Making Philosophy Great Again With Anya Leonard

Philosophy is sexy. At least in my opinion. Ancient philosophers were the rockstars of their time and wisdom was being dropped with the passion of rappers like Eminem and Jay Z.

Today, the topic can be associated with academia but that doesn’t have to be the case. There are others on a mission to make philosophy sexy and Anya Leonard is a fellow traveller.

The founder of Classical Wisdom and an author, Anya runs regular events that make philosophy accessible, fun and down to earth. In this interview we get into the ideal philosophers to invite to a dinner party, good mental health practices and so much more!

Great to chat Anya. What were your first experiences with philosophy and has your perception of it changed over the years?

Thank you for having me and taking the time to speak to me too. Great question. I think people often mistake philosophy to be an academic subject but it’s about a lifestyle and a way of thinking. For me, it started in what might sound like a bizarre place. 

As a kid, I used to spend my summers in Kazakhstan and my father had studied astronomy originally in college. So we would go up to this observatory in the Tian Shen mountains and spend the night literally sleeping on concrete slabs.

I would go with my brother and as a teenager I wasn’t concerned with deep subjects. But I remember my brother being like ‘you’ve got to think about why we’re here, what’s the purpose, where we’re going’ etc. It was these experiences that opened me to the bigger picture of how to contemplate the world.

Later, I went to St John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland and studied philosophy properly. 

Anya Leonard is the founder of Classical Wisdom.

Following on from that perspective, what are your thoughts on philosophy being a way of life rather than just something to study?

I think you can be a philosopher and never have studied a single philosopher in your life.  I think that’s always valuable because people from different backgrounds and walks of life will have had different levels of exposure to thinkers that have existed or not had that much exposure.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t have a love of wisdom or can’t think about what it means to live a good life. The very act of thinking about that makes you a philosopher. Thinking about those things leads to a more contemplative life for the individual and provides the tools for making good decisions.

How did Classical Wisdom get started and how has the organisation evolved over time?

Classical Wisdom was originally co-founded between myself and a man named Bill Bonner in 2010. Bill is the owner of a large, multibillion-dollar financial publication company and they have branches throughout the world.

One of his subsidiaries is a French publishing house and it’s the last publishing house to do critical translations. We’ve still got thousands of documents that have never been critically translated from the ancient world and as you can imagine the Classics is not as profitable an industry as one might wish.

So, Classical Wisdom was created to see if we could find a self-sustainable way of promoting and preserving the classics because relying on grants and government funding has disadvantages. Primarily, you never know when the politics change and who’s going to be empowered. 

I left the agora umbrella amicably about five years ago and then partnered with another website called Ancient Origins and Classical Wisdom has evolved from there. It’s the same mission of promoting and preserving the classics and I’m about to embark on a new project where I want to make the classics more community-driven and ad-free.

I think we’re at a point where ancient philosophy is due for renewal because there’s a lot going on in the world right now. People feel the instability with wars, pandemics and on a personal level we get distracted online with attention deficit causing activities that leave us unfulfilled. 

We need to find a way to reintroduce the purpose of a meaningful life and I think a Classics-based community is a good way to do it. 

That’s definitely a cause I can believe in. On that note, which philosophers have inspired you in your own life? 

There have been many. I recently did an event on Stoicism with Donald Robertson, Karen Duffy and Nancy Sherman and I loved preparing for that event because I was rereading a lot on the Stoics.

In particular, Karen cites Epictetus a lot and I was reading Epictetus in between looking after a little kid. I was having trouble sleeping for a while and at 4 AM I’d go to the kitchen and read Epictetus and it was like a balm for the soul. It was wonderful.

I find modern philosophy is fascinating but less relatable. What I love about ancient philosophers is that they are so human. I’m also a big fan of Epicurus and like most people there have been times in my life where I’ve worried about death and felt anxious about it.

Right after university, I lived in Dubai and every day I’d have to drive down Sheikh Zayed road and there were always huge traffic jams. I used to go to my commute every day and wondered if was going to come home again because a car accident was bound to happen.

I found going through Epicurus helpful for releasing that fear and anxiety. Because if you live your life in anxiety and fear, you’re not going to live life. 

I totally agree. It reminds me of a line from Marcus Aurelius when he said something about not escaping from anxiety. He’d chosen to discard it and it’s crucial to do that even on a small scale. 

What kind of mental health benefits do you think certain schools of thought can have?

There is a lot of benefits and Stoicism has a lot of great mental health techniques. The View From Above and seeing the big perspective is wonderful. I also think reading any ancient philosophy or literature can also give you that huge perspective on where we are in history.

Aristotle also has a lot to contribute. One of the things I like in his Nicomachean Ethics is his ideas about moderation and finding a way to decide between being brave and cowardly and not being overly cautious or excessive. 

Aristotle has some wonderful things to say about friendship. It’s realising the kind of relationships we have with people, identifying them correctly and how they affect our lives. If they’re true friendships it’s important to nurture them and realise how important those friendships are for being a good person. 

If you could hang out with any ancient philosopher, who would it be and why? 

I like Aristotle a lot but I don’t think I would necessarily want to hang out with him because it would be exhausting trying to read his work, let alone talk to him. 

I can imagine having him at a dinner party though and I’d also invite Zeno of Citium, Diogenes The Cynic and the Pre Socratics. I call them the first philosophers rather than assign them the category of pre-Socratic because I feel like that’s putting them down.

Thales of Miletus would be an interesting person to hang out with and so would Heraclitus. So many of his thoughts about change read like poetry. 

In terms of the concept of suffering, I try to see it from a Stoic perspective of voluntary hardship. Though I understand that concept might be difficult for people to see.

What are your thoughts on suffering through a philosophical lens? 

Recently I talked about the beauty of suffering at another event and would agree with the Stoic perspective. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the Christian view that you need to suffer.

The reality is that we’ll all suffer at some point in our lives. It’s inevitable that some things happen on a personal, public or societal level and that acknowledging suffering as a natural process is helpful for seeing what kind of perspectives it brings.

When I did the last event about chronic pain and anxiety, there was an idea that you can grow through trauma. I don’t wish people to have to suffer trauma in order to reach enlightenment. But if you’re going to suffer, trying to learn from it and become a better person is a good thing. 

I was reading your recent interview with the Plato Academy and you mentioned you think Scepticism has some merits in today’s world. What is your understanding of Scepticism and how do you think it can be helpful today?

It’s the idea of suspending judgement and to tie it back to Stoicism there’s a great line from Epictetus I was reading the other day and he was like ‘you’ve got to seek the truth, you got to reject the falsehood and suspend judgement on those that you don’t know.’ It’s such an easy solution and yet people really don’t employ it enough.

I think it’s one of those things that we’re seeing right now on social media with the next big cause. Socially, we seem to be pressured to always have a definitive answer or standpoint on complex issues.

It’s almost like a mob mentality that if you don’t put a flag or a badge or sticker on your profile then you’re somehow immoral or wrong, even though most people don’t understand even a fraction of the issues. 

So, the idea of people admitting that they don’t know things and suspending judgement would be hugely valuable. To quote Socrates, people like to think it’s “I know that I know nothing” but it’s really, “I do not claim to know that what I do not know.”

Putting ourselves into an honest and vulnerable position to say “I don’t know and I’m going to suspend judgement until I do know” would give great pause to everybody for resolving conflict and handling the polarisation of politics. 

I think we could all stand to do more of that. On that train of thought, how relevant do you think ancient philosophical devices such as rhetoric and filibustering are for today’s world? Do you think they can be used for good? 

I think they are essential. It’s a real shame that as a society we’ve not prioritised the way we learn how to speak and address and converse and persuade into the proper structure of how to do speech and discourse.

It’s also essential for us to realise when it’s being used on us. When you see these devices being used, if you know what they are, they lose their power and you can watch political rallies on both sides. 

There can be a perception of philosophy only being used in the academic world. What are some ways that people can make it accessible and who are some people you see doing a great job of making philosophy more accessible and fun?

Making philosophy more enjoyable and conversational has always been a mission for me with Classical Wisdom. The stories of ancient history and philosophy are genuinely fantastic. I just did a huge event on the Battle of Actium deep-diving into the relationship between Cleopatra, Mark Antony and Octavian. I mean that stuff is crazy and it’s better than a movie!

It’s the same with ancient philosophy. Look at Diogenes The Cynic. He was throwing chickens at people and doing all this other stuff and it’s hilarious. So it’s about showing people the fun side of philosophy and podcasts, TV shows and books are doing a good job.

I wrote a children’s book about the Greek poetess Sappho and I’ve got a few other ideas about making the subject fun for kids. Donald Robertson is also doing great things around Marcus Aurelius with How To Think Like A Roman Emperor, his upcoming graphic novel and the reconstruction of Plato’s Academy. 

As mentioned, I think we’re in a time where people are seeking something more substantial. If someone is going through a difficult time it’s wonderful to be able to peer through thousands of years of history and see that everybody’s problems are the same. Books and other mediums can be a guide. 

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