Jules Evans is a British writer and author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations. His journalism has, amongst other places, appeared in Prospect, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and New Statesman. He’s also the policy director at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. He writes a blog called Philosophy For Life and co-runs the London Philosophy Club. Jules also practices the Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism, which he was kind enough to discuss with me via email for this interview. Follow him on twitter @julesevans77.
First off, I have now read your wonderful essay titled “Why I Am A Stoic” several times. Having grown up in a Western culture, can you explain how you came to embrace Stoicism as your philosophy of life? Is it something your learned in school or after your formal education?
I think I first read Marcus Aurelius at school, but I only really got into Stoicism after university, in my early 20s. It helped me through an emotional crisis and I thought, wow, this stuff really works.
I’ve noticed that people often confuse being a Stoic (capital “S”) with stoic (lower-case “s”). Can you briefly explain the difference?
People often think being ‘stoic’ means not showing any emotion. But the Stoics didn’t suppress their emotions. They understood how emotions arose through our beliefs, and how we can change our emotions by changing our beliefs. So they would deconstruct negative emotions by deconstructing the beliefs that gave rise to them. That’s different to suppression.
Stoicism is a philosophy of life and not a religion. Accordingly, how do you think Stoicism and religion relate to each other? Is it possible that there are both atheistic Stoics and a theistic Stoics?
There definitely are today. Some Stoics are fiercely atheistic. In the ancient world, too, I think there were theistic and atheistic Stoics – I’m not sure Marcus Aurelius or Seneca always believed in God, while Epictetus seems more religious to me.
Many people often think that Zen Buddhism and Stoicism are very similar. In many ways I think they are too. Can you describe what you think the main differences are?
I don’t know much about Zen, but in general, Buddhism has more of an emphasis on compassion and loving-kindness than Stoicism. Of course, Buddhism also believes in reincarnation – so you accept what happens to you not because it’s the will of God (which is what Stoics believe) but because you caused it in a previous life. And if your life is crappy, don’t worry, you’ll have another one – Stoics by contrast are rather reticent about what happens in the after-life. Also, Buddhism has the whole tradition of breath exercises which the Stoics didn’t have. So there are many differences – but some similarities as well, such as the aim of overcoming attachment and aversion, the idea of transcending passion by becoming mindful of one’s beliefs and attitudes.
What kind of people do you think are drawn to Stoicism?
Mainly men, typically middle class, sometimes it’s people who lacked a strong father figure so they’ve needed to construct their own moral code. They’re often pretty individualistic, can be quite libertarian. And a lot of people in public service too. That’s a generalisation – there are many different types of Stoics today.
Over the past few years authors like Nassim Taleb and Tim Ferriss have created some buzz on the Web surrounding Stoicism. Do you think the philosophy is gaining in popularity in the Western world?
Maybe. I think you’d have to mention the way Cognitive Behavioural Therapy brought ideas and techniques from Stoicism to millions of people. That’s how I got into it. I think that has a bigger impact than the occasional mention by Ferriss or others. But the difficulty is the lack of rituals or community in Stoicism. People long for community. And I don’t really see a Stoic community evolving. Personally I’ve moved from focusing exclusively on Stoicism to exploring the whole ‘Socratic tradition’, including other schools like Platonism and Aristotelianism. I think it’s a very rich tradition – but there’s still the question of it lacking rituals etc.
There are several psychological techniques Stoics use to deal with the problems inherent to existence (e.g., negative visualization and self-denial). Do you have any other practical tips for aspiring Stoics?
Find ways to practice with other people. Find ways to socialise and communalise your philosophy. Here in London, for example, I run the London Philosophy Club. I think ethics are much more powerful and real if we share the practice of them with others.
UK Readers can pre-order a copy of Jules’ book here.