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)

Recent essays, #25

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 with access to additional authors in the latter case). The majority of the material is free to read. Here are some of the most recent entries:

Emerson on self-reliance. The American Transcendentalists, particularly Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, where clearly influenced by the ancient Stoics, especially Seneca. I have explored such influence in Thoreau’s famous essay on civil disobedience, and defended him, so to speak, from some of his modern critics, such as Hannah Arendt. Here I wish to take up another influential transcendentalist piece of writing, “Self-reliance,” authored by Thoreau’s friend and mentor, Emerson. Again we will see obvious echoes of Seneca, though there are also some interesting distinctions between Emerson and the ancient Stoics, on points where I lean toward the latter rather than the former. (continue to read on Patreon, Medium)

Book review: Cicero, the life and times of Rome’s greatest politician. It doesn’t happen very often that a single book makes you seriously reevaluate a position you had held for many years, but that’s the effect that reading Anthony Everitt’s Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician had on me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always admired Cicero, ever since I translated him from Latin back in high school. His prose is gorgeous, his intellect cunning, and — despite being an Academic Skeptic — he was also very sympathetic to the Stoics.

But I always bought the common stereotypes about him: that he was more of a lawyer than a statesman, a bit of sophist more than a philosopher, a flip-flopper who alternatively backed Caesar, Pompei, Octavian, and in the end got killed by order of the vindictive Mark Anthony. Turns out, the story is far more complex, and fascinating, than the stereotype. (continue to read on Patreon, Medium)

Recent essays, #24

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 with access to additional authors in the latter case). The majority of the material is free to read. Here are some of the most recent entries:

The lure and danger of extreme examples.

One of the main reasons I turned away from modern ethics — either of the utilitarian or of the Kantian-deontological stamp — is that it is both too narrow and too infatuated with thought experiments and increasingly convoluted, extreme (alleged) counter-examples, aimed at knocking down opponent schools, rather than actually being useful to people’s day-to-day lives. In other words, a lot of modern ethics indulges in precisely the kind of things that Seneca warned us against:

“I should like to have those subtle dialecticians of yours advise me how I ought to help a friend, or how a fellow man, rather than tell me in how many ways the word ‘friend’ is used, and how many meanings the word ‘man’ possesses.” (Letters XLVIII.4)

Consider, for instance, the cottage industry informally referred to as “trolleology,” the study of trolley dilemmas. Plenty of professional philosophers spend their careers inventing more and more convoluted scenarios to “test” our ethical intuitions about who we should allow to get hit by a runaway trolley. This has resulted in the piling up of a large literature about situations that will never occur in anyone’s real life, or that — if they did occur — would require a snap judgment based on knowledge of very specific circumstances, not idealized cartoonish thought “experiments.” (continue to read: Patreon, Medium)

Prosochē or not prosochē? On Stoic mindfulness. “Mindfulness” has been all the rage for some time now. And it has, predictably, been criticized on both philosophical and effectiveness grounds. But I’m not concerned with either here. It’s pretty clear to me that while different philosophical traditions that use mindfulness (e.g., Buddhism) do make philosophically questionable assumptions, those assumptions are specific to each tradition, and need to be evaluated case by case. It’s also clear that although the benefits often claimed for mindfulness are likely exaggerated, the word refers to a panoply of mental techniques that are useful for modest but important purposes, such as calming oneself, paying more attention to one’s thought processes, and so forth. So, I’m going to take it as a given that mindfulness refers to a number of different techniques, that are more or less effective, and that are more or less based on certain specific philosophical and metaphysical assumptions. (continue to read: Patreon, Medium)

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)

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)

Recent essays, #21

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:

My first three (Stoic) steps. This past weekend my friend (and co-author) Greg Lopez and I run the fifth edition of Stoic Camp-New York. The general topic was Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations as a guide to Stoic practice. We had 19 students, and discussions were informative and constructive, with people having a great time socializing after sessions. During one of these social evenings I was asked how I got into Stoicism in the first place, so I did a bit of digging into my notes, and even on the internet, to reconstruct my initial steps. The first three are, I think, worth recounting, because they may be helpful to others who have found the Stoic way, or are considering it but are not sure what that entails and how to proceed. (continue to read)

Stoic advice: How do I date a single mom (or dad)? A. writes: I’m a reader of your work and a practitioner of Stoicism (thanks to your last handbook for new Stoics). I recently fell in love with a woman. The ‘thing’ is: she has a child, 8 years old. I wish to be my best with her, so I am seeking advice from a Stoic perspective about this kind of relationship (i.e., dating a single mother). I found some terrible article published by the “red pill” community (of which I knew nothing at the time). They used Stoicism to promote character, but at the same time they urge people not to date a single mom because it’s a trap made by women who cannot assume their own responsibilities. I admit I fell for it, because I was impressed by their apparent knowledge (for a layman like me) of Stoicism. I felt so bad that I talk about it with my girlfriend and I almost broke up with her. I’m into Stoicism, and I try to practice the dichotomy of control, but why then did I panic? Why can’t I enjoy my relationship as a preferred indifferent? Do you have some tips about dating a single mom and cultivating wisdom and virtue at the same time?

Let me start with the basics: it shouldn’t take the might of Stoic philosophy to realize that the red pill community is sick in the soul, and that it is insane to say that “women” spend their time springing traps at the expense of men, because they don’t want to take on their own responsibilities. The misogyny that motivates that sort of “thinking” ought to be obvious. (continue to read)