Recent essays, #15

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:

Stoic advice: what’s the Stoic attitude toward virtual reality? LT asked me the simple question that gives the title to this essay. It’s a good question, and its simplicity is deceiving. To begin with, as I’ve written in the past, it is a bit misleading to ask a general question along the lines of “is X Stoic?” The reason being that Stoicism is a type of virtue ethics, as distinct from the other two major frameworks in moral philosophy: Kantian deontology and Utilitarianism. Unlike the other two, in virtue ethics the focus is on the character and intentions of the individual, and the goal is not to seek universal answers, because situations are different, and so are people. (continue to read)

Can virtue be taught?

Is virtue — in the Greco-Roman sense of the term — the sort of thing  that can be taught? Short answers: no, though it’s complicated  (Socrates). Yes, though it’s tough (the Stoics). Since the idea that  virtue can be learned is central to Stoic teachings, and since the  Stoics very clearly thought themselves as the intellectual heirs of  Socrates, the issue deserves some further discussion. Luckily, I found a lively paper by Hugh Mercer Curtler at Southwest  State University who presents a very accessible treatment of the issue  of learning virtue, from which I will draw for the following notes. (The  paper appeared in Humanitas in 1994, the full version is here.) (continue to read)

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Cicero and Stoicism

I have just published a new e-booklet on the theme of Cicero and Stoicism: Brief Introductions to De Finibus, Stoic Paradoxes, and Tusculan Disputations.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) was a Roman statesman, orator, lawyer, and philosopher, who served as consul in the year 63 BCE. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the Roman equestrian order, and is considered one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists. He lived in turbulent times, being a contemporary of Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, Mark Anthony, and the future emperor Octavian Augustus.

The new e-booklet contains 10 essays and runs to about 18,500 words. Here is the table of contents:

De Finibus and the nature of Stoic philosophy (parts I & II)

Cicero’s criticism of Stoicism (parts I & II)

Stoic Paradoxes

Tusculan Disputations: I. On contempt of death

Tusculan Disputations: II. On bearing pain

Tusculan Disputations: III. On grief of mind

Tusculan Disputations: IV. On other perturbations of the mind

Tusculan Disputations: V. Whether virtue alone be sufficient for a happy life

Recent essays, #14

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 differences among philosophy, rationality, and therapy. Stoicism is a philosophy, which means a general framework for navigating one’s life. It has a body of theory (e.g., the three disciplines) and a set of practices. Stoicism is just one particular philosophy of life, others include some of its Hellenistic competitors, such as Epicureanism, as well as bodies of ideas coming from outside the Western tradition, especially Buddhism. As Bill Irvine argues in his A Guide to the Stoic Life, the advantages of adopting or developing a more or less coherent philosophy of life is that one has always available a handy reminder of how to interpret things, what to prioritize, and how to behave. Not bad, if you ask me. (continue to read)

Misguided ideas in applied ethics: the neurophilosophy of moral intuitions.

Patricia Churchland is one of the most famous and controversial contemporary philosophers. She and her husband, Paul Churchland, have for decades now being pushing a notion in philosophy of mind known as “eliminativism.” Eliminativists claim that people’s common-sense understanding of the mind (to which they refer to as “folk psychology”) is false, and that moreover certain classes of mental states that most people believe in do not, in fact, exist. (Here is an in-depth treatment of the concept.) Eliminativists’ favorite analogy is with the shift from the geocentric to the heliocentric models in astronomy: in ancient times, people took the appearance that the Sun and the other celestial objects were rotating around the Earth at face value, but Science (note the capital “S”) dismantled that primitive notion and gave us the modern understanding of the world. (continue to read)

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)

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)

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)

Recent essays, #10

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:

Arête: on the nature of human excellence. Let’s talk about arête, the Greek word often translated as “virtue.” It was used by Socrates (and, of course, Plato), Aristotle, and pretty much all the Hellenistic schools, including Stoicism. The Stoics recognized four cardinal virtues (and a number of subordinate ones): practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. (continue to read)

Four Stoic rituals for a better social life. Do you want to have better relationships? Well, you should definitely take some advice from… the Stoics. I know, it sounds weird. Most people think of the Stoics as being emotionless — not exactly good examples for how to handle relationships. But that’s a myth. The ancient Stoics were big on virtue, self-control and reducing negative emotions. And those are pretty good things if you’re trying to be more likable. And their methods are backed by science. Stoicism was one of the inspirations for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is currently the dominant method for helping people overcome psychological issues. (continue to read)

How to deal with a fickle wedding planner, Stoic style. So, in less than two weeks I’m getting married. (Yes, the photo above is of yours truly with my fiancee, Jennifer.) We’ll have the ceremony secularly officiated by a friend of ours, and hosted by the New York Society for Ethical Culture, where I host my Philosophy Cafes and Stoic School. We will have readings from philosophers (Plato’s Symposium) and literary authors (Jennifer is a Professor of English and creative writing), and my daughter, who just graduated summa cum laude and honors in philosophy (yeah, I know, don’t brag too much dad!) will bring us the rings. Nice, right? Except that with 16 days to go to the big event we were unceremoniously dropped by our wedding planner. The details are not important to this story, but let’s say that the person in question had behaved erratically all along, finally getting to the point of yelling at me on the phone simply because I reminded him (once more) that we were awaiting sample pictures of the flower arrangements. At that, I calmly stated that this was not professional behavior, and that I expected better, especially given the non inconsiderable sum of money he had already pocketed from us. He yelled some more and “fired” us. (So far, without returning the hefty sum in question.) (continue to read)