This article first appeared on Stoicism Today as part of Stoic Week 2013, a week in which over 2,000 people worldwide followed this Handbook for daily living, which modernised the ancient Stoic philosophy as a way of life….
Jules Evans interviews John Lloyd, the TV producer behind Not the Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder, Spitting Image and QI, talking about how ancient philosophy helped him to get through five years of depression.
How did you come across Stoic philosophy?
I’d had 10 years of unalloyed success as a TV producer in the 1980s – I’d made three blockbuster telly shows, I’d got married, I had two children, two houses, two cars, one whole wall of my office covered in awards, I had money, I was in decent health. And then on Christmas Eve 1993, I woke up and couldn’t see the point of anything. It was like running into a wall. I’d had a couple of really awful betrayals, which seemed to happen to me serially – I’d help people then they’d shit all over me. I went right down the hole, became fantastically depressed, very angry and resentful, and spent a lot of time under my desk crying. I was a commercials director then, very successful. And the worst thing was I couldn’t understand why I was so unhappy because I had everything. I had no reason to be depressed.
So how did you cope?
The way I saw it was, I had to turn the same kind of determination and intelligence onto myself that I would normally apply to my programming. I set out out quite specifically to look for the meaning of life. I needed to find a better reason to go on living than the usual one, which is ‘he who dies with the most toys win’. That didn’t work for me anymore, I’d got the toys and they weren’t satisfying to me. Let’s see if anyone has any better ideas.
I started reading frantically. I started with physics, I learned about quantum mechanics, and it astonished me. I learned what E=MC2 means for the first time – that matter is equivalent to energy and there’s nothing solid there really. Then I read The Agony and Ecstasy, about the life of Michelangelo. And in there it mentions how the Medici wanted to recover the wisdom of the ancients, particularly Pythagoras. I thought he was the guy who invented the triangle. I discovered he was one of the greatest philosophers in history. I thought: that’s it! My God! I’ve discovered Pythagoras, no one else knows about this. I went to Foyles, to the Classics section, and said rather smugly, ‘do you have any books on sixth and fifth century BC Athens’, thinking there would hardly be anything, and he pointed, there was a whole wall on those two centuries in Greece. I staggered back, thinking it would take ten lifetimes to read all that, and that it’s too late at 42.
But I had a go, and along the way I bumped into various people who helped me. I came across Marcus Aurelius very early on. Some of his sayings were incredibly helpful, like ‘Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be – be one.’ That hit home. Or ‘Consider that everything is opinion, and opinion is in your power. Take away the opinion, and like a mariner, who has doubled the promontory, you will find calm, everything stable, and a waveless bay.’ I love Marcus Aurelius – this wonderful man with a terrible life, retiring to his room every night to write in his journal and think how to cope.
What do you find particularly useful in Stoicism?
The basic idea that I find useful in Stoicism is that it’s all in your attitude. Shit happens, but what distinguishes those who are coping from those who aren’t is how they react. There is no requirement to suffer, it’s a self-imposed thing. And I love the idea, particularly in Epictetus, that philosophy is a way of life, something we should all practice.
My daughter who’s 17 has just bumped into that – shes doing philosophy A Level. She’s fascinated by what Epictetus said about philosophy being a way of life and a love of wisdom. It’s not just theoretical, though unfortunately that’s how it’s usually taught. Academic philosophers are not necessarily wise people. You shouldn’t study Heidegger or Nietzsche or Spinoza just to know what they thought, you should see if you can live by it.
My view is every child should study quantum physics and Stoic philosophy. They should learn, ‘What do I do when somebody makes me unhappy? Why are people greedy and nasty? What is fear? What should I do when things go wrong?’ It staggers me that we don’t learn these things at school. In Stoicism, we have this very simple and powerful idea – it’s not what happens to you but how you react. That’s why I like Stoicism - because it’s simple, plain and logical, it doesn’t involve any Gods or outside help, it’s all in you.
Do you believe in God?
I’m ignostic – I like the definition of ignostic as ‘someone refuses to discuss whether God exists until the terms are defined’. You tell me what you mean by God and then I’ll tell you if I believe in it. No one seriously believes in the giant guy with a white beard and sandals. No one thinks that, no one ever has. Even Michelangelo didn’t. You’re a fool if you think you have any idea what’s going on, or if you think anyone does. No one knows why the universe began or even how – the Big Bang Theory is falling to pieces according to Martin Rees [the astronomer royal].
I call it The Great Whatever It Is. I see the universe as conscious and benevolent. I see life as an examination we didn’t apply to take, but we’re in one, and we have to work out what the rules are and what it means to pass that test. And in that test, we come across those Stoic virtues of self-control and self-knowledge, understanding that most of the bad things that happen to you are self-generated. Resentment, fear, anger, laziness, are all self inflicted – you can decide not to be that. There’s only one task in life, and that is to get a grip on yourself.
How have you combined Stoicism with other philosophies?
My philosophy is unashamedly pick and mix. I had this peripatetic and bizarre route around all the philosophies of the world – the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, St Augustine, St John of the Cross, Sufism. I say I’m a Stoic because it’s less frightening to people, and less specifically theistic. I think there’s only one philosophy, really. One of my favourite books is Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy – underneath all the claptrap of religious differences, it’s the same thing: my job is to fix me, to quiet my interior rantings, and be nice to everybody else. It works for me. It’s a lot less painful trying to be as cheerful and friendly and unjudgmental as you can. It’s an effective way of getting by.
Did ancient philosophy get you out of that emotional pit?
I was pretty depressed, but I can say that depression at root is a philosophical problem. It’s bound to occur to intelligent people sometimes, especially when things go wrong. You feel the universe is very unfair, but it’s not unfair, it’s just what is. But the two things that initially helped me most were, firstly, going for very long walks; and secondly, being interested in things, which is where QI came from.
For the ancient Greeks, philosophical communities and friendships were an important part of the good life. You say you’ve never met another Stoic – so how did you find a community of people who share your values?
Well I made one, in the QI Club.
At this point, let me bring in John Mitchinson, the other founder of QI, who I interviewed last year, to talk about the QI Club:
John Mitchinson: We thought, wouldn’t it be great if we had a place for all our research, books, meetings. So we set up a club, in a beautiful building in Oxford, on five levels, with a library where we had fantastic events and meals, a bookstore and cafe, and a vodka bar in the basement for wild parties. This was in 2004. We were very good at getting interesting people along and organising events – there aren’t many places where you’d have Philip Pullman and Radiohead in the same room. We had Roman Krznaric and Theodore Zeldin organising events there. In some ways it was ahead of its time, with regard to places like the School of Life and the Idler Academy – Tom Hodgkinson, who is a good friend of QI’s, says it was kind of an inspiration for the Idler Academy. But it was an immense amount of work, and was difficult to mobilise the Oxford middle classes to support it. And it was expensive to run.
John Lloyd: These things are springing up everywhere as you know – there’s the School of Life, the Idler Club, there’s 5X15, there’s Cafe Philosophique and Cafe Scientifique, all these philosophy clubs. QI was an early pioneer of all this. Underneath the facts about frogs and isn’t Stephen Fry clever, it’s a search for meaning. QI is a philosophy, its a way of looking at the world and an ethical philosophy too. It tries to wear its principles visibly: don’t patronise people and be nice to everybody. Its a pleasant programme to work on. Everyone likes coming on it. And it’s Socratic – you can’t do QI and not realize you know absolutely nothing at all. What you know is fruitlessly small. People arrive cocky and overqualified, then you have people literally weeping ‘I don’t know anything!’ It’s very freeing, realizing you don’t know anything.