"How to Live a Good life," on the Wright Show

Fun conversation among Skye Cleary, Bob Wright, and myself on the topic of philosophies of life, occasioned by the publication of How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy (Vintage/Random House).

The vide is below. Naturally, we talk about the book, but also about the relationship between Existentialism and Stoicism, how Skye encountered Existentialism while attending business school (of all places), and Sartre and de Beauvoir’s famous attempt to live a life of freedom.

We ask whether philosophers are a bunch of hypocrites, explore the difference between personal authenticity and social convention, and explain why Stoicism doesn’t mean passive acceptance.

Near the end of the video, Bob wonders what other philosophies (other than our chosen ones of Existentialism and Stoicism) we would find attractive enough to consider practicing them. We conclude, somewhat unusually, by exploring how Wittgenstein would view our book.

Scientist, philosopher, Stoic

Wide ranging video conversation with author and Scientific American contributor John Horgan. We talk about my midlife crisis and how it triggered my move from biologist to philosopher, discuss the point of doing philosophy, and articulate a role for philosophical doubt as as a counterweight to scientific (over)confidence. Enjoy!

How to live a Stoic life, in Spanish

Below is an interview I conducted with the prestigious Spanish newspaper El Pais. It covers the basics of Stoicism, how I got into it, and why it is a very useful philosophy of life for the 21st century.

From the description of the video:

What is stoicism and how can it help us manage a life crisis? A doctor and professor of philosophy, Massimo Pigliucci faced a critical juncture with the death of his father and undergoing a divorce. He looked to the ancient philosophers for answers and discovered “virtue ethics,” an approach to life that advances human improvement through the development of values.

“Stoicism tries to eliminate destructive emotions as much as possible while cultivating the positive ones. The Stoics concluded that a good human life is that in which we apply reason in order to improve society. If we improve as people, we will be improving society; and if we work to improve society, we will automatically be improving ourselves,” the professor explains.


Wide ranging conversation with Hardy Haberland

Below is a video (a bit more than an hour) of a recent conversation I’ve had with Hardy Haberland, as a guest on his show. Mostly, we talked about Stoicism and how it changed my life, as well as that of others. But Hardy also asked me a number of other questions, including: What are the three books that influenced your life the most? What are your three most favorite movies? What’s the most useful product or service you’ve bought in recent memory? What’s the most important realization you’ve made in the last couple of years? And what would you tell your 20 year old self? I hope you’ll enjoy!

After Darwin?

The Institute of Arts and Ideas has just released a 46′ video on “After Darwin,” featuring a conversation among philosopher of biology Tim Lewens, psychologist Zanna Clay, and myself, on the topic of the status and limits of Darwinian theories in evolutionary biology. The event was moderated by David Malone.

Questions we explored include: what is wrong (if anything) with the current theory of evolution? Are heritable non-genetic elements significant to current theories of evolution? Is evolutionary theory reductionist?

Here is the full video. Enjoy!

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!