In my mission to make philosophy sexy and down to earth, I’m on a never-ending journey to interview interesting people, philosophers and those who have been impacted by Stoicism.
A conversation I enjoyed recently was with the host of the Strong Stoic podcast Brandon Tumblin. Brandon brings an awesome perspective to the world of philosophy with his blend of storytelling, penchant for challenging ideas and psychology-based thoughts.
In this interview we discuss philosophy as a way of life, pushing beyond the surface level of Stoicism, making ancient ideas accessible and a hell of a lot more.
Let’s start with your introduction to philosophy. What was your introduction and has your perception of the discipline of philosophy changed over time?
I fell backwards into philosophy and grew up in a small fishing village with humble beginnings. When you’re in an industry like that philosophy tends to be embedded in the way of life because it tends to be difficult and you need to be self-sustaining.
As the Stoics emphasised you need to focus on what’s within your control and try not to worry about the externals. So philosophy was built into my way of life. As I got older, I started to formally read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Seneca’s Letters From A Stoic and started to get into philosophy.
But it was interesting because though I was reading and learning these things it felt like I’d been brought up on it anyway.
As time has gone on, my understanding of Stoicism has increased and I think it’s easy to understand on a high level. You can get an abstract idea of what it’s about in a short period of time but there are layers of understanding the more you get involved in the philosophy.
You realise Stoicism is simple and not simple. It’s also complicated, which I see as encouraging because there’s always more to learn. I recently went through a different layer of understanding of the cardinal virtues and have come out with a completely new viewpoint.
Philosophy has a tendency to be high-minded but projects like the Strong Stoic Podcast are doing great things to make it more accessible. What other ways do you think we can make the subject more accessible and fun for people?
I think what we need to do is bring it to our day to day life and not in an overly philosophical way.
if you really listen, you actually hear a lot of philosophy in your day to day life. For example, there might be some bad weather and you might be upset about it and then someone comes along and says “you can’t control the weather, so be a good person, accept it and move on with your day.”
That’s a little droplet of philosophy that’s thrown into our everyday life. And what did that do? Well, it made you a little happier with your current day and made you accept the weather as it is.
If you or I were to go out into the world and start talking to random people about Marcus Aurelius, they may be taken aback or be intimidated. But if you say “hey man, just do your best and don’t worry about that guy who’s being an asshole to you” that is language that is accessible to everyone. It brings philosophy to a place that’s practical and beneficial.
What is your interpretation of the idea that philosophy is a way of life rather than just something academic to study?
That’s a fascinating question because philosophy has branched off and in some sense, it used to be a spiritual journey, but also scientific. The ancient philosophers were more psychologists than anything. At some point, the worlds of fact and philosophy and fact and science split.
I don’t think we can split them. I think you need to study what the world actually is, while also considering what we should be valuing as human beings. That’s what the Stoics said about living in accordance with nature. It’s living in accordance with Mother Nature, love, truth and objective reality and that’s what science is aiming to do.
Unfortunately, science can’t really tell us that and it comes from deep spiritual reflection. We still need philosophy as a way of life so we know how we should be acting to increase our chances of flourishing in the future.
Who are some philosophers that have impacted your life for the better?
The main three Stoics, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus, have had a profound impact on my way of thinking. They all contribute different things to Stoicism.
For me, it’s like having a favourite exercise in the gym and that changing every month. My favourite Stoic evolves and changes over time.
If you could go back in time and speak to any philosopher, who would it be and why?
That’s a tough question. I can tell you the one person I’d talk to in history and would say it’s Dostoevsky. He’s a famous Russian author and has written several masterpieces like Crime and Punishment and The Underground Man.
What’s interesting about him is he was involved in socialist activity and the Soviet Union put a gun to his head and fired a fake bullet to scare him. It changed his neuroscience, to the point where he was able to write such psychologically and philosophically deep novels.
What are your thoughts on the crossovers between psychology and philosophy? Because in my opinion, they are the same thing.
Fundamentally, the ancient Stoics were psychologists and you have strong examples like Seneca’s book on anger. He talked about how to deal with anger and what we’re finding is that today there are scientific studies supporting these ancient philosophical ideas and that’s insane to me.
There’s also this idea in Stoicism that you shouldn’t go after pleasure because pleasure leads to sorrow. If you go after short term pleasure, what ends up happening is you become very shallow and you don’t have a happy life.
We know now that by constantly seeking pleasure in places like social media, we get tiny hits of dopamine. When we exhaust those dopamine circuits, your neuroscience backfires and starts producing unhappy hormones.
We’re on the cutting edge of neuroscience research and it’s fascinating that these people knew all of these ideas 2000 years ago.
On the Strong Stoic podcast, you like to play devil’s advocate with subjects like the dichotomy of control and other aspects of Stoicism. Is there anything you think could be updated or changed about the philosophy?
I’ve certainly wrestled with some ideas in Stoicism and I’m not someone who’s adopted all the principles and live my life with them. I wrestle with these ideas and I want to know the truth.
What I always come back to is the Stoics were right about pretty much everything if you take on faith that virtue is the only good. So, I’ve tried to pick apart the dichotomy of control and that idea is challenging to me because we have a well-documented social psychology. This is similar to what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious.
It’s absolutely not the case that if you put yourself in a terrible environment you’re not going to have any negative effects on it. That’s the Stoic claim that other people’s actions aren’t in your control.
You can look at that and say no because if you’re in a toxic family they are going to make you feel terrible. Then I have to remember the fundamental idea of Stoicism is virtue, meaning you must be a good person. It’s not a good, it’s the only good. Once you accept that, the dichotomy of control makes complete sense.
Because if you’re in a toxic family, you’re not going to feel good but you can still choose to have a good character.
Stoicism is an old philosophy and you have to put it into perspective and it can’t just be the dichotomy of control. That’s not Stoicism. Stoicism is that virtue is the only good and everything else falls under that.
I’ve seen you’re a big fiction reader and it’d be great to hear what kind of valuable life lessons reading fiction has taught you.
I can’t even state how much fiction has impacted my life. George RR Martin, the creator of Game Of Thrones, said something like if you don’t read you only live one life, if you read you live 1000 lives.
If you look at masterpieces like Lord Of The Rings or Star Wars and get into these deep ideas in those stories, good fiction is indistinguishable from reality. On the Strong Stoic I like to bring fiction into everything because that’s how we learn by hearing shared stories.
What do you think of suffering when viewed through a philosophical lens?
The Stoics don’t say anywhere that life is suffering but the fact that life is suffering is the reason why Stoicism exists. What it’s trying to do fundamentally is say listen you’re born into this life and there’s going to be a lot of suffering along the way. You’re going to lose people and die someday. What should you do despite all that?
Be a good person. That’s the Stoic answer and it’s about taking responsibility for what is up to you and how you present yourself in the world.
The best way I can put Stoicism in a practical context is to take responsibility for your own damn life. It’s not that you can flourish as an individual, it’s also to make the world a better place for future generations.
What does the future hold for you and are there any new projects you have in the pipeline?
I’m excited for a lot of upcoming projects. I can’t go into a lot of detail right now but I’m going to be working with a group of other philosophers and for the podcast it’s business as usual.
My journey is never-ending. A year from now I’ll have a different perspective and I don’t think I’ll ever run out of ideas for the Strong Stoic podcast because changing perspectives is what keeps me going.