This is our next entry in a limited series of posts leading up to the STOICON 2016 conference, scheduled in New York City for 15 October. (More info? Here. Tickets? Here. Looking for cheap accommodation with a fellow Stoic? Here.) The idea is to briefly feature each of the scheduled speakers for our talks and workshops so that people can better appreciate some of the leading figures behind the Modern Stoicism movement (is that what it is?), as well as give their reasoned assent to the impression that this is a conference well worth attending.
It’s the turn of Christopher Gill, professor of Classics at Exeter University in England.
Chris’ research area is ancient philosophy or thought, especially ethics and psychology. His most recent books are on Marcus Aurelius Meditations Books 1-6, translated with an introduction and commentary (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen and Stoicism (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Chris retired at the end of 2013, but remains active in research, publication, participation in conferences and public engagement. His main current project is a book on Stoicism and its potential contribution to modern thought; this is supported in 2015-16 by a Leverhulme Emeritus Research Fellowship. In public engagement, he focuses on the role of Stoic ethics as a source of life-guidance and, in collaboration with John Wilkins and others, the potential contribution of ancient (especially Galenic) ideas about healthcare to modern preventive medicine and self-care.
At STOICON ’16 Chris will be giving a talk on “Can you be a Stoic and a political activist?”
He will begin by challenging a common stereotype about what living a Stoic life involves. People sometimes suppose that Stoics thought you should accept with equanimity any situation in which you find yourself (including situations of political injustice) as being the result of Fate. Stoics do think you should accept situations which are genuinely inevitable, including your own eventual death and that of those close to you. But they do not think you should passively accept situations that you can reasonably try to do something about, even if this only consists in protesting against injustice. A good number of Roman Stoics, in fact, protested against what they saw as political injustice by the emperor in power at any one time; as a result they were often regarded as trouble-makers and sometimes killed or exiled. So, if we follow the ancient Stoics in this respect, there is no reason why we should not be a political activist, if we have a principled reason for acting in this way.
What kinds of political guidance does Stoicism offer? Unlike some ancient theories, Stoicism did not recommend a specific type of constitution. But it does offer certain principles for engaging in politics. Stoics insisted, for instance, that we should aim to act in line with the virtues (as a matched set); also that we should do so in family, communal and political contexts. Stoicism recommends that we should regard human beings as our brothers and sisters (as fellow rational agents) and citizens in a world-community, and that the ideal of the brotherhood of humanity should be used to guide our involvement at a more specific level, including political engagement. Stoicism does not tell us how to vote in the US Presidential Election (for instance); but it may help us to think carefully about how to make this choice.