Recent essays, #13

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:

The essence of Stoicism. Despite the title of this essay, I don’t believe in essences. At the least, not in the sense that any complex idea or object can be reduced to an essence. Sure, the “essence” of the element Gold may be thought to be having an atomic number of 79, in the sense that in order for something to be Gold it is both necessary and sufficient that the thing in question is made of atoms with 79 protons. Similarly, the “essence” of a triangle, as a geometric figure, is that the sum of its internal angles is 180 degrees.

But few other things in life or in nature are amenable to concise definitions in terms of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions, as Wittgenstein famously demonstrated in the deceptively simple case of “game.” Try to give a small number of conditions that need to be satisfied for an activity to qualify as a game and that separates it from all non-games and you will soon be lost in an ever increasing cluster of similar-yet-not-quite-the-same activities sharing what Wittgenstein referred to as a family resemblance— but not an essence. (continue to read)

Epic battles in practical ethics: Stoicism vs Objectivism. The Ayn Rand Institute is at it again. They are really unhappy about Stoicism and the waves our philosophy has been making recently. I have written about an all-out assault by Leonard Peikoff, described as “Ayn Rand’s foremost student and today’s leading expert on Objectivism.” Now is the turn of an essay authored by Aaron Smith, entitled “The false promise of Stoicism.” Smith has a Ph.D. in philosophy and is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute, where he lectures and develops educational content for the Institute’s intellectual training and outreach programs. He is also — in a somewhat interesting fashion — fundamentally wrong about Stoicism, as I will argue below. (continue to read)

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Suggested readings, #13

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

Why some people choose to do evil remains a puzzle, but are we starting to understand how this behavior is triggered? (Aeon)

Are Sherlock Holmes’ methods closer to the philosophy of Pascal than that of the British empiricists? I don’t think so, but this article makes the case. (Philosophy Now)

The philosophy of fascism. And why we need one. (The Philosopher)

Hold out for the perfect partner or settle for good enough? In the calculus of love, flourishing means getting it right. (Aeon)

Moral education for digital natives. (Philosophy Now)

Recent Stoic Meditations, #12

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:

Marcus Aurelius takes the long view of things in order to remind himself that whatever troubles us so much right now will soon be over, one way or another. This isn’t nihilism, but rather the conscious adoption of a healthier perspective on human affairs. (listen here)

Epictetus bluntly tells us that if we have not been affected by philosophy and have not changed our mind about something important as a result of it, we are simply playing a game. So, has philosophy changed your mind yet? (listen here)

Seneca says that being able to do without luxuries is but a small and easy step toward virtue. And yet so many of us have much trouble taking that  step. Have you? (listen here)

Seneca advises Lucilius to think, but not to worry, about the future. It is reasonable to plan for things to come and to act in the best way possible. So long as we don’t delude ourselves into thinking that we actually control outcomes. (listen here)

Recent essays, #12

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:

The Stoics vs Ayn Rand. A reader sent me a link to an article on Stoicism published by the Ayn Rand Institute… I know, it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it’s true. The article in question is actually the transcript of a lecture made available through the ARI’s campus branch, and it is the quintessential mischaracterization of Stoicism. As such, it is well worth examining in some detail. [Full disclosure: I have a very low opinion of Ayn Rand and her Objectivist “philosophy,” as can be seen here, here, here, and here. So take the following with a grain of salt. I am not an unbiased observer in this case!] (continue to read)

Seneca to Lucilius: 41, the god within us.

“You are doing what is best and most beneficial for you if, as your letter says, you persevere in moving toward excellence of mind. How silly it is to pray for that! It is a wish you yourself can grant. You need not raise your hands to heaven; you need not beg the temple keeper for privileged access, as if a near approach to the cult image would give us a better hearing. The god is near you—with you—inside you.” (XCI.1)

So begins Seneca’s 41st letter to his friend Lucilius, where he advises him to take his life, and specifically his project of pursuing virtue, in his own hands. We don’t need to pray to gods, or go to priests, in order to becoming better human beings; that is completely within our own powers. Clearly, the Stoics here would disagree with many 12-step organizations, which are religiously based, and where members are asked to give themselves to god in order to find the strength to deal with their problems. (continue to read)

Suggested readings, #12

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

Here’s an interactive map of Odysseus’ 10-year journey back home. (Open Culture)

What’s the point of education? It’s no longer just about getting a job. Then again, it never was. And contra this article, the Greeks did get it right. (The Conversation)

Can an “ought” be derived from an “is”? Pace Hume, yup. (Philosophy Now)

Can Plato be blamed for autocracy, as Karl Popper thought? Nah. (Spectator)

Yet another example of why anti-physicalist critiques in philosophy of mind are empty and incoherent. Though you wouldn’t know it from this article. (Philosophy Now)

Recent Stoic Meditations, #11

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:

Cicero explains a classic Stoic paradox: only the wise person is free, while everyone else is a slave. To what? To externals that they think are indispensable for their happiness, and yet lay outside of their control. (listen here)

Think of practicing philosophy as going to the gym: sure, you can do a lot on your own. But if you choose a good partner to keep you focused on the task, you’ll see more steady improvement. So, who’s your virtue buddy? (listen here)

Seneca says that some people are interested in studying philosophy not to improve their souls, but to sharpen their wits. Time to reflect on what, exactly, we are doing and why. (listen here)

Seneca says that we have enough sustenance without resorting to blood, and that a habit of cruelty is formed whenever butchery is practiced for pleasure. Something to meditate on a bit. (listen here)

Seneca and Epictetus agree: the best way to resist temptation is to avoid it altogether, because it’s hard to practice temperance, at least initially. Modern cognitive science agrees. (listen here)

Recent essays, #11

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:

What is wisdom? “Wisdom” is arguably one of the most slippery, and yet important, concepts that concern us all. One way to summarize humanity’s problems over the past several millennia is that our intelligence and technology have far outpaced our wisdom. And things are likely to get worse, since our technological advancements are accelerating, possibly leading in the near future to the development of very intelligent, but unlikely to be wise, AI. (continue to read)

This simple philosophy can calm your inner control freak.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

This prayer was written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1934, but it reflects wisdom that is common to Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist traditions—and to Stoicism. The underlying concept is central to Stoic practice and is often referred to as the “dichotomy of control.” Epictetus begins the Enchiridion—his manual on Stoicism—with it, and it is one of the most cited Stoic sayings, having countless applications in daily life. (continue to read)

What does it mean to be “from” somewhere? A few nights ago I participated — though mostly as an increasingly attentive observer — to a fascinating discussion between two people I love. For reasons that will become clear shortly, I will call them Analitica and Literaria. The topic of the discussion was the interpretation of the common question: “where are you from?” in a social setting. It turns out that Analitica and Literaria gave me much food for thought, as well as the occasion to rethink my own position, which was initially very close to Analitica but by the end of the discussion moved closer to Literaria — though I still think they both made very good points. (continue to read)

What Stoicism really is. Interview at the State University of New York’s College of Optometry (of all things!), on what Stoic philosophy is really about. I discuss the famous dichotomy of control, what it means to “live according to nature,” the four cardinal virtues, the nature of suffering and anxiety, how to reframe life’s events so that we can handle them, the technique of negative visualization, how to deal with insults, with the demands of professional life, and with the pressure to be perfect. The difference between thoughts, feelings, and facts, the role of luck in our life, and the sense of duty toward others that we ought to develop. Among other things… (click to watch the video)