Recent essays, #6

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 and is not in our power, part II. My colleague and critic of Stoicism Christian Coseru’s second major issue with Stoicism concerns the dichotomy of control. Like many, he thinks that a dichotomy is too strict (after all, aren’t there things we can influence, though only partially?) and that it is not in sync, again, with modern research in cognitive science (which has uncovered that much of our thinking takes place below the conscious level). He is incorrect on both points. (continue to read, part I can be found here)

How to practice Stoicism. My friend Greg Lopez (co-author with me of the newly released A Handbook for New Stoics) talk to the folks over at The Switch podcast about how to practice Stoicism, giving an overview of the book and what it means to “be a Stoic.” (continue to read)

Book Club: The Inner Citadel, 8, The discipline of action, in the service of humanity. After a fairly long hiatus, welcome back to our book club! My apologies, but Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel is rather slow going. Long chapters, not exactly accessible prose. But well worth the effort, which is why I keep continuing this series, of which we are probably going to have one or two more entries before all is said and done. This time, let’s take a look at one of the longest and most complex chapters, n. 8, on the discipline of action. (continue to read)

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Recent essays, #5

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 and is not in our power, part I. Last year I was part of a small group of scholars who debated the merits (or lack thereof) of Stoicism as modern practical philosophy, first at a session of the American Philosophical Association in Savannah, Georgia, then in print, on the pages of Reason Papers. I have already published here the opening salvo of that session, an article I wrote entitled “Toward the Fifth Stoa: The Return of Virtue Ethics” (part I& part II). I have also written about my response to the first criticon the panel, my friend Brian Johnson of Fordham University (author of the excellent The Role Ethics of Epictetus), who raised interesting issues about the Stoic conceptions of friendship and grief. Here I will address the second critic on the panel, Christian Coseru, of the College of Charleston, who objected to a number of notions surrounding the famous dichotomy of control, the distinction between what is and is not “up to us,” as Epictetus puts it. Christian’s full paper is available on line. (continue to read)

Bad ideas in practical philosophy, Nick Bostrom edition.

Nick Bostrom is a prominent Swedish philosopher, currently at the University of Oxford. In 2011, he founded the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, and is the founding director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford. In other words, someone to reckon with in the field of practical philosophy — if one considers humanity’s existential risks practical enough. Bostrom first came to prominence because of his idea that it is likely that we live in a computer simulation. You know, kind of like the Matrix sci-fi movie. His argument for this goes along the following lines. He maintains that one of these three propositions must be almost certainly true. (continue to read)

Stoicism, virtue, and thriving in a world out of our control. A wide-ranging conversation with The Human Experience podcast on Stoicism as practical philosophy for everyday life. We cover the basics of Stoic theory, how to practice it, and why it is making a positive difference in so many people’s lives. We also talk a bit about my new book, co-written with Greg Lopez: A Handbook for New Stoics, How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control, coming out in bookstores and online on May 14th. (continue to read)

Recent essays, #4

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:

Book Review: John Sellars’ Stoicism, a no-nonsense guide to the ancient philosophy. Pretty much the only thing to object to in John Sellars’ Stoicismis the cover (over which, likely, he had little say). It features “pseudo-Seneca” instead of the actual Seneca. Other than that, it’s one of the best, most clear and concise introductions to ancient Stoicism currently available. Originally published in 2006 and consisting of little above 200 pages, it is organized around six chapters. The first one is, unfortunately, simply titled “Introduction,” and so it is likely to be skipped by several readers. Do yourself a favor and read it. It includes a concise definition of Stoicism, a brief history of the philosophy from Zeno of Citium to Marcus Aurelius, and a section on the kind of historical sources from which we actually know about Stoicism, including Cicero, Plutarch, and Galen. (continue to read)

David Brooks and the five lies culture tells us. Readers who have followed several incarnations of my blogs (like this one, and this one, and this one) will have easily figured out that, politically speaking, I lean left, though with a number of qualifications and caveats. But I make a point of reading conservative authors and columnists, for a couple of reasons: first, to keep up with what they say and how they think (so to sharpen my own opinions and arguments), and second because they too, at least some of the times, have something interesting or constructive to say. A recent example is David Brooks, a regular New York Times columnist, who is defined by Wikipedia as a Canadian-born American conservative political and cultural commentator who writes for The New York Times. On April 15, he has published a column for said newspaper entitled “Five lies our culture tells us.” I’d like to examine each of the lies in turn, in order to stimulate a discussion that may help us all see why such lies contribute to (or even, as Brooks argues, are at the root of) our political problems. (continue to read)

Recent essays, #3

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:

Some of my most loved relatives are sexists and racists. Now what? When I was growing up in Rome I went to a high school whose student and teaching bodies leaned heavily toward the left of the political spectrum. The outside wall still bore the mark of police bullets fired during an anti-Vietnam student protest that took place a couple of years before I began attending the school. I was actually considered a moderate by my schoolmates, and only very occasionally participated in street demonstrations, during one of which I saw some of my friends being charged and beaten by the police. (continue to read)

Silicon Valley style Stoicism. Nellie Bowles, over at the New York Times, has recently published yet another harsh criticism of Stoicism. This time taking inspiration from the creation of something called “the Cicero Institute,” which is attracting Silicon Valley types by promising the usual cocktail of “life hacks” to become rich and famous. Bowles is half right, and I think it’s important to distinguish between the part she does get right and the one she gets distinctly wrong. (continue to read)

Marcus Aurelius – the Unemotional Stoic? Happy 1,898th birthday, Marcus! Here is a short essay to explain why the famous philosopher-king was not an unemotional robot. And why Stoics in general don’t actually spend their time trying to suppress emotions and go through life with a stiff upper lip. (continue to read)

Recent essays, #2

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:

Surprisingly, you may not be the best judge of your own emotions. It’s beginning to look like I have another (admittedly, self-appointed) job: to counter the opinions of new public philosophy columnist Agnes Callard, who has recently started writing for The point magazine. You may recall that last month I responded to Callard’s first column, where she was loudly wondering whether public philosophy is really a good thing. My short answer was a resounding yes. You can check the more nuanced version here.

Callard’s second column rails against what she calls “the emotion police.” As usual, she does have some good points, but I think her basic position is highly problematic, and has substantial (negative, if adopted) practical implications, so let’s take a closer look. (continue to read)

Television review: Netflix’s Roman Empire. A few weeks ago I published a reviewof a recent theatrical production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. And before that I wrote an essayon how Stoics approach entertainment. And here is my commentary on an ongoing television series on the Roman Empire produced by Netflix. What does any of this have to do with practical philosophy, the alleged theme of Figs in Winter? Well, seems to me that how to spend one’s leisure time is most certainly within the domain of practical concerns. And to approach it philosophically just means that you frame the issue in terms of reasoning about the value of your time, arguably the most precious thing you have. So here we go with my first review of a television series.

Roman Empire is produced by Netflix and available on its streaming service. It is an ongoing series, the first season having been released in 2016, the third one just a few weeks ago. The idea is to focus on specific moments of the history of ancient Rome by using a combination of acting and academic commentary. Much of each episode is taken by the unfolding story as interpreted by actors. However, we also get a peppering of short commentaries by a number of leading academics who help putting things in context. It’s an interesting formula, and it works pretty well, overall. (continue to read)

Recent essays, #1

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 epistemology 101: Zeno and the metaphor of the hand movement. If we don’t understand, at least approximately, how the world works, we are likely to mislive our lives. This was a cardinal assumption of pretty much all the Hellenistic philosophies. The Cynics, the Cyrenaics, the Epicureans, the Skeptics, and the Stoics all thought that we should live “according to Nature,” though they cashed out that phrase in different ways. For the Epicureans, for instance, it was in accordance to nature to seek pleasure and, especially, to avoid pain. For the Stoics, following nature meant to take seriously the fact that we are social animals capable of reason. And so forth. (continue to read)

Theater review: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, tyranny, and the Stoicism of Brutus. The other day I went to see “The tragedy of Julius Caesar,” by William Shakespeare, in the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (Brooklyn, NY) production, directed by Shana Cooper. The New York Times’ Alexi Soloski really disliked it, but I’ll explain in the postscriptum to this article why Soloski — in my perhaps not too humble opinion — completely missed the point. (continue to read)

Another attack on western philosophy, because, sex. “I am a woman. I am queer. I am an academic.” No, that’s not me. Except for the academic part. I am, as some of my readers know, a man. Heterosexual. The phrase in quotes is found right at the beginning of an article by Victoria Brooks entitled “Why we need a new philosophy of sex,” published at The Conversation. (continue to read)

Book Club: The Inner Citadel, 7, The discipline of desire, or amor fati. Right at the beginning of the chapter Hadot provides a good summary of what the discipline of desire is all about: what we feel vs what we should feel, which will struck non-Stoics as bizarre. What do you mean what I shouldfeel?? If by “feeling” we mean what the Stoics called proto-emotions, i.e., automatic, instinctive reactions to events, then they are what they are, and they are not going to change. But the focus here is on the “passions,” in Stoic lingo, i.e., on the fully formed emotions, which have a cognitive component, as confirmed by modern psychological research. And if they have a cognitive component, then we can change them by altering that component. It is the same principle as cognitive behavioral therapy: change the way you think and that will change (over time, with repetition and effort) the way you feel. (continue to read)