In the school of Stoicism, the three most famous figures are usually cited as the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus. While Marcus and Seneca climbed to the summit of Roman society, Epictetus came from a world of slaves and unknowns and turned Stoicism into a way of life for himself and his students.
There’s a lot of great information out there on Epictetus and Michael Tremblay is keen to add to the conversation. In this interview, Michael dives into looking at Epictetus through a new lens, the joys of Stoic exercise and tackling how to be a philosophical consultant.
Thanks for taking the time to come on Stoic Athenaeum Michael. It’d be great to start off with how you were first introduced to philosophy and Stoicism.
My first practical introduction to philosophy was training martial arts as a child. This is where I had my first detailed exposure to ‘ethics’. We would discuss what it meant to be a good person, to develop your character, and the responsibility that came with power. Martial arts training was a huge inspiration for me to take these kinds of questions seriously.
In terms of my first academic exposure, this was when I was attending university. It is a shame most people, myself included, are not exposed to philosophy in high school, or in any sort of formal context, and I was lucky to have taken some philosophy electives as part of my psychology degree.
I fell in love with it and switched my major. Philosophy was the first place where I could feel the logical discipline in the thinking of those I was talking with. Professors welcomed disagreement, and they were not trying to get me to memorise facts, or agree with them, but engage in a kind of intellectual sparing (there’s the connection to martial arts again).
From there, in my first year of graduate school, I took a course on ancient philosophy that involved some reading from the Stoic Epictetus. It was a bit of a transformative experience that I know others have shared, where I felt that Epictetus was articulating things which I believed but had not been able to put into words before.
In previous interviews, I’ve heard you have a deep appreciation for Aristotle. Why do you think he became so influential in shaping Hellenistic philosophy and influencing the works of so many others?
Well for those that just know the Stoics, the Stoics are existing within a complex cultural context. Socrates, who lived in Athens around 480 BC is a major source of philosophical inspiration for Plato, and then Plato has a brilliant student named Aristotle, and then there are a number of schools, the Stoics included, who follow from how Aristotle shaped the question of ethics.
Part of why Aristotle was influential is that he was just an incredible mind. Besides pushing forward ethics, epistemology, and political philosophy, he invented formal logic and biology in the Western tradition. Metaphysics, one of the 4 main disciplines in contemporary philosophy, was not invented by him but was named after a book of his. He was just an incredibly influential mind.
Ironically, I think he is not well-read today for the same reason his books were so influential. Aristotle was a direct writer. He attempted to define concepts, argue for them, and discuss counter examples.
Compare this with someone like Plato, whose writings take the form of a dialogue, involving characters and myths. Same with Epictetus and Seneca, their works are written in dialogue form.
In comparison, reading Aristotle can be like reading a textbook or academic article today. Which is amazing if you are deeply invested in the topic, but not necessarily the most engaging thing for a non-specialist.
You’ve recently taken on the role as a consultant and on listening to your recent interview with Simon Drew on The Walled Garden podcast, I found the parallels you drew between consulting and philosophy interesting. What philosophical lessons have you brought into this role?
People like to emphasise philosophy as being ‘abstract’, or not ‘practical’, but it teaches you a lot of lessons about how to think and reason which are very transferable to a business context.
As a consultant, I see my job to help people with their problems. To help someone, you need to be able to quickly understand the context of the situation and exist in two worlds. You need the lens that allows you to see things through their perspective, but you also must bring your own perspective.
Without respecting their opinion, you just assume you know everything which often leads to bigger problems. But without bringing your own perspective, you will get stuck in the same problems that trapped them.
Practicing the history of philosophy was a lot like that. I read the Stoics respectful of the value they bring and trying to see the world how they saw it. But I also do not assume they are right and defer to them. Even if they were brilliant, they still lived 2000 years ago, and there are some things that will have got wrong that we want to pay attention to.
You’ve completed a PHD on the pedagogy of Epictetus where you’ve reconstructed how his lessons worked. What was the research process like and what draws you to Epictetus as a philosopher?
I think my research project can be divided into three general steps. What does the text say? What do other people think it says? And what do I think it says? So when researching Epictetus, I tried to read everything he and the Stoics had written, then everything written about that, and then I try to write something different, I try to focus on parts other people missed, or things I think they got wrong.
Part of this involves learning Ancient Greek and Latin to read the original languages. Every translation you read is also an interpretation, so when trying to interpret yourself, it is basically impossible without at least an understanding of the original words being used, and their cultural context.
Philosophy is strange though because there is very little ‘research’ in the way you might traditionally think. I didn’t run experiments or leave my house to measure something. We already have the relevant texts, and we already have English translations of them. My job was to try and discover something of value here that wasn’t discovered before.
What attracted me to Epictetus was that I loved reading him. I think it is hard enough to study the same subject for five years even when you enjoy it, so you have to make sure you pick something you can talk to your friends about or can sustain your interest for that long.
The reason why I love reading Epictetus is because of his focus on the practical. He wants to help transform his students into better people. And that struck me as the most important part of philosophy, this transformation of the self.
What’s also interesting is the PhD was done in a defence kind of format and you’ve mentioned it was a collaborative process.
What’s involved in that process and did you feel as if you were in a philosophical debate with the people who were critiquing your PhD?
So, at the end of 2021, I defended my PhD, and for those that are unfamiliar it is a bit of an interesting process. Over the course of a philosophy PhD, you write a book on a topic, for me it was on how the Stoic Epictetus ran his school. Then a committee of established experts read that book and question you on it. Then you must ‘defend’ the quality of your arguments and interpretations in a 3-hour meeting. It can sound intimidating but it’s quite an exciting process because you get to talk about what you have spent years researching with world experts.
I’m not sure if it felt much like earnest philosophical debate though. I think you are more likely to get that in a pub with your friends. Because a philosophical debate concerns the truth of the matter. Here, we were more debating what Epictetus thought, and what Stoicism is about, rather than debating if Stoicism is the true and right way to live.
I find analysing the writing styles of different philosophers to be fascinating and Epictetus’ voice has its own uniqueness in the Discourses as recorded by Arrian. What is your opinion of Epictetus’ ‘voice’ from the language, images and cadence he uses to teach his lessons?
That’s an interesting question. I think to understand Epictetus’ ‘voice’ you have to understand the function of what he is doing. He is teaching young men at his school about how to adopt Stoic values. In ancient philosophical education, there is something called a ‘protreptic’ style. This word means to ‘turn someone towards’ something.
In modern day we can think of it like a motivational speech. A lot of what Epictetus says is in this style. It is meant to shock you out of a life of passivity, and towards a life of Stoic action.
This is why he does things like call his students idiots, and even ‘slaves’, even though they would have been from the upper class. He’s insulting them, and challenging their intelligence and freedom, not because he is some grumpy old man, but because it serves an educational purpose.
Outside of Stoicism, you practice jiu-jitsu and wrestling. What did the Stoics think of physical exercise like wrestling?
There are two levels on which you can talk about Stoicism and sports. First, you can approach it in terms of what the Stoics thought about practicing physical exercise. In this regard Epictetus says that anything physical we do can benefit us if we train with the purpose of becoming better people.
So yes, they think wrestling can make us better people, but so can learning the guitar for example. The flip side to that comment is that sport will not necessarily improve our character, especially if we do not train intentionally. And I think this is supported empirically when we look at professional athletes. They are not all moral people.
However, the second important thing to note about Stoicism and sport, is that the Stoics did think Stoicism was analogous to sport in several ways. Specifically, both becoming a good athlete and a good person are skills that require applied practice, action, and perseverance towards a greater goal.
The Stoics thought we could learn a lot by modelling ourselves off athletes, and how they train and put what they have learnt into practice. This is something I talk about more in this article.
You’re also involved with the Stoa Meditation app and how did you become a part of the project and where would you like to take it in future?
Stoa Meditation is a project I am really excited about. There is a recent increase in the popularity of Stoicism, and for good reason, but there are not many tools that help us practice becoming better Stoics. Stoa is a meditation, theory, and journaling app designed to help people put their Stoicism into practice, so they can build resilience, improve their emotional lives, and become better, happier, people. It has 100s of hours of original meditations, the original Stoics texts, quotes, conversations with experts, and more.
In terms of how I got involved, I knew the creator, Caleb Ontiveros, who interviewed me for the app near its inception. He reached out about bringing me onto the project as a co-founder and I thought it was a great idea. Now we are working together to create the best platform to practice Stoicism we can.
In terms of where I would like to take it in the future, I want this to become the best product it can be at supporting people in their Stoicism progress. This means adding more and better content in terms of meditation, stoic lessons, and journaling. It also means continuing to hear from our audience about how they learn, and what kind of content suits their needs. We are really focusing on that second part of Stoicism and helping people putting into practice what they have learnt in theory.
What other schools of philosophy are you interested in?
Generally, I am interested in any philosophy that teaches us about how to live. I also think we should strive to learn about as many different schools as possible, and not fall into a dogmatic loyalty to one way of thinking. To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, he says that he would gladly reject Stoicism if someone could prove to him that it is false. He is after the truth, nothing else.
For ancient philosophy, I think people have a lot to learn from Plato and Aristotle, even just their ethics and moral philosophy. For the ancient thinkers, I have benefited a lot from Epicurean and Sceptic ideas. The Stoics themselves originated as a branch of Cynicism.
In modern philosophy, I find a lot of my thinking returns to the Existentialists. These are thinkers like Camus and Sartre, as well as authors like Dostoevsky. Like Stoicism, this school tried to construct a meaning of life that made sense in the face of the terrible living conditions people must experience. Camus and Sartre were writing after the Second World War. There is a major emphasise for them on constructing the person you want to be and taking accountability for your actions.
What philosophy projects are you excited to be working on in the future?
Currently I am working on expanding and improving Stoa. I really see it becoming a kind of online school for Stoicism. I want it to be something that helps you practice, teaches you about the philosophy, builds habits, and ultimately helps you become a better person.
Aside from that I have been working a lot recently on the Stoic connection between Stoicism and sport and have published two papers and some popular articles on the topic.
Marcus Aurelius compared practicing Stoicism to being a kind of wrestler, Epictetus recommended his students did the same. The Stoic Panaetius compared the mind of a Stoics to a pankrationist, the ancient version of a mixed martial arts fighter, because their mind is always ready to take on false impressions or representations of the world.
The Stoics saw an important connection here, and I am looking forward to developing it more.