Recent essays, #33

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:

Following in Socrates’ steps: from natural science to moral philosophy

Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a scientist. Early on, an astronomer. Family lore has it that such decision was reached when I was five years old, while watching the Apollo 11 Moon landing with my grandmother. (Interesting that I didn’t go for the more obvious thing: being an astronaut.) Carl Sagan influenced me when I was in middle school, and the 1976 landing of the Viking probes on Mars seemed to definitely settle my goals: I would become a planetologist!

But gradually, in high school, I became more and more enamored with biology, and eventually I pursued an academic career in evolutionary biology. Which worked out pretty well, resulting in four technical books and 88 technical papers over a span of over two decades.

(continue to read on Patreon, Medium)

Catherine Wilson: an Epicurean is (again) wrong about Stoicism

My CUNY-Graduate Center colleague Catherine Wilson has recently published How to Be an Epicurean, released by Basic Books, the same outlet that put out my own How to Be a Stoic a couple of years ago.

When our publisher asked, I provided the following endorsement for Catherine’s book: “So glad to see our Epicurean cousins back in the game! This is a new golden age of practical philosophy!” Indeed, Stoics and Epicureans battled it out for dominance as public philosophy in the ancient world, and I have already commented on the main differences between the two approaches.

After the book came out, I invited Catherine to the New York Society for Ethical Culture to have a friendly conversation. It was a fun event, but it highlighted once again for me a pattern that I have noticed over and over during the past few years: lots of people get Stoicism wrong, including academics.

(continue to read on Patreon, Medium)

Suggested readings, #33

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

I was an astrologer – here’s how it really works, and why I had to stop. (Guardian)

Umberto Eco as philosophical realist. (Medium)

Nine evidence-based guidelines for a ‘good life’ (Skeptical Inquirer)

Stoic Christianity? (Medium)

I wish I’d never been born: the rise of the anti-natalists. [I still think this is more than a bit silly, but whatever.] (Guardian)

This science vigilante calls out bogus results in prestigious journals. (Medium)

Recent Stoic Meditations, #32

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:

People think some things unjust because they ought not to suffer them, and some because they did not expect to suffer them: we think what is unexpected is beneath our deserts. (listen here)

Revenge and retaliation are words which men use and even think to be righteous, yet they do not greatly differ from wrong-doing. (listen here)

If anyone is angry with you, meet their anger by returning benefits for it: a quarrel which is only taken up on one side falls to the ground: it takes two people to fight. (listen here)

Men, frantic with rage, call upon heaven to slay their children, to reduce themselves to poverty, and to ruin their houses, and yet declare that they are not either angry or insane. (listen here)

Other vices affect our judgment, anger affects our sanity. Its intensity is in no way regulated by its origin: for it rises to the greatest heights from the most trivial beginnings. (listen here)

Recent essays, #32

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:

Seneca to Lucilius: 44, philosophy as the great equalizer

“If there is any good in philosophy, it is this: it has no regard for genealogies.” (Letters to Lucilius, XLIV.1)

At the beginning of his 44th letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca reminds us that philosophy is for everyone, regardless of one’s ancestry or so-called “noble” birth. This is a point I often have difficulty getting across when I talk about Stoicism to the media. A common objection raised to my presentation of the philosophy is that it’s elitist, since few people have enough leisure time to read the ancients, or a sufficient degree of education to appreciate them.

(continue to read on Patreon, Medium)

Seneca to Lucilius: 47, on slaves and human beings

“They are slaves.”
No, they are human beings.
“They are slaves.”
No, they are housemates.
“They are slaves.”
No, they are lowborn friends.
“They are slaves.”
Fellow slaves, rather, if you keep in mind that fortune has its way with you just as much as with them.
(Letters, XLVII.1)

This is the stunning beginning of Seneca’s 47th letter to his friend Lucilius. It’s an exceedingly uncommon talk for an ancient Roman patrician, especially because the Romans still reeled from the famous revolt by the gladiator-slave Spartacus, which took place just over a century before Seneca’s writing.

(continue to read on Patreon, Medium)

Seneca to Lucilius: 48, tricks of logic

Logic is one of the three fields of study of the standard Stoic curriculum, together with “physics” (meaning the totality of the natural sciences, plus metaphysics), and ethics — the study of how to live our lives. So it may appear somewhat odd that Seneca trashes logic in his 48th letter to his friend Lucilius. Isn’t logic necessary in order to reason well, which in turn leads us to live a life informed by rationality? And yet, after a short preamble at the beginning of the letter we read:

“That, most excellent Lucilius, is what I want those splitters of hairs to teach me—what I should do for a friend, or for a human being; not how many different ways the word ‘friend’ is used or how many different things ‘human’ can signify.” (Letters, XLVIII.4)

Seneca here, it turns out, is not criticizing the study of logic understood as the discipline that improves human reasoning, but rather what we would today call logic chopping, or hair splitting: indulging in irrelevant puzzles about minutiae, for the sake of impressing others or for pure intellectual enjoyment, with no practical impact on how we conduct our business in life.

(continue to read on Patreon, Medium)

Suggested readings, #32

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

What John Rawls missed. Are his principles for a just society enough today? [Good article, though I remain convinced that Rawls missed precious little.] (New Republic)

A problem based reading of Nussbaum’s virtue ethics. [Yeah, there are a lot of problems there…] (Medium)

The meaning to life? A Darwinian existentialist has his answers. [Interesting observations about life, the universe, and everything from veteran philosopher of science Michael Ruse] (Aeon)

What Netflix can teach us about the paradox of choice. Today’s dizzying number of options might just be making us miserable. (Medium)

We don’t actually want to be happy. Chess helps answer the perennial human question, “What should I do next?” (New York Times)

The Spartan philosophy of life. Maxims from ancient Sparta still relevant today. (Medium)

The happiness ruse. How did feeling good become a matter of relentless, competitive work; a never-to-be-attained goal which makes us miserable? (Aeon)

Philosophy Day 2019

The annual Philosophy Day — a UNESCO sponsored worldwide celebration of philosophy — will take place at the City College of New York on Thursday, 21 November 2019.

The event will feature a lunch time talk (12:30pm in the North Academic Building, room 5/144) by Prof. Ben Vilhauer on “Taking free will skepticism seriously.”

The keynote for Philosophy Day 2019 will be given by Prof. Elise Crull on “Metaphysics & the Multiverse,” at 7pm in the North Academic Center, room 1/201.

Both events are free of charge. You will have to present a valid form of ID upon entering the campus building.

More info here

RSVP here

Recent Stoic Meditations, #31

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:

We need a long-breathed struggle against permanent and prolific evils; not, indeed, to quell them, but merely to prevent their overpowering us. (listen here)

Often the pretense of passion will do what the passion itself could not have done. Sometimes, it may be effective to fake anger. Just don’t make the mistake of actually becoming angry. (listen here)

We are so foolish that we actually get angry at inanimate objects, who neither deserve nor feel our anger. But in fact, no one deserves our anger: not animals, not children, and not even adults. (listen here)

Someone will be said to have spoken ill of you; think whether you did not first speak ill of them; think of how many persons you have yourself spoken ill. (listen here)

Is it a good person who has wronged you? Do not believe it. Is it a bad one? Do not be surprised at this; by their sin they have already punished themselves. (listen here)