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.

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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.

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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.

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Recent essays, #31

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:

Are you ready to die?

Are you ready to die? I’m not, which means my philosophical training is not yet complete. I’m not a sage. As Seneca says:

“Most men ebb and flow in wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardships of life; they are unwilling to live, and yet they do not know how to die.” (Letters to Lucilius, IV.5)

I have always been “willing to live” in Seneca’s sense, meaning to do things in life that I found worthwhile and meaningful. From very early on, when I was in middle school, I resolved that I would become a scientist, because the human quest for knowledge and understanding seemed to me to be paramount. I was lucky enough to actually have a successful academic career as an evolutionary biologist, and it seemed like that was going to last me for a lifetime.

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Stoicism’s origin stories

Everyone loves a good origin story. Spiderman’s has been told a number of times, in both the comic books and the movies. And who doesn’t delight in telling their friends how they met the love of their lives? (In my case, at Stoic Camp, in case you were curious.) So let’s talk about the origin stories (yes, there is more than one) of Stoicism.

Diogenes Laertius gives the classic accounts, which begins with a shipwreck:

“[Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism] was shipwrecked on a voyage from Phoenicia to Piraeus with a cargo of purple. He went up into Athens and sat down in a bookseller’s shop, being then a man of thirty. As he went on reading the second book of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, he was so pleased that he inquired where men like Socrates were to be found. Crates [of Thebes, a Cynic philosopher] passed by in the nick of time, so the bookseller pointed to him and said, ‘Follow yonder man.’ From that day he became Crates’s pupil.” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.2-3)

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Recent essays, #30

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:

Book review: The Stoic Life, by Tad Brennan

In a sense, Tad Brennan is a modern Cicero. Just like Cicero wrote sympathetically and yet critically about Stoicism (e.g., Paradoxa Stoicorum, Tusculan Disputations, and De Finibus), so Brennan does in his The Stoic Life. Brennan doesn’t have either the style or the philosophical insight of Cicero, but then again, that’s setting the bar way high! The book is enjoyable, carefully written, and has a lot to offer both to the person who is just approaching Stoicism and to the seasoned practitioner of the philosophy. The first kind of reader may get some insight into whether Stoicism is really for them, the second one should welcome the challenges that Brennan puts forth, especially in part IV of his book.

The Stoic Life is organized into five sections: an “introduction” that includes chapters on why be a Stoic, the sources we have about ancient Stoicism, the philosophical background to Stoicism, and an overview of Stoic ethics. Part II focuses on Stoic psychology, talking about impressions and assent, the difference between belief and knowledge, and the relationship between impulses (to action) and emotions. Part III delves more deeply into the ethics, covering the chief good (i.e., virtue) and the so-called preferred and dispreffered indifferents, the concept of oikeiosis (moral development), and the nature of “befitting” actions. Part IV gets to the complex Stoic concept of fate, with a discussion of “god” (i.e., nature), the relationship between necessity and responsibility, the (in)famous “lazy argument,” and, of course, “free” will.

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Book Club: The Art of Living, 3, The hidden structure of the Enchiridion

[Previous installments of this series can be found here: 1, The Skeptics didn’t believe in the art of living; 2, The concept of spiritual philosophical exercises.]

The Art of Living, by John Sellars, is one of those must read books for the serious student of Stoicism. Despite the distracting (for the layperson) use of Greek terms, and the fact that it is not aimed at practitioners of Stoicism, it’s full of interesting observations about the philosophy. In this third installment of my commentary I will focus on chapter 6 of the book, “Exercises in the Handbook of Epictetus.”

The Handbook, or Enchiridion, is of course one of the fundamental texts of ancient Stoicism. It was compiled, just like the Discourses, by one of Epictetus’ best students, Arrian of Nicomedia. It is often presented as an introduction to Stoicism, or as a summary of the Discourses, but it is neither, really. It’s a highly condensed set of Stoic precepts to be used by the advanced student (because they come with no explanation) as ideas to keep “at hand” (enchiridion) for day to day living.

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Recent essays, #29

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:

Stoicism and arousal: so you think you can’t control your emotions, eh?

A central tenet of Stoic psychology (which happens to be supported by modern research) is that emotions are, in part, a matter of cognition. Specifically, the Stoics developed the following model for how to arrive at good decisions and actions, despite an initially problematic emotional reaction to a situation:

Impression > Assent > Impulse to Action

The above are technical terms, and should not be understood according to their modern English meanings. Margaret Graver, in her Stoicism and Emotion, provides the following definitions:

An “impression” (Gr. phantasia) is an alteration of the mind through which something seems to be present or to be the case. In having an impression, the mind registers some state of affairs prior to forming an opinion about it one way or another.

An “assent” is what converts thought into belief. It is also referred to as ‘judgment’ (krisis), or ‘forming an opinion’ (doxazein). Assent is defined in intentional terms: it is that event in which one either accepts an impression as true or rejects it as false.

An “impulse” (hormai) is a tendency to action, generated by the assent that one has given to an impression.

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Ethics begins at home, a personal update.

According to the Stoics, a eudaimonic life — that is, a life worth living — is one in which we use reason in the service of the human cosmopolis. Which is why a bit more than five years ago, coming out of a more or less typical midlife crisis, I embraced Stoicism as my chosen philosophy of life. As Seneca puts it: “Virtue is nothing else than right reason.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXVI.32)

The emphasis, of course, being on right. But what does it mean to live a Stoic life? There are several possible answers to this question. One can, for instance, use the four cardinal virtues (practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance) as a kind of a moral compass, paying attention (prosochē) to what one is doing here and now, particularly to the ethical valence of one’s decisions and actions. Is this thing that I am about to do wise, courageous, just, and temperate? If yes, let’s go ahead; if no, abstain. Another approach is to constantly practice Epictetus’ famous three disciplines: desire and aversion, action, and assent.

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Recent essays, #28

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:

The three rules of Stoic Club. As is well known: “The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.” This, of course, comes from the homonymous 1999 movie directed by David Fincher, starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter, and based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk.

Stoicism is not Fight Club. We can talk about it. And it doesn’t have rules, per se, since it is a kind of virtue ethics, not a deontological system. Still, let me suggest three informal “rules” that may be good to adopt. (continue to read on Patreon, Medium)

Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen: a Stoic commentary. SPOILERS ALERT! This article contains a number of spoilers about the last season, and particularly the last episode, of the television series Game of Thrones. If you have not watched the series yet, and plan to do it (as you should), come back after you’ve done it and we’ll talk.

So, with a few months delay, I finally caught up with the last season of Game of Thrones. When the show first came out I was reluctant to watch it. I don’t need yet another television series to be hooked on, I thought. And I hear that there is a lot of unnecessary violence on the show (not true: there is violence, but it’s perfectly situated within the plot and the setting of the story, and therefore not “unnecessary”). Besides, I prefer sci-fi to fantasy (still true). (continue to read on Patreon, Medium)

Recent essays, #27

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:

Secular pilgrimages: the Academy, the Lyceum, and the Stoa.

I’m writing this while flying back to New York after having spent a few days in Athens, on the occasion of the annual Stoicon event, where I conducted a workshop on practical exercises in Stoicism. While there, my wife and I did what can only be described as the secular equivalent (neither of us is religious) of a pilgrimage. Three of them, in fact. I think it may be worthwhile to reflect on why we did it, and more in general on the meaning that these sorts of things add to our lives.

The three Meccas in question were the place were Plato established his Academy; the one were Aristotle, a bit later on, founded his Lyceum; and the location of the Stoa Poikile, the open space to the margin of the ancient Agora, where the Stoics used to preach their practical philosophy to whoever would listen. (continue to read on Patreon, Medium)

Recent essays, #26

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:

How to deal with insults, the Stoic way. “Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves — that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?” (Discourses I, 25.28-29)

There has been a lively discussion of late, in Stoic circles, about insults and how to deal with them. A discussion, I believe, that has implications far outside of Stoic philosophy, affecting pretty much anyone who has ever felt insulted at some point or another in their life. Which means almost every human being who ever lived.

The quote above from Epictetus makes it crystal clear what the Stoic advice is concerning insults: ignore them. This is a direct consequence of the fundamental Epictetean notion that there is a sharp distinction between facts and opinions. Facts are objective descriptions of things or events. Opinions are value judgments about those things or events. Facts are independent of the existence of human minds, opinions are generated exclusively by human minds. (continue to read on Patreon, Medium)

Book Club: The Art of Living, 2, The concept of spiritual philosophical exercises. Let’s continue our reading of John Sellars’ The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy. Last time we began with chapter 4 (I’m skipping around a bit), dedicated to the debate between Stoics and Skeptics on the nature of knowledge, and we learned that, in the end, the two schools converged toward similar practical positions: the Skeptics had to agree that even if human knowledge is impossible, some opinions are more likely to be correct than others, which makes action possible and not random. On their part, the Stoics had to agree that even if human knowledge is possible, it is a rare feat, reserved for the sage. The rest of us are left pretty much in the same predicament that the Skeptics attribute to all humankind.

Here I want to explore the fifth chapter in the book, which focuses on the concept of philosophical exercises, and which is therefore eminently practical in nature. As usual, it all goes back to Socrates. As John says right at the beginning of the chapter, we find Socrates, in the Gorgias, arguing that mastering principles is necessary but not sufficient, one also needs some kind of practical training. In other words, philosophy conceived as the art of living involves both theory and practice, and it is the latter that turns those who make progress into sages. At least once in a long while, since sages are exceedingly rare. (continue to read on Patreon, Medium)