Philosophy Day 2019: metaphysics & the multiverse

My brilliant City College colleague Elise Crull gave the keynote talk at the 2019 Philosophy Day at CCNY. Her chosen topic was metaphysics and the idea of a multiverse. Though Elise and I actually disagree on this particular topic, the talk is energizing and thought provoking. Here it is:

Live with Massimo: episode 3, Seneca's Letters to Lucilius

Third episode of my occasional live streaming chats, where listeners can chime in during the broadcast and, more importantly, ask whatever question they wish, so long as it is somewhat related to the topic at hand. Which in this case was Seneca’s famous letters to his friend Lucilius.

I begin with an obligatory introduction to Seneca, in which I tackle the perennial question: was he a hypocrite who talked wisdom but practiced vice, or was he a flawed man put by Fortune in a near impossible situation, trying to do his best and realizing just how short he was of the goal? I tend toward the second interpretation, though I most certainly agree that Seneca was no sage.

After that, I spend a few minutes talking about the Letters themselves (here is the best modern translation). There are 124 in total, and classic scholar Liz Gloyn has suggested that they represent not just Seneca’s philosophical testament (they were written near the end of his life), but an actual informal curriculum in Stoic philosophy. There are several reasons to think so, including the periodical repetition of certain themes, the fact that the letters get progressively longer and more technical, and the fact that Seneca abandons the Epicurean crutch, so to speak, after the initial letters.

Speaking of Epicurus, one of the first questions was precisely about why Seneca favorably mentions Epicurus in most of the early letters. He does so, as he explicitly tells Lucilius, not as a deserter, but as a scout wandering into enemy territory. He is willing to learn from other schools, as any sensible person should.

Does that mean, though, that Seneca’s philosophy is actually an eclectic combination of elements drawn from both Stoicism and Epicureanism? No, because the “Epicurean” bits, such as his treatment of death, or of friendship, can be coherently integrated into standard Stoicism, without friction with other Stoic doctrines. That’s the problem with eclecticism: it very likely ends up being a combination of ideas that don’t go well with each other and make one’s philosophy somewhat incoherent.

During the episode I touch on a number of other themes, such as the distinctions among Stoicism, Cynicism, and Aristotelianism; whether Seneca was sympathetic to the Cynics (not really); whether Epictetus went for a more minimalist approach than Seneca (yup!); and the so-called dichotomy of control, which — contra popular misconception — is not original with Epictetus, but is found both in Seneca and Cicero, and is therefore likely to date back to the beginning of Stoicism. Enjoy!

CUNY podcasts: the modern Stoic

Massimo Piguliucci

My home institution, the City University of New York, has recently put out a 25-minute podcast about my practice of Stoic philosophy. Here is the description from the web site:

“Life have you stressed out? Weary of the endless news cycle? City College philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci has an idea–one that goes back 18 centuries. He’s a leader of a modern movement that’s popularizing the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism. Outcomes are not under your control, he says. What is under your control are your intentions, your decisions and your actions.

Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at City College. Born in Liberia and raised in Rome, he holds three doctoral degrees: in genetics from the University of Ferrara in Italy, biology from the University of Connecticut and philosophy of science from the University of Tennessee.  He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the author or editor of 10 books.”

Enjoy the show here!

Are philosophers experts?

My friend Dan Kaufman and I engaged in yet another conversation, this time on the somewhat weird — in my opinion — question of whether there is such thing as philosophical expertise, and what it consists of.

We begin by responding to the obvious objection: “But Socrates didn’t have a PhD!” (no kidding, Sherlock), moving on to explain why I just hate it when teachers say that they learn “just as much” from their students as the other way around. If they do, I submit, they are incompetent teachers.

We then get a bit more in depth on the topic, exploring, for instance, the similarities between doing philosophy and doing mathematics, as well as what exactly philosophers of science can teach scientists.

We also cover research showing a disappointing degree of personal morality in professional moral philosophers, talk about why Dan’s grandmother’s was a good person without having studied any philosophy, and contrast her example with the Socratic dictum about examining one’s life. Enjoy the video!

Recent Stoic Meditations, #34

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:

Let us replace all of anger’s symptoms by their opposites; let us make our countenance more composed than usual, our voice milder, our step slower. Our inward thoughts gradually become influenced by our outward demeanor. (listen here)

Seneca runs us through a long list of reasons why people do us wrong. And then concludes that we should be magnanimous, not vengeful, toward them, in part because they are human beings like us, and like us they make mistakes. (listen here)

Say to fortune: Do what you will, you are too feeble to disturb my serenity: this is forbidden by reason, to whom I have entrusted the guidance of my life: to become angry would do me more harm than your violence can do me. (listen here)

Let us  be more gentle one to another: we are bad people, living among bad people. There is only one thing which can afford us peace, and that is to agree to forgive one another. (listen here)

Live with Massimo: episode 2, Epictetus' Enchiridion

Here is the second episode of a new ongoing series of live chats on YouTube, where the audience can ask me questions in real time and I do my best, impromptu, to answer them during the hour of the show. This second episode was entirely devoted to Epictetus’ Enchiridion, or Handbook, one of the crucial texts of ancient Stoicism.

I begin my reading and commenting on the famous first section of the Enchiridion, which sets up the entire book by introducing the famous dichotomy of control: some things are up to us, and other things are not up to us… After that, I respond to a number of questions having to do with either specific passages in the Handbook or more general aspects of Epictetean philosophy.

P.S.: episode 3 of “Live with Massimo” is scheduled for Sunday, 8 December, at 12pm Eastern time. The topic will be Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius. Here is the link.

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)