Stoic practice

In this episode of The Switch podcast, the hosts speak with my friend Greg Lopez and yours truly, as co-authors of the new book A Handbook for New Stoics. This conversation explores new territory concerning the philosophy of Stoicism, by talking about Stoic foundations and practice, especially in regards to the practical exercises laid out in A Handbook for New Stoics.

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Stoicism, Skepticism and Pseudoscience

Here is an interview (about 23 minutes) I recently did with the Institute of Art and Ideas, the folks who put out two HowTheLightGetsIn festivals in the UK every year. We talk about Stoicism, of course, but also my other passion: scientific skepticism and the variety of pseudosciences.

Recent Stoic Meditations, #23

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:

The Stoics are materialists, in the sense that they believe that anything that has causal powers must be made of stuff, whatever that stuff turns out to be. (listen here)

The wisest approach is to not commit to opinions until we have strong evidence in their favor, or to hold opinions very lightly, and not attach our ego to them. (listen here)

If you have some sand and you start adding grains, when do you have a heap? Chrysippus’ answer to this sort of paradox will leave logicians frustrated and the rest of us with something to think about. (listen here)

The Academic Skeptics were one of the major rival schools to Stoicism. Yet, on the nature of human knowledge, and on what it means in practice, for everyday living, the two philosophies were not very far apart. (listen here)

Let’s learn why the middle-Stoic Panaetius disagreed on a major point of “physics” with the early Stoics: he didn’t believe in divination! (listen here)

Recent essays, #23

Most of my original writings now appear over at Figs In Winter, my Patreon site devoted to practical philosophy. The most recent posts are behind a paywall (monthly subscription levels at $1, $3, and $5), but the majority of the material is free to read. Here are some of the most recent entries:

How to square the circle: Stoicism as personal philosophy vs issues of social justice. Here is a conundrum I have been pondering for a while now. On the one hand, Stoicism is a personal philosophy, meant to help us to excel (in the ethical sense, not by becoming celebrities or making a lot of money) as human beings. On the other hand, the Stoics talk of the virtue of justice, which is other-regarding, and we have plenty of historical evidence of Stoic proficientes fighting against injustice.

The two aspects of Stoic philosophy seem at odds with each other. Take the concept of virtue, for instance. Even on Stoic fora I often read something along the lines of “action (or stance) X is virtuous / unvirtuous.” Where X may be concern for the environment, or for equality, and so forth. But, strictly speaking, that can’t be right, because virtues are not properties of actions or stances, they are character propensities of individual agents. It may, or may not, be virtuous for me — given my specific situation — to participate to a march in favor of action on climate change. But the action is not virtuous per se, without reference to both the specific circumstances and the motivation and other characteristics of the agent. If I go to the march not out of genuine concern for the environment, say, but because I want to impress my friends, then I am not acting virtuously. (continue to read)

Learning Stoicism from non-Stoics.

I have been practicing Stoicism seriously for five years now, I know a lot about the theory, I’ve read pretty much all the available ancient texts and a good number of the modern ones. And I’ve written two books about it. Oh, and of course I practice every day.

Nevertheless, recently I’ve learned something importantly Stoic from a non-Stoic acquaintance of mine. In fact, twice, from two different people. I’m trying my best to implement their advice, which in both cases is perfectly consistent with this quote from Epictetus, unknown, so far as I can tell, to both people in question:

“Everything has two handles: one by which it may be borne, another by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, do not lay hold on the affair by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be borne, but rather by the opposite — that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it as it is to be borne.” (Enchiridion 43) (continue to read)

Suggested readings, #23

Here are some interesting articles I’ve come across recently, for your consideration:

Emotionally extreme experiences, not just “positive” or “negative” experiences, are more meaningful in life. (Though that depends on one’s conception of meaning, I should think.) (Scientific American)

The Supreme Court is not well. And the people know it. A new guns case reveals that the once-noble institution has died, and we’re left working with its corpse. (Atlantic)

Should work be passion, or duty? Too many of us expect our jobs to give meaning to our lives. There is a better way. (New York Times)

The delusion of scientific omniscience. As time passes, the claim that science can comprehend everything looks increasingly nutty. (Scientific American)

Can our self-conscious minds save us from our selfish selves? (Aeon)

Recent Stoic Meditations, #22

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:

Blame is not a Stoic thing. We bear responsibility for what we do, of course, but to blame people isn’t particularly useful. As Marcus Aurelius says, teach them, if you can, or bear with them. (listen here)

Virtue can only be perfected by reason; all virtues are really just one, namely, wisdom; virtue is intrinsically good; and one needs to continuously practice in order to be virtuous. (listen here)

Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic sect, says that there are three sets of things in the world: virtue, things according or contra to nature, and neutral things. From which a solid moral compass for everyday living follows. (listen here)

Socrates was the first to draw philosophy away from matters of an abstruse character, in which all the philosophers before his time had been wholly occupied, and to have diverted it to the objects of ordinary life. (listen here)

Cicero begins his treatise Academica by seeking a medicine for his sorrows in philosophy. (listen here)

Recent essays, #22

Most of my original writings now appear over at Figs In Winter, my Patreon site devoted to practical philosophy. The most recent posts are behind a paywall (monthly subscription levels at $1, $3, and $5), but the majority of the material is free to read. Here are some of the most recent entries:

Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods, and why the Stoics got it wrong — part I. Philosophies of life have a lot in common with religions. Up to a point. Both systems of thought comprise, at a minimum, two components: a metaphysics and an ethics. The metaphysics provides adherents to a given system some notion of how the world works; the ethics gives them guidance on how to live in the world. So if you are a Stoic, for instance, you accept the metaphysical notion of a universal web of cause-effect (which the ancient Stoics called “god”), as well as that everything that exists is made of matter. Ethically speaking, you are on board with the idea that virtue is the only true good, and that we should behave as citizens of the world (cosmopolitanism). If you are a Christian, by contrast, metaphysically you accept that the world was created by an omnipotent god who exists outside of time and space, and ethically you agree that we should help others and offer the other cheek even to our enemies. (continue to read)

Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods, and why the Stoics got it wrong — part II. De Natura Deorum was written by Cicero in 45 BCE. Cicero himself narrates, playing the part of a mediator in a discussion on the nature of the gods involving Gaius Velleius, representing the Epicurean school, Quintus Lucilius Balbus, arguing for the Stoics, and Gaius Cotta, speaking for Academic Skepticism, Cicero’s own preferred school of thought. Last time we have seen some of the arguments put forth by Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus — the first three heads of the Stoa — and how they were based on faulty reasoning, chiefly relying on what we today call the argument from design. I want to continue this analysis here, in order to understand why the Stoics got this part of their “physics” (that is, their metaphysics and natural philosophy) wrong. I have already discussed elsewhere the consequences (not many, really) of this failure for modern Stoics. (continue to read)