even if they’ve never had a repeat presenter in the past. And one global company whose top executives had heard that talk had me do it 67 more times over a period of years for their different divisions and business units, while also speaking again to their leaders on related topics, like culture, collaboration, and change.

I once talked on The 7 Cs of Success in front of a group of very accomplished people and a man who has won more America’s Cup races than any other captain in history said to me with great enthusiasm, “This is exactly what my crews do to win! And I never could have put it into words like this. They’re from different countries and speak different languages, but they do these seven things! It’s amazing that philosophers first came to understand these conditions and spell them out!” One Hall of Fame baseball player, Willie Stargell, also told me that by introducing him to The 7 Cs of Success, I was the first person ever to help him understand how he was able to have such success in his sport. Olympians and national championship coaches have said the same thing. The philosophers spelled out the requirements of peak performance, and true excellence. Great athletes and top people in many fields may have done these things intuitively but could never have put them into words so simply, they have often said. I even taught the Notre Dame freshmen football players these conditions for success before the season where they won the National Championship of 1988. The great thinkers understood greatness.

While we are starting to see more and more people bridge the gap between philosophy and real-world application, to the Ancients, there was no such gap. Philosophy and the active life—including business and athletics and politics and a career—were related, if not the same thing. Why do you think that disconnect happened? What misconceptions do you still see?

You’re so right. In the ancient world, philosophy was not an academic subject. It wasn’t a bunch of questions or beliefs. It wasn’t a speculative endeavor indulged in by intellectuals. It was a path, or a way of life. At its best, it was a journey forward with wisdom and love. It was an orientation and approach to everyday challenges, a way of refining and deepening ourselves so that we could be and do our best in every situation, and with every new opportunity. It was about the best and deepest values—what’s worth our time and commitment, what’s not, and what our priorities should be each day.

For centuries, philosophers were curious about everything and thought about everything. They wanted to understand both our inner lives and our outer circumstances. And their efforts to grasp more about the world eventually found specific methods of investigation that produced great results. As these methods developed further, what was once known as Natural Philosophy began to spin off disciplines of thought and action that came to be known as the natural sciences, like Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, and Biology. What was once known as Moral Philosophy launched Psychology and Economics and Sociology and what we call Political Science. The more complex these individual studies got to be, the most specialized the people became who worked in these various areas of concern. Those who remained in what continued to be known as philosophy began to copy the methods and procedures of their various spinoffs, and especially the successful natural sciences, with the use of formal logic and carefully devised specialist vocabularies for the sake of precision and clarity among those on the inside. But specialist languages and formal techniques began to pull twentieth century philosophy farther and farther away from everyday concerns and thoughts and conversations of people who were not living and working in our universities. Philosophy itself unfortunately came to be viewed as a specialty, like all the others. And to do philosophy, people started to feel they had to become credentialed like doctors and lawyers and scientists. And all the resulting years of specialist education pulled them even farther from the ordinary challenges of life. There was a drift into more specialized questions that became a shift into cultural isolation and ultimately a sense of irrelevancy. Too many people came to feel that philosophy wasn’t applicable to their lives, and too many academic philosophers came to see the challenges of everyday life as too rough and tumble and imprecise for the sort of theoretical and analytical thinking they had been trained to do, and to enjoy. 

So when I began to break away from the modern paradigm and go out into the world, many of my colleagues were completely puzzled, or even bothered that I would use my time, talent, and training outside the borders of the professional discipline they had created, with all its rules and proper platforms of presentation. It’s a good thing for me that I had published in the most prestigious journals and with the top university presses, because I could then get away with my newfound activity, and nobody who knew me could say, “Well, he’s just decided to popularize philosophy because he can’t do the real thing.” I had done plenty of what counted as the real thing, in their eyes, and I was now determined to show my fellow academics that the ancient path of philosophy for life is just as real, and just as much “the real thing” as what’s done in graduate seminars.

Are there any lesser-known Stoic texts (or academic texts) that you would encourage readers to explore?

Yes! I’d encourage people to read the essays and letters of Seneca, as well as the better known books of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus (who didn’t write his own texts but had a student take down his lectures and turn them into what we know as his books). I’d also encourage them to explore some of Cicero, who wrote Stoic advice to his son about life, compiled into the book On Duties. He also wrote insightfully on growing older.

I’d then invite your readers and many friends to explore my own Stoic novels, which I began to publish quite recently. Some of my fellow philosophers say I’ve created a new literary genre of Philosophical Fiction, or what they’re calling Phi-Fi! In February of 2011, at the breakfast table, I had the most incredible “waking dream” of my life, as if a movie began to play on the screen of my mind. I rushed to my study to write down all that I was seeing and hearing. The movie played most days for the next five years and has produced the most amazing books I’ve ever done, and the most astonishing experience I’ve ever had as a philosopher. The first book is called The Oasis Within, and it’s a quiet conversational prelude to seven subsequent books of action, adventure, and deep thought. They’re all set in Egypt in 1934 and 1935.

Many early readers have described the series of books has been described as “Harry Potter meets Indiana Jones meets Plato and Aristotle.” One reader said that it’s The Alchemist stirred together with Lawrence of Arabia. Someone called them “Star Wars without the apace ships.” One senior philosopher I admire a lot wrote on Amazon.com about the second book, The Golden Palace: “What would you get if you locked Indiana Jones, Plato, and Obi-Wan Kenobi in a room and asked them to write a rousing tale of intrigue, adventure, wisdom, and suspense? Probably something a lot like this book! A lead-off home run to what promises to be the most exciting series of philosophical novels of our time.” I’m very grateful for such early excitement. The Oasis Within, by its very title, can be seen as a book about that inner place of peace and power the Stoics wanted to help us cultivate. The other books demonstrate this in action, and indicate how our best friends and family can also serve as oases for us amid the adventures of our lives. The books show Stoic wisdom lived out in a modern setting, and in the course of a fun story of suspense and intrigue, humor and romance, they have helped me to raise my own game tremendously, and also to experience at a new level that natural joy the ancients wanted each of us to live. More information can be found at my website, www.TomVMorris.com, or at the site for the books, www.TheOasisWithin.com.

Could you leave the Daily Stoic community with one message or piece of advice? It could be a question to journal on, a philosophical practice to try, or just something to think about as they go about their day.

One of the characters in The Oasis Within and the subsequent Stoic novels, an older man named Ali, who is my Gandalf, my Dumbledore, my wise old sage, tells his young nephew Walid about a small telescope he was once given when he was a boy. He says that when he looked through the small end, of course, it made everything around him look bigger and closer. But then he turned it around and looked through the big end, and was surprised to see things shrunken down in size and pushed far away. He explains that we all have something like an emotional telescope in our minds and hearts. When anything that seems bad happens, we tend to look through the same end that most people use, and that makes our troubles look bigger and more imposing than they really are. But we can simply turn that telescope around and shrink the perceived difficulty we face down to a smaller size and relieve ourselves of the worried agitation we might otherwise feel. And the real insight, Ali says, is that once we’ve gotten good at turning our telescope around and putting things into perspective, not letting them appear bigger than they are, we can ultimately just put our inner telescope down and look at things exactly as they are, and we’ll then know that they are no bigger than we can handle—just like the ancients said. I would encourage all our readers to try this little trick of the mind. I’ve had to use it several times since I first heard it explained by the fictional, wise Ali. And it works like a charm. I say to myself, “Turn the telescope around.” And I smile at whatever difficulty I face. It’s never steered me wrong.

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