My brilliant City College colleague Elise Crull gave the keynote talk at the 2019 Philosophy Day at CCNY. Her chosen topic was metaphysics and the idea of a multiverse. Though Elise and I actually disagree on this particular topic, the talk is energizing and thought provoking. Here it is:
Third episode of my occasional live streaming chats, where listeners can chime in during the broadcast and, more importantly, ask whatever question they wish, so long as it is somewhat related to the topic at hand. Which in this case was Seneca’s famous letters to his friend Lucilius.
I begin with an obligatory introduction to Seneca, in which I tackle the perennial question: was he a hypocrite who talked wisdom but practiced vice, or was he a flawed man put by Fortune in a near impossible situation, trying to do his best and realizing just how short he was of the goal? I tend toward the second interpretation, though I most certainly agree that Seneca was no sage.
After that, I spend a few minutes talking about the Letters themselves (here is the best modern translation). There are 124 in total, and classic scholar Liz Gloyn has suggested that they represent not just Seneca’s philosophical testament (they were written near the end of his life), but an actual informal curriculum in Stoic philosophy. There are several reasons to think so, including the periodical repetition of certain themes, the fact that the letters get progressively longer and more technical, and the fact that Seneca abandons the Epicurean crutch, so to speak, after the initial letters.
Speaking of Epicurus, one of the first questions was precisely about why Seneca favorably mentions Epicurus in most of the early letters. He does so, as he explicitly tells Lucilius, not as a deserter, but as a scout wandering into enemy territory. He is willing to learn from other schools, as any sensible person should.
Does that mean, though, that Seneca’s philosophy is actually an eclectic combination of elements drawn from both Stoicism and Epicureanism? No, because the “Epicurean” bits, such as his treatment of death, or of friendship, can be coherently integrated into standard Stoicism, without friction with other Stoic doctrines. That’s the problem with eclecticism: it very likely ends up being a combination of ideas that don’t go well with each other and make one’s philosophy somewhat incoherent.
During the episode I touch on a number of other themes, such as the distinctions among Stoicism, Cynicism, and Aristotelianism; whether Seneca was sympathetic to the Cynics (not really); whether Epictetus went for a more minimalist approach than Seneca (yup!); and the so-called dichotomy of control, which — contra popular misconception — is not original with Epictetus, but is found both in Seneca and Cicero, and is therefore likely to date back to the beginning of Stoicism. Enjoy!
When Fortuna allows, I publish a short morning meditation based on a short quote from a Stoic writer, seeking to apply that ancient wisdom to life in the 21st century. Here are the most recent entries:
Revenge takes up much time, and throws itself in the way of many injuries while it is smarting under one. We all retain our anger longer than we feel our hurt. (listen here)
It makes no sense to get angry with children or non-human animals, because they can’t reason. So why get angry with an adult who has temporarily lost the use of reason? (listen here)
A person will never be well off to whom it is a torture to see any one better off than themselves. Have I less than I hoped for? Well, perhaps I hoped for more than I ought. (listen here)
Do you ask, what is your greatest fault? It is, that you keep your accounts wrongly: you set a high value upon what you give, and a low one upon what you receive. (listen here)
Money is what wearies out the law-courts, sows strife between father and son, concocts poisons, and gives swords to murderers just as to soldiers: it is stained with our blood. (listen here)
My home institution, the City University of New York, has recently put out a 25-minute podcast about my practice of Stoic philosophy. Here is the description from the web site:
“Life have you stressed out? Weary of the endless news cycle? City College philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci has an idea–one that goes back 18 centuries. He’s a leader of a modern movement that’s popularizing the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism. Outcomes are not under your control, he says. What is under your control are your intentions, your decisions and your actions.
Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at City College. Born in Liberia and raised in Rome, he holds three doctoral degrees: in genetics from the University of Ferrara in Italy, biology from the University of Connecticut and philosophy of science from the University of Tennessee. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the author or editor of 10 books.”
Most of my original writings now appear over at Figs In Winter, both on Patreon and Medium. The most recent posts are behind a paywall (monthly subscription at $3 for Patreon, $5 for Medium, but the latter comes with access to additional authors as well). The majority of the material is free to read. Here are some of the most recent entries:
$toicism, Broicism, and stoicisM — Part III: Stoicism and the Military
Here comes the last installment in a series of three essays concerning what I perceive to be internal problems of the modern Stoic movement — as distinct from criticisms coming from the outside, a phenomenon that has been going on for almost two and a half millennia.
In the first round, I have discussed the notion that Stoicism is a conduit toward becoming rich and famous, a distortion of the philosophy popular in Silicon Valley and among sports coaches. In the second installment I tackled what I termed “Broicism,” an attitude that seeks in Stoicism the philosophical foundations — or at least some high-powered philosophical help — for the jumble of ideas popular within the so-called Manosphere.
Now is the turn of the complicated relationship between Stoicism and the Military. There is no question that there is a — superficial, I argue — affinity between Stoicism and military life. Certainly the standard stereotypes of Stoics as people who endure hardship, suppress emotional reactions, and go through life with a stiff upper lip resonate with soldiers and officers alike, and have done so at least since the time of Cato the Younger, the archenemy of Julius Caesar.
$toicism, Broicism, and stoicisM — Part II: the Manosphere
Last time, I have argued that the modern Stoic movement has three internal problems, which I called $toicism, Broicism, and stoicisM. The first one is the notion that Stoicism is a conduit toward becoming rich and famous, and it is popular in Silicon Valley and among sports coaches. I have argued in the first post of this series that while Stoic techniques may indeed be instrumental for all sorts of goals — after all, they are at the roots of modern cognitive behavioral therapy — Stoic philosophy is about just the opposite: do away with concerns with externals such as wealth and fame, and focus instead on the improvement of your own character.
Next time I will address stoicisM, the perversion of our philosophy that has been welcomed by the Military. Today we will talk about the second issue: Broicism, an attitude that seeks in Stoicism the philosophical foundations — or at least some high-powered philosophical help — for the jumble of ideas popular within the so-called Manosphere.
Here are some interesting articles I’ve come across recently, for your consideration:
Einstein in Athens. Modern science is unwittingly echoing Aristotle — and still has much to learn from him. [So says the author. After having read the whole long piece, I ain’t convinced.] (The New Atlantis)
The ‘Perfect Friendship,’ According to Aristotle. Why do some friendships last and others fade? (Medium)
The media’s coverage of AI is bogus. Claims that machine learning can predict sexuality, psychosis, and more are greatly overblown. (Scientific American)
Try this Stoic writing exercise and get to the heart of the real thing. (Medium)
The power of anonymous. Is the figure of the author bad for literature? Un-authored Roman literature and the transcendence of mere individuality. [A bit too much on the post-modern side of things for my taste, but several interesting observations nevertheless.] (Aeon)
My friend Dan Kaufman and I engaged in yet another conversation, this time on the somewhat weird — in my opinion — question of whether there is such thing as philosophical expertise, and what it consists of.
We begin by responding to the obvious objection: “But Socrates didn’t have a PhD!” (no kidding, Sherlock), moving on to explain why I just hate it when teachers say that they learn “just as much” from their students as the other way around. If they do, I submit, they are incompetent teachers.
We then get a bit more in depth on the topic, exploring, for instance, the similarities between doing philosophy and doing mathematics, as well as what exactly philosophers of science can teach scientists.
We also cover research showing a disappointing degree of personal morality in professional moral philosophers, talk about why Dan’s grandmother’s was a good person without having studied any philosophy, and contrast her example with the Socratic dictum about examining one’s life. Enjoy the video!